Why Billy Graham Was Different
He leaves an example for us all.
What is it that stood out about Billy Graham? What made him so unique, that, with his passing, it’s clear we have no one to take his place?
I never met Rev. Graham or heard him speak in person. But a few years ago, I was given a personalized tour of the Billy Graham Library by one of the senior staff members. It was only then that I fully grasped the scope and power of his ministry, even though I had deeply respected him for decades.
Here are three things (out of many) that struck me about the uniqueness of this servant of the Lord.
1. He was not just a public minister. He really cared about people.
I once interviewed British journalist David Aikman on my radio show.
Aikman, fluent in Russian and Chinese, had interviewed many famous world leaders, including Boris Yeltsin, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Manuel Noriega, not to mention some infamous terrorists.
When I asked him which person made the greatest impression on him, he immediately responded, “Billy Graham.”
When I asked why, he explained that every interview he did focused on the person he was interviewing. But when he interviewed Graham, the focus turned to Aikman. Billy wanted to know about him.
Jim Bakker, once disgraced and imprisoned as a fraudulent televangelist, said that “at my lowest moment, Billy Graham walked into my prison, threw his arms around me and said, ‘Jim, I love you.’ The day before, I had heard that he had been voted one of the top three most respected men in the world, and now he was in my prison, comforting me.
“The week I was released from prison, I was sitting in the Graham home eating chicken dinner. That first Sunday out of prison, I was surrounded by the Graham family.”
While the world mocked Bakker and the church discarded him, Billy Graham embraced him.
2. He was truly humble and knew that without God, he was nothing.
All of us who are in the ministry understand that we are only here by God’s grace. That is a given.
But sometimes, we think to ourselves, “I don’t deserve God’s calling and I’m only here by His mercy and kindness, but the Lord has given me the ability to write (or speak or sing or lead), and that’s part of why He is using me.”
So, there’s humility and appreciation, but there’s also the recognition of a gift we’ve been given.
In contrast, Billy Graham seemed genuinely baffled that the Lord used him the way He did. As he explained in an interview from the 1990s that aired again this week, when he got to heaven, one of the first things he wanted to ask the Lord was why He chose to use him as He did.
Because of that, his dependence on the Lord was great. No relying on his own abilities.
In fact, later in life, he expressed regret that he didn’t spend even more time alone with the Lord, saying to Larry King shortly after his 80th birthday, “I am the greatest failure of all men. I was too much with men and too little with God. I was too busy with business meetings and even conducting services. I should have been more with God, and people would’ve sensed God’s presence about me when they were with me.”
How we all need to learn that lesson.
3. He was always on message. He was always Evangelist Billy Graham.
The month I toured the Billy Graham Library there was a special emphasis on Graham’s appearances before the media, and I was amazed to see how clear and unwavering his message was on secular TV.
He spoke the truth to people like Phil Donahue and Woody Allen, he exalted Jesus, he came against sin, and he did it without apology and without venom.
He was not Politician Billy Graham or Salesman Billy Graham. He was Evangelist Billy Graham. You knew what you were getting every time, and he was simply there to tell you what the Bible had to say.
I remember seeing him on the Johnny Carson Show in the 1970’s. Carson was embarrassed to say that he couldn’t even remember all of the Ten Commandments. Graham smiled at him and said, “Yes, but you’ve broken them all.”
Take a few minutes and watch him interact with an agnostic Jew like Woody Allen. It is classic Graham.
What’s interesting is that he also had a strong social conscience, famously removing barricades from his meetings in the 1950s where blacks were separated from whites and once bailing Martin Luther King out of jail. It’s no surprise that Dr. King said, “Had it not been for the ministry of my good friend Dr. Billy Graham, my work in the Civil Rights Movement would not have been as successful as it has been.”
Yet he never deviated from his main calling of preaching the gospel of salvation, and for the rest of eternity, he will be meeting people who were saved through his words.
He leaves an example for us all.