Ravi Zacharias: The Poison of the Allure of Greatness and the Antidote of Self-Giving Service

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

I continue to consider and process the Ravi Zacharias scandal. The major issue with Ravi Zacharias, as I understand and perceive it, is that he thought too highly of himself. This is a serious danger for all great men, especially for men of God, because the poison of thinking too highly of ourselves can taint and distort our own thinking to our ruin and to the damage of those around us.

My determination that Ravi Zacharias thought too highly of himself comes from one of the stories told by one of his victims. He warned her after exerting his influence over her in a sexual encounter that she must not tell anyone because disclosure of their tryst would endanger millions of souls – as if their salvation rested on him.

Yes, Ravi Zacharias may have planted or watered the seeds of the gospel in many people, but salvation is the gift of God. People are saved by responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, however that prompting comes. We may plant and water, but God does the real work, and God causes the increase.

No man is indispensable to God. Though every man be a liar, God’s is true. His word goes out and does not come back void. We dare not think God’s work depends on us to such a degree that we must hide our own sin and manipulate other people in the process.

In light of the Ravi Zacharias scandal, my thinking, reading and meditating has led me to consider the dangers gifted people face due to their “greatness”. These were the same dangers the disciples faced as Jesus mentored them to be his representatives to the world.

The close relationship of the disciples to Jesus and the importance of their roles in God’s plan must have been intoxicating. It led them to argue between them who would be considered the greatest. These arguments broke out multiple times over the course of the disciples’ time with Jesus, and they tell us something about the dangers of greatness and our appropriate response to the temptation to desire greatness.

Luke describes one such argument early in the public ministry of Jesus as follows:

“An argument arose among [the disciples] as to which of them was the greatest. But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side and said to them, ‘Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.’” (Luke 9:46-48)

Note that Jesus responded “knowing the reasoning of their hearts”. Jesus knew the motivations behind the arguments. They were focusing on the wrong things: their own glory, how people would perceive them, their legacy. Jesus responded by directing their focus onto a child.

Children need help. They are weak and vulnerable compared to adults. They need the loving supervision and care of an adult to survive and to thrive.

I believe Jesus was saying that those who desire to be great should desire to be great in serving and caring for people. The focus should not be on what we can get out of the relationship, but on what we can give to the relationship.

I believe Jesus was saying that those who desire to be great should desire to be great in serving and caring for people. The focus should not be on what we can get out of the relationship, but on what we can give to the relationship.

Matthew records the same (or similar) interchange in his Gospel. This time they were in Galilee when Jesus told them that he would be “delivered into the hands of men” who would kill him, and he would rise on the third day. (Matt. 17:22-23)

The disciples were distressed when he said it, but they must have gotten over it. Maybe they began to focus on him rising again, whatever they thought that meant. Maybe the distress of him being taken and killed by men stopped seeming so bad in light of him rising from the dead.

The future glory of Jesus being risen from the dead (and them being in the front row for the spectacle) may have been the trigger for them to begin asking, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” After calling a child over to them, Jesus responded,

“’[U]nless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.’” (Matt. 18:3-6)

In this interchange, Jesus focused not on serving children who are weak and vulnerable, but on becoming like them. This example of “greatness” is likely not all what the disciples had in mind!

Jesus made the same point as in Luke about receiving the child, but he added a dire warning about causing the people in your care who believe in Jesus to sin! If doing the right thing isn’t motivation enough to serve people with the right attitude, Jesus added some motivation out of fear of doing it with the wrong attitude.

If Ravi Zacharias had been focused, not on his own greatness, but on serving weak and vulnerable people and on their best interests, fearing lest he might cause them to sin, he would never have done the things he has been accused of doing. He would have acted knowing that “it wasn’t all about him”; it was all about the people God desired to reach through him.

Another way of putting it might be this way: if Ravi Zacharias had a real pastor’s heart, he wouldn’t have done what he did. If he was a true representative of the Great Shepherd, he would never have allowed himself to become a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

There is at least one more story of the disciples arguing over their own greatness. Leading up to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas in the garden, Jesus and the disciples shared a Passover meal. (Luke 22:14-18) This meal became known as the “Lord’s Supper”. It was a poignant scene:

“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’” (Luke 22:19-20)

The disciples still did not fully appreciate or anticipate what this all meant, though it wouldn’t be long before they knew the full weight of it. When Jesus announced, “the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table”, the disciples looked at each other and began to question each other. (Luke 22:21-23)

This was the context in which a dispute arose among them, again, regarding who would be considered the greatest. (Luke 22:24)

Think about it: Jesus just got done telling them, basically, that he was offering up his own body and his own blood for them (and us), and one of them was going to betray them, and they end up fighting over who of them would be considered the greatest!

What a huge disconnect!

These men were handpicked by Jesus to learn from him, to be his eyewitnesses and to be his representatives to carry the message of the Gospel into all the world. He just got done telling them, “I am going to die for you and the world”, and all they can focus on is themselves and their own glory.

Of course, they didn’t really understand exactly what he was telling them, but their focus tells us something: even those closest to God are susceptible of being self-absorbed and focused on the wrong priorities. The response from Jesus is what I want to focus on here:

“’The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.’” (Luke 25-27)

This time Jesus touches on the unspoken assumptions:

the way the world views leadership. “Great” people in the world are the benefactors of their own greatness. Thus, they lord their greatness over others. They use it as opportunity to exalt themselves and better themselves at the expense of the people they “serve”.

Jesus describes worldly leadership as example of what not to do – how not to be – as a follower of Christ. We are not to be like that. The “greatest” among us must become like a vulnerable and weak child; leaders must be people who serve.

Jesus describes the worldly picture of greatness – the one who reclines at the table with servants around him – as an example of how not to act in the kingdom of God. Yes, the “great” person sits while others serve him, but Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus came to serve.

Jesus, of course, is our example. When he says, “Come follow me!” He is saying at the same time, “Come follow my example!”

The message of these things is clear. We should not be focused on our own glory, and we should not be focused on ourselves at all; our focus should be on others. We should not be focused on greatness (especially as the world understands greatness); we should be focused on serving.

The desire for greatness is poison for the one who desires the kingdom of God, but there is an antidote. The antidote is focus on serving people and doing what is in their best interests: loving God and loving neighbor. “Above all”, Peter says, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 3:8)

3 thoughts on “Ravi Zacharias: The Poison of the Allure of Greatness and the Antidote of Self-Giving Service

  1. I was actually thinking of writing on this subject as well. Totally different thought process for me though. Having thoroughly enjoyed his teaching, it broke my heart to learn of his sin issues. However, I don’t actually see it as he thought too highly of himself, but that the risk of transparency too great! He never asked for fans! He got them. I was one of them, and the reason I was one is because he was the most humble and kind and he taught NOT to be self-serving. The larger the following, the harder the fall. I don’t doubt his salvation one bit. I think the risk of exposing his sin to his loved ones seemed to great. We see this ALL THE TIME. People take their own lives for reasons like this… I seriously don’t think ego was it. I think the love for his family too great. I recently posted something with this very thing in mind. We can’t elevate man so high that the risk of being seen as a sinner seems too great.

    Liked by 1 person

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