By Tim Bennett
In October of 2018, Ruth Graham, the youngest daughter of the late Billy and Ruth Graham, visited Syracuse, NY to speak at the 31st fundraising banquet for New Hope Family Services, the adoption and crisis pregnancy center in East Syracuse. The last time she spoke at this event was just after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Ms. Graham is an author and speaker. In her bestselling book, In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart (2004), Graham shattered the “perfect family” mystique by boldly sharing her walk with God through challenging trials and heartbreaks including depression, divorces, and children suffering through drug addiction and food disorders. Her new book, tentatively entitled, Forgiving Others: Forgiving Myself is due out in the fall of 2019. The Good News had an opportunity to meet with Ms. Graham for an interview.
The Good News: What was it like being in the family of the most famous Christian evangelist in the world? Maybe you could tell us what the advantages were, as well as the challenges, of growing up in a global fishbowl?
Ruth Graham: One advantage of being in a “global” fishbowl is you always had a lot of places to hide. In a local fishbowl, like in a pastor’s family, you have less places to hide. My mother and daddy were very wise in that they chose a community for us to grow up in that would not put us up on a pedestal. We were in a community for retired pastors and missionaries and when they saw one of the Graham kids misbehaving, and we were the only young people there, they would pray for us, they wouldn’t gossip.
As a young girl I can remember people coming from all over the community on Wednesday mornings to my grandparents’ house to pray on their knees for hours. It was truly phenomenal. My parents did not bring us to the crusades, which was wise. We were homeschooled, then went to private school, and other schools. And the people treated us like we were normal people. I did not experience anything different until they sent us to boarding school. Mother and Daddy felt boarding school would be the best education for us. Mother had done that as a child because her parents were missionaries to China.
It was at the boarding schools that students began to treat me differently, like I was something special, but I knew I wasn’t. Unfortunately, I began to try to live up to people’s expectations and that became a terrible thing to do. I went to prep school in Long Island. It was called the Stony Brook Girls’ School. It closed after three years. I was 16 and I was so unhappy there. They didn’t know what to do with me, so they sent me off to Gordon College, and you don’t send a southern girl to Boston. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or what I wanted to be. I was too young. No clue.
So, after two years of college I got married and had three kids. I was a good mother, faithful wife, and a leader in the church. After 18 years, however, I found out that my husband had been having multiple affairs for years. I was brought up around honorable people, so I didn’t expect this. I didn’t know what to do, so I kept it a secret. I wanted to honor the Lord and I thought I can work this out. But then a depression set in like a thick gray fog. And one day I decided I was going to take my life. It was after church and the preacher had preached a good sermon, but I had said to myself I can’t take this anymore, so I went home to look for razor blades. Fortunately, I didn’t find any because my husband used an electric razor. I realized then that my children needed me. It was a wake-up call. So, I got help at that point. I weathered that, not well, and I got into a rebound marriage that lasted only five weeks. I became afraid of him and fled. I went home, and my dad opened his arms to welcome me. He showed me love and that changed my life.
But when I was a child, my dad was gone all the time and, as a young girl, I read that as abandonment. As a result, I was always looking for male affirmation. After that marriage I married someone else and I absolutely adore him, and he is still my friend. But, after ten years of marriage, he decided he didn’t want to be married any more. In fact, all three divorced me. I do believe in divorce for abandonment, abuse, and adultery.
My father’s absences had a profound effect on me. I am not speaking for my siblings. I’m just speaking for myself. I know that military fathers are gone. Doctors are gone. Businessmen are gone. I just know that my dad’s absences affected me deeply. My father never condemned me. Never criticized me. Never judged me. Only loved me. He was such a great, gracious, graceful man. He was a holy man. As I look back, any time you went to him he would turn to the Scriptures. He would always turn to prayer. He was an unusual man. Not that he was easy. He could be difficult. When you saw those steely blue eyes hone on you, you knew you were in trouble. I adored my father. He was my hero.
The Good News: What was it like growing up with your mom?
Ruth Graham: My mother had a wonderful sense of humor. She was terrific. And she was a very godly woman. Always at night when I would go down to talk with her, she would be on her knees. When I went downstairs in the morning to see her, she would be on her knees. We had prayer as a family twice a day in the morning and the evening, and while we could be late for school, we couldn’t miss the prayer times. It was short, and they kept it interesting. And, whoever was working in the house or visiting us, they all joined in and we’d either read verses around the circle or have little “popcorn” prayers so that everyone could pray. That’s how we started our day. And, I think all of us carried that over into our families because it was good grounding and putting the right priorities first. I wouldn’t trade it (meaning growing up Graham) with anybody but I wouldn’t want to wish it on anybody either. It was a mixed blessing.
The Good News: You’ve become known throughout the years as someone who is very transparent or “authentic” about your own personal struggles. Can you talk a little bit about your road to authenticity?
Ruth Graham: I think that is what God has called me to do—to be vulnerable. And I’ve been attacked for it. But I wrote a book entitled, In Every Pew There is a Broken Heart and it still sells very well. I think it is important in the evangelical community to say, “It’s okay. We’re all broken. We all need support. We all need community.” But if we pretend we have it all together we don’t help anybody. I realized this one day when I went to church one morning by myself. The person sitting behind me was a friend and she said, “Oh, hi Ruth. How are you?” I said, “Fine.” After the church service began, however, I thought: I just lied. I was struggling with my third divorce. So, after the service I went over to my friend and said, “You know, I am not fine. Could you pray for me?” She said, “Sure. And I need prayer too?” So, if we make ourselves vulnerable, then that gives other people permission to be vulnerable. I learned a valuable lesson that day. So, I make myself vulnerable, but some people feel uncomfortable with it. A dear friend of mine, for example, after hearing me share something said, “Ruth, you should not say those things.” I figure if I tell them myself no one will tell on me. So I’m glad I can beat them to the punch.
The Good News: You’ve said in another interview that authenticity opens the door to ministry. Could you expand on that?
Ruth Graham: If you are wearing a mask that you’ve got it all together and you have all the answers, you don’t have a clue what the questions are. Who wants to approach you? I know someone very well who always has it all together and has all the answers, knows all the Bible verses, but she is not a warm, friendly person. She’s brittle. I don’t think Jesus was like that. I want to be winsome. That’s a word my mother used. If that means making myself vulnerable, that’s what I’ll do.
The Good News: Can you think of some examples when you were vulnerable and how it opened up ministry for you?
Ruth Graham: Well, since the book is out, I’ve been vulnerable to everybody, so I get some opportunities to minister because of that. For example, there was a young woman that was a victim of a terrible crime and experienced some horrendous things. She was kidnapped, imprisoned, and raped repeatedly. Finally, they found her, and I was asked if I could come along side of her. I could not have done that if I had all the answers. She’s not going to trust easily and probably would not have been open to me if she had not read my book. So, I’m just letting her take her time. I have to be transparent and vulnerable like her. And that’s still going on.
The Good News: What are you doing now? Are you working on another book?
Ruth Graham: Yes, I am, and the manuscript is due in February. It’s on forgiveness and God’s given me lots of opportunities to put it into practice, which I don’t like. I am convinced we take forgiveness all wrong. We say it’s “letting go” or it’s “a gift we give ourselves” but that’s not what it is. Forgiveness is an opportunity to enter into the very character of God because God is all about forgiveness. What was Jesus doing when He said, “Father, forgive them?” He was dying. That’s what we have to do to forgive. We have to die to self in order to forgive, and no one wants to do that. That’s what it takes and it’s a lifelong process. You don’t forgive and forget and move on. You forgive and you forgive and you forgive. It’s a battle. I think the title is going to be Forgiving Others: Forgiving Myself because forgiving myself was the hardest thing. It was very hard. I knew better—look at the family I come from.
The Good News: Are you still writing your blog*?
Ruth Graham: I haven’t gotten to it in so long. I haven’t felt well, and I don’t want to get political, but I am so fed up with what is going on. We are definitely at the time when Jesus said, “Good will be spoken evil of and evil will be spoken good of” and we are celebrating evil. It is a difficult time to live and I worry about my grandchildren, but I am reminded by God every day, they are children of the covenant and You have to take care of them. It’s an interesting time to be alive.
The Good News: So, besides writing, do you also do a lot of speaking throughout the year?
Ruth Graham: I allow myself one engagement a year locally in Virginia or else I would get inundated. I’m also very active with my four grandchildren. I probably speak at other places about twice a month. It was a lot more a couple of years ago when I was flying across the country every week and I thought: This is nuts. So, I cut down. It’s fun. I love meeting new people and learning what they are doing. I love the ministries that I am involved in and I am big into missions. I get to see people doing God’s work around the country and that is exciting.