“I find that young people across the world are searching for something, but they don’t know what it is.” – Billy Graham, 1998
Billy Graham had the gift of faith. Everyone knows about his trip to the woods at Wheaton College, his first – and final – commitment to uphold the Gospel in pure faith, to never doubt God again like he had in his early years. When I first heard that story, I was 13 years old. An eighth grader, studying world religions in middle school. I was suddenly confronted with a confluence of paths, one in which I was simultaneously exposed to the multitudinous religious diversity of the world and, perhaps more radically, borne witness to the man with an unshakable faith that one – and only one – was the true and righteous path with God. Billy Graham was the first time I had ever heard that faith – not skepticism – was rather the right virtue. That the man who pursues God endlessly and without a doubt, is still the better man in the end than the doubting one, whether or whether not God exists at all.
You can’t fake faith. Christianity asks us to give up so much – in fact our entire selves – that the decision about whether to follow Christ or not, the decision that Billy Graham asked millions upon millions of people to make during his illustrious, 75+ year career of preaching, is perhaps the only decision worthy of the many signifiers Graham had piled upon it. “Life-changing.” “Critical.” “Scarring.” The “Hour of Decision” that Billy Graham preached repeatedly, over a course of years and years, asked everyone in the room – often a stadium fit for football games – to make a decision. Follow Christ or reject Him. You cannot straddle the line.
Agnosticism, Billy Graham argued, is intellectually weak and spiritually deadening. In the end you must choose to be a Christian or to reject Christianity. When the rich young ruler rejected Christ, he was left “grieving,” emotionally devastated, according to the Bible (Mark 10:22). There are consequences for your decision. Serious ones, he said. Ones in which you will stand account for on the Day of Judgement.
His rhetoric electrified me at a time that I remember being taught to “be myself” and “explore,” rather than commit to any one thing. To search, without knowing what to search for. At Harvard University in 1998, filled with perhaps the greatest series of intellectual giants he had faced yet, Billy Graham answered the same questions he had answered when he was just an upstart young preacher from Charlotte, N.C., making his first speech in L.A. “What is the meaning of life?” “Why am I here?” “Who is Jesus?” “Why should I care?” It doesn’t matter whether you are an octogenarian living in a rocking chair or a 18-year old freshman in college, pliant to whatever anybody throws at you. Billy Graham would always give the same answers, because that’s what he believed. You could not faze him with “fine-sounding arguments,” though he knew all of them and, if he wanted to, could have squashed them all like a fly on the wall. He chose a different path – a loving path, knowing that no matter what curtain of intellectually haughtiness you would hide behind, that you are just another guy or gal in this world trying to figure it out. And he would calmly, with a glint in his eye, tell you about the Gospel one more time.
In an age of almost schizophrenic alternate realities, one red and one blue, bubbles and fake news, “post-truth” and “post-modern,” Billy Graham’s voice of certainty – pure certainty, unhindered and unencumbered by the happenings of this world – will be missed. Perhaps it will not be missed in any greater capacity than by young people like me, growing up in a world where we’re taught to be ourselves without knowing even who “ourselves” are. I am not gifted with the faith that Billy had, but I am now mature enough to understand that faith is a virtue, not a fault, and that there are few who exemplified that virtue better than Billy Graham himself.
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