Friday, April 28, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: Billy Graham Regrets …

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Evangelist Billy Graham, in a 1977 interview with Christianity Today:

“One of my great regrets is that I have not studied enough. I wish I had studied more and preached less. People have pressured me into speaking to groups when I should have been studying and preparing. Donald Barnhouse said that if he knew the Lord was coming in three years he would spend two of them studying and one preaching. I’m trying to make it up.”

Tom: Does that quote surprise you at all, IC?

The Gold Standard

Immanuel Can: I think it has to be really surprising. A lot of people would hold up Billy Graham as the gold standard of evangelism.

Tom: He also says he would have spent more time with his family. Does that seem a bit selfish to you?

IC: It surprises me that he realized it. It doesn’t surprise me that it was true.

A lot of people think “ministry” is something that is a rival to your wife and kids — it’s them, or it. But you’ve got to ask yourself this: if it’s true that the Lord joins together a man and a woman in marriage, making the two “one flesh” in his eyes, what sense would it make for the Lord to turn around and say, “Now that you two are one, leave half of yourself, and go travel the world doing my work”? Doesn’t it make more sense that his plans for your ministry would include your spouse?

How Do We Define Success?

Tom: And your children. Further, single servants of God tend to have others they’re working with that are very much like family, and to whom they owe greater duties of care than they owe to the masses generally.

I was reminded this weekend of the way the Lord worked through a decision my father made back in the early ’80s to move to an obscure northern town when all his current work (and he had lots) was in the south. And a tremendous work of God was done in the north through that move, which has continued to this day. I don’t think anyone who was there at the time would argue with that. But the interesting thing is that the agent of a lot of that spiritual transformation was not my father but my sister, who was only a high school student at the time.

So, yes. Not just the spouse. If the Lord is the author of homes and families (both literal and spiritual), then that inner circle is the thing we are most called to develop.

People vs. Platforms

Think of the Lord’s ministry. He could have driven out a lot more demons and healed a lot more sick people if only he hadn’t ‘wasted’ all those countless hours in deep discussion with a mere twelve men. What was so special about those guys that they merited all that attention? And how about Paul’s “inner circle” of Titus, Timothy and the various other brothers that traveled with him and contributed to his epistles. How much did they quietly add to ministry that is generally attributed to him? The time we spend parenting, strengthening our marriages and mentoring is not “lost time”. It might be the most valuable time of all because it directly equips the next generation of servants.

IC: So you’re suggesting that “success” has to be defined by the Master, not by the servants themselves? Well, what if it doesn’t look very “successful” to them?

Tom: Then we need to change our metrics. The Lord’s agenda didn’t look terribly successful to the disciples in the first few days after the cross either. The incapacity to grasp the master plan is inherent in being the one following rather than the one leading.

Study to Show Yourself Approved

But I want to come back to this issue of study, because, unremarkably, I find myself in complete agreement with Mr. Graham. If I had it to do over again, I’d spend twice as much time reading and meditating on the word of God. There is nothing that can make more difference in this world than genuinely understanding the nature of reality and the stakes for which we battle, and far too few people grasp that. Including me, for many, many years.

IC: Would one chance to speak a really, solid, clear, scriptural message, something genuinely born out of a time of fellowship with the Spirit of God, be worth giving up a half dozen or a dozen other speaking opportunities?

Tom: Oh, I think so. Many speaking opportunities these days are merely filling in a dance card. You could substitute someone else in and nobody would know the difference. There are a certain number of churches, with a certain number of openings, and somebody has to stand up and fill those slots or else the congregation goes home very confused. But to make any one of those opportunities really worth it, you have to have something worth saying, something that arises out of communion with Christ. Not the same formulaic time fillers we often sit through. And there is no way to get that sort of depth to your ministry without actually putting in the hours in the presence of God. There are no shortcuts.

The Appeal to Vanity

IC: I really think that’s true. How can someone who is not actually enjoying the presence of God, and who is not finding the scripture speaking to him where he actually lives, have something special to tell other people about their spiritual lives? I’ll say again what I’ve said before: the Christian life is the one that cannot be lived without Christ. If you can get along on the strength of your own eloquence, commitment and determination, then what you are doing is maybe a kind of service, but it’s not Christian service … not service performed by the power and means that the Spirit of God chooses to use.

Tom: Amen. There’s a kind of creepy appeal to vanity that occurs when you’ve been told your ministry has “helped people”. You can easily begin to think that it’s so helpful because it’s unique in its time and place, and that it’s unique because you are. You might not dare put it that way, but that’s what it boils down to. And if you start to believe that, then why not do 300 personal appearances a year? You’re helping people. And if that takes away from your personal time with the Lord and your family, well, you know, these are the “sacrifices” some of us are called to make. The lies invent themselves. You don’t even have to work hard at it.

IC: Yes. As the old saying goes, you start to “believe your own press agent”. You think that if so many people are so appreciative, then surely you must be special. Maybe even indispensable. Certainly far too important to bend to the call of domestic obligations.

Pressed Into Service

Tom: On top of that, there’s something to be said for the “pressure” that Graham says he felt to be speaking to groups all the time. That pressure is real, and it can feel overwhelming. You can begin to question your own judgment about how your time is best spent and surrender to the will and strategy of others. It reminds me of this post of yours on the necessity for servants of God to be able to say no in order to maximize their usefulness.

But pride is a big thing too, and the felt need for the approval of others in your immediate circle. Nobody pats you on the back when you spend 12 hours grinding through ten verses in Colossians asking the Lord to show you what they mean. And incidentally, you can’t monetize the time you spend on your knees and in your Bible. People with families to feed can rationalize not doing it easily enough.

IC: It makes me think about what scripture says about a person who fails to provide for the needs of his own household. I don’t see any exceptions in that for people who think they’re doing “a great ministry”, do you?

Shaping Ministry

Tom: No. Now, there may be periods of time when, for a particular spiritual reason, you may agree with wife, parents or others to whom you owe duties of care to make a temporary sacrifice of time together. Peter, when he was young, spoke of having “left everything” to follow the Lord. But that was not a lifelong state of affairs for Peter; it was something under three years in very special circumstances, and we have no scriptural evidence he was married at the time. Paul later asks, “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [meaning Peter]?” It appears standard practice among the apostles was getting married and serving together.

If we have taken on the responsibility of wife and family, the Lord expects us to be there for them.

IC: Well, and he expects us all to be there for him. That’s the point. Our domestic responsibilities may not be our entire ministry, but they are without question, a part of it; and the shape of the rest, the part we are looking to discover, has to fit with the parts we already know God wants us to do.

Our devotional lives are the same: the shape of our ministry will be delineated within those situations that allow us to remain richly devoted to prayer, study and fellowship with the Lord. If we have to keep foregoing the time to develop our relationship to Christ, then we can be quite sure that whatever we’re doing is not what the Lord has called us to do. His primary calling for us is to enjoyment of him.

Miss that, and we miss everything.

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