Billy and Ruth Graham were married 63 years when she died in 2007. You might think that such a godly and respected couple had a perfect marriage, though they never claimed that. But it was successful because they understood love.
In Just As I Am, Rev. Graham wrote, “Ruth and I don’t have a perfect marriage, but we have a great one. For a married couple to expect perfection in each other is unrealistic. We learned that even before we were married.”
They met as students at Wheaton College in Illinois. It was an inauspicious beginning, he in his grubby work clothes and, well in his words, “There she was. Standing there, looking right at me, was a slender, hazel-eyed movie starlet!” They soon began to date, only for their differences to begin to emerge. In some ways it seems remarkable that they ever made it to the altar.
Ruth was born to missionaries in China, and she was determined to serve in Tibet, but Billy was just finding his calling as an evangelist. She was Presbyterian, he an ordained Baptist minister. Nevertheless, Billy asked her to consider marrying him, and waited. She wrote her parents, “We’ve got such strong wills, I almost despaired of ever having things go peacefully between us.” Then came the tests of distance, as she left to attend her sick sister in New Mexico and his itinerant ministry grew. She wondered, “What is it going to be like after we’re married? I probably won’t see as much of him then, as I do now.” It did not help that Billy accepted a pastorate without informing his fiancé, insensitive on his part.
She finally accepted, and they wed in August 1943 near Montreat, North Carolina. An evening ceremony with a full moon, amid candles and clematis in a small chapel, they became husband and wife. “It was the most memorable day of my life,” he recalls.
Decades later, he surmised that a married couple could be described as “happily incompatible.” “The sooner we accept that as a fact of life, the better we will be able to adjust to each other and enjoy togetherness.” Because of their differences, the Grahams learned to practice “agape” or selfless love. That kind of love is patient, kind, not jealous. It does not brag and is not arrogant. It is not rude, self-seeking, or easily offended. Love protects, trusts, hopes, and never fails (1 Cor 13). It held them together for a lifetime.
Flowers, chocolate, greeting cards, romantic dinners are nice. But “agape” is what steadies a marriage amid the turbulence of life. Incompatibles cannot become irreconcilable in the presence of selfless love, just as in the happily incompatible marriage of Billy and Ruth Graham.