80: James Robison

80: James Robison

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 80 •
JAMES ROBISON

Founder and president of the relief organization LIFE Outreach International, television host of LIFE Today, author

From the moment I began preaching in Texas, when I was nineteen, the response was staggering. People would crowd the churches where I spoke, and within a year, I was conducting a citywide crusade in Houston that lasted fourteen days. Hundreds of people were being saved, and that caught Billy Graham’s attention. He sent me encouragement and assistance, and told me that I was very blessed. He said that I would need a non-profit organization, and then proceeded to set it up, with the help of a law firm that donated their time to me at his request. Our friendship thus began with the tremendous gesture of kindness so typical of Billy. It has lasted fifty years, during which his wisdom and generosity have continued to enrich my life and my mission greatly.

Billy kept track of me during my twenties because our crusades were breaking attendance records in large venues all over the country. During one of his annual times set aside for prayer and spiritual refreshing Billy said he was led by God to share that he was impressed by my teaching and that I should be doing it regularly on television. This was a time when many people, including executives at Walter Bennett Communications, were urging Billy to consider producing his own weekly TV program. However, he felt God had told him I was the one who needed to be on television on a regular basis, while he continued to air his crusade television specials on prime time.

At first, I resisted the idea because I liked to see the people I was speaking to. However, Billy asked me to pray about it, since he believed he had heard the Lord. I got the message, and suddenly, at the age of twenty-five, I began airing a nationally televised Sunday program because of Billy Graham’s prayerful encouragement.

Billy is so humble. I don’t know how you could wrap more humility in a single package. He used to tell me, “I don’t know why so many people come to hear me. Why do they come?” I would respond, “Billy, you’re anointed. It’s God!” And he would insist, “Man, I’m not even a very good preacher. You’re a good preacher, and there are so many others much better than me.” Even when Betty and I visited him in his home in his early nineties, he was still questioning why people wanted to hear him.

In my early twenties, while attending East Texas Baptist College, Billy commissioned me to try to witness to his son, Franklin. He was rebellious and having problems in school and life in general. Billy felt that Franklin had never really trusted Christ, and since Franklin and I both loved the outdoors, I could connect with him. I made all kinds of appointments with Franklin, including invitations to go fishing or hunting, but he broke every one of them.

Some years later, when Billy was in the Dallas/Fort Worth area doing preparatory work for a crusade, he called to ask me to play golf with him and his close associate T.W. Wilson. We had a great time. As we were riding down the ninth fairway toward the clubhouse, he inquired, “Did you hear about my boy? Did you hear about Franklin?” I told him no, and so he said, “Let’s go in and get a sandwich. I want to tell you about it. Then we’ll play the back nine.”

We sat down at a table and Billy revealed that Franklin had given his life to Christ. God had supernaturally converted Franklin in a hotel room while he was overseas. His eyes filled with tears as he told me how it happened, though he is not usually an emotionally expressive person. As we talked, he began to explain how God had done deep work in Franklin’s life, and then he shared, “You know, James, probably some of the greatest advice I ever got concerning Franklin — because it was really tough for Ruth and me — was from a Christian counselor. He explained that though I could not condone or approve where Franklin went or what he did, I should let him know that the door at home was always open. I should be sure he knew that.”

Though I was only in my thirties and Billy was thirty years older, we had prayed together and loved Franklin together as a kind of agreement in prayer. It was extraordinarily moving to see Billy’s prayers for Franklin play out in front of me. After that conversation, we went back and played the back nine.

Billy and I became good friends. We talked a good bit, always openly and honestly. Sometimes we would share concerns about the crusades and discuss why some were more effective than others, including why the people in some areas of the country were harder to reach than others. It seemed tougher in the Bible Belt. Sometimes we would call each other about things that concerned or disheartened us, such as difficulties with ministers who would not cooperate with each other in evangelistic outreaches.

When it came to theology, I was always confrontational. Jerry Falwell used to say that I made even conservative Baptists look like a bunch of liberals. He once commented that I even made Bob Jones and Rush Limbaugh look like liberals. And I was often too harsh and angry. I was abrasive and seemed to lack compassion. I later realized that Billy recognized that characteristic, but he would never confront me about it. He was such a gentleman and so kind. I would persist, however, by challenging and asking him, “How can you associate with all these different people who, in my opinion, have some theological beliefs that are just plain wrong?” There I was, challenging a true giant in the faith, saying things that were so immature, and yet Billy responded with such gracious encouragement. He never confronted me directly about my attitude, but one day a simple conversation with Billy transformed my life. He asked me if I knew the people I was telling him to stay away from. When I replied that I did not, he simply said, “I suggest you get to know people you’ve been taught to avoid.”

I then understood how wrong I was, how we can take our differences to such extremes. We don’t have to compromise our beliefs, yet sometimes in defense of our faith, we compromise God’s love. In the simplest way, Billy drove home the point that Jesus taught everything in the context of love — for everyone. Through the outreach this lesson inspired, it not only changed my life, but also the lives of many religious leaders who have differing theological positions but have now joined together, seeking common ground to discuss our common concerns. They are also joining together in soul-winning and mission outreaches. I would never have ever been able to speak to them about spiritual harmony and unity without Billy’s example and influence.

I once told Billy that it was his inspiration that allowed God to use me to help bring so many different leaders together who would otherwise have never met. My life has been transformed in many ways by his advice — encouraging me to get to know the people we have been taught to avoid.

Through the years, I’ve learned many things from Billy Graham, but no greater lesson than to do what he has done, which is to speak the truth, and always do it with love.

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