As historian Grant Wacker was working toward his 2014 America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, he had the opportunity to spend time with Graham at his North Carolina estate. Wacker recalls one insightful conversation: “After a few minutes, Mr. Graham’s special assistant, standing nearby, said, ‘Billy, Grant is writing a book about you.’ Obviously puzzled, Mr. Graham responded, ‘Why? Why would you want to do that?’ Taken aback, I finally mumbled, ‘Well, you have done some important things.’”
Some important things, indeed. After all, Billy Graham has traveled the world as an ambassador for peace, preached to millions of people, and is familiar to millions more. He has led countless people to Christ. He was a presidential confidant and quite comfortable in the elite places of Washington, including the Oval Office. He’s penned bestsellers. He counted Bono, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant in his sphere of friendships. And he delivered a TED talk. I mean, c’mon. Even modern pop culture recognizes his influence; in December, Netflix’s The Crown aired an episode that portrayed Graham (Season 2, Episode 6). Important he was, for Christians in both America and abroad, and for individual believers who turned to him for advice, counsel, direction, and encouragement.
And, strikingly, he is often described by one key word: humility.
We can learn much about humility by reflecting on the life and ministry of Billy Graham. Stories highlighting the point could fill books (and have!). Therefore, this brief look cannot nearly scratch the surface of all there is to say. Nonetheless, three key points about Graham’s humility are worth noting.
Graham Critiqued Himself
Billy Graham was not above critiquing Billy Graham; in fact, “Graham proved more critical of himself than many of his critics did.” In a world that is quick to justify itself and cast blame elsewhere, Graham looked inwardly first.
While enjoying immense popularity among many, Graham’s evangelistic efforts were not always well received. In 1970, the student newspaper of the University of Tennessee called Graham’s crusade at the school a “one man circus” complete with an “elephant.” Bob Jones Sr., disgusted that Graham left his fundamentalist heritage behind, stated that Graham “was doing more harm to the cause of Jesus Christ than any other living man.” Of course, this could not be more untrue, but it could still wound.
But Graham never lashed out and was always harder on himself than any paper or figure could be. He was self-critical about many areas: spending too little time with family, failing to speak when he should have (especially in combatting racism), failing to be quiet when necessary (especially in the area of politics), offending President Truman (a humorous vignette in itself, but one that Graham never fully rebounded from), and his anti-Semitic remarks in a conversation with President Nixon from 1972, for which he has spent the last few decades owning, repudiating, and apologizing for.
Graham never deflected attention away from these faults. His gaze settled on the planks in his own eye before focusing on specks in another.
Graham Knew His Place
Billy Graham was never under the impression that he was indispensable to the Kingdom of God. He was a servant with no claim on his own life. His hope was not in himself, but in the God who called him:
“I was humbled because it seemed that God was laying his hand on the most unlikely prospect among his servants for a gigantic task. I did not ask for the assignment that was pressed upon me by a sovereign God. I had not anticipated or aspired to leadership in the field of mass evangelism. It was the clear call of God through an inexplicable series of events that thrust me into a new dimension of activity in the field of evangelism.”
The heights that Graham ascended were orchestrated by the all-sovereign and all-powerful hand of God, not the skill or savvy of a mere man. And Graham never forgot this. His puny shadow disappeared behind the magnitude of the cross of Christ.
Graham Depended Upon God
It wasn’t good looks, a Southern accent, or an affable personality that was the source of Graham’s power. It was a close relationship with Jesus Christ.
Graham once told fellow ministers the secret to his consistent ministry: “If I didn’t have a systematic devotional life I couldn’t go on.” Indeed, “by all accounts, [Graham] maintained a strict discipline of private Bible reading and prayer. And he emphasized the power of prayer in just about everything he said.” Some may be tempted to rely on experience or past fruitfulness as the foundation of future success. But not Graham. His humility led him to depend upon God’s word and God’s power.
Billy Graham had shortcomings and blind spots. But, for people young and old living in a world characterized by mistrust and looking for a hint of genuine Christian spirituality, Graham’s humility before God and others is worthy of emulation.
As Grant Wacker interviewed Graham at his home, he couldn’t help but notice: “There’s a sense in which Billy Graham has no idea that he’s Billy Graham.” Looking toward his 100th birthday this November, Graham is a wonderful example of Philippians 3:8: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 312-313.
Billy Graham, “What Ten Years Have Taught Me,” The Christian Century (February 17, 1960), 186.
Billy Graham, “The Minister God Uses,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 1:4 (Winter 1997), 9.
Grant Wacker, “Unpeeling the Billy Graham Onion: An Interview with Grant Wacker,” Fides et Historia 47:2 (Summer/Fall 2015), 123.
http://www.lifeway.com/leadership/2014/12/22/americas-pastor-an-interview-with-grant-wacker/. Accessed 8 January 2017.