Billy Graham’s graduation to heaven this week caused me to reminisce about the only time I ever heard him preach at a rally.

On the turf of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, I watched as the white-haired evangelist, then 86, was helped from his walker to the pulpit and then, in a voice raspy with age, delivered a quintessential Gospel sermon.

He talked about sin, he talked about repentance, he talked about forgiveness and grace and eternal life. And at the end of the evening, some 2,500 people streamed forward to find new hope through Jesus.

When people are asked to rank various professions for honesty and integrity, evangelists generally finish among mobsters and drug dealers. But Graham was listed dozens of times among the ten most admired men in the world.

Let’s face it – standing firm for anything is a big deal these days. And when a person stands resolute in a wishy-washy world by solidly building his life on the Word of God, people take notice.

Why? What lessons can we glean from a life well-lived? Four qualities, I believe, helped establish Graham as a trustworthy messenger of the Gospel – and I believe we all can learn from these traits that he has so powerfully exhibited.

  • First, he had integrity. The apostle Paul told his sidekick Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16, “Watch your life and your teachings closely.” Both are important. And Graham was respected even in an increasingly skeptical world because his behavior was consistent with his beliefs and his character was congruent with his creed.

Said one theologian in analyzing a Graham sermon: “One thing stood out – the man was genuine. He believed what he said.”

When an investigative reporter once tried to dig up dirt to destroy Graham, he came up empty. “He is man without shadows,” the journalist concluded.

From the outset, Graham was determined to sidestep the traps that had discredited some earlier evangelists. He avoided aggressive fund-raising, loose financial accountability, sexual temptations, emotionalism and anti-intellectualism. What’s more, even before the Civil Rights movement, he insisted his rallies be integrated, because racism violates the teachings of Jesus.

It was abundantly clear that the crowd surrounding Graham at the Rose Bowl that night held him in high regard and listened to his words with respect. In short, he modeled integrity – and that attracts people.

  • Second, he was humble. Graham always saw himself as a servant of God, recognizing that it was the Holy Spirit, not Graham, who was responsible for the evangelistic results.

Even the night I saw him preach, he made sure that the people walking forward knew what they were doing. “You’re not coming to me, you’re coming to Jesus,” he explained.

Once, during disheartening times in England, Graham read passages from the Bible as he ministered to Sir Winston Churchill. Afterward, Churchill said, “I thank you. You have given an old man a renewal of faith for the future.”

But Graham explained later, “I hadn’t, but the Bible had.” He was humble enough to give credit where credit was due.

As Jesus said in Luke 14:11: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

  • Third, he had compassion. Graham didn’t tell people about Christ simply because he loved the spotlight of a large stadium, but because he loved God and he loved people.

“In a society that has been nurtured on the antics of the anti-hero and rebel,” said one biographer, “it may be time to hear from a person who offers genuine care and affection.”

Even at the height of his career, when he was regularly speaking to packed stadiums, Graham often spent his weekends quietly visiting tiny churches in the back hills of North Carolina, talking about Christ to congregations of ten or twenty families. Why? Because he had compassion for them – and people are drawn to that.

  • Fourth, he stood firmly for God. In a day of moral relativism, when many politicians govern with one eye on the latest polls, Graham remained solidly anchored to God. He frequently pointed to the Bible on his pulpit and said, “All the world’s answers are right here in this book.”

Let’s face it – standing firm for anything is a big deal these days. And when a person stands resolute in a wishy-washy world by solidly building his life on the Word of God, people take notice.

I was struck that night to see how feebly Graham moved and how softly he spoke, and yet his faith and witness were as solid as a rock. By spending a lifetime watching his life and doctrine closely, Graham never became an impediment to the power of the Gospel, which flowed through him and into the hearts and souls of his listeners.

Thanks, Billy, for being a beacon for us all.