From Prison to Praise

When I was in England recently, the last thing I expected to see was my photograph splashed across the front page of British newspapers. But that's exactly what happened. I arrived in the country just as a close friend, former Defense Minister Jonathan Aitken, was to be sentenced to prison, and I accompanied him to Old Bailey. But behind the headlines is a moving story about how God still uses prisons as a crucible for raising up His leaders. Ten years ago, Aitken interviewed me for a biography he was writing about Richard Nixon. He was then a rising Member of Parliament, one of its most influential young conservatives. He had wealth, position, charisma, and enormous gifts as a writer and businessman. Many speculated that he would one day become Prime Minister. But this charmed life began to unravel two years ago when Aitken brought a libel suit against a newspaper. On the witness stand, Aitken was caught telling a lie. The trial was dismissed, and he stood accused of perjury. It was his downfall, however, that brought about his salvation. Up to this time a churchgoing Anglican, Aitken now began searching for deeper spiritual reality. I met and corresponded with him regularly, and he was also ministered to by a prayer group in London. In his cell on the day of his indictment a year ago, he meditated on the gospel of Mark. "This should have been a time of deep despair, the worst day of my life," Aitken later wrote. But "not so. For I had such an overwhelming sense of God's presence in the cell with me that I was at peace." We see the same pattern so often when people are behind bars: At the nadir of their lives, they reach out to God in earnest. The loss and disgrace drives them to their knees. As Aitken discovered, "there are times when such suffering has to be part of the repentance." As I watched the sentencing proceedings this summer, I realized it was exactly 25 years to the week since I myself was sentenced to prison. When the judge announced Aitken's sentence—nine months in prison—Aitken blew his family a kiss and was "taken down," a phrase the British use for walking down a flight of stairs to the cells below the courtroom. To those who reckon without God, this may sound like the end of the story. But it's really just the beginning. Aitken is now working for his doctorate in ministry, with plans to enter full-time Christian service. Because of his very public fall and redemption, the former cabinet minister may well become one of the most powerful Christian witnesses in England. Stories like these remind us that throughout history, God has often used prisons to prepare people for His service—people like St. Paul, who wrote letters from prison which later became part of the New Testament, and John Bunyan, who wrote Pilgrim's Progress behind bars. And just last spring, God raised up another Christian prisoner, Olusegun Obasanjo, to become president of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation. It's easy for Christians to despair as the surrounding culture grows increasingly hostile to faith. But these dramatic stories remind us that God continues to work His will in the most unlikely ways, raising up people from the depths of prison to be His leaders. In doing so, He confounds human wisdom, turning our defeats into His victories.


Chuck Colson



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