The whole world received the news this week that Billy Graham died at his North Carolina home at the age of 99. What else could I write about today other than the life and legacy of the greatest evangelist of the twentieth century? If you haven’t done so yet, I hope you will pause after you read this blog and give thanks to the Lord for the monumental impact made through Dr. Graham’s preaching and ministry.
By now you will have heard the tributes to his legacy of preaching to more than 215 million people in 185 countries and territories over a span of six decades. You will have read about how he authored thirty books, was a spiritual advisor and friend to numerous presidents including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and both Bushes. And you will know of his critics accusing him of being too involved in politics while not involved enough in the civil rights movement.
As a preacher, I have always been amazed at his gift of preaching, his “anointing” that drew so many to Christ. I’ve shared in previous writings and sermons the story of Billy Graham coming to New Orleans in 2006 and reaching a young woman who had been a part of our church. She had been listening to my preaching for several years to no avail, and in a ten-minute sermon delivered by the estimable Dr. Graham, she walked forward and gave her life to Christ. Yes, I know. I planted seeds, but Dr. Graham watered them with a heavenly shower, and God gave the increase. It was the greatest conversion Billy Graham and I ever shared.
What can I learn from his life and legacy? Should I just study his preaching “technique,” hoping I can capture the “magic” of his mannerisms, intonation and verbal pauses? If so, I am no better than Simon who offered money to Peter and John to receive their power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18-19).
What I can learn are the same lessons available to us all. Here are a few worth a lifetime of personal development.
- Live for an audience of One. Yes, Billy Graham spoke to millions, but his life focus was directed by One. He didn’t live for the accolades of the press, the roar of the crowd, or the approval of his ratings. When he was asked what he would like people to say about him after he died, he said, “I want to hear one person say something nice about me and that's the Lord, when I face him. I want him to say to me, “`Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’” A deepening relationship with Jesus leads to an expanding influence for Jesus. You can have the former without the latter, but you can never have the latter without the former.
- Protect your integrity above all else. In 1948, Dr. Graham gathered with his tight circle of traveling evangelists in California and recounted the catalogue of sins that had destroyed the ministries of other Christian leaders. Money, sex, and pride topped the list. Their pledge of integrity came to be known as the “Modesto Manifesto,” and it helped guide them to avoid the destructive pitfalls leading to public disgrace. “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1). Choose wisely.
- Grow in humility. In his autobiography, Dr. Graham wrote: “I have often said that the first thing I am going to do when I get to Heaven is ask: `Why me, Lord? Why did you choose a farm boy from North Carolina to preach to so many people, to have such a wonderful team of associates, and to have a part in what you were doing in the latter half of the 20th century?’ I have thought about that question a great deal,” he added, “but I know also that only God knows the answer.” I believe part of the reason why God used Billy Graham in such a powerful way is because Dr. Graham didn’t seek to be used in a powerful way. He simply wanted to be used.
I will never be able to preach like Billy Graham, and that’s o.k. God has called me to be Rick Grover. God has called you to be you. But what we all share in common with Dr. Graham is the opportunity to be like him, as he was like Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Let’s live for an audience of One, Jesus Christ, protect our integrity and grow in humility. And then one day we, too, will hear those words that William Franklin Graham Jr. undoubtedly heard upon his arrival in heaven, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”