Three Lessons from Billy
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us cast off every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” ~ Hebrews 12:1
Last month in February of 2018, we saw the passing of one of the spiritual giants of our time. Billy Graham was hailed by saint and sinner alike as a genuine evangelist, pastor, and humble servant of God. His life was so untainted by scandal that even the secular media had nothing bad to say about him. As the Word of God says, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Proverbs 16:7
Though Billy would have been the first to turn the spotlight off of himself and on to Jesus, the Bible says to give honor to those who minister the Word of God. His integrity, humility, and unwavering determination have made him a star shining in the night. Billy is now a part of the great cloud of witnesses in heaven.
What made Billy so remarkable? Let me share three lessons I have taken away from his life.
He Kept It Simple
Billy Graham preached a simple gospel. He did not waver into over-intellectualizing, changing, or doubting the Scriptures that has sadly become common in many so called seminaries today. There was a point however where doubt and discouragement almost overcame him. Listen to this compelling excerpt written by his grandson about Billy’s struggle:
As such, now seemed like the right time to share the story of the evangelist named Billy Graham, a discouraged young man searching for answers and direction in his life, unsure of God’s plan for him.
At the mid-point of the 20th century, he had already been an evangelist with Youth For Christ and had preached across Europe in the aftermath of World War II. He had held his first “Billy Graham Crusades” in places like Charlotte, N.C, and Grand Rapids, Mich. He was also the president of Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn., the youngest college president in the country.
Not everything had gone as planned, however. His crusade in Altoona, Pa., had been – in his own words – “a flop.” It was spiritually difficult and he felt things had gone poorly, and it left him questioning whether or not evangelism should be his focus.
At the same time, a very good friend and contemporary of my grandfather’s, a man named Charles Templeton, had begun challenging my granddaddy’s way of thinking. Mr. Templeton, who had preached with Youth For Christ as well, had gone on to study at Princeton, where he began to believe that the Bible was flawed and that academia – not Jesus – was the answer to life’s problems. He tried to convince my grandfather that his way of thinking was outdated and the Bible couldn’t be trusted.
My grandfather had more questions than answers.
Should he leave the school and follow the calling of an evangelist, even though Altoona had gone so poorly?
Did he even believe the Bible from which he was preaching, or should he follow Templeton in questioning its validity?
It was at this time that my discouraged grandfather reluctantly accepted the invitation of Henrietta Mears to visit and speak at a Christian retreat center called Forest Home.
You see, while he was at Forest Home, he spent a great deal of time studying the Bible, and he kept seeing the same phrase pop up. “Thus sayeth the Lord… Thus sayeth the Lord…” While my grandfather had always accepted in his head the authority of the Scripture, this became the turning point as he realized in his heart that God’s Word is divinely inspired, eternal and powerful!
One night at Forest Home, he walked out into the woods and set his Bible on a stump – more an altar than a pulpit – and he cried out: “O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising.”
And then, my grandfather fell to his knees and the Holy Spirit moved in him as he said, “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word!”
My granddaddy wrote in his autobiography that as he stood up his eyes stung with tears, but he felt the power and presence of God in a way he hadn’t in months. “A major bridge had been crossed,” he said.
The resulting change did not go unnoticed. The next day my granddaddy spoke at Forest Home, and 400 people made a commitment to Christ. Henrietta Mears remarked that he “preached with authority” that she hadn’t seen before from him.
This prayer at the tree stump was the tipping point where faith overcame doubt and all arguments against the power and authority of the Word of God. You see, the devil has been trying to get man to doubt the Word of God since the Garden of Eden. If the devil succeeds, all faith is lost and he gains control.
Billy determined to accept Scripture as God breathed and to keep his gospel message simple. As the apostle Paul put it, “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” I Cor. 2:2
He Embraced Accountability
The second lesson from Billy’s remarkable life was his commitment to integrity and accountability. So many ministers have fallen into scandal. So much of the work of the gospel has been stained or discredited by moral failure in a number of predictable areas commonly referred to as the three G’s: gold, girls, and glory.
Early on in Billy’s ministry along with some covenant brothers, they determined to do everything possible to avoid scandal and uphold the highest standards of integrity.
In 1948, Billy Graham began a series of evangelistic meetings in Modesto, California, along with his ministry team, comprised of Cliff Barrows, George Beverly (“Bev”) Shea and Grady Wilson. Through a series of conversations about ministry life and its challenges, the group met together in Modesto and resolved to uphold the highest standard of Biblical morality and integrity. Their resolutions became known as the “Modesto Manifesto.”
One afternoon during the Modesto meetings, I called the team together to discuss the problem. Then I asked them to go to their rooms for an hour and list all the problems they could think of that evangelists and evangelism encountered.
When they returned, the lists were remarkably similar, and in a short amount of time, we made a series of resolutions or commitment among ourselves that would guide us in our future evangelistic work. In reality, it was more of an informal understanding among ourselves—a shared commitment to do all we could do to uphold the Bible’s standard of absolute integrity and purity for evangelists.
The first point on our combined list was money. Nearly all evangelists at that time—including us—were supported by love offerings taken at the meetings. The temptation to wring as much money as possible out of an audience, often with strong emotional appeals, was too great for some evangelists. In addition, there was little or no accountability for finances. It was a system that was easy to abuse—and led to the charge that evangelists were in it only for the money.
I had been drawing a salary from YFC (Youth for Christ) and turning all offerings from YFC meetings over to YFC committees, but my new independent efforts in citywide campaigns required separate finances. In Modesto we determined to do all we could to avoid financial abuses and to downplay the offering and depend as much as possible on money raised by the local committee in advance.
The second item on the list was the danger of sexual immorality. We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: “Flee … youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 1:22, KJV).
Our third concern was the tendency of many evangelists to carry on their work apart from the local church, even to criticize local pastors and churches openly and scathingly. We were convinced, however, that this was not only counterproductive but also wrong from the Bible’s standpoint. We determined to cooperate with all who would cooperate with us in the public proclamation of the Gospel, and to avoid an antichurch or anticlergy attitude.
The fourth and final issue was publicity. The tendency among some evangelists was to exaggerate their successes or to claim higher attendance numbers than they really had. This likewise discredited evangelism and brought the whole enterprise under suspicion. It often made the press so suspicious of evangelists that they refused to take notice of their work. In Modesto we committed ourselves to integrity in our publicity and our reporting.
It is one thing to talk about integrity and accountability but it is another to embrace and live it out for the long haul. This was the single greatest key that kept Billy going for the long haul. It kept his ministry free from tarnish by even the most scrutinizing eyes in the secular media.
He Stayed the Course
If doubt or debauchery doesn’t take out a minister, one of the last lines of attack is distraction. We see this in the life of Samson sadly. Furthermore, the parable of the sower talks of the seed that grew up among thorns. The thorns are the distractions of life that seem so important and alluring, but they ultimately destroy the plant and it produces no real fruit. Sometimes these distractions are obvious but at other times they are not. It is the unobvious distractions that are the most deadly. Consider the missionary who gets involved in the wrong relationship. The romantic interest may even claim to be a Christian, but they do not really have the same heart. It is a distraction. It will takes the missionary away from the purpose God has. Perhaps it’s a business opportunity, a new job, more education, a relationship, or simply putting something off. Distractions abound, and they don’t have to be sins! The acceptable is the enemy of the best.
In Billy’s life in particular, I see two noteworthy distractions. The first was mentioned earlier. He went through a time of great doubting mostly because of the critical, doubtful spirit that most of academia promotes. It was operating through his so called friend who didn’t realize that he was being used by the devil to sow seeds of doubt against the Word of God. At the same time, Billy was president of a Bible college in Minnesota. Should he continue this and pursue more education? Isn’t God’s will to train up more pastors? The world has no shortage of need when it comes to quality leaders. This struggle of purpose would have taken Billy’s life in a dramatically different direction. But he prayed through; he refocused on who God had called him to be, and he stayed the course. The tree stump prayer session not only overcame his doubts but clarified his future.
The next distraction was the call to personal power, influence and legacy. Billy was known as “America’s Pastor.” He met with every president since Harry Truman. He counseled them, was invited to the White House, was friends with many of the presidents. According to the story, Billy had a particularly close relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson. One day, Johnson and Billy were having a swim and LBJ says, “Billy, you ought to be president of the United States. If you do run, I’d like to be your campaign manager. .”
Imagine what went through Billy’s mind. You could be president! You are known and loved in America! Think of the impact you could have on this nation… for God!
As tempting as this offer may have been, in the bowels of his spirit, he already knew the answer. Billy Graham was called to be an evangelist, not a politician. No matter how much America needed a godly president, that was not his calling. How may the story have been different if he had gone after this? Would he have succeeded or failed? What would have become of the countless millions that needed to be reached if he had succumbed to this alternate destiny?
Only heaven knows. But Billy made the right choice. He stayed the course.
Billy Graham was no more talented than you and I are. But one thing he did, he chose to live by the principles of the Word of God to such an extent that nothing knocked him out of the race. He finished it. Billy, thank you for leaving an example like many of the great figures in the Word of God. I’ll see you up there soon enough.
The Tree Stump Prayer: When Billy Graham Overcame Doubt
by Will Graham written July 9, 2014
Accessed March 16, 2018
The Modesto Manifesto: A Declaration of Biblical Integrity
by Billy Graham written October 24, 2016
Accessed March 16, 2018
Trivia: What Political Office was Billy Graham Encouraged to Run for?
By BGEA written February 2, 2018
accessed March 19, 2018