Everybody knows that young people make some of their most important, life-changing decisions before age 30, and yet in recent decades their role models, and those to whom they turn for guidance about living life to its fullest, are more contemporary celebrities than wise elders. Some of the fault must lie at the feet of those elders who seek to remain in permanent adolescence rather than become a role model or pass along their accumulated wisdom. Ruth Bell Graham, who died last week, embraced her role as a “pilgrim” and wrote 14 books to pass along the lessons that she learned throughout her rich and full life. But the most important lessons that we can learn from Ruth Graham come from the example of the life that she lived –– especially those related to her marriage to one of the world’s most famous men.
Make your decision about marriage with open eyes: The most pivotal decision that Ruth Bell made was to marry Billy Graham, whom she met while a student at Wheaton College, Illinois. She made that decision with “open eyes.” All of her agonizing went on prior to becoming engaged to Billy. She had planned to be, as I believe she put it, “an old-maid missionary.” Once she made up her mind to marry Billy, however, she never looked back; her plan, adopted willingly, was to simply slip “into the background.” It is not rare today for couples to still be uncertain as they walk down the aisle before their wedding ceremony. Such a pivotal decision ought to be made with eyes wide open. Some couples enter marriage thinking that, afterwards, they can change the things about their loved one that are central character traits or simply annoyances; yet, neither will likely change. Ruth Graham modeled the importance of one’s facing reality, assessing the ramifications completely and straightforwardly before entering marriage and then being willing to accept the circumstances of your marriage “for better or worse.”
Joy and happiness are a choice: Everyone who knew Ruth talks about her joy, her vitality, her charm and her mischievous spirit. Ruth, a woman with an effervescent personality, chose to stay in the background, but she did not live in her husband’s shadow. She raised their five children almost single-handedly, yet she did not complain or slip into bitterness over her lot in life. She chose to stay busy and to develop a ministry of her own. Since her death, numerous stories have been told about her work among individuals in the small community of Montreat, N.C. where she was married and where she lived during all the six decades of her marriage. All of her children report that she used Billy’s absences to do the things that she believed God had called her to do, and she did those things with a joyful heart.
Build a solid foundation for your life: Ruth Graham spent hours every day pouring over her Bible and more than a dozen commentaries and various translations of the Bible. She recognized that only solid Scriptural grounding would keep her life, her marriage and both her and her husband’s ministries focused and effective. She also recognized that wisdom comes from “above;” that human judgment can be notoriously flawed. She is credited with providing the spiritual and intellectual ballast that kept the Grahams insulated from scandal and false values. There were several opportunities for Billy to go in a different direction than his evangelistic calling. At different times, he had offers to go into politics or television. Ruth’s counsel kept him on track with what she believed was his divine calling from God. She also provided insight and feedback for his messages so that the theology was solid and the rhetoric rang true.
To thine own self be true: Even though Billy was a Baptist evangelist, Ruth remained a Presbyterian and attended the Montreat church where her parents were long-time members. With Billy’s frequent and long absences, it made sense for Ruth to grow spiritual roots in her home church and community. She had enough courage and character to know who she was and what she needed to do for her own and her children’s spiritual growth. She apparently recognized that she would have to depend upon God (rather than Billy) for the everyday circumstances of her life as the mother of five children. The support of her church family was undoubtedly a factor in her being able to carry her burdens with indefatigable energy and a ready smile.
Keep a youthful outlook and embrace challenges throughout life: Ruth was a motorcyclist and even took up hang-gliding well past middle age. She enjoyed practical jokes and lively interaction with family and friends. There are numerous stories about her mischief as well as her teasing of her husband so that he wouldn’t take himself too seriously. She had a sign above her door stating: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve been.”
Perhaps her best advice, though, was when she told her daughters that their responsibility toward their husbands was not to “make them good,” but to “keep them happy.” She took it as her calling to nurture and keep her whole family happy, especially Billy. In a life full of wonderful accomplishments, keeping her husband happy, and thus well-equipped emotionally for the demands of his ministry – along with helping to insulate him from many of the temptations that went with his fame – numbers as one of her greatest achievements.
Who can find a virtuous wife?
For her worth is far above rubies.
The heart of her husband safely trusts her;
So he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good and not evil
All the days of her life.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
And on her tongue is the law of kindness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
Her husband also, and he praises her:
Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing,
But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands,
And let her own works praise her in the gates.
— excerpts from Proverbs 31