Devotional Podcast #19: “Nothing to Show for Ourselves”

March 8, 2018

In this episode, I reflect once again on Billy Graham’s life, as seen through the eyes of Washington Post columnist George F. Will, who wrote a column deeply critical of Graham. Reading that column helped me to learn something unflattering about myself, which I want to share with you. Maybe you can relate?

Devotional Text: Philippians 4:11-13

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Wednesday, March 7, and this is devotional podcast number 19.

You’re listening to a sweet song called “Blue, Red and Grey.” It was written and performed—on ukulele, no less—by Pete Townshend. It appears on his band’s 1975 album, The Who by Numbers. Townshend, who swore one time that he never wrote a proper love song, is likely singing about God when sings,

I like every second
So long as you are on my mind
Every moment has its special charm
It’s all right when you’re around, rain or shine

But what appeals to me here is the contentment expressed by the song. I’m sure Townshend would be the first to tell you that it’s aspirational. In the context of an otherwise deeply unhappy album, the song’s optimism is jarring. But he’s exactly right to aspire to this level of contentment, no matter how elusive it may be.

But what if it doesn’t have to elude us? What if the apostle Paul is telling the truth when he writes the following in Philippians 4:11-13?

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

In the wake of Billy Graham’s death two weeks ago, Washington Post columnist George Will—wasting no time, apparently, to speak ill of the dead—published an editorial critical of the evangelist—on the very day that the Rev. Graham died. Graham was “no prophet,” Mr. Will said—as if he ever claimed or aspired to be. Why? Because he never challenged the status quo—otherwise how could he have been so beloved by millions? “Prophets are without honor” and all that, Will reminds us. So Graham must have been some kind of people-pleaser.

Except… even Will conceded that Graham did challenge the status quo on matters of race: as early as 1952, years before the tide turned against Jim Crow and segregation in the South. As a white southerner myself, born a generation after the fiercest battles of the civil rights movement had been fought and won, 1952 seems heroically early for a white southerner like Graham to speak in defense of equality and desegregation. Nevertheless, Will said, Graham “rarely stepped far in advance of the majority.”[1]

O.K., but I have no idea why “stepping far in advance” of the majority should be a virtue for a Christian evangelist who believed that history’s most important event happened 2,000 years earlier, with the death and resurrection of God’s Son. Besides, how can Will accuse Graham of being a people-pleaser when, literally every night of every Crusade, Graham told tens of thousands of people that they were wrong; that they were wrong in the in the most profound way possible; indeed, that they were evil—that they were helpless sinners—and apart from availing themselves of God’s one and only rescue plan for humanity—the blood of his Son Jesus—they were bound for hell… eternally.

To say the least this message was hardly “how to win friends and influence people”! Graham’s was a deeply countercultural message!

Regardless, Will insists that Graham was not in the same league with the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, MLK and Pope John Paul II. Why? Because MLK and John Paul accomplished something practical to make the world a better place—King in defense of civil rights and John Paul in defense of human rights. And here Will would credit John Paul for his role in toppling Soviet communism.

From Will’s perspective, therefore, the world is a better place because these two great religious men lived.

But Graham…? Not so much. At best, Will says, his preaching [quote] “gave comfort to many people and probably improved some.” Probably, he says.

But, good heavens, did Will listen to any of the testimonies of people whose lives Graham touched and changed forever? Did he watch, for example, Kathie Lee Gifford’s amazing, unscripted, 10-minute-long tribute to Graham on NBC’s Today Show the morning that Graham died? As someone who makes his living in part by speaking in public and preaching the gospel, I can say that Gifford’s words put me to shame on both counts! It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever watched on TV! As she told her audience of millions, her parents came to faith in Christ watching Graham’s televised sermons; she came to faith in Christ watching one of the Billy Graham-produced evangelistic movies at her local theater when she was a child.

Now suppose a hundred thousand other people alive right now—even 30 years or so after Graham’s preaching prime—could offer a testimony similar to Kathie Lee’s. (Which seems like a conservative estimate.) Would that count for anything in Will’s eyes?

Of course it wouldn’t! George Will is an atheist. And Graham’s message didn’t relate to anything you could see or feel or read about in a history text. I mean, only God knows to what extent these hundreds of thousands of Graham’s converts—having been born again, having received God’s gift of eternal life in Christ—only God knows how many of them, as a result of their conversion, “made the world a better place”—in some practical, measurable, “respectable” way that George Will and the rest of the world would care about.

I mean, I’m sure many of Graham’s converts did make a practical difference in the world, but no one is keeping statistics on that!

Several weeks ago, on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? radio show and podcast—which comes from the U.K.—one of his guests was the now retired bishop of Oxford, a member of the House of Lords, Richard Harries. At one point, Brierley asked Harries to describe how he became a Christian. Did he grow up in a Christian family? Harries said, not really—he grew up, like so many in the West, in the most nominal of Christian families—the kind of family who went to church once or twice a year at most. He went to a church-affiliated school, which meant mandatory chapel services, but mostly Anglicanism was just something he had dabbled in.

At some point, however, around the time he started at university, he became intellectually curious enough about religion to investigate Christianity. And he said he realized something: if Christianity were true, it required everything of a person. It was something you had to devote your life to—no matter what your career or vocation is. Honestly, I was talking to someone the other day who’s starting a new job, and he said that he was happy… not because the job represented more money—although maybe it did, I don’t know—but because it represented new ministry opportunities for him. More opportunities to be a witness to people at work. And I thought, “That’s the way we all should be!”

Whenever we start something new in life: We should ask, “What does God have in store for me? How will God be calling me to serve him in this new capacity?” And we should ask ourselves these questions because if Christianity is true—and it is—then Bishop Harries is right—it demands everything. God demands everything. And we should be happy to give God everything.

Now, If Christianity weren’t true, then it’s something that no one should have to bother with. But, as Harries realized, there’s nothing in between those two poles: Christianity is an all-or-nothing proposition for everyone.

Like Harries, I understood this when I came to faith in Christ. It happened on a youth retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina. I walked down the aisle of a chapel at the invitation of a preacher. I prayed “the sinner’s prayer,” just as Billy Graham would have me do. I felt a profound sense of peace—and a sense that Jesus was with me. And I knew—I knew, I knew, I knew—that life could never be the same. Everything needed to be different: so praying and reading the Bible became a priority, as did churchgoing, as did witnessing to my friends.

My newfound zeal even worried my parents. In fact, most of my teenage turbulence with my parents had something to do with my faith or church. I’m not saying I was blameless in this—I was a hormonal teenager who probably enjoyed rebelling against them—even if my rebellion amounted to going to a prayer meeting rather than smoking pot. While Mom and Dad each experienced a deepening of their faith later in life, when I was in high school, their attitude at the was like, “Religion is all well and good up to a point, but let’s not go crazy with it. Let’s not be fanatical about it.” They wanted me to be the all-American boy, and the way I was living out my Christian faith was not compatible with that.

Anyway, their resistance came to a head when, at age 16, I told them I was thinking about going into ministry. A college-aged mentor whom I respected told me I should consider it. And I liked the idea. So I told my parents. They hit the roof. And they challenged me to be practical. They said, “Do you know how much money our pastor makes? I bet he doesn’t make $25,000.” This was in 1986 dollars—not that I knew or cared how much money that was at the time.

Still, I’m afraid their words planted a seed. A small part of me, even today—having been in pastoral ministry for 15 years—feels the need to justify my decision for ministry. “I know it seems crazy that I should have given up a reasonably prosperous career to go into ministry, but look at my accomplishments… Look at my how big my church is… Look at how much money I make… Look at how beloved I am… Look at how well-respected I am by colleagues… Look at how many people listen to this podcast or follow my blog… Let me show you my numbers! Let me show you my treasure! See! This proves that I’m loved, that I’m valuable! By all means, I’m a pastor and most of what I accomplish is invisible to the eye—you can’t see it or touch it—but I have these objective measures of success. Let me show you!”

In a Bible study a couple of weeks ago, we looked at the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22: God asks Abraham to offer his son—his only son Isaac, whom he loves—as a sacrifice. You can read the full story in Genesis 22:1-14. But notice verse 1: “After these things, God tested Abraham…” After what things? After Abraham answered God’s call to leave his father’s household, his family, his country and go to an unknown land. This was a risky step of faith, and Abraham took it. Then God said that he bless Abraham with a son through whom God would create a nation, Israel, and by whom the world would be blessed. The only problem is that Sarah and Abraham were long past childbearing years and even when they were younger they were unable to have children. Still, Abraham trusted God. And after 25 very difficult years, filled with tribulations, God’s promise to Abraham came to pass: He and Sarah had their child, Isaac. And now, 13 or 14 years later, God was telling Abraham, “Offer your son as a sacrifice.”

Surely Abraham would have been tempted to ask, “Wait a second, God. Without Isaac, what were the last 40 years for? Without Isaac—in addition to the severe emotional trauma that you’re asking me to endure—without Isaac I’ll have nothing to show for myself! Nothing to show for my life!

Surely that was part of the test: Was Abraham willing—after all this time, after all these years of faithful, thankless service to God—was he willing to have nothing to show for himself: forget the nation that God promised; forget the future blessing. Without Isaac, Abraham will have risked it all and lost everything. He would have nothing in the eyes of the world.

Nothing, that is… except God…

Except God.

But no one would be able to see whether or not Abraham had God. It wouldn’t necessarily impress anyone that he did have God. And when he died, if there was an ancient near eastern equivalent of Washington Post columnist George Will, he might have written a column saying that Abraham had wasted his life. “Are you O.K. with that, Abraham?” Because that is the test.

Was God enough for Abraham?

And I promise this is the test of my life, too. “Is God enough for you, Brent? Even if you had nothing else… including your reputation, your dignity, the respect of others… if you had nothing, would God be enough?” I suspect that until I can answer that question “yes”—and not just say it but really believe it—God is going to keep testing me until I do.

“Is God enough for you?”

Oh, Lord, teach our wayward hearts that you are everything we need. Amen.

1. George F. Will, “Billy Graham Was No Prophet,” Accessed 6 March 2018.

4 Responses to “Devotional Podcast #19: “Nothing to Show for Ourselves””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Great post. And, I might note, even if we have “nothing to show for it” presently, if God is our “all in all” now, then we will have plenty to show for it in eternity, which lasts forever and what really counts.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I know! It will be clear in eternity just how much Billy Graham has to show for himself! I hope George Will figures this out before he dies.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    George Will is a pompous blowhard, who thinks that he separates himself from ordinary folk by his use of big words no one ever uses. I stopped paying attention to him about ten years ago. All ego, but of no great importance to the world himself, if the truth be told.

    As for Abraham’s faith in God, I would point to a more recent story of a man named Horatio Spafford who was able to write such a magnificent faith hymn after losing his four daughters to an Atlantic Ocean ship sinking. “It is well with my soul!”

    Some people find the joy in their lives, no matter what befalls them, while others seem never to be happy with much of anything. I personally fight hard not to be one of the latter, but I can’t say I’m all the way the condition “Joyful Christian” either. With God’s help, I will keep striving though.

    Good message!

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Additionally, on the “Unbelievable” debate about whether you need God to have a meaningful life, I would say no.

    There are many people who believe that this life is all you get, all you need and that it can be joyful and meaningful, without any promise of an “afterlife”. I think that God sees those people and says, “Very well, that’s what you shall have.” In fact, He probably says much the same thing to people who pursue a despicable life because they believe there are no consequence. In both cases, however, there are eternal consequences for both simple non-believers and out right sinful people. Describing exactly what those consequences are is “above my pay grade”, but I don’t think it will be pleasant.

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