Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Ph.D.
This week, we’re excited to feature a blog series by Dr. Ev Worthington, Jr. of the soon to be released title, Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past. Whether you work in a clinical, pastoral, or lay care-giving setting, Dr. Worthington’s insights about forgiveness and emotional healing have both personal and professional application.
Charles W. “Chuck” Colson, who died April 21, 2012, went from the height of power—being called daily to advise President Richard M. Nixon as Special Counsel to the President (for Public Liaison)—to the life of a criminal in Maxwell Prison in Alabama. Eventually, God raised Colson’s life back into the limelight. His book, Born Again, his Prison Fellowship ministry, and his radio program, Break Point, helped millions. Today, the events of the Watergate scandal are dim public memories. Yet the scandal almost brought down the government, and if Nixon had not resigned, he surely would have been convicted in an impeachment trial.
Most of us can still vividly imagine Colson, a burly man with a weathered brow but perma-smile lines etched into his cheeks. In his book, Born Again, he told of his conversion. The Watergate scandal broke when President Nixon’s re-election insecurity led to a break-in at the Watergate in an attempt to obtain information illegally. Colson did not order, or even know about, the Watergate break-in before the burglars were caught. But in spirit he was far from innocent. It wasn’t crime that spoiled his innocence. It was pride.
And he came face to face with it when he was invited to dinner by an acquaintance, Tom Phillips, and his wife Gert. Tom frankly challenged Colson on his pride. “ ’The problem with all of you, including you, Chuck—you simply had to go for the jugular…’.”
“Suddenly,” wrote Colson, “I felt naked and unclean, my bravado defenses gone. I was exposed, unprotected.” Phillips read from a C. S. Lewis book, “ ‘For pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense’.”
Colson fought God until he got in his car. He pulled out of the driveway and stopped the car only about one hundred yards from the house. “I remember hoping that Tom and Gert wouldn’t hear me sobbing…. With my face cupped in my hands, head leaning forward against the wheel, I forgot about machismo, about pretenses, about fears of being weak. And as I did, I began to experience a wonderful feeling of being released” (pp. 123-129).
Colson was charged with knowing about and ordering the illegal Watergate break-ins. While he was technically innocent, he was still troubled. His new-found Christianity had become front-page headlines when he was seen going to a White House prayer breakfast. Reporters had a field day speculating about the genuineness of his profession of Christianity.
On an interview for Sixty Minutes, Mike Wallace grilled him. Had Colson made amends for some of his dirty political tricks? No, he hadn’t. Even later at a small prayer breakfast in Central Michigan after the formal indictment, his own guilt once again rose to the surface. “I know in my heart,” he said, “that I am innocent of many of the charges…”
But, in Born Again, he says, “The flow of words stopped as my mind took in what I had said. ‘Many of the charges’—but not all? … My own words clinched it (pp. 241-242). When the trial began, Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice—not something he was actually charged with. Judge Gesell fined him and sentenced him to one to three years in prison. There he served his time, and there an idea germinated—for Prison Fellowship.
Chuck Colson was an exemplar for self-condemnation, and for a Christian way to deal with it. First, even though he was defensive at first, he let God work on his heart. He confessed. He received God’s forgiveness. Second, he was truly repentant. He made amends and, because he couldn’t undo what he had done, he paid it forward by starting the ministry Prison Fellowship. Third, he kept bringing his life under the scrutiny of the Holy Spirit and confronted the pride and fallenness of his own heart.
In our lab at Virginia Commonwealth University, we have been studying self-condemnation and forgiving oneself. We have developed a six-step method by which we can forgive ourselves and begin to break free from the past. Chuck Colson was an example for all of us on the first three of those steps.
In the AACC blog this week, we will look at self-condemnation and self-forgiveness in five articles. In this first one, we look at the role of responsibility in self-forgiveness. But on each successive day, we will look at how does one REACH emotional self-forgiveness. We will examine self-acceptance and living virtuously. We will examine practical ways to help others move through each of the steps to self-forgiveness. And, we will look at some resources you can use.
Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in the APA-accredited doctoral program in Counseling Psychology. He is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Virginia, a Professor for 35 years and a researcher who studies clinical interventions to promote forgiveness, self-forgiveness, humility, better couple relationships, and better mental health through Christian accommodated interventions. His most recent book is Moving Forward: Six Steps to Self-Forgiveness and Breaking Free from the Past (WaterBrook Multnomah).