Lessons from the Life of Billy Graham
When you spend as much time working with men as I have, you hear a lot of stories of brokenness.
I have met men who have never spoken to their children, and fathers who once had a good relationship, but it has broken down somewhere along the way. I have met men who can identify actions they have taken to deeply hurt their children, and men who simply don’t know where it all went wrong.
If you find yourself in a place where you recognize how you have failed as a father, I want to encourage you with the reality that you are not alone.
You Are Not Alone
Failure is a sure sign that you are human. Sadly, broken relationships are part of the human existence as well. However, your failure and brokenness doesn’t need to define you.
Billy Graham is perhaps the most famous evangelist for the Christian faith in modern history. Shortly after he passed away, The Washington Post wrote an article on what life was like for Billy Graham the father and his children. When their first child, Virginia, was born in 1945, Billy was away on a preaching trip. “As Graham’s crusades took him throughout the world, little was left for Ruth and the children… Once, when Ruth brought Anne to a crusade and let her surprise her father while he was talking on the telephone, he stared at the toddler with a blank look, not recognizing his own daughter. In a turnabout a few years later, young Franklin greeted his father’s homecoming from a crusade with a puzzled, ‘Who’s he?”’1
Graham’s daughter, Gigi, told a story of a time when her father was going to discipline her, “Once, he disciplined me for something I did. I don’t even remember what it was about, but we had some disagreement in the kitchen. I ran up the stairs, and when I thought I was out of range, I stomped my feet. Then I ran into my room and locked my door. He came up the stairs, two at a time it sounded like, and he was angry. When I finally opened the door, he pulled me across the room, sat me on the bed, and gave me a real tongue lashing. I said, ‘Some dad you are! You go away and leave us all the time!’ Immediately his eyes filled with tears. It just broke my heart. That whole scene was always a part of my memory bank after that.”
It is difficult for many people to imagine this would be the family life of a well-respected, world famous Christian father.
In June 2009, his daughter Ruth wrote a story in Joy! Magazine about a poor decision she made as an adult. She was in a relationship with a man her parents and family warned her about. Ruth ignored the warnings and married him anyway. As reality in her relationship set in, she became fearful for her safety and realized she needed to leave this man, “I had no place to go except to my parents’ home. My fears multiplied with every mile. Questions swirled in my mind: What was my life going to be like now? What was I going to say to my parents? What would they say to me? I had failed my children. What kind of example was I? Fear kept my hands on the steering wheel, and adrenaline kept my foot on the accelerator. As I rounded the last bend in my parents’ driveway, I saw my father standing there. I parked the car and took a deep breath to try and stifle the flood of emotions I felt. As I got out, my father wrapped his arms around me and said, ‘Welcome home.’ There was no condemnation, no ‘I told you so’, no guilt or shame.”2
One of the sureties of my life has been that I know my father loves me unconditionally. Through all my ups and downs, heartbreaks, bad choices and sins, he is constant in his love. I have often said that I wouldn’t compare my father to God, but he has shown me what unconditional love, forgiveness and grace are. My father’s grace and gentleness color my world.
I share this story with you, because I want you to have hope. Billy Graham’s stories of failure as a father are well recorded, but something must have changed along the way. Somewhere in the story of their family, his children began to experience a father who wanted to be like God the Father.
The same God whom Billy Graham told millions of people about, is the One who loved him and forgave him of his sins. That same God had the ability to bring healing in the brokenness of their family.
The same God who forgave and helped to heal Billy Graham, can provide the same forgiveness and healing for you.
If you feel that you have failed as a father, here are some things I want to encourage you to consider:
Ask God to forgive you of your sins and failures as a father. 1 John 1:9 says that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us. This is all possible because Jesus took the place for you on the cross. Your sin deserves to be punished, but Jesus took your place. Forgiveness is possible by God’s grace and by your faith in Jesus and His sacrifice for you.
Ask God to help you begin to be the father your children deserve — no matter what stage of life you are in. 2 Peter 1:3 says that God’s divine power gives us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him. God’s promise is that He will give you everything you need to be a great dad.
Write a letter to your children or talk to them. Tell them all the ways you know you have failed as a father. Ask them to forgive you. This is most appropriate for teenage and adult children. You may have to filter this step with younger children.
Be prepared for them to reject you. You cannot control if they will forgive you or want a relationship with you. The only thing you can control is your love for them. Unless they tell you to leave them alone, don’t ever give up loving them.
Begin to pursue relationship with them. You cannot just start to be a good father and assume everything will immediately be fine. It’s a journey of establishing relationship. You may have missed out on many important seasons in your relationship, but that does not mean you have to lose the relationship. Keep pursuing your children and building your relationship with them. See how God brings healing to your family.
Being a father who failed does not need to make you feel hopeless or filled with despair. In fact, being honest about your failures is the beginning of a journey of redemption. Don’t stay where you are. Your kids still need you. Humble yourself — pursue being a better man — pursue the heart of your children.
1 Martin, William. (2018, February 21) Divorce, drugs, drinking: Billy Graham’s children and their absent father. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/02/21/divorce-drugs-drinking-billy-grahams-children-and-their-absent-father/
2 Graham, Ruth. My Father’s Love: Billy Graham’s Daughter. Joy! Digital Magazine https://www.joydigitalmag.com/everyday-life/fathers-love-billy-grahams-daughter/. Accessed 2021, May 20.