Choose your friends carefully, implies the Bible, because they will pull you nearer to God or push you away from Him. Psalm 1 says,
Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers. — Psalm 1:1
Proverbs opens similarly:
My son, if sinful men entice you, do not give in to them. — Proverbs 1:10
On the other hand, some people have a way of drawing us closer to God.
Walk with the wise and become wise, says Proverbs 13:20.
When I think of those who helped establish my walk with the Lord, I think of my parents, my pastors, my daughters, and especially my wife, Katrina, who has consistently urged me to trust God instead of faltering.
Last fall, Katrina had emergency surgery while I was out of town. When I arrived at home, I found her laboring to breathe. We feared her surgery had exacerbated her multiple sclerosis, and we wondered if paralysis was constricting her lungs. The doctors sent her to intensive care, and I was frightened. I was also anxious about another matter. As a professional worrier, I know how to worry about two things at once.
Even through her breathing mask, Katrina could sense my distress, and we gripped hands and prayed. Her earnest prayers came in shallow gasps. I wondered if it was our last prayer together.
Katrina, who knows me better than anyone, prayed in weakness better than I could pray in strength. Together, we committed each other and our cares into our Father’s hands.
That evening in intensive care was awful. Worried about my wife, plagued by other fears, unable to sleep, and baffled by beeps and whirling noises, I needed some intensive care too. But the Lord was with us, and Katrina and I bolstered each other all night long. God got us through that difficult stage.
The Lord has sent other mentors across my path, and I thank Him for the friends, sermons, lectures, books, and conversations that have helped me. Let me tell you about one of my most unforgettable mentors.
On Mother’s Day weekend in 1972, three of us students were invited to North Carolina to spend the weekend with Ruth Graham while her husband, Billy, was out of town.1 Upon our arrival, a smiling face appeared in a window, and Ruth came out to greet us. As she showed us around her house, she told us she had scoured local farms for broken-down barns, salvaged the old logs, and shipped them here to be reassembled into the cabin that became her home. Ruth had filled it with odds and ends from antique stores and salvage shops.
Afterward, we sat on the porch. Beyond the fence was an endless expanse of mountains. Ruth talked about her love for the place, for the Lord, and for Billy.
We asked her about the fame that accompanied her husband’s role as “America’s Pastor.” She told us that Billy never saw any glory to his ministry. It was just hard work. He labored to exhaustion, driven by an overwhelming burden. She and Billy would have been happy as missionaries in an obscure land, she said. Indeed, she had always wanted to be a missionary, but God had called her to be an evangelist’s wife. But whatever their profession, she added, God’s work requires humility. Psalm 115:1 says,
Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to Your name be the glory.
She spoke of her study of Philippians 2:13, which says God works in us to both will and do His good pleasure. God gives both the impulse and the ability to do His work, she said. The desire as well as the ability come from Him.
Ruth went on to reveal that she and her husband needed frequent replenishment, both physical and spiritual. So they would often take short trips to renew their strength and to allow them to spend some unhindered time with the Lord. Before leaving town, they would choose inspiring sermons and music to listen to as they traveled, and books and scriptures to read that would refresh their spirits. That spring, while they were resting in Florida, Billy was having some health issues. He also had uncompleted goals and was discouraged. Ruth had selected tapes for him to listen to on the beach, and they talked about the thousands of young people arising to do the Lord’s work. This greatly encouraged the two of them, she said. As they rested, her husband’s spirits rebounded.
Many people return home from vacation more exhausted than when they left. But Ruth reminded us that the word rest in Scripture means “refresh,” not merely “relax.” She compared Psalm 55:6 (“Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest”) with Isaiah 40:31 (“Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles” [NKJV]). Some people race off like doves to escape the pressure and fly back exhausted. But when we take breaks for resting and waiting on the Lord, we soar home like eagles, renewed.
Ruth asked if we’d noticed from Scripture that Philemon was a “refreshing” Christian. Paul wrote,
Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. — Philemon 1:7
He went on to plead,
Refresh my heart in Christ. — Philemon 1:20
You can only refresh others if you’re refreshed yourself, Ruth said. She recommended we study the word refresh in our Bibles.
When we asked Ruth about Bible study, she said that for her it was like being wide-eyed travelers in the midst of wonders. What makes scriptures meaningful is when we apply them to our own lives. There are many fruitful methods of Bible study, she said. Her advice was to try them all and, in reading other works, to vary our diet. We should use the Bible for home base, she said, but read, read, read anything else of value that we could.
She also advised us to read old books. She quoted C. S. Lewis: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”2 Ruth said that while she did read newer books, she always went back to those from prior generations, particularly Puritan writings, and the works of authors such as F. W. Boreham, whose books she collected. She also recommended missionary biographies.
She went on to tell us that Bible study is enhanced by pen and paper. We get more from our study when we take notes and record our observations. Cultivate the notebook habit, she said.
She showed us her notebook, saying she had a leather crafter who rebound it as necessary. Here, she said, she recorded her journal entries, stories she had heard, quotes she had found, and the lessons God was teaching her. As we record insights from our Bible studies, she noted, we are compiling our own personal Bible commentary.
Later that weekend Ruth spoke of the power of prayer as a daily habit. God loves to be reminded of His promises, she said. He never rebukes us for asking too much. She quoted a stanza from hymnist John Newton:
Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring,
For His grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much.3
We asked what to do when we don’t feel like praying.
Pray when you feel like it, she replied, because it’s wrong to neglect such an opportunity. Pray when you don’t feel like it because it’s dangerous to remain in such a condition.
The next day I told her I wanted to be a preacher and asked if she had any advice. Preach expository sermons, she said, keep them short, and use a lot of illustrations. Expository sermons, she explained, tackle the Bible paragraph by paragraph in logical sequence, allowing each verse to be studied in context. When we teach the Bible systematically, it reduces the chance of merely preaching our own opinions.
In preaching, she said, use much Scripture. And don’t neglect preparation time. Though it wasn’t always possible, she admitted, her husband sometimes spent weeks on one message.
She then described the 1949 Los Angeles crusade that launched Dr. Graham’s worldwide ministry. When organizers kept extending the meetings, he ran out of sermons. He borrowed some from local pastors, and when he had used those up, he just read Scripture and said a few words. They weren’t great sermons at all, she said, but still the people came.
I asked her about my anxiety and frequent low spirits. She reminded me of the story of the twelve spies Moses sent to reconnoiter the promised land. Ten brought back a bad report: the challenges were too hard, the giants too large, and the enemy too strong. But two — Joshua and Caleb — encouraged the people to possess the land. The difference between the ten spies and the two? The ten compared themselves with the giants, she said, but the two compared the giants with God.
Billy and Ruth Graham are in Heaven now, but I will always remember what a refreshing couple they were. They had a remarkable way of helping people draw nearer to God. We can do the same. Find those who are closer to God than you are, and study their lives. Ask their secrets. Read their biographies. Learn from them, and then pass along the lessons to others. As we draw closer to God, we’ll pull people after us, as though a magnetic force were passing through us. Like Mrs. Graham, we’ll overflow with delightful lessons for others. Like Philemon, we’ll refresh the hearts of the Lord’s people.
By the way, I took Ruth’s advice and looked up what the Bible said about refreshing people. When I did, I found a great biblical reference to the nearness of God:
Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord. — Acts 3:19–20 ESV
I also found these verses, just for you:
I will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint. — Jeremiah 31:25
The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. — Psalm 19:7
You gave abundant showers, O God; You refreshed your weary inheritance. — Psalm 68:9
He refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths. — Psalm 23:3
A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed. — Proverbs 11:25
Refresh those who become exhausted in the wilderness. — 2 Samuel 16:2
They refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition. — 1 Corinthians 16:18
- This story is based on a conversation with Ruth Bell Graham at her home in May 1972. I have avoided using quotation marks because I did not record the conversation, but the dialogue is based on copious notes and my best recollection. Before her death she granted written permission for me to use any and all of this material, as well as additional notes in my files.
- S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 1970), 200.
- From the hymn “Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare,” by John Newton, published in 1779.
Excerpted with permission from Always Near by Robert J. Morgan, copyright Robert J. Morgan.
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Life is hard, right? The people we surround ourselves with matter. Choose wisely! Choose people who refresh your soul and point you toward Jesus! ~ Devotionals Daily