Billy Graham died today at the age of 99. The great evangelist’s last big crusade was over a decade ago; he hasn’t been in the public eye since then. That means the generation now coming into adulthood has no idea what a massively influential public figure he was, if they know his name at all. To them, it may defy belief that a Christian preacher once wrote a syndicated newspaper column read by hundreds of thousands, produced regular television specials that drew high ratings, had a personal relationship with every president from Truman to Obama, and often polled among the most admired men in the world. In his lifetime, Billy Graham preached to more people than anyone else in history. God Himself only knows how many souls are in Heaven today because of his ministry. Today, and for the next few days, you’ll be able to read numerous glowing tributes to this great man, from sources both sacred and secular. So it may be folly for me to add my words. What I wish to do is point out a few ways I wish we (ie, American Christians) would emulate the most famous representative of our movement in the last 100 years. Here’s how I wish we were more like Billy Graham:
He was kind to outsiders. In 1969, CBS television gave Woody Allen a primetime TV special. Along with the expected comedic bits, Allen included a live interview with Billy Graham. The agnostic comedian and the famous preacher, whose social and religious views and personal lives couldn’t have been more different, debated subjects like God and sex on national television without anger, name-calling or accusation. You can watch the interview here. It’s hard to imagine such an interview today; it’s just as hard to imagine a Christian preacher being so gracious to an interviewer with whom he disagreed. But that was Graham’s style. He brought different denominations together through his crusades. He refused to publicly tear down non-Christian faiths. He treated people the way he would want to be treated. Sounds pretty biblical to me.
He was wise in his personal life. The “Billy Graham rule” about how men should relate to women in order to avoid scandal is back in the news today, thanks to the #MeToo movement. He understood that he represented Christ in all of his life. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:20, We are Christ’s ambassadors, as though Christ were making His appeal through us. He scandal-proofed his life not only in his relationships with women, but also in his financial dealings, refusing to handle the money for his ministry organization. His relationship with his wife, Ruth, was a huge, often unseen part of this. She was intellectually brilliant, deeply spiritual, and unimpressed by her husband’s celebrity. She loved him deeply, but was not afraid to tell him the truth. She once was asked if she had ever considered divorcing her husband. “Divorce, no. Murder, yes,” was her answer. My favorite story about Ruth concerns the time, early in Billy’s preaching career, when the offering plate was passed. Billy had a one dollar bill and a twenty in his wallet. He gave what he thought was the one, only to learn a few beats later that he had dropped the twenty in the plate. To a struggling young couple, twenty bucks was a lot of money in the early 40s. He bemoaned this to Ruth, whose answer was, “The really sad thing is that in God’s eyes, you only got credit for the one.” Billy listened to the wisdom of others, including Ruth, and it helped him avoid the disgrace we too often bring to the Gospel.
He handled critics graciously. Billy Graham may have been the most admired man in America for much of his life, but he was also the subject of constant criticism. Fundamentalists called him a heretic for working alongside Catholics and more liberal Protestants, while Christians to the theological left constantly lampooned him as an unenlightened rube for his straightforward, biblical preaching. Many of his fellow Southerners were angered when he insisted on integrating his crusades in the South, but civil rights leaders often criticized him for not doing more to advance their cause. Each time, Graham responded with humility (see the next point). These days, we Christians are easily offended, quick to join an internet flame-war or a shouting match over the harsh words of others. I wish we were more like Billy.
He admitted his flaws and learned from his mistakes. Here’s a great article about all the mistakes Graham learned from over the years. The picture on the webpage is the infamous photo of Graham and his ministry partners praying on the lawn of the Truman White House, a public misstep that cost him dearly. His greatest mistakes came later, when he put too much trust in the Nixon White House, not realizing how he was being used for political purposes. His comments on the Nixon tapes in which he appeared to agree with Nixon and his aides’ disparaging comments about Jews haunted him when they were released on 2002. Graham could not remember saying such vile things, but he owned them. It was a powerful lesson to all of us that “every careless word” we speak can make an impact beyond what we expect. Other mistakes things he wished he could redo: He wished he would’ve have been home more when his children were young. He regretted not studying more. And this nugget, which American Christians would do well to learn from: “I came very close to identifying the American way of life with the Kingdom of God. Then I realized that God had called me to a higher Kingdom than America.”
He was about Jesus, full stop. Sadly, most non-Christians identify us for what we’re against, not what we’re for. With Billy Graham, there was never a question. I heard him preach in person twice; once in 1981, when my little country church chartered a bus to go see him at the Astrodome. The second time was in 1997, when as pastor of that same church I took a group to San Antonio in a rented van. That second time, someone in our group remarked that there didn’t seem to be anything special or outstanding about his preaching. It sounded like blasphemy when she said it, but I think I knew what she meant. His sermons won’t be studied in future years for their eloquence in the way a CH Spurgeon’s sermons are today. Although he was often asked his opinion about social issues, he never took up any of them as his personal cause. Although he was friends with politicians of both parties, he never endorsed a candidate. Graham preached a simple message about a Savior who died for our sins, and a grace that could change anyone. That simple message brought salvation to millions. I wonder what would happen if we, his spiritual descendants, would become known for that message again?