How do we experience God's forgiveness in our own lives? How does unforgiveness sabotage our relationships with others? In this powerful and memorable interview, Ruth Graham shares some of the difficulties of having a father (Billy Graham) who traveled so much and was so busy. With vulnerability, she shares her personal journey to forgiving her father and to experiencing God's love and forgiveness in her own life.
More About Our Guest
Ruth Graham is the author of nine books, including the bestselling In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart. Ruth Graham Ministries seeks to create safe places where people can begin and further their journey to wholeness in Christ. She lives in Virginia and has three children and nine grandchildren.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm your cohost, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: Today we have a guest on that I have been looking forward to talking to in person and for our audience to get to hear. Her name is Ruth Graham. She's the author of nine books including the best selling, In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart, and the award winning Step Into the Bible. She has a passion to motivate people by God's grace and loving acceptance. To move from a place of woundedness to wholeness in Christ. We're going to talk about her recent book, Forgiving My Father, Forgiving Myself, which is particularly powerful because I know our audience will recognize her father's name as well, Billy Graham. Ruth, thanks for taking the time to join us today.
Ruth Graham: Well, thank you, Sean, for having me. I really do appreciate it.
Sean McDowell: I was really honored when you reached out and gave me the privilege of endorsing your book and I was just intrigued, having a father in the public light, not as well known as your father, but there's a lot in common there. I thought, gosh, as I read this book, you are so honest. You're so heartfelt, showing respect to your father, but he's human, like everybody else had his faults. How did you kind of muster up the courage or how did you approach a book like this that's both respectful and vulnerable?
Ruth Graham: Well, it took years for me to write this book and but God has called me to be vulnerable. I started that Within Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart. And certainly this book is my most vulnerable writing yet. But I knew that I had some issues in my life that I had to deal with. They were right smack dab in front of my face. And I had to say, "Well, why do I have these issues? What are they?" And so I began to delve in, and this isn't a psychological book and this isn't a tell all book and this isn't a blame my parents book at all because my father truly is my hero.
Ruth Graham: I adored my father and I miss him terribly. But there were some things that that happened to me as a child that caused me to do things later in life, make the same mistakes over and over and over again. And so finally I asked myself, "Why am I doing this?" And there are no excuses, but there are reasons. And it's okay to look at the reasons. Take a hard look at them and say, "All right, now I can deal with this." And I had to deal with that with my father because when I was a little girl, my father was, well, my whole life, my father traveled so much of the time. And so often, he was, when I made it in the most, he was the farthest away. And he always seemed to be busy with other people. I grew up with this sort of sense of abandonment.
Ruth Graham: I would never have wanted to admit that. I never would because my father had no flaws as far as I was concerned. But a friend confronted me one day and he said, "Ruth," he said, "you felt like you were abandoned." And I knew deep down that that was the case. All my life I had been looking for security and I would have told you, "Jesus is my security." But deep down where the secrets are kept, it wasn't true. The gospel had not gotten deep down in there. And I realized Jesus was my security, truly he was, but I was looking everywhere else and I realized that the root of that was this sense of abandonment. Once I confronted it, once I had dealt with it, then I was free and I could forgive myself.
Sean McDowell: Ruth, I'm curious if this is a part of your story. My dad probably traveled 50% of the time and I missed him a lot. When I read that in your book, I resonated with times that, oh, I wish my dad was here to experience this with me and he couldn't. And part of me was looking at my father's story, his dad was the town drunk. He was sexually abused. I never gave myself permission because it didn't remotely compare to the pain and hurt that he went through. I was like, mine is just pennies. But coming to the realization that I can love my dad and admit that he's human and had his faults and there certain things I missed was very, very freeing for me. Now I know your dad's story and his father was probably different than that, but was the idea of my dad was out saving souls who are going to go to hell if they don't believe this, who am I to say that I miss my dad? Was that a piece of the story for you?
Ruth Graham: There's no question about that. Because you see, when you bring God into the picture, then you have to quit talking. If they say, "Well, God's called me to do this," then that stops the conversation. And I felt guilty for feeling that way because I knew my father was called to what he did. He was a unique man, called to a unique ministry at a unique time. And people often say that he is an example. He's really not an example. He's an exception. And I don't want young pastors and young preachers and young families to look at my parents and say, "Oh well Ruth and Billy did it." Because that's not the way to do it. And I address in the book how we, so often we have said, "God first, ministry second, family third."
Ruth Graham: And I don't believe that that's correct. I think we put God first, family second and ministry third. We've gotten it reversed and I think we've run into a whole lot of trouble because of that. I think we see that in these mega church pastors who have meltdowns because they put ministry first. And yeah, put ministry before family. I think that it was okay to say to myself, "Dad didn't do it right in this instance, but I know I have all the excuses for him." I believe I made every excuse in the book for him because I loved him, and I loved what he was doing and he was out there preaching the gospel and we wanted him to do that. But it took a toll on the family there was no question.
Scott Rae: Ruth, this is really interesting. When you describe your relationship with your father, I understand that sense of abandonment and particularly powerful when you say that once God got brought into the picture, you felt like that trumped basically everything else. But your book is essentially about forgiveness. Entitled, Forgiving My Father. Tell us when your dad was around, tell us a little bit more about what your relationship was like with your father. And besides that abandonment, were there other things that you felt like you had to forgive him for?
Ruth Graham: Well, that was the big picture. That was the big piece. And I know that for me, and I'm only speaking for myself, I can't speak for my siblings, but I know for me, when daddy was home, which wasn't very often, he was busy, he was preoccupied and he was surrounded by other people. There really wasn't an opportunity for us to develop a close intimate relationship as father and daughter. And I'm sorry that that happened, but that just the way it was. And back in the fifties, sixties that was the given. And I lost that opportunity with my father.
Ruth Graham: And I will tell you that my father and I never had this conversation because by the time I was aware that I had this abandonment issue, he was no longer conversant and we couldn't have that conversation. I know that if I had ever been able to tell him, he would have been brokenhearted because he loved each one of his children very, very much. And he would never have wanted to hurt me at all, far from it. But he did. And I had to recognize that and say, "Okay, I can either live in that or I can move forward." And I chose to move forward with the power of the Holy Spirit. God has allowed me to forgive that and forgive myself for my mistakes and move forward under his power and in his grace. And I'm so grateful for God's grace.
Scott Rae: Ruth, it's really significant that you never had the opportunity to have that conversation with your dad. How do you think that that inability to have that conversation affected your healing going forward?
Ruth Graham: Well, that's an interesting question. I'm not sure. I feel like daddy knows now. And I'm sure that he hears our conversation now and he knows that I'm not dishonoring him. I'm not dishonoring the Lord and he would want me to move forward. He would want me to get healthy and whole and he would applaud that. I really do. My father was a very honest man. He was sort of a man, but he was a very honest man and he would be transparent. I think that he would applaud that and understand that and appreciate it.
Sean McDowell: I'm curious. You wrote that in the book, there were not a lot of individual times just with your father and that's something that you yearned for and yet you've said a number of times and it's so clear in your book that you love and you honor him nonetheless. Even though he didn't love you in the way you wanted to as a daughter, what are the things he did that you just knew he loved you nonetheless?
Ruth Graham: There was an unconditional acceptance, an unconditional love. And my father was so gracious and kind, he was never critical. He was never harsh. Oh now we knew when his blue eyes sparkled and he was, we'd said enough, we knew when to back up. My father could be very stern, but not harsh. He was a very gentle, kind man. And so I just am grateful that he gave me the gift of, I think I'm the most like him of the children and I'm glad that I am. I am much more quiet, are much more of an introvert than the others. And he was more introverted. He was very, not that he looked inside of himself because he was always looking outward towards the cross and the gospel and people. But he was, he required alone time. And so when he did come home, he wanted to be alone, he wanted to be by himself and he was preparing for the next meeting. I understand that and I'm grateful that I am like him because like I said, I just adored him and he's my hero.
Scott Rae: Ruth, you also spend a lot of the book talking about what it means to forgive yourself. Could you spell out a little bit more what you mean by that and what did that involve for you to forgive yourself? I think that's a concept we talk about forgiving others much more than we talk about forgiving ourselves. And I think that's a relatively foreign concept to most of our listeners. If you would help sort of put some shoe leather on that for our audience that'd be really helpful.
Ruth Graham: I am not sure that there's a theology for us forgiving ourselves, but for lack of a better terminology, I use that terminology. But I think for me, I had made so many repeated mistakes. I've been married and divorced four times, so after the fourth marriage ended, I had to take a long look at that and say, "All right, what's wrong?" And that's what I discovered the abandonment piece. But I had to forgive myself for all the mistakes I've made and what I'd put my children through. And I think once you discover your core issue, which for me was abandonment, then you can take a look at it and say, "Okay, that's there. I can take it to the cross, I can nail it and I can leave it there and Jesus will pick it up for me. I don't have to worry about it. It's no longer my issue."
Ruth Graham: And I will tell you all that was some weeks ago in Sunday school class, some months ago, I guess now, that we were talking about First Corinthians in the culture of First Corinthians and comparing it to our culture today and the Sunday school teacher said, "When did we begin that downward slide?" And somebody in the back said, "When we accepted divorce." Normally I would have cringed and wanted to crawl under the pew, but I didn't. I heard it and I went on. And after the Sunday school class, the man came up to me, he said, "Oh Ruth," he said, "I'm so sorry." He said, "I meant easy divorce." And I looked at him and I could say, honestly, "I'm living in Romans 8:1, there is now therefore no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus and I really don't condemn myself anymore because Jesus has nailed it to the cross. And I'm free from that. And I'm so grateful."
Sean McDowell: That's beautiful. And that's the heart of the message that comes through in your book. And it's not just for people with famous dads, it's for anybody who's been hurt, who has regrets, will relate to your story. A part of your story is what prompted writing the book and recording the story was your visit to the Angola Prison. Could you tell us about that and what you learned from that experience?
Ruth Graham: That was a real eye opener for me. I had a team of people that I worked with. We had a little ministry called Ruth Graham and Friends and I took pastors, psychologists, counselors, teachers, and we would address things in the church that nobody was talking about, whether it be abuse or divorce or pornography. Those things are the underside of the church. And so we were invited to go to Angola and bring our message there so we did. And while we were there on the last day, the warden asked me if I would go to death row. And going to prison was one thing death row was a whole nother thing for this little housewife, suburban housewife.
Ruth Graham: But of course I wouldn't say no so I went. And we entered the gate and the gate clanged shut behind us and the razor wire was above us. And then there was another gate in front of us and we were locked in this pen and waited to be clicked in and they buzzed us in. And the guard indicated for me to walk down this corridor. It was a concrete corridor and on one side was nothing but cells. I went in and the first cell, I stopped to visit the man and he put out his hand, he shook my hand and we talked for a moment and asked about his family and I had no idea what he was in there for and you don't ask that kind of thing. And I just, we just had a little bit of a visit and he said, "Can I sing you a song?" And I said, "Certainly." He took a deep breath and he stepped back and he sang, "It is well with my soul." And I knew it was.
Ruth Graham: And so I prayed with him and was getting ready to leave and he said, "Can I give you a gift?" And I thought, oh my goodness, what possibly can he give me? And he reached under his pillow and there he pulled out a little cross on a string that he had woven out of his threads from his bedsheets. And I have it hanging here in the house now. And I left there and I thought, it was a very impactful meeting. Never thinking that our stories would meet again. And while I was on death row, the national press covered it. And so weeks later I got a call from a lady, not a call, but an email. And she said, "Ruth, did you really go to Angola death row?" And I emailed her back and I said, "Yes." She said, "Did you meet Michael?" And I thought, oh, I probably met lots of Michael's, let me make sure.
Ruth Graham: I called the board and I said, "Burl," I said, "did I meet Mike?" He said, "Yes you did." I said, "Okay." I emailed her back and I said, "Yes, I did meet Michael." And she said, "do you know if he's a believer?" I said, "I don't know, I'll have to call Burl Cain." I called Burl back and I said, "Burl, is he a believer?" And he said, "Yes, he is a believer and he's scheduled to die at the end of this month." And I said, "Oh, okay." I emailed her back and I said, "Yes, I did meet Michael. What is your interest in this young man?" And she said, "He brutally murdered my granddaughter some years ago and I just want to know that he will be in Heaven with me."
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Ruth Graham: "I take no pleasure in his impending death."
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Ruth Graham: And I knew then that I didn't know the foggiest thing about forgiveness.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Scott Rae: Ruth, that's an incredibly powerful story. I think I looked at Sean and just said, "That's a drop the mike moment." Tell us a little bit more about what that process was like for you as you started to learn a little bit more about forgiveness.
Ruth Graham: Well, I clearly wanted to know more. I wanted to understand it better. And the place I had to begin was at the cross to understand what Jesus had done for me. And the crucifixion is such a brutal type of execution that we don't know anything about in the modern world basically. But Jesus was put through awful, awful torture and he did that for me and he chose to forgive me. And if he chose to forgive me for all I've done, then certainly I can turn around and forgive others. And that's where that grace flows from him through me to others. And forgiveness does not depend on the other person. The person may not be alive. You may not have any connection with that person anymore, but you can make the choice to forgive now. And it doesn't mean you have to reconcile with the person because sometimes that's not healthy. But forgiveness depends on you and your choices and you can choose to forgive regardless of the other person. And that's very freeing that we can do that because we don't have to worry about the other person. It's all up to us.
Sean McDowell: You talk about forgiveness not being fair. What do you mean by that? And why is it so important that we understand that idea?
Ruth Graham: Well, I think especially as Americans, we want things to be fair. We grew up, things had to be fair, especially nowadays, everybody gets a trophy, but life isn't that way. And forgiveness not that way because someone's always going to bear the burden. And for us it was Jesus who bore our burden. And if my child spills milk on the rug, then I'm the one that has to clean it up. And that's very minor compared to some other things. And my husband, who was unfaithful to me for years, I had to bear the burden of that, until I was able to truly forgive him and let it go. And it took me years. It took me years to come to that point because I was so angry with him. And it really wasn't until after be died that I was able to finally say, "Lord I do forgive him. Please pass on to him in Heaven my forgiveness."
Ruth Graham: And I know there's no theology for that, but I let God take care of that because God can talk to him and tell him Ruth's forgiven you and all is forgiven. But there are some things that are very difficult to forgive and it is unfair. An abuser, to forgive the abuser. Yes, you make the choice to forgive. That doesn't mean you have to be with them anymore. That doesn't mean you have to be around them. It does mean to set boundaries and to make sure that you're safe, but we make the choice to forgive and we do it for his sake. We do it for Jesus' sake. And for our own.
Scott Rae: Ruth, that makes a lot of sense that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. And I think most people I think would understand that forgiveness is a transaction that we do ourselves. Reconciliation is more of a two way type of relational thing. But I think that the hard part, how do you help someone know when reconciliation is a good idea? Because you said it's not always a good idea. I think we sort of operate under the assumption that if you can be reconciled to someone, it's always a good thing to do that. But it sounds like you're suggesting something different than that.
Ruth Graham: I think forgiveness is unconditional, but reconciliation is conditioned on the changed behavior of the one who's done the wounding. And only the wounded party can say when they're ready to reconcile, if they are ever willing to do that. And I don't think we can beat them up to do it either. We pound Bible verses into them and say, "You've got to do this." No, I think that they will know when the time is right if it ever is. And again, when abuse is involved, then it's never a good idea. You just don't reconcile. You set your boundaries and that's okay.
Sean McDowell: You suggest that forgiveness makes our wounds sacred. That really stuck with me. Talk about what you mean by that idea.
Ruth Graham: Well, we can hold onto our wounds and be bitter, and angry, and every time that person comes to mind, we talk ugly about them or we think about what they did and just become a bitter person. Or we can release them to the Lord and say, "Okay Lord, this is yours. You take it up. You pick it up and you make something out of it for your glory." And he will. He does that and I've seen it happen over and over again. That man in Angola prison, of course now he knows because he's in Heaven, but he had no idea that his story would be told around the world and it has, and I've told it over and I went back to Angola and told that story at Angola and it meant so much to the men there. I've told it in other prisons in talking about forgiveness with prisoners. It's meant a lot. That's turning his wound, her wound into something that's sacred, something that God can use for his glory.
Scott Rae: Ruth, I met a woman in my office not all that long ago, who was a victim of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and we had been talking in class, she was a student. We'd been talking about forgiveness in class and it raised the question for her, do I really have to do this? Do I really have to forgive my abuser? And she had that look on her face like she was saying, "Please tell me I don't have to do this." What would you say to her?
Ruth Graham: Well, you be very careful. And I would be very gentle and say, "But that's what God wants you to do. That's what Jesus is asking you to do. No, it's not easy. Doesn't mean you have to reconcile. It doesn't mean that the pain's going to go away because the pain will be with you. Forgiveness doesn't erase all of that. It's not a feel good kind of thing, but it's an obedient kind of thing. We do it in obedience to the Lord Jesus." And she may not be there right away and that's okay. Jesus is walking with her and he understands. But in time, if she will open the door for it, again, make that choice and open the door for the Holy Spirit to enter that choice, then it will take place. But it may take a long time.
Ruth Graham: Like my situation with my divorces, knowing that I was forgiven and that I was free. Do I know when it happened? Do I know how it happened? No. I can only tell you that it did happen and eventually if she opens herself up to the possibility, she will find that one day, maybe not anytime soon, she will find out that that has actually taken place and it will be a blessing in her life. Not the abuse but the fact that she was able to forgive.
Scott Rae: Yeah. We hear often that resentment's a prison.
Ruth Graham: Yes it is.
Scott Rae: That you can find yourself too. And forgiveness is one of the ways in which you break out of that prison of resentment and bitterness and things like that. You make the statement that wounds get buried alive and they come back to haunt us when we least expect it. Was that one of the ways of suggesting that forgiveness is actually in the best interest of the victim who can actually do the forgiving?
Ruth Graham: It's in the best interest of everybody. Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves. We've heard that. It's a way of letting go. It's those kinds of things, but forgiveness is so much more. It is sacred. It's I would even venture to say it's a sacrament that we give to Jesus and it benefits everybody. And maybe right now, if you've been abused, you don't want to benefit that person. I understand that totally. But we do it in obedience to God and God will honor that obedience. He really will. You will be amazed at the fruit that comes out of that. And if that's your desire, if you want to be fruitful for God, then you will begin to open yourself to the possibility. And I'm not saying that you're not bearing fruit, you haven't forgiven, I don't want to go there.
Ruth Graham: I just think that forgiveness is a very key issue, a very important issue in God's kingdom. And Jesus takes it very seriously. He says, "If you don't forgive, then my father won't forgive you." I don't believe that that's a literal statement. I think just like cutting off your hand if it offends you wasn't a literal statement, but I think he wanted to show us just how serious he takes forgiveness and he does.
Sean McDowell: You made a distinction a moment ago between feeling the pain of the hurt in the past but being released from the wrong itself and forgiving somebody. Could you unpack a little bit what that looks like? Because I think in people's minds sometimes they think forgiveness is, I've just, I don't think about it anymore. I don't remember anymore. There's no more pain. And it seems like you're saying that's an unrealistic view of forgiveness. What does that look like to have the pain still but truly have forgiven somebody?
Ruth Graham: I know that for me, I still feel the pain of my husband's infidelity and it's been years and years ago, but the rejection and the betrayal is very real and I still feel it. Not as intensely, no. But it's very real and yet I know that I've forgiven him and I can move forward. But just because we've forgiven doesn't mean that the emotions go away. As a matter of fact, sometimes they intensify and we think that we've forgiven and so therefore we can feel free and we can go about our business, but the emotions will come back. The anger, the bitterness, the hurt, the pain. We want to scream, we want to beat our head against the wall. But slowly and surely as we commit to the process of forgiveness, that will dissipate and we will find ourselves not going through those emotions, the highs and lows as often.
Ruth Graham: And emotions don't tell us the truth. Emotions just are, but they don't tell us the truth. Only God's word tells us the truth. And we have to renew our mind in the scriptures. Find a verse that speaks to your condition and memorize it. And every time that situation comes to mind, say it to yourself and begin to renew your mind. There's no substitute for the truth of God's scripture.
Sean McDowell: That is such good advice that sometimes people think, oh, I just forgive once and I move on. And you're saying, we do forgive people, but throughout life we're going to need reminders. We got to go back to God's word consistently, ground ourselves. And it may be a lifelong struggle on different levels and that includes even giving ourselves grace. Ruth, this has been such a wonderful conversation. I wish we could go on a for a long time talking about this, but especially to our listeners, I really want to commend your book. If you've struggled with forgiving someone or being forgiven or really just want a read full of stories, that's honest, vulnerable, that unpacks from just a life of wisdom that you bring what it means to forgive people. I want to commend your book Forgiving my Father, Forgiving Myself. Thanks for writing a great book and thanks for spending time with us on the Think Biblically podcast.
Ruth Graham: Thank you so much Sean and Scott. I appreciate it. I've enjoyed this visit with you all.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Ruth Graham, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and please consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.