While preparing for a recent lecture series, I spent some time studying the doctrine of repentance. My desk was piled high with Greek lexicons, thick concordances, thin-paged theological tomes. Repentance: in the Greek, metanoia. Literally, a change of mind. The heart of the gospel.
I uncovered some rich material. But what I lacked was a good illustration of that change of mind. I decided to take a break, and picked up a cassette tape a friend had given me.
The tape was an address by an old White House colleague; as I listened, I found in it a most compelling articulation of metanoia. It was an example all the more powerful because it was so startling, for the speaker was G. Gordon Liddy.
Over the years, few Watergate characters have inspired more fascination than Liddy, ex-FBI agent, Nixon White House aide—as irrepressible and colorful a character as any Hollywood director could order up from Central Casting.
Even as a youth Liddy was, to say the least, unconventional. A sickly child, he was easily frightened, and so he resolved to conquer his fears by facing them down. Because he feared heights and electricity, for example, he would climb to the tops of electrical towers. Or, because he had a fear of rodents, he roasted and ate part of a rat. He exercised his will to the point where it was stronger than anything he confronted.
Liddy went on to become a pilot, an FBI agent, an attorney, a White House aide—in just a few short years. A student of Nietzsche, the German philosopher who venerated the will to power as the highest of human goals, Liddy saw the world as a challenge to be conquered. Even as the Nixon White House shattered around him, Liddy would not be broken. He was eventually sentenced to 21 years in prison for his role in Watergate.
I visited Liddy in prison. He was as tough and unrepentant as ever. As he tells it in his autobiography (titled, of course, Will), “Chuck asked me if I had ‘seen the light.’ ‘… No,’ I replied. ‘I’m not even looking for the switch.’ ”
Liddy served four years and was released. He appeared before a throng of waiting reporters and gave a long, extended statement—in German. The befuddled journalists scratched their heads. It turned out Liddy was quoting Nietzsche.
Liddy had kept his family and marriage in good shape. He started several successful businesses. He became a popular lecturer, even a folk hero. He also accomplished the ultimate macho act of appearing on “Miami Vice.”
One evening Liddy appeared on the David Letterman show. “What happens after we die?” asked Letterman.
“We are food for the worms,” responded Liddy.
“That’s all?” asked Letterman.
“That’s all,” said Liddy.
Gordon Liddy had conquered every challenge set before him. But his impromptu comment to Letterman created a deep sense of inner unease. He didn’t know why.
Then Liddy and his wife moved to a different state, in the process renewing a friendship with former FBI colleagues he had known for 30 years. Liddy had always been drawn to them—they were sharp, compassionate, well-read. And when they asked him to study the Bible with them, he agreed. But only after spelling out his terms: “I’m an agnostic,” he said. “I’m here because I’m interested in the Bible. Period. Please do not try to convert me. I don’t want to be bothered.”
Liddy, you see, felt no compelling need for God in his life. His interest in the Bible was purely historical. But then he thought about his friends and their 30-year example of Christian love and excellence. “If they are persuaded of the correctness of this,” thought Liddy, “then maybe I should take another look.”
He started by thinking about God. “By definition, God is infinite, and by definition we are finite,” he reasoned. “It is contrary to the rules of logic for a finite being to be able to apprehend the infinite. So … there has to be some communication. That infinite being is going to have to tell me. I am never going to be able to apprehend that myself.”
The next step in the process, for Liddy, was to wonder if there was any communication.
Then, he says, “a light went on in my head. That’s what this Bible is all about!” The Bible was not merely a historical record; it was God’s means of communicating with finite man.
But, he thought, it would be impossible for a finite being to be worthy of the infinite. So there must not be only communication, but something more. So, says Liddy, “you have God sending down his Son to do two things: to win for you all of that which we cannot win for ourselves; and to continue the communication.”
Many people, says Liddy, experience a “rush of emotion” in conversion. Yet for him there came a “rush of reason.” He realized Christ was who he claimed to be. And Gordon Liddy became a Christian.
Since then, the man who wrote Will has said, “Now the hardest thing I have to do every single day is try to decide what is God’s will, rather than what is my will. What does Jesus want, not what does Gordon want. And so the prayer that I say most frequently is, ‘God, first of all, please tell me what you want—continue the communication. And second, give me the strength to do what I know you want, what your will is, rather than my own.’ I have an almost 57-year history of doing what I want, what my will wants, and I have to break out of that habit into trying to do the will of God.”
Thick theological treatises may explain doctrine. But none can capture the essence of metanoia better than Gordon Liddy’s simple words—to subordinate one’s will to the will of God. And this from a man who spent his entire life affirming the indomitability of his own will.
I now pray for Gordon Liddy as a brother—and pray that the fruits of repentance will spill out of his life, as the grace of God has already changed his heart and will.
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