04/26/2012 06:01 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2012

Chuck Colson: A Redemption Story

"...all my achievements meant nothing in God's economy. No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure -- that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation -- being sent to prison -- was the beginning of God's greatest use of my life ... only when I lost everything I thought made Chuck Colson a great guy had I found the true self God intended me to be and the true purpose of my life. It is not what we do that matters, but what a sovereign God chooses to do through us. God doesn't want our success; He wants us. He doesn't demand our achievements; He demands our obedience...

Victory comes through defeat; Healing through brokenness; Finding self through losing self."
--Chuck Colson in "Loving God"

Redemption -- it is an old word that hearkens back to a time when slaves could be bought by benefactors to be granted freedom; and when poor prisoners languishing helplessly in decrepit debtor's jails could be released free and clear by someone gratuitously paying off their debts. Nowadays we tend to think of redemption as something we can do for ourselves, as in compensating for our failures by becoming more successful; or by overcoming our weaknesses through continuous self-improvement and self-control.

Over the years, I've met a lot of people around the world who saw in Chuck Colson a man who redeemed himself from the Watergate scandal by doing good for others. It took many of those people a few years to come to such a conclusion because they viewed his "jailhouse religion" as a gimmick that would not last very long. Admittedly, when I first heard Chuck Colson tell the story of his newfound faith I was among the skeptics. Yet there was something very compelling about his upside down view of God working more poignantly through human brokenness and weakness than through power and achievement. I soon realized that Chuck's story was not that of a man trying to clamber and claw his way back into respectability and success. It was instead, a provocative story that saw him returning to the places of his own brokenness and humiliation -- prison.

A year after meeting Chuck I was given the opportunity of working with him through Prison Fellowship International. For 15 years Chuck and I traveled around the world meeting with prisoners, presidents and parliamentarians. The authenticity and power of Chuck's story and message resonated as much among the powerful in palaces of government as among the powerless in crowded filthy prisons. I had been a Christian involved in Christian work for a few years by that time, but it wasn't until I went into the prisons with Chuck that I really began to know who Jesus is -- Jesus Christ, the prisoner, the embodiment of God's love for the down and out as much as for the up and out. I met Jesus, as if for the first time, when I saw His love expressed through Chuck embracing suffering sweaty inmates in the depths of their failure; when I saw one man's story of redemption and friendship with Jesus igniting hope among desolate and forgotten prisoners.

My eyes and mind and heart were opened as I began to understand the significance of Chuck's story and message, which was all about God's love embracing a broken world in the person of Jesus the Christ. "[Our] faith rests not merely upon great teachings or philosophies, not upon the charisma of a leader, not upon the success in raising moral values, not upon the skill or eloquence of good works ... If it did, it would have no more claim to authority than the sayings of Confucius or Mao or Buddha ... or any of a thousand cults. Christianity rests on historic truth. Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead to be Lord of all -- not just in theory or fable, but in fact."

This past week Chuck Colson passed from this life to reach the destination of his faith, to be embraced by Jesus who redeemed him from pride and prejudice and the pit of prison. He will be greatly missed, I will miss him. And yet the legacy of Chuck Colson is not about Chuck, but about Jesus, who continues to embrace politicians and prisoners; rich and poor; liberals and conservatives; Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians; unbelievers, believers, and atheists; straights and gays and in-betweeners; you and me and every human being with His irresistible and redemptive love.

Thank you Chuck for showing me and thousands of people around the world what friendship with Jesus looks like in the depths of human failure and imprisonment. Farewell my faithful friend and brother.

"Even there, in the mines, underground,
I may find a human heart in another convict and murderer by my side,
and I may make friends with him,
for even there one may live and love and suffer.
One may thaw and revive a frozen heart in that convict,
one may wait upon him for years,
and at last bring up from the dark depths a lofty soul, a feeling, suffering creature;
one may bring forth an angel, create a hero!
There are so many of them, hundreds of them, and we are all to blame for them.
...If [the powers that be] drive God from the earth,
we shall shelter Him underground."

--Fyodor Dostoyevsky in "Notes From Underground"