During the 1980’s Jim Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye were televangelists who built an empire known as the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club. The PTL Club aired widely across the United States and in many countries abroad. Bakker and his wife also built a Christian theme park called Heritage USA. In the height of its existence, Heritage USA was the third most visited park, only behind Disney World and Disneyland. Unfortunately, Bakker got caught up in the love of money among other things and began using the money donated to his ministry for things other than its intended use. In 1989 he was charged with fraud and sentenced to 45 years in prison.
During my college years, I had the opportunity to hear Jim Bakker speak at one of his first public speaking engagements after his early release from prison. As I listened to him speak that night in Oklahoma, one story he told stood out above all the rest.
However, the interesting part of the story was not about Bakker but was about another current evangelist.
During his time in prison, Jim Bakker received many hateful letters from the Christian community. He became depressed and suicidal because he knew he had caused much damage in the Christian community and upon the name of the Lord. In fact, for a long time he had no visitors while in prison except his lawyer. However, one day while scrubbing toilets, the guard said to Bakker, “You have a visitor.” Bakker couldn’t believe that someone would come and visit him at his lowest point in life and had no idea who it was. He followed the guard, still in his dirty cleaning clothes, to find his visitor to be one of the most respected evangelist of all time – Billy Graham. The two embraced and Graham spoke kind words of encouragement to him. That prison visitation room demonstrates a fascinating spiritual picture in that you had the most despised evangelist of his time being embraced by the most respected. According to Bakker Graham not only visited him while in prison, but he and his wife Ruth were also instrumental in getting Jim back on his feet after prison.
I thought a lot about that visit from Billy Graham, especially when the Christian community had washed their hands of Jim Bakker. I think the visit by Graham shows us a lot of things, but the one thing above all others it shows is love. Grahams’ encouragement sent a clear message. It said, “I know you have sinned, but I want you to know that I am on your side; I love you and I want you to know above all else that God loves you.” Graham was willing to face criticism in order to show Bakker God’s love. When you think about it, each of us were created in the image of God, for a specific time and purpose. God used Billy Graham to remind Jim Bakker of that truth and to encourage him not to give up, because with God there is always hope. I later read that Jim Bakker thought Billy Grahams’ visit was extremely timely because Bakker’s wife filed for divorce not long after his visit. Bakker felt as though God had sent Billy Graham to encourage him and give him strength when he needed it the most in order to make it through the next few months and years. This story reminds me of the Bible verse in Proverbs 25:11 which says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Billy Grahams’ words to Bakker were a treasure at just the right time. The story of Bakker and Graham also makes me ask the question,
“How often do I take the time to encourage someone else?”
Encouraging others causes us to look outside of ourselves, see someone in need, and remind them that God is not done with them and there is hope.
Scripture is full of verses about the importance of encouraging others. One of the most interesting verses to me is Hebrews 3:13 which states, “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” How does encouraging someone else help our heart not become hardened? Maybe it is because encouraging someone else causes us to recognize the ease in which we ourselves can fall into sin. Perhaps it causes us to focus our eyes on the Lord, who is ultimately our source of help. Encouraging one another also requires us to spend our time and resources on someone other than ourselves.
In the case of Jim Bakker you have someone who chose to walk down the wrong path and needed the love and encouragement of another believer to get back on the right path.
Encouragement is also needed for those who are doing the right thing. They too benefit when someone speaks truth into their daily lives. I will never forget when I had four children (age five and under) at the grocery store with me and received a word rightly spoken. The words came from an older man who stopped and spoke to my children and me with such love and kindness. Before parting ways he smiled and said “You have a real treasure, you are really blessed.” Those few words of encouragement were like the apples of gold in Proverbs. They spoke to my heart and encouraged me to hold my head high and realize my treasure despite all of the other negative and belittling comments we too often received.
Who needs your encouragement today? It may be a young mom with lots of little ones, or perhaps it is the older woman caring for her aging parents who just needs to hear that she is serving in a holy calling and is a role model to the younger generation watching her. You may know someone that feels the church has turned its back on them because of poor choices. Maybe they need to be reminded that God still cares and desires for them to come back to Him.
God didn’t design us to live our lives alone and isolated. We were meant to encourage and uplift one another in both the good times and the bad times. Be God’s hands extended just as Billy Graham was to Jim Bakker, and look for someone to encourage today. You never know what your words of encouragement might do in someone else’s life!