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It’s difficult to add to the volumes already being written about evangelist Billy Graham after his death on Wednesday at age 99. The week ahead will bring more reflections as Graham’s coffin lies in repose at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., and then at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.
In recent months, the so-called “Billy Graham rule” reappeared in the American lexicon with stories about how Vice President Mike Pence followed Graham’s example of not being alone with any woman who wasn’t his wife.
As I’ve read obits and tributes, another rule Graham tried to follow seems worthy of mentioning as well:
Be willing to use your influence, but wield it humbly.
One of the most fascinating Graham quotes I’ve read over the last day comes from an op-ed by Jonathan Merritt in The New York Times. He wrote about speaking to Graham seven years ago at his home, and asking the evangelist about his willingness to counsel and encourage presidents from both political parties.
Merritt asked: What can a new generation of Christians learn from you?
Graham replied: “First, I’d say, don’t try to be like me, because I didn’t always get it right. But also, with one exception, I never asked to meet with them. They always asked to meet with me.”
It was an instructive display of humility from one of the most influential Christians of the 20th century: He didn’t always get things right. And he didn’t always try to seek the high place.
Over a decade ago, Graham publicly apologized for offhand comments he had made about Jews during a conversation with President Richard Nixon that was caught on tape. The watching world took notice of Graham’s response.
“He did not spin it. He did not try to justify it,” Duke Divinity professor Grant Wacker told NPR. “He said repeatedly he had done wrong, and he was sorry.” Wacker said virtually all the Jewish leaders with whom Graham spoke extended their forgiveness.
Graham lived a remarkably scandal-free life for nearly a century, but knew he wasn’t a scandal-free man: Sin is a scandal that affects every soul, and Graham lived an honorable life with an awareness of his own sin and his own need for the forgiveness of Christ.
Christian singer Fernando Ortega captured this reality beautifully in a song he released several years ago based on “Just as I Am”—the hymn Graham used to close his public crusades.
The song includes a clip of Billy Graham preaching to a crowd:
“I remember one night in the hospital, I thought I was dying. And my whole life came before me. And I didn’t say to the Lord, ‘I’m a preacher; I’ve preached to many people.’ I said, ‘Oh Lord, I’m a sinner. I still need your forgiveness. I still need the cross.’”
Graham was a towering figure who used his influence for others, but who also knew one day he would stand before Christ, “Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bid’st me come to Thee. O Lamb of God, I come, I come!”