The buzz in the Christian world over the scandalous details that were reported and corroborated about Ravi Zacharias have subsided a bit, but they will linger in our collective memories. It seems he led a double life for years before his death from cancer in 2020.
The stories that have emerged expose a man who was driven by lust and sexual sin to groom woman for his own personal pleasure. Because he was such a beloved defender of the faith, the news came like shock waves. We have recoiled in horror and tried to process the fact that he turned out to be so different than his public persona.
He was a gifted orator, intelligent, winsome, personable and commanding in his presence and ability to respond to the most difficult challenges skeptics and hostile audiences threw at the Christian worldview. He was a champion defender of the faith. He went boldly into the world’s top academic institutions and unashamedly proclaimed the gospel in the most intellectually rigorous environments in the world with aplomb, tact and grace.
I found connection with him, perhaps, because his approach was filled with a command of literary style and nuance that really spoke to me, a college English Literature major. Thus, the sordid details of a very seamy private life hidden largely to the world until after his death have hit very hard. I, personally, can’t stop thinking about it.
I have watched people wrestle through explanations. People have grappled with “what went wrong”. People have advanced lists of solutions to the perceived problems in the Christian world that allowed this duplicity to go on so long unnoticed and unaddressed (even when allegations came to light).
Disappointment from Christian leaders in my life have rocked, previously, when. I have made the mistake of putting too much trust and personal capital in them (and not enough in God. Himself). So, I am not completely dismayed. Though every man be a liar, still God is true!
Many people have done a good job at dissecting what went wrong and how to avoid similar scandals in the future. I don’t think I would add value to provide my own list of things we should do or not do…. Not that there is a magic pill for the Church to take because it’s messy… People are messy!
I have just been trying to find perspective.
Perspective requires taking a step (or many steps) back. This is hard to do in the immediate wake of such a scandal. It’s hard to do when it hits “close to home”. It’s hard to do when we are personally invested in some way.
Before the facts were known, the natural tendency was to brush off the rumors and give a favorite son the benefit of the doubt. I did that. After the facts of such a scandal are known, we tend to want to wring our hands, wipe our hands from it, and condemn it and the man behind it.
I have taken down most of my references to Ravi Zacharias in this blog, though not all of them. Truth is truth, even if spoken by a duplicitous person. If I can find a reference from someone else, though, for the same proposition, I will use it before referencing Ravi Zacharias. The value of using his voice has been diminished to practically nil.
At the same time, I think we need to dig a little deeper and confront this scandal a bit more squarely in the face. Not that RZIM (the organization Zacharias founded) has not done that with the investigation and disclosure of the news, but I think we can gloss over some sober truth in the process of wringing and washing our hands of the scandal.
Stepping back from the immediate shock and disappointment some thoughts occur to me that (I think) should be discussed. Too soon? I don’t know.
I wrote recently about the Isolation, Insulation and Danger of Greatness. I contend that we set our heroes up for a long fall and great damage by putting them up on pedestals. We isolate them into chambers of unaccountability when we think too highly of them, and we tempt them into thinking too highly of themselves.
I believe the antidote to this is found in the words of Jesus about how we should deal with greatness. It’s an attitude toward ourselves, our leaders, the Body of Christ and the world that is at the heart of what Jesus taught and demonstrated with his life that can save us from this disaster – love God and love your neighbor as yourself; do not think more highly of yourself that you ought to; the greatest among us is the one who serves.
Today, though, I have some different thoughts. At the risk of discounting the weight of the allegations against Ravi Zacharias, I am reminded of biblical scandals of some of the greatest “leaders” of the faith. I am wondering what their stories have to say to us in the midst of this modern story.
David comes to the top of my mind. He was a deeply, deeply flawed man. He lusted after his neighbor’s wife. He used his power and position to compel her to have an affair with him. Then he covered it up by having her husband killed.
The image of David, the slayer of Goliath, stands in sharp contrast to David the lustful, adulterous, murdering liar.
Imagine David in our world today. He would go to prison. His empire would be dismantled; his ministry would stop in its tracks; and his legacy would forever be tarnished.
Despite all these things, he is known as “a man after God’s own heart”. He is the seed of Jesse from which the line of Jesus came. His throne is the throne to which Jesus succeeds in the human ancestry of Jesus.
Solomon did not deny himself any pleasure. His weakness for women led him to worship their gods toward the end of this life.
Solomon the wise and great king who built the Temple of God stands in contrast to Solomon, the man who succumbed to his lust for many women and fell to worshiping their many idols.
Imagine King Solomon in our world today. His legacy then was the split of the nation of Israel in two from which it never recovered. His legacy is not unlike a man like Ravi Zacharias.
Still, Solomon is viewed as the greatest, richest and wisest of Hebrew kings. He is the one who built the First Temple. He is also in the ancestral line of Jesus.
Abraham married his half-sister, Sarah. Abraham passed off Sarah as his sister, when it was convenient for him, offering her to foreign kings out of fear for his own safety on multiple occasions.
I recently wrote three parts in a series on Abraham and God’s Redemption of Mankind (which I haven’t finished yet) showing how messed up the interrelations were in the line of Abraham. Abraham and his half-sister had Isaac. Jacob was the product of Abraham & Sarah and their two other brothers’ descendants. The line of Jesus begins with inbreeding at a level that is shocking to the modern conscience.
Contrast Abraham, the father of faith, the progenitor of the nation of Israel through whom God would bless all the nations, to Abraham, the incestuous, double-minded man who gave his wife to foreign kings.
If we go down further down the line, we find Judah had a child with his daughter-in-law, Tamar (who he thought was a prostitute). Tamar and Rahab, an actual prostitute, are both in the line of ancestors of Jesus. They comprise two of the five women who are mentioned by name in the Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.
People are “messy”, and the line of Jesus is especially messy. It isn’t hidden from us. It’s all laid out in Scripture preserved in all its ugly detail for the ages.
From this sordid detail, we see that God works through the messiness of people to accomplish His purposes. Even some of the greatest men and women of faith were deeply flawed and sinful people, but God used them nevertheless.
The examples of people of faith listed in Hebrews 11 includes Abraham, of course. It also includes Rahab, the prostitute; Gideon who made an idol that drew people away from God (Judges 8:27-35); Samson whose weakness for women (a prostitute and a Canaanite woman, (Delilah)) led to his tortuous downfall (Judges 16); and Jephthah who was the son of a prostitute and killed his own daughter to keep a vow that he made (Judges 11).
So, what’s the point
I am not saying that we should forget about sin and do what whatever we want because of these examples. Sin is the great enemy of God. Sin separates people from God. Sin misses the mark and distorts God’s world. Heaven forbid that we should think sin is no big deal!
The problem, though, is that we ARE sinners. All of us. From the greatest to the least, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Even the greatest people of faith in the Bible, the people who are held up as the best examples of faith, were flawed sinners.
Somehow God was able to work through flawed sinners to accomplish His purposes. Of course, to the extent that God’s purpose involved working through people, He had no choice. All people are sinners!
Except one, of course: Jesus who was the God incarnate, God who became man. Jesus, alone, lived without sin and demonstrated for us what such a life looks like.
This history reveals that God is in the business of working through and among sinful people to redeem us despite our sin. The genealogy of Jesus is a genealogy of prostitutes and panderers, adulterers and murderers. These are people, though, who believed in and trusted God above all else.
So much that they were defined by their faith, and not by their sin.
The entire story of the people of God is a story of a sinful and rebellious people. Soon after Joshua led the people across the Jordan into the promised land, an angel of the Lord appeared to them and said,
“I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”
Even as they stood victoriously on the other side of the Jordan in the promised land, the judgment was that they had not obeyed the voice of God. They failed to break down the altars to idols. They made covenants with the inhabitants of the land and their idols, and indictment was, “[Those idols] shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”
Motifs and themes are established in the stories, references to those themes mean something. Thus, when Paul spoke of a “thorn in his flesh” that he prayed for the Lord to take away (2 Cor. 12:7-9), I believe he was talking about a sinful tendency or sinful habit that he could not shake. Thus, even Paul was not immune.
Our weakness causes us to have to rely utterly on God. We must rely completely on God’s righteousness, because our righteousness is like filthy rags. (Isaiah 64:6)
This is faith: relying on and trusting in God. Not ourselves (lest any of us be tempted to boast) (Eph. 2:9).
None of this should lead us to excuse the indiscretions of Ravi Zacharias, just as we should not be tempted to excuse our own sin or failures. We also shouldn’t be completely surprised or undone by it. Neither should we be surprised by or to reject God or faith because of it.
I come back to the theme I have explored in these posts about Ravi Zacharias: we shouldn’t put our leaders on pedestals. Our faith and is in God, and God alone.
We face twin dangers when we put our leaders up on a pedestal. We face great disappointment that threatens to undo our faith when we trust too much in human leaders; and we are quick to condemn them utterly, as if they should be gods. They aren’t. We aren’t.
The ultimate fate of Ravi Zacharias is in God’s hands. Our ultimate fate, too, is in God’s hands.
In the meantime, in the midst of God’s judgment of the people as they stood on the banks of the Jordan, God said, “I will never break my covenant with you….” This, and this alone, is our hope. Though every man be false, still God is true. He will do what He said. He alone is our Savior. He is the Author and Perfecter of our faith. In everything, we must turn to Him.