Billy Graham on Aging, Regrets, and Evangelicals

The evangelist says he “sometimes crossed the line” in politics, “old age can be a lonely time,” and warns evangelicals of being “victims of our own success.”
Interview by Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Even through he struggles with his hearing, sight, and other health issues in his ninth decade, Billy Graham continued to do what he’s done with every American President since Harry Truman. Last year, he met and prayed with President Obama and in December, he met again with former President George W. Bush. But if he could go back and do anything over again, he told Christianity Today, he would have steered clear of politics.

Since his wife’s death nearly four years ago, he spends most of his time in his home in Montreat with around-the-clock care. Although he rarely appears in public, his son Franklin Graham said his father would like to preach again on video, but a date is not confirmed. CT submitted brief questions for Billy Graham to his staff by e-mail for an update on his health and a reflection on his years in ministry.

What advice would you give to people who are aging?

First, accept it as part of God’s plan for your life, and thank him every day for the gift of that day. We’ve come to look on old age as something to be dreaded—and it’s true that it isn’t easy. I can’t honestly say that I like being old—not being able to do most of the things I used to do, for example, and being more dependent on others, and facing physical challenges that I know will only get worse. Old age can be a lonely time also—children scattered, spouse and friends gone.

But God has a reason for keeping us here (even if we don’t always understand it), and we need to recover the Bible’s understanding of life and longevity as gifts from God—and therefore as something good. Several times the Bible mentions people who died “at a good old age”—an interesting phrase (emphasis added). So part of my advice is to learn to be content, and that only comes as we accept each day as a gift from God and commit it into his hands. Paul’s words are true at every stage of life, but especially as we grow older: “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6).

The other piece of advice I’d give is the other side of the coin, so to speak. It’s this: As we grow older we should focus not only on the present, but more and more on Heaven. This world, with all of its pains and sorrows and burdens, isn’t our final home. If we know Christ, we know we have “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). I know it won’t be long before I’ll be going there, and I look forward to that day. Heaven gives us hope, and makes our present burdens easier to bear.

What would you say to children who have aging parents?

When we’re young we usually don’t think much about growing old, or about our parents growing old either—not until something forces us to think about it. But it will happen, if they live long enough. So the first thing I’d say to those whose parents are growing older is to be prepared for it, and to accept whatever responsibilities it brings you.

Then be patient with them. They may not be able to do everything they once did, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily helpless or incompetent. And be alert to their needs—including their emotional and spiritual needs. Sometimes they just need to know that you’re there, and that you care. Be sensitive also. Occasionally I’ve seen children become heavy-handed and insensitive when dealing with their aging parents, and it only caused resentment and hard feelings. On the other hand, it may become necessary to step in and insist that they turn over the car keys, or let you handle their finances, or even arrange for them to move to a place where they’ll get better care. They may resist, and you need to put yourself in their shoes and realize the turmoil these changes can cause them. But they need to realize that you’re doing it because you love them and want what’s best for them. And pray for them also, that they will experience God’s peace and comfort as they grow older. Some day you’ll be there also, and what you do now will be an example to your own children.

If you could, would you go back and do anything differently?

Yes, of course. I’d spend more time at home with my family, and I’d study more and preach less. I wouldn’t have taken so many speaking engagements, including some of the things I did over the years that I probably didn’t really need to do—weddings and funerals and building dedications, things like that. Whenever I counsel someone who feels called to be an evangelist, I always urge them to guard their time and not feel like they have to do everything.

I also would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.

What are the most important issues facing evangelicals today?

I’m grateful for the evangelical resurgence we’ve seen across the world in the last half-century or so. It truly has been God’s doing. It wasn’t like this when I first started out, and I’m amazed at what has happened—new evangelical seminaries and organizations and churches, a new generation of leaders committed to the gospel, and so forth. But success is always dangerous, and we need to be alert and avoid becoming the victims of our own success. Will we influence the world for Christ, or will the world influence us?

But the most important issue we face today is the same the church has faced in every century: Will we reach our world for Christ? In other words, will we give priority to Christ’s command to go into all the world and preach the gospel? Or will we turn increasingly inward, caught up in our own internal affairs or controversies, or simply becoming more and more comfortable with the status quo? Will we become inner-directed or outer-directed? The central issues of our time aren’t economic or political or social, important as these are. The central issues of our time are moral and spiritual in nature, and our calling is to declare Christ’s forgiveness and hope and transforming power to a world that does not know him or follow him. May we never forget this.

 

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