Interview: Luis Palau on Misunderstandings of the Christian Life

Luis Palau, the fiery preacher who some have called the "Latin Billy Graham," knows what it's like to be a dry, fruitless and unhappy Christian. For years, he practiced faith with determination, trying hard to study the Bible and to pray, yet felt like he was stuck in a desert life – without joy and without victory. Then came a realization that led to Palau's radical renewal in faith: It is not I but Christ living in me.

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(Photo: Brad Person/Luis Palau Association)Popular evangelist Luis Palau preaches to the crowd at the Yakima Valley CityFest on Saturday, July 17, 2010 in Yakima, Washington.

In his new book, Out of the Desert: Into the Life God Fully Intended, Palau shares about struggles from his early years as a Christian and offers biblical principles that have helped him become a Christian with real joy.

Palau recently spoke with The Christian Post about his struggle as a "sincere hypocrite," misunderstandings about the Christian life that lead to frustration among believers, and how he protects himself from the self-destruction that has happened to even the most respected Christian leaders.

CP: In the book, you called yourself a "sincere hypocrite." Do you feel that term describes Christians today?

Palau: I don't know about others but I know that it described me. I came up with that idea years ago because in a way, I was a sincere hypocrite though it sounded like a contradiction. I was brought up to know the Bible and in a church and I loved it. So I knew what your behavior was supposed to be like. But I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I wasn't even living up to close to even some of the standards. Then you unconsciously began to put on an act. It wasn't really an act to put on other people or to pretend you are better. I felt that I got to show that I really know Christ. I know that I should love people. I don't always feel loving but I'm going to act like I do. And Christians are supposed to be happy so let's act happy.

And in fact, there was a sermon by John Wesley, which probably he would recant today, in which he said if you want to love people, preach about love and eventually you'll love them. Or if you want to talk about happiness, preach about happiness and eventually you'll be happy. Well, I tried it for four or five years and it didn't work! You know, you feel like -- Boy I'm playing a game here, a sincere game. It wasn't that you were putting people on just to impress them necessarily but because you feel that I would dishonor the Lord if I wasn't happy, even though I don't feel like it, or if I wasn't pure, even though I don't feel very pure. So that's where that term came from. And it was real. It was very real.

We had a prayer group of young people. I think it's in the book somewhere. We used to pray Friday nights, seeking holiness, confessing our sins, and eventually one by one, some of them dropped out because they said, "We're never going to make it. We're never going to achieve it." I know I came to a crisis too. So that's why that phrase "sincere hypocrite." I finally began to think, you know, maybe the Gospel doesn't deliver what it claims or else I'm so bad, so depraved that I'll never make it, you know. So, it was a very frustrating time. It seemed -- I could be wrong -- but it seemed to me that I never heard someone explaining how do you live a life of integrity, transparency, not a perfect life that's the goal, but a life that really resembles what the New Testament teaches. That's the background for it. And I was searching desperately.

CP: So, you've written this book because you felt a lot of Christians were in your shoes?

Palau: Yes, yes. And I've gotten feedback in preaching about it. Speaking and preparing a city for a campaign or festival as we call them now. We would gather Christians and say to them, before we teach you how to win others to Christ as a counselor, let's talk about living a Christian life. So basically, I just put on paper biblically what I had experienced. And we got such good sense of God's blessing and people were saying, "Boy, this is what I've been searching for."

And my wife, who is wonderful but a big critic, kept saying, "Now you've finally found something to tell people and it's necessary." And for many years, I've talked about it. Then I felt, my goodness, I've been talking about the indwelling life of Christ, all that it means and what life could be like for so long that I'd better change my direction. And then about five, seven years ago, my wife said, you know, you got to get back to teaching people about the indwelling life of Christ because so many are frustrated, so many are in the desert -- that's where the title came up. In the desert, so many people feel dry, fruitless. So the more earthly types decide to switch husbands or wives and the more spiritual ones switch churches and they feel that maybe it's my church or I'm bored or I'm not living that joyful, fulfilled, not perfect, but you know a life that you kind of expect. So we decided to publish it.

CP: Something led to your radical renewal as you call it. What are the realizations from your mistakes that other Christians can learn from?

Palau: Well, I can look back on it and one of them was the thought of I'm not consecrated enough. The thought that I've held back. Even though I've said in the early years that I've dedicated myself, I've rededicated myself and I've super rededicated again myself. I've laid it all on the altar. Some preachers in camps or youth meetings would say, have you laid it all?

CP: How many altar calls did you answer?

Palau: A lot of them! Not for salvation but for rededication. I used to feel, yes, I'm holding something back.

And now, I'm reading a book this past week (I won't give his name because I haven't gotten permission to talk about it even though it's in a book form), he just got drunk, even though drinking was not my thing. But he kept falling and falling and falling. Now, he's an old man and he's still going back to getting drunk. I feel like saying to him, boy, you've missed the principle that's here. Yes, the temptation still may be there. For me, it was maybe you haven't searched your heart enough, or maybe you haven't dragged out every last bit of sin. But then I began to realize and as I walked along I began to discover this wasn't the answer, that wasn't the answer. It was that the Holy Spirit knows where we are. God, of course, knows. It isn't that we have to search ourselves. This book I'm telling you about? He just went to retreats, conference centers and rehab centers. Much of the time, we are self-searching. Have I been honest with myself, am I a liar? You spend your life focusing on yourself and nothing is more depressing than focusing on yourself.

So for me, I think one lesson is: Don't keep looking at yourself. That is highly depressing. Romans 7 - Paul says no good things. What a miserable man I am, who will rescue me from this body of death? Paul was going through that but then he emerges on the other side. One of the lessons is: Don't look at yourself, you have to look at the risen Christ.

Secondly, stop trying to find some little sin that you forgot to confess. The Holy Spirit convicts of sin. The Lord says, remember? In John 16, he says that the Holy Spirit will convict the world. Satan accuses, the Holy Spirit convicts. And if the Lord says, Luis, there is a sin that you have to confess and settle, the Holy Spirit doesn't toy with us or play with us or play games with us, he will quickly say this is the very thing you have to settle. This Sunday, at my church, our pastor spoke on Jonah. He says there is one point in your life that you are disobeying God. So I thought about it and I had one area so I confessed it. Now, the next step is to obey and do what you are told to do.

So those are some of the areas: looking at yourself, keep on searching and thinking that you haven't committed. That is part of the way where too many people get stuck, always searching themselves. And that is the mistake that I think too many preachers make, we lead them right there instead of taking them further. And I do believe, that in the U.S.A. today -- and I'm not a critic of the church in the U.S.A. I believe it is better than in many countries in the world, actually -- but there are many people who have reached the point where they say: What else is there? Something's missing? What is it? And I think the book really does try to take them one step at a time, from where they are to the where you should be and want to be.

CP: There are many misunderstandings that people have when coming to faith. Some think that after I become a Christian, after I've accepted Jesus, everything should change and I'm on the yellow-brick road to salvation and to God. What is the greatest misunderstanding that Christians have before and after becoming a Christian?

Palau: Well, there are quite a few. One of them is, okay, I'm forgiven, I'm going to heaven. Now, between today and the day He takes me home it's up to me. It's up to me to be holy. It's up to me to love people. It's up to me to serve. There's a sense that salvation is a free gift, but now it's up to me. And yes, there is a measure of truth to that but if you try to live that way in your own power, within two or three years, you will fall on your face thinking that I've made a big mistake that Christianity isn't working or something isn't working.

The second mistake is having an excessive view of how holy you can be before you meet Jesus Christ. You know, we shall be like him, because we shall see him for what he is. That's John 3. We look at other Christians and elderly people. I used to look at my mom and she was a saint. She made mistakes but I couldn't name too many of them. I thought, boy, I'll never be like her. So you look at other people and read biographies. Some biographies of the 1800s were very idealistic and dreamy. But the biographies were painted as if he never made a mistake. Then came a period in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, when people began to write "realistic" biographies that kind of shocked you. Whoa, Hudson Taylor did that, huh? He had a girlfriend and this and that. You realize, okay, they're not as perfect as I imagined. So there is an imagined perfection. My wife told me that at a certain college she attended where the president said, I have not sinned in 12 years. I was like let's ask his mother-in-law, you know? Really, it's a grand illusion to say such a thing when the scriptures has provided for our failures. 1 John 1 -- if we confess our sins. An unrealistic view of holiness, an unrealistic view of what your duty is, and almost not understanding, not even getting the point that it's not I but Christ living in me, which was the turning point for me.

The other thing is this, I was chatting with our guys as we were traveling, that you can know it intellectually, you can know it very well, you can even experience it at one period in your time. And now that I'm a senior citizen, I've come to realize that even in old age that it is not I but Christ living in me. It's the vine and the branches. The head on the body. You don't sever the head. With 50 years of me walking with the Lord, I have to today walk with the indwelling power of Christ. If I began to get confident and say, "I know this stuff. What do you want to talk about? I can spit it out for you. I know the Bible verses. I can give you an outline. Just ask me and I can give it to you." Then, I'm relying on myself, even experiences from the past. Day after day, it's not I but Christ living in me. Christ in you, the hope of glory, partakers of the divine nature, we are temples of God, temples of the Holy Spirit. That, I must never forget! It's not an obsession. It's a reality.

CP: You've written about temptations in your book. There are a lot of pastors and Christians leaders who have built big megachurches, led great ministries and led many people to Christ. Then one day, you read the news about a disgraceful scandal or their downfall. For you, what is your personal accountability structure?

Palau: Well, you know, I tell you, I believe in small groups and I belong to one. In Portland, Oregon, where I have been living for many years, we have a group of about nine fellows. We've been meeting for 24, 25 years. We meet every Wednesday. When I'm in town, I go. They're busy guys, businessmen, lawyers, judges so we're not always there but we love each other, we support each other. I belong to Cedar Mill Bible Church all my life. My in-laws were part of the beginning of the church and I've been there since I've met my wife Pat.

But you know something? It all boils down personally, me and the Lord on a daily basis. I am convinced if I wanted to fool the members of my group, I could fool them. I mean, they look at me and I'm the only "full-time" minister of the group, I mean they are all great servants of the Lord, but they look at me and they say -- Oh Luis is a saint, he travels for Jesus, and he preaches the Gospel and he wins thousands. So they think I'm...I'm not. But I have to walk in the light with God today. And I could slip if I get careless or get self-confident, or you know, yes, I do my devotions and I do my daily thing and that's good but if I take it professionally, I could say I remember that one and I could say it off my heart and I have an outline for it and I preached it in Hong Kong -- that kind of a thing.

If I'm Luis Palau because he's been at it so many years, because he has learned so much, because he's had the best teachers, I'm a candidate for failure tomorrow or today. So I think it's something for young people to remember. Yes, experience is a blessing and all that. But the walk with God is dependent on my relationship with Him and no amount of buddies around me, however honest they may be, we are so wicked that we can hide it from our best friends and our best loved ones. Now, it's me and the Lord. Now, I believe in the body of Christ. I'm a member of my church. I'm an elder in my church or have been until January. I have a team around me, all sorts of friends and layers of friends, who are a blessing. But the only true protection from messing up, even into old age, is my walk with God today. And we got to be plain about that because sometimes we have a lot of sincere things we talk about. Having an accountability group is good but any smart guy can outdo his accountability group if he is determined to fail or if he gets careless. We can sincerely sit around this table and have a prayer, meditation, and love each other, and we're not hypocrites. But if I depend on me, I'm in trouble.

CP: How do you keep yourself humble when you've preached the Gospel to 1 billion people in 75 nations? Is there something you pray before you take the stage? Is there a passage you read that helps you keep that fire, that love alive for Jesus?

Palau: Well, to keeping the fire alive and it is a biblical concept, again goes back to same old thing. People say to me, after all these years of experience, how do you keep the fire going or how do you keep from self-destruction and so on. There is no secret. And people will often say to me, what's the secret? The first answer is: There ain't no secret. It is a revealed simple truth that it is not I but Christ.

Either it's a big crowd or small crowd -- I get more nervous with a small crowd because big crowds are far away -- but to me the crowd numbers are exciting but I know I failed the Lord if I'm not filled with the Spirit at that moment. In my mind, in my youth I've written about ten things for when I feel under pressure even when I'm disturbed by the noise, by the confusion, or mistakes that are made on a big platform because of crowds or something:

First, I'm here by God's appointment.
It is not I but Christ in me.
I know the Gospel and I'm going to preach the basic Gospel.
I'm not going to worry about what people think (because sometimes you are under pressure to think that.
If there is going to be any lasting fruit, it's the Lord who's going to do it.

So, often I'm really thinking as the music is going on and I know I have two or three minutes before I have to go. I just remind myself, you know, this is God's goodness; this is His pleasure; He could cut me off any moment and it's an honor to be here in His name. I don't spend time thinking about wow, what a crowd, usually, I look at a video when it is over and I can't believe the crowd that was there. But usually, I'm thinking: I've got to deliver the Gospel, I've got to keep it tight, and I've got to give a good invitation. You're thinking of your responsibility and consciously relying on Him and say, Lord if you don't use me, this is finished, it's going to be shameful.

So you just have to keep reminding yourself of the basics. There is no secret. It's all revealed in Scripture.

CP: You've preached in a lot of countries and probably have seen many things affecting and threatening Christians. In the U.S., a lot of evangelical leaders are concerned about same-sex marriage, abortion, and divorce. What do you feel is the biggest concern or threat facing Christians today?

Palau: We all run that risk, you know, to allow the culture around us to set our agenda. And we have to be very careful that we are on God's agenda, not the world's agenda. And it isn't that the world's agenda is evil or wrong, necessarily. All these issues you've mentioned plus others are realities that we have to face but where does God want us to focus. That's why the book, Out of the Desert. We've got to get people out of the desert because unconsciously the culture is very strong in America.

What is God's intent for me and the church? Our calling is to lift up the Son of God, to point to him and his redemptive work, to point to him and his promises. We are getting away. You've mentioned America because we live here obviously. America, in a way, still leads the world. What happens here people imitate and think it's the way to go in other nations even though in some other nations the Christians understand God's principles are better than we do over here.

My wife often has been saying lately that we have more seminars on family, counseling on marriage, relationships, upbringing children, and we have more problems than we do in the past. We keep bombarding and bombarding ourselves with these things. Nothing wrong with it but unless we stay on point, which is, centered on Jesus Christ, his presence with us, that he never leaves us or forsakes us, that he will use us for his purposes, that God is accomplishing his purposes in the world.

And right now, in this moment, I don't know if this interview is good for later, but we're about to have an election. And the heat is on and people, including me, can get so worked up on this candidate or that candidate, this policy or that policy. We lose our self-control practically. We forget what the Scripture does tell the church that when it comes to leadership, presidents, kings, people in authority. 1 Timothy 2, very simply, Paul says, I ask first of all, not second or third, that prayers, thanksgiving and requests be made for all man, for kings and all who are in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our savior who wants all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. And you know, we don't do it.

The brother that was driving me here said that at his church they prayed for the authorities every Sunday. When I first came to the United States, I was so amazed that every church I went to -- because we never did it in Argentina -- prayed for the president, the vice president, the cabinet, the military, the governor, the mayor of the city, the city council. I remember sitting in those first few weeks that I came to America and thought "wow, this is why America has been so blessed with freedom, with all sorts of good things." This was in 1961. My thinking was that this is one of the reasons why God has honored this country. Now, I go to church after church after church and there's never -- this guy that drove me today is an unusual case -- a pastoral prayer where the whole body is with ... whether the guy is a Republican, Democrat. Doesn't matter. He's the king, he's the president. We're supposed to pray that we will live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. If we obeyed that alone, we would be more at peace about the elections. We do our duty as citizens but we don't despair.

And so, I feel we need to bring the body back to center on the reality of the living Lord Jesus Christ. He is sovereign. His purposes will be accomplished. Man does his thing. Now, I'm preaching at you. Man does his thing but God is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords so we don't have to panic that the End has come. Sometimes you have to look back at history to remind yourself of that the U.S. has been in similar situations with the Korean War and then in the Vietnam War. We had another president where the inflation was incredible that it looked like America was coming apart. Then prayer comes back. I feel that is one of the things we have to emphasize, remember God is sovereign and His purposes will be accomplished.

CP: A lot of people know you as the evangelist, the world renowned Luis Palau and they've even compared you to Billy Graham. But if you weren't an evangelist, what would you be doing?

Palau: Well, it's hard to conceive of it because I love what we are doing. I do believe that evangelism is bringing people to Christ and seeing them transformed by Jesus Christ. That's why to me, it isn't just forgiveness of sins and getting to Heaven, which is glorious, but also about the life in between salvation and Heaven, which is what the book is about. But I would probably be a businessman and preach on weekends and on holidays because I was brought up … my father was a businessman, the fellow who led him to Christ in Argentina, South America, was a British who was an executive with Shell oil corporation. So I was surrounded by people, men , who were business people, who loved Christ, lived the life, helped the poor, preached the Gospel every time they got a chance. They were totally unashamed of the Gospel. They were businessmen who knew that talking about the Lord might lose them some business but it never seemed to. They seemed to do as well or better than other people. I remember the verse, "those who honor me, I will honor but those who despise me will be lightly esteemed." 1 Samuel 2:30.

I still have a great admiration of people who are business people who practice biblical principles in their business, who are unashamed of the Lord Jesus Christ and God uses them in a tremendous way. So I'd probably be a businessman who preaches on weekends. That's what I'd probably be.