Reflections on the Life of Ruth Bell Graham (1920-2007): R.I.P.

Ruth Bell Graham (1920–2007) passed away last week after lapsing into a coma. She was a remarkable woman for a number of reasons, most notably because she lived honestly from the heart. Newsweek writer Lisa Miller called her, in a moving tribute, “The Heart of the Family.” And it was not an easy family to guide since her famous husband was away from home while she reared their four children alone at times.

The Grahams relationship began, as most everyone knows, while they were students at Wheaton College. After her first date she got down on her knees and prayed, “If you let me serve you with that man, I’d consider it the greatest privilege of my life.” From her journals you wonder if she had many, many second thoughts about the second part of that prayer as the years went by. By all accounts Billy and Ruth Graham had more than their share of disagreements and struggles. What matters is that she supported her husband’s vocation while she challenged many of his decisions. His ambition and charisma desperately needed her graceful and critical presence. It was said that “behind every great man is a great woman.” Surely this is a truism that has only some truth to it but in this case I believe it to be profoundly true. Most of us praise Billy Graham for keeping a level head, for handling moral issues with grace and care, and for his honesty. Behind all of this was Ruth.

And Ruth Graham coped with life through the two greatest means of all—deep piety and humor. She was a woman of prayer and had a piercing wit. When asked if she ever considered divorcing Billy she quipped, “Divorce? No. Murder? Yes.” Ruth Graham came to her piety from a good background. Her famous father had been a medical missionary in China before the 1949 Revolution. He also helped found and direct Christianity Today in the early days.

Some years ago I heard a story, which I have every reason to believe is true, about Billy Graham meeting in private with the famous London minister Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Graham wanted Lloyd-Jones’ support for his ministry. The famous “doctor” told him he would give his support if Graham dropped his public relationship with Catholics and radically altered the altar call he gave at the end of his messages. Graham, according to the storyteller, was deeply moved by the famous minister’s appeal and promised to consider these matters. Later, to the disappointment of Lloyd-Jones, Graham reversed his position from one of agreement to one in which he maintained his course. When Lloyd-Jones met L. Nelson Bell, Ruth’s devoted father, he learned that it was Bell who had talked Billy out of agreeing with Lloyd-Jones. The person who told me this story was a close friend of Lloyd-Jones and saw it as a tragedy. I see it as a blessing. Billy was easily moved by people, a weakness that can be seen throughout his life, but in the Bell family he was given a stable and calming set of influences that kept him on the same course for a lifetime. He has made mistakes but I am quite sure he would have made some really big ones without Ruth and her family. I am also sure he would agree with this analysis.

Billy Graham once was asked a question at Wheaton College about how great his reward might be in heaven. He answered that “a janitor at Wheaton College might be far ahead of him in that day.” I believe he meant it. I also believe it is true. Jesus did say, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” All of us could stand to reflect on that text every single day. What we all do is much less important than we think. Who we are is what matters. I know I have not learned that lesson well but Ruth Graham’s passing reminds me of it today.

Billy, now extremely feeble and suffering from three major illnesses himself, misses Ruth deeply. In their last years they seemed to fall in love again and thus they enjoyed many tender moments. At her passing Billy said, “My love for her [grew] deeper every day. I will miss her terribly, and look forward to the day I can join her in heaven.” I wonder how long Billy will have the will to live without his precious and courageous soul mate.

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