In this article from Billy Graham’s website, his grandson Will describes the most important crossroads that Billy Graham faced in his life. It occurred in 1949 at a Christian retreat center in California called Forest Home. Among other things, Graham’s confidence in his calling as an evangelist was shaken by a disastrous recent crusade in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Also, as the uncredentialed president of Northwestern College in St. Paul, Graham had to decide, for the sake of the college’s accreditation, whether to quit his evangelistic career to pursue an advanced degree.
Meanwhile, his good friend and fellow evangelist Charles Templeton, with whom he had ministered at Youth for Christ, did abandon his career in evangelism for the academy—at Princeton Theological Seminary. While there, he began doubting the Bible’s trustworthiness until he later abandoned the Christian faith altogether and became an atheist. Did Templeton know something that Graham didn’t?
This was the context in which Graham accepted an invitation to speak to a church group at Forest Home. Will writes:
One night at Forest Home, [Graham] walked out into the woods and set his Bible on a stump – more an altar than a pulpit – and he cried out: “O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck [Templeton] and others are raising.”
And then, my grandfather fell to his knees and the Holy Spirit moved in him as he said, “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word!”
The next day, the organizer of the retreat remarked that Graham “preached with authority” that she hadn’t seen in him before. Four hundred people made a commitment to Christ in response to Graham’s message. This marked the beginning of a new and fruitful chapter in Graham’s ministry.
While Graham’s “tree stump prayer” didn’t change the course of human history on nearly the same scale, it still reminds me of Mary’s prayer when the angel Gabriel tells her that she’s going to conceive and give birth to the Messiah, Savior, and Son of God. Like Graham, Mary struggled with God’s word. She was “greatly troubled” by it (Luke 1:29). She had questions about it that she was unable to answer: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
Like Graham, hers was not a blind faith or an unquestioning faith. She was inquisitive. She wanted to reason it through.
Ultimately, however, she accepts it, not because it all made perfect sense to her, but because she trusted God, with whom “nothing will be impossible.” She took God at his word. And like Graham, it made all the difference for her—which is an understatement, of course. Ultimately her freely chosen obedience helps make all the difference for all mankind: because through her son we find forgiveness of sin and eternal life.
Inasmuch as I have trusted in God’s Word and committed myself to following it—in spite of my questions, in spite of my doubts—I can attest that it’s made the biggest difference in my life and ministry. God has proven himself; he’s rewarded my faith. And those questions and doubts get smaller and less significant.
Almighty God, make me faithful to your word the way Mary was: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NRSV). Amen.