Charles Stanley was rated the third most influential Protestant pastor in America, behind Billy Graham and Charles Swindoll, in a 2010 survey by LifeWay Research. That's ahead of Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and Joel Osteen, among many other prominent pastors. Given that theologically Stanley is a fundamentalist and dispensationalist—theological approaches that are considered passé today—that's an anomaly. Though he's been at the center of controversy (as president of the Southern Baptist Convention while fundamentalists and moderates contended for control; as a pastor who has experienced divorce in a morally conservative denomination), his gracious spirit has tended to win over even his enemies.
Stanley doesn't wear his formal theology on his sleeve, and instead spends the bulk of his ministry teaching people how the Bible deals with the practical concerns of their lives—family, work, pain, addictions, spirituality, and so forth. He does this as pastor of First Baptist in Atlanta (16,000 members) and through In Touch Ministries, which broadcasts his messages in more than 50 languages worldwide, over 500 radio stations, 300 television stations, and several satellite networks.
Mark Galli, CT's senior managing editor, spoke with the 80-year-old Stanley about his latest book (he's written more than 30), The Ultimate Conversation: Talking with God Through Prayer (Howard), which he considers his most important.
Early on in the book you talk about how one's relationship with one's parents can shape one's prayer life, both for good and for ill. How did that work out in your life?
My father died when I was nine months old. So it was just my mother and myself. As far back as I can remember, my mother would have me down by the bed at night with her, praying. I can still hear her voice calling my name to God and telling him that she wanted me to follow him in whatever he called me to do.
My mother did that when I was a kid and when I was in high school. And even when I'd come home from college, and come in late at night, my mother would come to the bedroom, and she'd kneel down by the bed, saying, "We're going to get on our knees and reverence God and talk to him."
She and I lived alone for a long time, watching God provide for us just week to week, food and clothes. When it came time for me to go to college and I had no money, I watched God provide a full scholarship for me. I look back and realize that was the key to my life, what it is to learn to talk to God and to listen to him and to be obedient to him and watch him work.
Talk about the absence of your father. For some people that would make it difficult to pray to God as Father.
You're exactly right. That was very difficult. When people would ask me about my dad, I'd say, "My father died when I was nine months of age. So I never knew him." Period. There was no emotion. That was the end of it until later on in my life.
I'd been a pastor for quite a number of years, and something was going on that I couldn't figure out. There was an emptiness I couldn't define. It forced me to get on my face and cry out to God, "Lord, what are you trying to say to me? Because whatever it is, I'm not getting the message."
I called four friends and told them that I was trying to find the will of God about something. I didn't know what it was, didn't know how to go about it. Would they be willing to meet with me and just talk with me? So we made an appointment to meet.
I said, "What I'd like to do is this: I'd like to tell you everything I know about myself, and between the four of you and God, I will do whatever you will tell me to do." So we talked from about two o'clock till dinner, and then after dinner. I woke up in the middle of the night many times and wrote 17 longhand legal-sized sheets of things that I wanted to remember to tell them that had not crossed my mind the previous afternoon.
Next morning we talked on until about ten o'clock. Finally I said, "That's everything I know about me. I don't think I held out anything."
One of the men said, "Charles, put your head on the table and close your eyes." So I did. "Your father just picked you up in his arms and held you. What do you feel?" And I burst out crying, and I cried and cried and cried and cried. Then he asked me again, and I just kept crying.
Finally when I settled down I said, "I feel warm, loved, and accepted." For the first time in my life, I acknowledged and recognized that God really loved me, that I could have a personal relationship with him that went beyond salvation. It changed my life. It changed my ministry. It changed my perspective about everything, and it made me realize how very, very, very important a person's relationship to their father is.
Paul says marriage is a sign or symbol of the relationship of Christ and his church. One has to think that one's marriage could have a profound effect on one's prayer life. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Before my wife and I got married, I made sure that we got down at night wherever we were and prayed and asked God to bless our relationship and to guide us and to keep us pure and holy before him. After we were married, we knelt by the bed every single night that I was at home and prayed, because I believe it's like glue that keeps people together.
I would never have imagined that anything could have happened to my marriage. Ultimately, my wife walked away from the marriage. I don't blame her. I don't have any bad feelings. That's the kind of relationship she came out of—her dad, whom she revered, was married four times.
I would say prayer is absolutely essential, but there are emotional issues that happen in people's lives that they don't ask for. Sometimes they can deal with [them]; sometimes they have great difficulty. She was an excellent Bible teacher. She started our singles' group with three ladies and ended up with about 400 students. But sometimes things happen you don't understand. You can't figure it out. You just have to accept it and move on.
How has prayer worked itself out in your pastoral ministry?
I started out reminding the Lord how inadequate I felt and how inexperienced I was at first. And if I had to make a decision, I'd just say, "God, I'm going to do what you say, whatever that is. I don't feel very adequate at this." I've watched him move me from church to church. The wonderful thing about God is he knows what we need to persuade us.
But now you are the successful pastor of a megachurch. Has it been a temptation to put prayer aside and to get on with the business of the church?
Not really, because I think I felt so inadequate. My feelings of inadequacy have turned out to be a blessing. I thought, God, I don't know how to do all this. And you have to give me the right people. And then In Touch came along, which I never planned. I have the greatest staff at In Touch anybody could have in any ministry. And I can just see how God, in light of my lack of abilities and skills, has surrounded me with very godly people who know how to do excellently what I would not know how to do.
I remember one of the greatest lessons of my life came during those times when I was fighting a big battle, and people wanted to get rid of me. They couldn't tell me why. They just said all I preached about was how to get saved, the coming of Jesus, and how to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I just laughed and thought, Well, God, I hope that's true!
In the middle of that, one day the Lord said, "If you want to win this battle, remember this: See everything that comes at you as coming from me. What they say, what they do, no matter what you see, it's coming from me, not from them. Then you can sit there with forgiveness, and it won't be a distraction. You won't defend yourself. See it as all coming from me."
As a result, I could walk out there and preach with the greatest sense of freedom and liberty and the power of the Holy Spirit, knowing that about three or four hundred of them were doing their best to get rid of me. So I can't take any credit.
As you come to the close of your own very successful ministry of many decades, what do you see when you look out at the contemporary church?
I'm excited about a lot of new life, but I'm concerned that there isn't dependence upon the Holy Spirit as much as upon music and other things. I've noticed the emphasis is more on leadership than on the Holy Spirit and the work of the Lord.
Theology gets lost in a lot of the fanfare. Who is this God whom we serve? We're to reverence him and love him. I grew up in a Pentecostal Holiness church, and reverence for God has always been a major issue with me. When I talk about praying, I usually talk about praying on your knees. You can pray anywhere, of course, but in my personal prayer life, I just sense that reverence for God, that I want to listen to him.
You often say in your books and preaching that God speaks to you, tells you things, and gives you messages. What is that like for you? Is it a thought? Is it a voice you hear?
For me, I get this strong sense of feeling that's so clear, so direct to me. Like this week, something happened and I thought, Well, I could do thus and such, and God said, "Don't do that." I don't hear a voice, but it's so crystal sharp and clear to me, I know not to disobey that.
I think that comes from early in life as you learn to listen. You make mistakes; after a while, you realize as you obey him, it turns out right, and whatever your reason was for not obeying him, it doesn't turn out right.
The way you talk about your relationship with God, the word mystic comes to mind. How would you feel if someone were to describe you this way?
I only say this because it's the only way I know to say it: My whole life has been wrapped in [asking], "Who is this God? How do I have an intimate relationship with him? How can I listen to him knowing that he's the one doing the speaking?" I want the Holy Spirit to interpret the truth to me.
In other words, I've not seen myself as a church builder, but we build lots of churches. I've seen God bless In Touch likewise. But for me it's always been God and me: "Lord, you show me what to do and whatever you say to do is what I'm going to do." I think that quiet intimacy with him, for me, is the key to the whole Christian life.
It's the most exciting thing to watch God work when I've asked him about something, to listen to him and watch him work. It's like this friendship, and it just grows and grows and grows and grows.
Sometimes I wake up before dawn, and I love sitting up in the middle of the bed with all the lights off, pitch-black dark, and talking to the Father, with no interruptions and nothing that reminds me that there's anything in life but me and him.
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