Category Archives: Ravi Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Unseen

 

There is something deeply unsettling about biological threats. The very idea of unseen but deadly toxins or viruses is a modern nightmare. The sad thing is that we have too many actual examples to fuel our fears. For multitudes in the industrial town of Bhopal, India, a normal working day turned into a catastrophe of biblical proportions as people were poisoned and killed by gas leaking from a local factory. Similarly catastrophic, the events surrounding the reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine combined the worst of leftover Soviet era paranoia and secrecy with a calamity of truly mind-boggling proportions. Hundreds of young men were ushered in to fight a fire, knowing nothing of the deadly radiation saturating the area, and as a result, thousands died. And of course, the recent chemical attacks in Syria were heartrending.

The weight and power of these deadly issues grips us. We feel it acutely. There are things in our universe that are invisible, but real and sometimes deadly. And there are few guaranteed fail-safe mechanisms to protect us, in all circumstances, from harm. This feeling of vulnerability, this sense that there are things beyond our control, this notion of powerlessness is something the modern mind finds repulsive. We want security, we demand certainty, and we feel entitled to assurance. But what is this assurance, and where is it to be found?

Several decades ago, Ernest Becker wrote a very challenging book called The Denial of Death. He showed how society works to create hero-systems and elaborate ways of suppressing or altogether avoiding the reality of death. Woody Allen adds degree of humor to the problem: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Here the Christian story speaks clearly to the human dilemma. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes, “As in Adam, all die.” There are no exceptions, no escape routes, and no exits. It is as inclusive as it gets. Death is the great leveler. It respects everyone.

However, the apostle does not stop here. He goes on to say that in Christ will all be made alive. This is the great distinction. Death occurs on a hundred percent scale. To put this in theological terms, our link to Adam is inviolable. We are all descendants and inheritors of all that this implies. Like those infected with a deadly virus, the issue is not morality or effort. We need a solution, an antidote beyond us. What Christ embodies is an answer that is a transfer.

What do I mean? We are all subject to the outworking of death, brokenness, and suffering that is a part of the human condition. But there is an invitation to a deeper humanity in the invitation Jesus embodies for us. What does this mean? Several things. It means the risen, human, incarnate Jesus provides what we cannot provide for ourselves—namely, healing and help. It means we can surrender our failings and seek his face. And it means we can open ourselves to receive a new kind of life within and without by means of the gift of the Holy Spirit.

These two great antagonists, life and death, are at play in the Christian story. As I watch ageing, decaying people, I recognize something sad and good at the same time. Death is unyielding, but the grave is not the end. Jesus is even now at work making all things new but we will also one day pass through death and into the fullness of resurrection. Joni Erickson Tada brought this home to me some years ago as she spoke from her wheel chair, testifying of a love for Jesus and her great expectations as a believer, despite her very real suffering and restrictions as a paraplegic. She announced to us all that when she sees Jesus face to face, she will dance. I believe it. This is a resurrection hope that brings assurance today and certainty tomorrow. There are many unseen but real threats, but there are also unseen but real promises. “Behold, I make all things new.”

Stuart McAllister is global support specialist at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Why Isn’t God More Obvious?

 

Why is it that God does not seem to approach in a much more obvious way? One answer has been that God’s existence is not a matter of reality and facts. Isn’t it more of a faith position, anyway? Isn’t it more about a leap in the dark than an embrace of evidence?

I would agree that God isn’t “forcefully obvious,” but I don’t think that this confines God to being a “take-it-or-leave-it” matter of faith. I think it makes more sense to see God as clearly visible, whilst not being forcefully obvious.

Did you know that the Bible actually recognizes the validity of this question? First, we see passages that affirm the human perception that God seems hidden. In Job 23:8-9 we read, “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.”

Interestingly, there are also many examples of God appearing as if veiled in darkness, whilst still simultaneously offering his presence.(1) For instance we read that, “The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” Jesus, too, invites people to trust in him and then leaves and hides himself. In John we find the story of a paralytic man who is healed, but then Jesus slips away into the crowd. Luke records that as news about Jesus spread, “he often withdrew to lonely places.” Later, Jesus tells the disciples that, “Before long, the world will not see me any more, but you will see me.” Interestingly in many of these cases, God provides a clear sense of presence, while at the same time veiling the fullness of that presence.

So perhaps an unavoidable part of the Bible’s answer to why God seems hidden is because it’s true. But why? And what about those times when we need a present God most, when God could offer us real hope in times of suffering?

Well, when Jesus resisted the crowd, he concealed his identity until exactly the right moment in time to explicitly disclose it. This was a wise decision as the consequences of more explicit or obvious disclosure led fairly quickly to a successful campaign to have him executed. Could it be that God isn’t unavoidably obvious, but clear in a more qualified sense? Crucially, there is also no reason why something of this nature might not require some learning to begin to perceive or see on our part.

For example, imagine that I said that it is obvious, but not forcefully so, that you will need your passport to fly internationally. Now, notice carefully that you have to learn this bit of information. It is certainly not like a forcefully obvious brick wall that you cannot avoid. But it would still perhaps be a case of a failure to grasp the obvious if you arrived at the airport with your bags packed but without your passport. It’s this second sense (of non-forceful obviousness or avoidable clarity) that the case for God can be confidently approached.

But might this idea of God hiding merely provide a clever way for Christians to cling onto God in a scientific and evidence demanding age? This has been argued. Yet Christians do not claim that God doesn’t show himself, but rather that God chooses the means of the showing. And hiddenness may well be necessary to bring focus to the way God declares his existence through Jesus Christ. In fact, divine hiding creates the possibility of a more obvious disclosure or uncovering.

Atheist Bertrand Russell famously quipped that if he were faced with God when he died, he would demand an explanation for why God made the evidence of his existence so insufficient. We might be tempted to think he was being entirely reasonable. But perhaps the evidence we demand for God is directly related to who we think God is and what we think God’s purposes are. Hiddenness would make no sense if God’s aim was simply to relate to us as an object of knowledge that offered no real relational connection or friendship. If this was the divine purpose—that we would simply acknowledge God’s existence—then I am sympathetic to Russell’s demand for more evidence.

But let us suppose that God was unwilling to make an approach to human life merely through the intellect. Instead, let us imagine that God is seeking a relationship that is based upon a deeper and more profound personal insight or perception. Have you ever asked what kind of a relationship God might want with you?

Moreover, God has indeed been revealed plainly in the reality of a redemptive plan and action. The gospel is described as a mystery now made known. Many Christians can recall moments, or even seasons spanning years, where God has been plainly and clearly at work and life has been saturated with the presence and grace of Father, Son, and Spirit. Faith isn’t a blind faith, but a response to the evidence. It is based on real events that can be investigated. A leap in the dark has never been the offer, as it is about stepping into the light.

So perhaps the evidence that we demand is a consequence of who we think God is and what we think God’s purposes are? If God loves you and wants you to freely choose to return that love then perhaps sending his Son for you is enough to catch your attention.

 

(1) Cf. Psalm 10:1; 22:1-2; 30:7; 44:23-24; 88:13-14; 89:46; Isaiah 45:15.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – On Creativity

 

I remember the mixed feelings of setting up the nativity scene at home for Christmas. My mum was always so excited that she made a special appointment for us every year, and she would come up with creative ideas on how to build up Joseph and Mary’s cave. As my twin brother and I grew up, she let us help her in making the river and the sky more realistic, or in better securing the angel so it wouldn’t fall from the mountain. One of my favorite parts was the task of carrying the magi figurines every day closer and closer to the manger. For my brother and me, it was a special time and we used to fight for the responsibility because it made the story so real.

But I mentioned that I had mixed feelings, and that is because my dad didn’t like this tradition of ours one bit. Every year I saw his face, filled with worry for us, keeping a distance from these plastic dolls as if they were something dangerous, as if somehow they would put us all in trouble. I couldn’t understand why he told us we shouldn’t focus our attention on the scene or the images, why he was so worried we would end up worshiping that baby plastic Jesus. I was shocked to hear him say so, and I kept asking myself: Why would I worship a plastic thing? I knew that was not Jesus.

I knew this, but I also knew that his anguish was real.

Years later at art school, we studied artists in history who illustrated and decorated churches since the early times of Christianity. As some of you know, in Spain, there are Catholic churches in almost every town. Many of these buildings are ancient, and whenever I went to visit one I admired with wonder all the artistic finery. I couldn’t help but connect my childhood memories, those marvelous structures, and the emptiness my local church seemed to have in comparison. Added to this, while I learned more and more history of my country, some of this imagery became loaded with the civil war memories, and the scars of war that as a country we are carrying still. So, yes. I still have mixed feelings of wonder, terror, and sadness.

But in the midst of it all, a question started to form in my head, as I struggled to cope what God was calling me to do and be, what I was learning of art, illustration, and painting, what my parents and church expected, and what society was telling me I should do. And that is: why and when did being an artist become something wrong in the church? Why and when did only certain forms of creativity become acceptable in the church? When did we start thinking imagination was a bad thing? When did we become afraid of images, of figures, of color and gold and wood and structures made in the divina proportione?

 

I study with nostalgia all those artists who were paid to portray the glory of God, artists who impacted their culture and led the thinkers of yesterday to make changes in their society. Like me, many artists today long to live into the call to creativity while keeping our core beliefs. It is not an easy task. We struggle to pay bills or maintain ourselves and receive little support from our churches. Many end up quitting; others have to leave. Then I look at the men and women who actually are influencing the culture with who they are and what they do, and I wonder: Where are the Christians, followers of Jesus, sons and daughters of the most high king, priests and priestesses, church leaders, missionaries, created in the image of God? Where are those who should be the light of the world and not be hidden under a bowl? And when did we forget the first revelation we received from God: that God is a Creator?

Since deciding to follow Jesus at the age of 19, I have wrestled with understanding what it means to be who God has called me to be: an artist in this world in need of his light and his colors. I struggle because I feel what the prophets sometimes described. I have a torrent in me that shakes my view of the world, that wants to come out, but I have often had to silence it because it has brought me nothing more than suffering and incomprehension from my family, friends, and church.

But I cannot be silent. This call to participate in God’s creative work in the world is like a fire burning in me and I know that I cannot not write. I cannot not paint. I cannot look at the world through creative eyes and suppress how God created me. I am filled with imagination. For so many years, I have been taught that this was a dangerous business. But God is filled with imagination too! The universe and everything in it springs from the voice of a creative God. And graciously, we are invited to join in this very creativity. If everything God created was good, how can imagination itself be a bad thing? Sin has made things complicated, yes. But if leadership offered in reverence to God and empowered by the Holy Spirit helps to build Christ’s church, then why not imagination?

How might the church and the culture be different if we empowered artists and their imaginations to speak to this generation? Why not empower, support, and free creatives to be who God called them to be to impact the world? The world needs it. And the crops are ready.

Today, I still sometimes feel misunderstood. I also must tell you that my dad continues to worry (a little less though) when my mum, my brother, and I build onto Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus’s cave. But what I also will tell you is that as I embrace my artistic call, I see and understand God in ways I never could have imagined. I understand God’s heart a little more. And my own heart bends toward the world and the church, praying that we could grasp how deep, how high, how vast is the love of the Father, how kind the Spirit, and how creative the gift and work of the Son.

Noemi Navarro is an artist and the Administrative Manager of RZIM Academy in Spanish at Fundación RZ in Madrid, Spain.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Defining Atheism

 

A popular tendency among some atheists these days is to define atheism, not as the positive thesis that God does not exist, but as the neutral claim that an atheist is one who simply lacks belief in God. If we could scan the mind of the atheist and catalogue all the beliefs the atheist holds, we would not find a belief of the form, “God exists.” Those who insist on defining atheism in this manner want to avoid the implications of having to defend the claim that God does not exist. They demand justification for faith in God while insisting that they bear no rational burdens in the debate since they are not making any positive claims on the question of God’s existence.

This strategy is mistaken on several levels. To begin with, there is no logical connection between a lack of belief about God in someone’s mind and the conclusion that God does not exist. At best, this definition leads us to agnosticism, roughly the view that we do not know whether or not God exists. For example, there are millions of people on this planet who hold no belief about the Los Angeles Lakers. But it would be quite a stretch to conclude from that empirical fact that the Lakers therefore do not exist.

 

Additionally, atheism thus defined is a psychological condition, not a cognitive thesis. Conduct a quick search on the Internet, and you will even find atheists who claim that babies are atheists because they lack belief in God. But, as some philosophers have pointed out, that is not a flattering state of affairs for the atheist, for, strictly speaking, a cow, by that definition, is also an atheist. For someone who is intent on merely giving a report about the state of his or her mind, pity, or an equivalent emotion, is the appropriate response, not a reasoned exchange. But nobody who has reflected long and hard about the issues and is prepared to argue vehemently about them should be let off the hook that easily.

In any case, such a definition of atheism goes against the intuitions held by almost everyone who has not been initiated into this way of thinking. In spite of the myriads of nuances one can give to one’s preferred version of denying God’s existence, the traditional view has been that there are ultimately only three attitudes one can take with regard to a particular proposition. Take the proposition, “God exists”. One could (1) affirm the proposition, which is theism, (2) Deny the proposition, which is atheism, or (3) withhold judgment with regard to the proposition, which is agnosticism. Those who affirm the proposition have to give reasons why they think it is true. Those who deny it have to give reasons why they think it is false. Only those who withhold judgment have the right to sit on the fence on the issue. Thus J. J. C. Smart states matter-of-factly, “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.”(1)

Nor will an attempt to defend this new definition on the basis of the etymology of the word “atheist” work. The word “atheist” is from the Greek word “Theos” which means “God”, and the “a” is the negation. The “a” is taken to mean “without”, and hence “atheism” simply means “without belief in God”. But this will not do. Even if we grant that the “a” means “without”, we will still not arrive at the conclusion that atheism means “without belief in God”. What is negated in the word “atheism” is not “belief” but “God”. Atheism still means “without God”, not “without belief”. There is no concept of “belief” in the etymology of the word – the word simply means the universe is without God, which is another way of saying that God does not exist.

Semantic quibbles aside, there are deeper problems with this position. The same atheists who decry the irrationality of believing in God still insist on shoehorning theistic ideas into their ontology. Most of them continue to defend the meaning and purpose of life, the validity of objective morality and the assurance that humanity is marching on towards progress and would move thus faster were it not for the shackles of religion. Such cosmic optimism would be unrecognizable to the most prominent atheists of yesteryear, not to mention the many in our day who say as much. It is recognized as a remnant of a biblical tradition that still has some of its grip on the western psyche.

Speaking about the belief that every human life needs to be protected, Richard Rorty wrote, “This Jewish and Christian element in our tradition is gratefully invoked by free-loading atheists like myself.”(2) But if God does not exist, theists live on false hope, and the freeloaders fair no better. Sever the cord between God and those elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the honest among us fly into oblivion with shrills of despair to which only a Nietzsche or a Jean Paul Sartre can do full justice; for the validity of such positive attitudes about life is directly propositional to the plausibility of the existence of a caring God who directs the affairs of humanity.

J.M. Njoroge is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Nairobi, Kenya.

 

(1) J. J. C. Smart, “Atheism and Agnosticism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

(2) Richard Rorty, “Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism,” in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 80, No. 10, Part 1: (Oct., 1983), pp. 583-589.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Shelf Life of an Idea

 

The concept of “shelf life” has always intrigued me. It is an expression that describes exactly what it attempts to define. For instance, Twinkies have a shelf life of twenty-five days, after which, their existence on the shelf as something edible expires. But shelf life is also an expression that is metaphorically full. One might say of the American “Cabbage Patch Kids” that they were once a quite a phenomenon; shoppers were injured as the dolls were pulled off the shelves and seized by anxious crowds. But the craze was relatively short-lived; as far as fads go, the shelf life was fairly brief.

In high school chemistry we took in the ponderous thought that everything has a shelf life. In fact, in many substances this is an incredibly important number to watch. A variety of compounds, particularly those containing certain unstable elements, become more unstable as they approach their shelf life. Chemical explosives grow increasingly dangerous over time and with exposure to certain factors in the environment becoming liable to explode without warning.

There is a tendency to view ideas and thoughts as having a similar aging process. When something is deemed ancient or even slightly “behind the times” it is often accordingly considered obsolete, needing to be removed from the shelf. As if it has become out-dated like a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk, the aging thought or idea, in many minds, grows more unusable with time. And in many cases, history has shown this to be an accurate picture. Certain philosophies might come to mind as movements that rendered themselves useless over time and exposure to the world. Like compounds approaching their shelf life, their collapse was inevitable and they eventually imploded without warning.

Ideas undeniably have consequences and some approach their shelf lives more dangerously than others. While some have not fully burst at the seams, signs of instability appear. Grumbles of discontent from within their own ideological camps may hint at incoherence. Even so, the noticeable shelf life of specific ideas should cause us to question the cause of their expiration, rather than assume it is time alone that moves an idea to expire.

This is no doubt well-studied in science. Factors that increase and decrease the shelf life of a product move well beyond time itself. When certain compounds are stored at decreased temperatures, their shelf life is increased significantly. Likewise, the development of preservatives dramatically set back the expiration dates on food in our pantries. Like compounds and breakfast items, all ideas do not expire equally. We are thus badly mistaken to dismiss a thought solely because it is old.

The Christian story speaks of the promising hope of Father, Son, and Spirit as something that does not expire, but rather, continues to transform generation after generation. “Your promises have been thoroughly tested, and your servant loves them,” writes the psalmist. “I have learned from your words and acts that you established them to last forever.” Personally I know how often I have lived with quite a different assumption, thinking that surely modern thought has improved this or that idea, only to find myself returning to things generations old with new intrigue. The story of one who takes creation so seriously that he joins us within it is one such idea I cannot seem to remove haphazardly from the shelf because it seems to defy the notion of shelf life. A God who can come that near and be that available, while remaining really God, is a gift that won’t be outdated. It is the sort of thing that rearranges everything else on the shelf.

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Space to Fall

 

Amusement parks had always been destinations of choice for my family while I was growing up. It didn’t matter the vacation spot. We would, if there was an amusement park nearby, make it a priority visit. The reason for this priority was that we loved roller-coasters. The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disney Land, Space Mountain at Disney World, and all the various roller-coasters at Six Flags theme parks called to us to ride them over and over again to our sheer delight.

There was one exception: The free fall ride. I do not know if it is still in existence, but when I knew it at my local Six Flags, it was a ride like an elevator without a door. Only a seatbelt harness held us in. Up six stories it climbed while our stomachs fell. Climbing higher and higher, the expanse of the park and the surrounding communities became like miniature-versions of themselves. It seemed the ride would climb as high as the heights of heaven. Then suddenly, the ascent ended. The car would tilt forward ever so slightly, so that all you could see below was the drop back to earth. For maximum thrill or terror, the car wouldn’t plunge down immediately. Riders sat for what seemed to be an eternity of waiting; suddenly, the mechanical support drew back and the elevator-like car would make its free fall back down to the ground at speeds as high as 90 mph. I only ever went on the free fall once. I hated that ride.

“Sometimes suffering feels like a free fall,” writes J. Todd Billings in his book Rejoicing in Lament.(1) It is a free fall away from all that was normal and routine in one’s life down into what seems to be a spiraling abyss of chaos and despair. After receiving the phone call in the early morning hours that my husband had suffered sudden cardiac arrest, I fell into my own free fall. While sitting in the airport waiting for my flight home, I remember saying to my mother, “My life will never be the same again.” I would free fall into another world never to return to the world I had inhabited for seventeen years with my husband. There would be no return to what was “normal.” There would only be a steadying of my legs, like I had to do after the free fall ride at the amusement park, landing in the strange new world of grief and loss that was mine.

 

Fortunately for me, I was not the first person to ever experience a loss like this, just as surely as I was not the first to ride the free fall, nor the last to experience its terror. There were many who reached out to me from similar experiences in person, and others who reached out to me through the pages of articles and books chronicling this shared journey. Of course, Christianity affirms a God who joins us in this journey, not as a fellow rider on a free fall, but as the foundation on which we might find our footing again. For author and theologian Todd Billings, this foundation has been tested in his own journey of grief and suffering as a result of a terminal cancer diagnosis. Yet, he writes:

“In a deeply paradoxical way, full of a mystery that blinds by its brightness, Jesus Christ, the God-human, displays the love of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—by taking on our human suffering and terror. Christ, the God-human, takes on the path of human suffering so that we are not pioneers in the darkness, so that we are not in free fall. Instead, even when our suffering seems senseless, even when we feel like we are in free fall, we can look to Christ to see, hear and taste that we are still in the ever-faithful, ever-loving hands of God.”(2)

The “Man of sorrows” and the one “acquainted with grief” is the reason why Christians can affirm that nothing is able to separate us from the love of God…not even death. Jesus Christ offers those who experience the free fall of suffering a firm foundation on which to land. Becoming fully human, Jesus is made the “high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.” And it is here, Billings notes, in the mystery of the Incarnation “that in Christ, the impassible God becomes one with suffering flesh in order to heal it.”(3) God is not caught off-guard because of human suffering and misery, even as God in Christ identifies with all that it means to be human. “We hope because in Christ, God has taken on human suffering and death so that they are emptied of their ultimate sting.”(4)

But this is not a truth easily gained. In my own free fall into grief, despair, and pain, I needed the space to fall; if only to see and to know that there was a foundation on which I could depend, and which could sustain the weightiness of my pain. I needed to scream all the way down as I fell—screams of desperation, abandonment, anger, and loss. And it was necessary for me to lose all those supports that were, in reality, flimsy and faulty. It was only then, after this long, hard fall that I could begin to steady myself, strengthen my legs and stand up—again.

In the psalms of lament, the anguished cries of the prophets, and in the life and ministry of Jesus, there are pioneers who have gone before all who grieve and suffer. They have experienced the terror of all the twists and turns, the drops and descents of human life. They gave voice to their lament. Perhaps like myself, Dr. Billings, and all those who would wish for a different way, who would wish they didn’t have to ride the free fall of grief and loss, the paradox of the Incarnation—that God is in Christ enveloping human suffering—will yet invite sufferers to stand on this firm foundation.

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

(1) J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing In Lament (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015), 151.
(2) Ibid., 157.
(3) Ibid., 163
(4) Ibid., 163.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A Theology of Immersion

 

Comedian Brian Regan tells a great joke about spiderwebs. For many of us the reaction is dramatic when walking into a spiderweb: arms flailing, freaking out at the invisible strands that have just accosted us. There are legitimate reasons for people to not want to walk into spiderwebs; a spider web is quite literally a device created and placed to trap and devour prey. But to anyone watching the drama unfold from afar, the whole scene appears far less rational, looking more like someone just buckled under life’s pressures and gave into insanity. “Did you see that guy?” Brian asks in character. “He just snapped!”

I can’t help but think in our recurring cultural divides that this joke has become a sad metaphor. There are those of us who judge from afar, pridefully thinking we know what is happening, but in reality we are too far removed to see the spiderwebs that entangle those crying out for justice. Their cries leave some bystanders astonished, thinking that they just saw someone walking peacefully down an ahistorical road suddenly snap for no reason.

Christians profess to serve an omnipresent and immanent God, and as his children, we are called to reflect those attributes in incarnational and immersive community. It is a call to proximity, listening, learning, growing, and serving. But this sadly isn’t often what the church looks like. It is no wonder that the trend of racial isolation (in and outside the church) leads to a lack of understanding and concern for the cries of those hurting. In their book Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith describe how this isolation breeds a sort of apathy and ignorance to the larger problems involved in healing deep societal wounds.(1) As Ravi Zacharias reminds us, “It is Christ who shows that unless a person’s pain is understood, one will never understand a person’s soul.”(2)

 

Several years ago in my seminary studies, I first heard about a man I would come to greatly admire, Samuel Hopkins. Hopkins was an 18th century Congregationalist minister (the most direct denominational descendants of Puritanism) and the closest disciple of New England theologian Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was a slaveowner who opposed the slave trade, but not slavery. Like many Christians in that day, he would have understood Africans as spiritually equal but naturally inferior and failed to see how his own theology convicted him. Yet Hopkins, who had previously agreed with Edwards and owned a slave himself, just one generation later would become one of the most ardent opponents of the slave trade and slavery itself, calling for immediate abolition and emancipation. He would even argue, quite ahead of his time in an era when many considered Africans to be a cursed race, that they were created by God “free and Equal with ourselves.”(3) And he did not just consider them spiritual equals, but equal “by nature, and by right,” which all could understand if they were able to rid themselves of prejudices.(4) So how did Hopkins rid himself of his own prejudices? By immersion in community.

Hopkins settled in Newport, Rhode Island, to begin his new role as minister of the First Congregational Church in 1770. A prominent woman of faith there, Sarah Osborn, had been holding prayer meetings in her home since 1742 due to the former minister’s struggles with alcoholism. Those meetings had turned into full-blown revival by 1765. There Osborn welcomed all, including enslaved Africans, though she was criticized by several ministers for doing so (not just for allowing Africans, but also for taking a leadership role as a woman).(5)

Through Osborn’s prayer meetings and proximity to slaves, Hopkins began to hear firsthand accounts of what slavery truly was and how it felt. The loss of dignity, the ripping apart of families, the harsh treatment. Ultimately, it was the inability to fulfill what Hopkins’s friend, enslaved African poet Phillis Wheatley, called a divine principle that lives in every person’s heart “which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”(6) The docks were not far from where Hopkins ministered. He more than likely saw many an African family ripped apart on auction blocks. His prejudices were confronted with reality. He was finally close enough to see the spiderwebs that entangled, and he was changed by the experience. He would be transformed by the close relationships he entered into here, and by those black saints he would later befriend.

Hopkins soon found that he was not the only one with an experience like this. He began to find others like Anthony Benezet, Moses Brown, and Granville Sharp who were part of the abolitionist cause. His mind was opened to a whole body of literature from people who had traveled to and studied Africa. Hopkins in humility had to admit that his ideas had been blatantly wrong. His understanding of the total depravity of man meant that it was no shock to him to think that a dominant culture would seek to domineer and create systems to oppress another culture for their own selfish purposes. What he learned must have felt, then, like a shock, but also no shock at all. He had his eyes opened to the bloody reality of racial discrimination. In this instance, the American colonies had “blood on their hands” and were under a curse because they “deface the image of God in [slaves], and set up in ourselves the image of the Devil, the Great destroyer of men.”(7)

It is no surprise that this is the method used by Jesus to confront the prejudices of his own disciples. He did not just tell them a shocking parable about a Good Samaritan; he confronted them with a Samaritan woman who became the first evangelist to Samaria. He showed them faith par excellence in the actions of a Canaanite woman, a woman from that most ancient enemy of Israel. From afar, they saw wickedness, but up close Jesus showed them Image and humanity. We were created for community, and Jesus died for the vertical and horizontal reconciliation of community. Bonhoeffer reminds us that first, as in the case of the disciples, we must pastorally “listen with the ears of God, so that we can speak the Word of God.”(8)

What we are being called to in this world is not to spread a message of God’s love without ourselves living God’s love in ethical action. No, we are called to share this message and listen for cries of help and seek justice, as this is to love our neighbors.(9) We are called to restore shalom in vertical and horizontal dimensions. The call to immersion in community is like baptism: the genuine heart will not remain unchanged. Let us seek immersion in the milieu of the other so that they may be other no more.

 

Derek Caldwell is a writer for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

(1) See especially chapter 6, “Let’s Be Friends,” in Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford University Press, 2000).
(2) Ravi Zacharias, The Logic of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 54.
(3) Jonathan D. Sassi, “‘This whole country have their hands full of Blood this day’: Transcription and Introduction of an Antislavery Sermon Manuscript Attributed to the Reverend Samuel Hopkins,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 112, no. 1 (2002): 89.
(4) Samuel Hopkins, A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans (Norwich, CT: Judah P. Spooner, 1776), 34, in Early American Imprints, Series 1: Evans 1639-1800, no. 14804.
(5) Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 217-288.
(6) Phillis Wheatley in a private letter to Rev. Samson Occom, a highly respected Native American convert, published in the Connecticut Gazette in March of 1774. In Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2011), 153.
(7) Sassi, 67.
(8) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 99.
(9) Isaiah 1:17; Micah 6:8; Matthew 25:40; Luke 11:42.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Re-imagining Life

“I shut my eyes in order to see,” said French painter, sculptor, and artist Paul Gauguin. As a little girl, though completely unaware of this insightful quote on imagination, I lived this maxim. Nothing was more exhilarating to me than closing my eyes in order to imagine far away exotic lands, a handsome prince, or a deep enough hole that would take me straight to China!

In fact, like many, imagination fueled my young heart and mind. After reading C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, I would walk into dark closets filled with warm winter coats fully expecting to be transported like the Pevensie children into strange, new worlds. Charlotte’s Web took me to a farm where I could talk to animals, like Fern to her pet pig Wilbur or to the spiders that hung from intricate webs in my garage. Pictures on the wall came to life and danced before me; ordinary objects became extraordinary tools enabling me to defeat all those imaginary giants and inspiring me toward endless possibility.

Sadly, as happens to many adults, my imagination has changed. I don’t often view my closet as a doorway to unseen worlds, nor do I pretend that my dogs understand one word of my verbal affection towards them. Pictures don’t come to life and I no longer pretend my garden rake or broom is a secret weapon against fantastical foes. Often, I feel that my imagination has become nothing more than wishful thinking. Rather than thinking creatively about the life I’ve been given, I daydream about what my life might be like if I lived in Holland, for example, or could backpack across Europe, or lived on a kibbutz, or was a famous actress, or a world-renowned tennis player, or any number of alternative lives to the one I currently occupy.

Sadly, the imagination so vital in my youth doesn’t usually infuse my life with creative possibility, but rather leads me only to wonder if the grass is greener on the other side. Mid-life regrets reduce imagination to restlessness and shrivel creative thinking to nothing more than unsettled daydreams. Rather than allowing my imagination to be animated by living into my creativity, I allow it to be tethered to worldly dreams of more, or better, or simply other. Like so many others, the all too familiar experience of unrealized dreams withers my imagination and feeds a world-weary cynicism.

The psalmist was not in a mid-life imaginative crisis when he penned Psalm 90. Nevertheless, this psalm attributed to Moses was a prayer to the God who can redeem imagination for our one life to live. Perhaps Moses wrote this psalm after an endless day of complaint from wilderness-weary Israelites. Perhaps it was written with regret that his violent outburst against the rock would bar him from entry into the Promised Land. Whatever event prompted its writing, it is a song sung in a minor key, with regret so great he feels consumed by God’s anger and dismayed by God’s wrath.(1)

Whether prompted by deep regret, disillusionment, or a creeping cynicism about reality, Moses reflects on the brevity of life. He compares it to the grass “which sprouts anew. In the morning it flourishes; toward evening it fades and withers away.”(2) Indeed, he concedes that a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or as a watch in the night. Before we know it, the psalmist concedes, our lives are past and what do we have to show for them? Have we lived creatively? Have we used our imagination to infuse our fleeting, one-and-only lives to bring forth anything that may offer beauty and blessing?

Imagination, like any other gift, has the potential for good or for ill. It has power to fill my one and only life with creative possibility, or it can become nothing more than wishful thinking, or nostalgia. As the psalmist laments, “All our days have declined…we have finished our years like a sigh.”

But imagination built upon a foundation of gratitude invites us to live our lives with hope and with possibility to imagine great things for our God-given lives. “So teach us to number our days that we may present to you a heart of wisdom” reminds all of the brevity of life and the importance of bringing that reality to the forefront of our imagination. Perhaps as we do, we might imagine ways to fill those brief days with possibility and wonder.

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

(1) Psalm 90:7-8.
(2) Psalm 90:6.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Speechless

 

There are certain junctures in life when my pen stops moving, and my tangled thoughts seem to only find at their disposure fair-weathered words and deficient clichés. Trying to write a note of condolence, sending a thought of encouragement—sometimes even signing a birthday card—can stop me in my tracks. Looking for words in the midst of death and grief, or life and its best intensity, I often come up empty. Anything I might be able to scrape from my mind seems unbearably inadequate.

Nonetheless, I recognize that it is undoubtedly worse when during such times the words come easily. How do you, without difficulty, tell someone in the dregs of chemotherapy that you are sorry for them? How do you tell someone struggling with addiction to trust that things will work out, that goodness or grace, God or a higher power is with them? How do you offer anything to someone on the brink of death? How do you begin to put into words any sort of comfort that must be bigger than the sorrow—or even the abundance of life—your eyes can see? There are some words that just require our laboring over them, some truths that are too weighty to be tossed lightly into the laps of friend or enemy.

Yet, we do not always labor. Even Christians toss God’s wisdom as if it were something we could hold onto in the first place. I imagine, like Jesus among the Pharisees, God works to undo my well-worded mottos. I don’t understand the truth of incarnation just because I can quote John 3:16. And I can’t explain away the reality that life is hard or death is painful because I believe in the premise of resurrection. Whether our truth-tossing arises out of good intention or pride, Christ is always far more real than this. God will not allow ideas to remain as worthless idols—though shining or polished or well-meaning they are. Christ is more available than cliché, belief, or proverb. He is the living one our creeds will continue to speak of long after we live no more.

When the apostle Paul wrote that nothing can remove the love of Christ—neither “trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword”—he was referring to struggles that were dangerously real to him and the people to whom he was writing. He is insistent that God’s love is more enduring than famine or suffering, racism, cancer, or injustice. It is stronger than death, as unyielding as the grave. How do you put this in to words without trembling? How do we explain the crucifixion or the resurrection without falling to our knees in shock, in wonder, in speechless gratitude?

Stumbling over words to describe the hope we profess, we can be broken again by the mystery of it all and even our misplacing of it. We can be stopped by our loss of its realness, our overlooking of the immensity of Christ and the immovability of his love. Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again. In the silence of our tangled thoughts, the one behind the creeds calls to us over and above the words.

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I’m at an age in life when enough of it has passed that I can make some comparisons. The last five to ten years have been strange. I recently read some essays by Timothy Garton Ash about the period he calls the decade with “no name”—the turn of the millennium to the present. It is indeed a decade in which we have seen some extraordinary events, some dreadful acts of violence, an ongoing range of catastrophes, and some of the worst economic and moral failures that burst the bubble of unending prosperity and further shuttered confidence in many of our institutions.

Many years ago, the Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote of “the unbearable lightness of being.” Like many others, he sensed the hollowing out of existence, the thinning out of life, the emptying of meaning that seems to occur under modern conditions. One friend of mine calls this “cultural vaporization.” The thing is, this is not some vague idea or esoteric notion. It is a description of how life is really being perceived.

Some today seem convinced that the point of life is that there is no point. We face what Nietzsche call “Das Nichte”—or, the nothing. Our public philosophy tells us that we are the result of blind force plus chance and/or necessity. Yet our movies are filled with romantic longings, visions of other worlds, the hunger for transcendence, and love stories from other worlds where there is a greater unity of life and being. In other words, we face a massive contradiction between what one set of experts tells us is real and what many artists compel us to hope for and reflect on. And somewhere in the middle are our own, normal, day-to-day lives—lives presently struggling to survive and make sense of a pandemic.

 

Chance and choice: is that it? Does all of life come down to this? A roll of the dice, the power of freedom, and the lottery of life? Many centuries ago, an honest voice cried, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Why? He was reflecting on life. He was seeking happiness. He sought justice, he sought satisfaction, he sought the meaning of it all. And his journey was conducted under the sun—in other words, he looked at life from within life. It was as Derek Kidner called it “a world without windows.”

However, his observations do not end there. This book opens us to another perspective, one in which there is a God, and a God that sees, knows, and acts. The book does not descend into some simple resolution of life’s hard problems nor its on-going ambiguities. But what it does do is add something. It adds a presence, it includes a perspective, it invites reflection: If there is more to life than meets the eye, more than can be measured or managed by the senses, then this indeed makes a big difference today.

With such a difference, weight or weightiness would be restored. Absence would be filled, space would be occupied, and meaninglessness confronted. As Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” This is a far cry from the new atheists who invite us to shed the childish and wicked delusions of whys and hows and accept emptiness. But what if when the God who is there and is not silent is a God of grace, a God of love, and a God of justice? To those empty, confused, suffering, or seeking, the unbearable lightness of being can be met in the abundance of his fullness, a gift by the way of grace, not effort!

Stuart McAllister is global support specialist at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Questions of Power

 

A story told in the Hebrew scriptures offers a dramatic interplay of manipulation and honor, kings and kingdoms, power and powerlessness. It is the story more commonly known as “Daniel and the Lion’s Den.” But this title, accurate though it is in terms of the dramatic climax, actually misses the main actors entirely. Ultimately, the story is a depiction of power and weakness at play in two very different kingdoms and communities. On one side stands Darius, the mighty king and ruler of the people and nations, powerful sovereign of the powerful majority. On the other side is the God of Daniel, king of a community in exile, the ruler of a minority people whose city lies in ruins. The question of sovereignty seems as though it has already been answered quite definitively.

Most of us are not familiar with the devastating encounter of the powerlessness of exile and the forcible display of the powers that created it. Nonetheless, every aspect of our lives is touched by issues of power and weakness. The question of control and power is common to our relationships, communities, politics, business, education, and religion. Unfortunately, our common experience of the struggle is not to say we are well or healthily adjusted to it, far from it. Of course, it is easiest for those who actually hold any given power to be the most unaware of the dynamics of powerlessness upon others. For others, the struggle to be in control, to challenge authority, to make a name for ourselves, is largely thought of as a dynamic that is outgrown with adulthood. So in the face of authority issues, we say things like, “Teenagers will be teenagers!” Or we diagnose the battle to be in control as “middle child syndrome” or “terrible twos,” all the while failing to see our own struggle with similar dynamics. Still for others, questions of power involve wondering if they will ever have a voice, if anyone with power is listening, or if they have been forgotten and silenced indefinitely. Admittedly, to be conscious of the struggle is far better than being complacent about the question of power in general.

 

The story told in Daniel 6 begins significantly with a king who is for all practical purposes very much in control. Daniel, a Hebrew slave in exile, is found by king Darius to be distinguished in a way the king believes he can make use of and Daniel is given a position of authority in the kingdom for the sake of the king. But as the story moves forward, we see king Darius played like a pawn and Daniel is found guilty by the law of the land. To his utter dismay, king Darius finds himself bound by the law that his own lips decreed. Darius is the most powerful king in the world, and yet he is powerless beside his own decree, powerless to save his trusted servant. Whether Darius himself sees the irony in his power and position, we are left to wonder.

Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel once noted that faith depends on what we do with our ultimate embarrassments. We are the greatest miracle on earth and do not see it; we search for sovereignty in things unsovereign and regard as ultimate what is not ultimate. We live in the shadow of a sovereign Creator, and we go on playing king and queen like we are in control anyway. In the face of injustice, with Jerusalem in ruins, the silenced Daniel nonetheless becomes a herald of God’s sovereignty, though control appeared to be so clearly in other hands. And to the exhilaration of Darius, Daniel emerges from the lion’s den unharmed, saved by the only one who could save him.

The story ends with the proclamation of a new decree by king Darius, the mighty one with power and a voice, here writing to “all peoples and nations of every language throughout the whole world” of a far greater power:

“May you have abundant prosperity! I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel:

For he is the living God,
enduring for ever.
His kingdom shall never be destroyed,
and his dominion has no end.”(1)

The act of God in the lion’s den is indeed a plot that shows God as faithful and just, aware of the plight of the weak and silenced. But the act of God in the eyes of the mighty king Darius, who has recognized the superior might of a greater Sovereign, is perhaps the true sign and wonder. At the heart of the Christian religion is a God able to wield what is foolish to disrupt the wise, what is weak to disrupt the strong. At the crux of every question of power and weakness, sovereignty and control, justice and injustice is the Son of God who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form.”(2) The throne of our hearts will not remain empty; the question of sovereignty must be answered.

 

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) Daniel 6:25-27.
(2) Philippians 2:7.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – So Much More

 

In philosopher Colin McGinn’s intriguingly titled article “Something Is Wrong and Somebody Is To Blame,” he observes, “[T]he modern world has produced an abiding sense that there is something deeply wrong with our lives. We want to be better and freer from guilt, but the old ways of escaping guilt are gone. Officially we no longer believe in original sin, but we are haunted by its secular progeny…. I would characterize it as a kind of precarious shadowy unease, and a felt poverty of spirit. The more comfortable we become on the outside the more this elusive guilt gnaws on the inside.”(1)

Why do we do what we ought not to do and why don’t we do what we ought? Why, with all the scientific advances and advantages of living today, are we still confounded by not only widespread hate and evil but also the malevolent inclinations in our own hearts—even towards those we claim to love?

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Annie Dillard attributes our malady to the loss of shared values once firmly held:

“If meaning is contextual, and it is, then the collapse of ordered Western society and its inherited values following World War I cannot be overstressed; when we lost our context; we lost our meaning. We became, all of us in the West, more impoverished and in one sense more ignorant than pygmies, who, like the hedgehog, know one great thing: in this case, why they are here. We no longer know why we are here.”(2)

It is in this place that the Easter story of Jesus crucified and resurrected that we might have life—that is, the gospel—speaks so uniquely, for it offers the most plausible and hopeful understanding of who we are and why we are here. We are made in the image of God to reflect his love and splendor, but we have sought to find our purpose and home elsewhere. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

The gospel offers us a window into our hearts and God’s grace to see our desires and “our poverty of spirit.” And this gospel offers us so much more. It offers us a relationship with the One who made us and who knows and loves us as no other can, and with this relationship, the freedom and power to receive all that God longs to give us: love, joy, peace, patience, self-control.(3)

“The entrance of your words give light,” wrote the psalmist of God.(4) Rare is the person who can speak into our lives with both truth and love. I think particularly of Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. He discloses that he knows about her five marriages and current man she is living with and that he is the living water for which she thirsts. We might not be surprised if she had turned away in anger and shame, but instead, she leaves her water jar and goes back to her village to exclaim, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (John 4:29). Jesus doesn’t seek to demoralize her but to tenderly unveil her life so that she might discover her “broken cisterns that cannot hold water” and find the One who will never leave her thirsty.

Throughout the Scriptures we see evidence of hearts awakened when God comes near. There is God wrestling with Jacob and Job crying out for mercy. There is the risen Lord walking with the dismayed travelers to Emmaus who didn’t recognize the long-awaited Anointed One they were hoping for was at their side. There is this same Jesus appearing to Saul, a violent persecutor of Christians, on the road to Damascus. In each instance and countless others, they are afforded an intimate encounter with their very Maker and Lord and the grace and forgiveness that would forever change their lives.

Indeed, it is because “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us … full of grace and truth” that we can trust his description of who we are and who he claims to be. Christ understands our frailties, our fears, our disordered affections. He knows our longing for love and our unwillingness to surrender. He knows the knots of cynicism, heartache, and distrust that can tangle our desire to believe, whether we’re a skeptic or a Christian. To each Jesus says, “Come”—and so much more. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 28-30).

Danielle DuRant is Director of Research and Writing at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, GA.

(1) From Colin McGinn, “Something Is Wrong and Somebody Is To Blame,” Book Review of Paul Oppenheimer’s Infinite Desire (Madison, 2001), The Wall Street Journal (13 February 2001), A24 and online (subscription only) at http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB98203977957817365.
(2) Annie Dillard, Living by Fiction (New York: Perennial Library/Harper & Row, 1982), 25-26.
(3) See Galatians 5: 22-23 among other verses.
(4) Psalm 119:130.
(5) John 1:14.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Nothing Without Love

 

Love is patient and kind
Love is not jealous or boastful…
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, love never ends.

What many may not realize is that this is a poem from the pen of the apostle Paul. And while this poem is used to paint a picture of young love at weddings, its intent far transcends the romance of the occasion, and a fairly limited understanding of this virtue.

Romantic love was not in the apostle’s mind when he penned this verse. Instead, tremendous conflict in the fledgling Corinthian church caused Paul great grief. There were dissensions and quarrels over all kinds of issues in this community; quarrels over leadership and allegiance, over moral standards, over marriage and singleness, over theology, and quarrels so extreme that lawsuits were being filed!(1)

So after reminding the Corinthian followers of Jesus that they represented his body—a body with many members and unique gifts and functions—Paul lifts up love as the height of what it means to be a mature human being:

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing….Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away….but now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (13:1-3, 8, 13).

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Grief Is Great

 

“Please—Mr. Lion—Aslan, Sir?” said Digory working up the courage to ask. “Could you—may I—please, will you give me some magic fruit of this country to make my mother well?”

A child in one of the Narnia books, Digory, at this point in the story, had brought about much disaster for Aslan and his freshly created Narnia. But he had to ask. In fact, he thought for a second that he might attempt to make a deal with Aslan. But quickly Digory realized the Lion was not the sort of person with which one could try to make bargains.

C.S. Lewis then recounts, “Up till then the child had been looking at the lion’s great front feet and the huge claws on them. Now in his despair he looked up at his face. And what he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and wonder of wonders great shining tears stood in the lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the lion must really be sorrier about his mother than he was himself.”(1)

Charles Dickens often spoke of his characters as beloved and “real existences.” I have often wondered if the “safe but never tame” Lion cared for C.S. Lewis half as much as this figure has comforted others. Lewis was a boy about the age of Digory when his mother lay dying of cancer and he was helpless to save her.

“My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another…”

The character that fills each of the gospel stories towers above all attempts we have made to describe him. And yet, had we been in charge of writing the story of God becoming human, I doubt it would have been Christ we described. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3). He was not the stoic, man of nerves we might have imagined. Nor was he the ever-at-peace teacher we often describe. He was, among other things, a man of sorrows.

If I am honest, there is, for me, immense comfort in a Christ who was not always smiling. As I picture his face set as flint toward Jerusalem, readying himself for the tortuous events of the cross, my fear is unfastened by his fortitude. As I imagine the urgency in his voice as he defended a guilty woman amidst a crowd holding rocks, my shame is undone by his mercy. And as I picture him weeping at the grave of Lazarus, crying out at injustice, sweating blood in the garden of Gethsemane, my tears are given depth, maybe even life, by his own cries. We do not grieve alone.

“But you, O God,” cried the psalmist, “do see trouble and grief.” Becoming man, the character of God was not compromised or misrepresented. As the vicarious Son of God knew tears, so the heart of God is one that knows grief. The heart of the Father is one who knows the loss of a child. “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted,” writes the prophet Isaiah. Matthew describes the extent of these words: “Then [Pilate] released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified” (Matthew 27:26). Indeed, our grief is great; let us be good to one another.

Perhaps those who mourn are called blessed because they are at this point closest to the deepest wound of the heart of God. Until every tear shall be wiped dry, we have before us the hopeful figure of the Man of Sorrows, who bore on his shoulders our grief and his own. “My son, my daughter, I know.”

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 83.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A German in Harlem

 

“Perhaps that Sunday afternoon,” Myles Horton reminisced about his late friend, the German pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “I witnessed a beginning of his identification with the oppressed which played a role in the decision that led to his death.”(1)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer arrived in America in 1930 to study at Union Theological Seminary, but he was less than impressed. He was firmly Lutheran and, with help from Karl Barth, had already begun to reject much of German theology that sought to demythologize and discredit allegedly unsavory elements of the Bible. Now, however, he was dropped into the hub of American theology which took many similar cues and was, lamentably, highly pragmatic, scattered, and less than orthodox. Barth referred to these forms of theology concerning God as merely speaking about humans in a loud voice; Bonhoeffer described it as “no theology” at all.(2)

One can only imagine how the energy of Harlem itself must have filled Bonhoeffer with a feeling of life and vibrancy. This was the era of the Harlem Renaissance, after all. The jazz stylings of Duke Ellington waltzed through the streets where intellectuals, poets, and artists mingled and created new forms of self-expression all their own and for their own.(3) This spirit of rebirth and defiance did not stop at the church doors, either. “[Bonhoeffer] was very emotional and did not hide his feelings, which was extremely rare for him,” Horton wrote. “He said it was the only time he had experienced true religion in the United States, and was convinced that it was only among blacks who were oppressed that there could be any real religion in this country.”(4)

“I heard the gospel preached in the negro churches,” Bonhoeffer effusively proclaimed in 1931.(5) He had come to New York with a growing conviction that the Incarnation was not just about God becoming man to die, but about Christ informing us today how to live. It was in Harlem where he began to see this holistically. The New Testament was written in a context where the church was a marginalized and oftentimes oppressed community. It seems to take something of that mindset to understand it fully. Losing that perspective turns us into spiritual salvationists rather than holistic kingdom gospelists. As the political situation in Bonhoeffer’s native Germany continued to crumble, which would give rise to the reign of the “crazed, cracked Austrian”(6) and his Nazi party, these enfleshed lessons from Harlem of life among the oppressed and marginalized would prove to be foundational in his development of incarnational ethics.(7)

The gospel Bonhoeffer heard was full-throated and full of all of the love, sin, grace, and justice of God that should have been there in the first place. It was not just a gospel that gazed into the sky, but one that was also firmly planted on earth. In his native Germany, theologians had been attempting to erase from the Bible certain embarrassing “earthy” stories, and that trend has continued even to our own day. But to the oppressed who do not have the comfort of comfort itself, there is nothing embarrassing at all about the struggle for a land in Canaan or the violent rescue of an enslaved people from Egypt. Bonhoeffer was gifted a copy of James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Spirituals by his friend Franklin, and these spirituals would quickly be incorporated into his personal liturgy and even later into the liturgy of his underground seminary at Finkenwalde, alongside old monastic practices and other holy rhythms.(8) One of his favorite songs was the spiritual “Go Down, Moses”:

As Israel stood by the waterside,
Let my people go,
At God’s command it did divide,
Let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh: Let my people go.(9)

Bonhoeffer would travel back to New York at the urging of his friends and family to seek safe haven from an increasingly hostile Germany in 1939. He was already well-known as being a resister and trouble-making enemy of the state to Nazi forces and the so-called “Reich Church.”(10) During his first visit to America, he had also toured the south and was appalled at the devastating reality of racial prejudice and injustice. Now, eight years later, he found the country in worse condition. But he also found the Black Church still standing and still singing, a beacon of light and hope and in a dark and hopeless world. His conscience groaned: “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America,” he wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr.(11) He would have to go back to Germany to live and struggle with his people rather than escaping to comfort and safety. This one final lesson from Harlem sent him back to Germany on one of the last ships that would sail there for years. Just a few weeks after his return, Hitler’s blitzkrieg invaded Poland and hurled the world into its second World War.

Bonhoeffer’s decision to return to Germany was essentially the decision to walk into his own grave—not that he was given one. But this is true discipleship, this is living the gospel holistically. His love of Scripture had taught him that, and his love of African American spirituality in Harlem had showed him that. These lessons are heard in his words and seen in his actions. The Bonhoeffer we know would not have been who he became without Harlem. He no doubt imbibed the words of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, who wrote:

How Calvary in Palestine,
Extending down to me and mine,
Was but the first leaf in a line
Of trees on which a Man should swing
World without end, in suffering
For all men’s healing, let me sing.(12)

These stark lessons remain for us today as well. Where are we letting our comfort get in the way of our calling? Where is our safety taking precedence over our sanctification? Where is our security trumping our service? If we are blind to oppression and suffering, we are blind to the call of the holistic gospel to lift up those who are being crushed to the ground. God always responds to cries, and we are told to do likewise. It is a terrifying call, I grant you, and one I often fail in answering. But this is what it ultimately means to be “in the form of Christ” in a world of horrors. “The form of Jesus Christ,” Bonhoeffer reminds us, “alone victoriously encounters the world.”(13)

 

Derek Caldwell is a writer for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 10 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), 31.
(2) Ibid., 265.
(3) Bonhoeffer would devour much of this literature himself, such as the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, along with other African American intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois.
(4) Ibid., 31.
(5) Ibid., 315.
(6) Malcolm Muggeridge, “But Not of Christ” in Seeing Through the Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith, ed. Cecil Kuhne (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2005), 29.
(7) Reggie Williams, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Christ,” in Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture, ed. Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2013), 61-62. Also see Reggie Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Baylor University Press, 2014).
(8) Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 233-34.
(9) Interestingly, this is one of several spirituals used by Africans Americans during the era of chattel slavery that would be sung with double meaning. Slaves in the 19th century “sung on one level with intense religious commitment and on another level as a code language to protest slavery and to plan for escape” (Sondra O’Neale, “A Slave’s Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley’s Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol,” Early American Literature 21 (1986): 145). It is this exact song that Harriet Tubman used to identify herself to fellow slaves during her many courageous rescue missions back to the southern United States.
(10) Where children’s baptism services often disgustingly ended with a prayer that “this child will grow up to be like Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler” (Marsh, 283).
(11) Bonhoeffer, Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 15 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 210.
(12) Countee Cullen, “The Black Christ by Countee Cullen with Illustrations by Charles Cullen,” University of Missouri Libraries, February 19, 2014. Also, for an interesting look at how different races have depicted the color of Christ in American history, consider Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
(13) Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works – Reader’s Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 92.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Twists and Turns

 

One of the wonderful gifts of being young is the endless optimism about the future. It seems that infinite possibilities stretch out before you; creative energy flows freely and there is a vitality that enlivens each new path and experience. All the roads before you open up and offer smooth transport to the attainment of one dream after another.

When I was a young child, the wisdom sayings of King Solomon were some of my favorite passages in the Bible. Their prescriptions offered an optimistic view of life for those who sought to follow the God. For some reason, the words seemed to bounce with joy, energy, and a sense of lightness. For example, “trust in the Lord with all your heart…and He will make your paths straight” were verses that seemed to indicate God’s direct guidance for all his children into happy, straight pathways. I inferred that trusting in God’s guidance would be the result of walking down all the wonderful, straight pathways that lay out before me. I would willingly and gladly walk towards the attainment of all my goals, desires, and dreams.

While these are still precious Scripture verses to me, I have come to understand them differently as an adult. The trust I proclaimed seemed easy as everything went my way. I didn’t rely on my own understanding because I didn’t have to! But, as is true of much of the human experience, my roads did not all run straight. When dreams began to die, life-goals went unmet, and desires dried up, I realized the challenge these verses really offer.

In his book, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes on the challenging nature of belief. “You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box.”(1) Indeed, as many of my life goals unraveled before me, ‘trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding’ took on new meaning in the face of absence, want, and unfulfillment. Real trust in God would be forged out of the fires of testing—testing that revealed whether or not I really believed in God, or in what God would give me. So, as God had seemingly abandoned my plans, my test of trust began.

C.S. Lewis picks up this theme in his marvelous book The Screwtape Letters. For maturation to take place, God must withdraw “all the supports and incentives” and “leave the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish.” He continues this thought through the character of Uncle Screwtape, the senior demon coaching his nephew Wormwood on the skills of devilry: “It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He [God] wants it to be. Only then, when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s [God’s] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”(2)

It is often when our paths are most crooked, when the “props” of the journey are nowhere to be found that we are most vulnerable to find other things in which to place trust. The withdrawn supports offer a painful challenge to grow up, and to allow trust to grow up as well. Here is where we learn to trust even while feeling lost and abandoned to crooked, twisting, and unsafe paths; paths we thought would lead us to our plans, dreams, and desires.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.The journey from youth to adulthood is surely filled with many crooked paths. Many get lost along the way. Yet, the promise of this ancient proverb is that God can and will make paths straight for those who find trust—trust that often is matured by struggle and the courage to trod down crooked paths of disappointment.

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

(1) C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Harper-Collins, 1961), 34.
(2) C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Harper-Collins, 2001), 40.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – When Silence Speaks

 

Studies have shown that at any given time, it is the poor and the marginalized sections of society who are always the most vulnerable, much more so in a crisis or disaster. It is not surprising that in the present crisis brought about by COVID-19, once again the unrecognized, unacknowledged, unseen sections of India’s millions are bearing the brunt of the suffering.

The migrant workers of India have been particularly hard hit. Migrating in droves from the many villages that dot India’s landscape, workers flock to big cities to support their families back home, living in congested urban ghettoes to survive. Often seen disparagingly as “intruders” and “outsiders” in the places where they live and work, these workers became refugees almost overnight in the wake of the national lock down. Stranded, jobless, and helpless, most opted to make the long trek back home. Tragically, many died on the way from sheer exhaustion and hunger.

These tragic stories captured center space on social media recently, prompting the government and the public to take some form of action to alleviate this suffering. The plight of the migrant workers of India—desperation, tiredness, and hunger writ large on their faces—was suddenly pushed to the forefront of public consciousness in a way that has never before occurred. Sadly, it took a crisis of pandemic proportions to give voice and visibility to this otherwise silent, unseen, and oppressed group of people. In this, India is not alone. Many Native American tribes in the US have also suffered disproportionately under COVID-19, calling attention to suffering long ignored and unseen.

Yet for India, the COVID-19 crisis has not only exposed the exploited condition of the migrant community, but it also reveals how heavily our nation’s economy is dependent on these vulnerable men and women whose hardships we have long ignored. Without this workforce, many factories and industries have been severely crippled and it is no exaggeration to say that it seems as if the economy will come to a grinding halt. Though India’s economic growth is planned out and strategized in business schools and boardrooms, it is this grassroots labor force that makes it all a workable reality. Realizing this, the government, companies, and building contractors are now trying to woo migrant workers with more rewarding offers to get them to stay. It is my hope that these steps toward awareness will help us to look at these men and women with new eyes, that the unseen and unheard among us will be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. It is my hope that we will work towards bettering their lives and correcting the oppression of their work conditions.

As a part of the Christian community, I affirm these hopeful signs of a greater, more just awareness. I believe that we are called to affirm people’s worth not because of what they can offer us but simply because they are human. The Bible asserts that every human being is created by God in God’s own image, which affords us both worth and purpose. Though the world does not allocate dignity in this way, we profess a holy God who is at work renewing all creation. I long to see a world that reflects this redemptive hope. I long to see my country treat each person, whatever his or her political or economic status, with the respect that he or she deserves. I long to see every contribution toward the development and growth of the country truly recognized and appreciated.

From this biblical vision of justice, two hopeful lessons come to mind. First, I am called to speak out. For the Christian, it is a biblical mandate to be the voice of the voiceless. Speaking out does not simply mean “protesting against,” but implies a proactive engagement with policies and laws that will result in equitable opportunities and dignity for the poorest of the poor. We need to engage with institutions and authority to work toward a fair and better future for the least of these. This demands hard work, research, and persistence. Living in a country such as mine, where the dominant worldview is one that attributes a person’s present condition to acts done in previous lifetimes, the task is not going to be easy. Nor will this mindset built over centuries of conditioning change overnight. We need strong, moral voices in our nation today to speak up for marginalized communities.

Second, I am called to reach out. As a follower of Christ, I am not only called to speak out but also to live out God’s eternal story of grace and kindness to the poor and oppressed. Recently, NDTV aired an interview with Mr. Cherian Thomas who shared stories of World Vision’s reach to the children of our country, especially those from the poorer sections of society. His heart-warming account called to mind the prayer of Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, who is said to have prayed: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.”

With a similar call to participation, theologian Christoph Schwoebel notes: “If the Cross and Resurrection of Christ point to the fact that God re-creates human dignity where it has been violated and abused, the Church which claims to be the Church of Christ is committed to sharing the situation of those who have lost their dignity in human eyes and to communicating to them the message that their dignity is re-created by the one who first bestowed it upon them.”(1)

Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God. Let my commitment to sharing God’s re-creation of dignity where it has been violated go unfettered. This should be our prayer every day of our lives.

Tejdor Tiewsoh is a speaker and trainer with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Shillong, India.

(1) Christoph Schwoebel, “Recovering Human Dignity,” in God and Human Dignity, ed. R. Kendall Soulen and Linda Woodhead (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006), 58.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Alienation and Embrace

Vincenzo Ricardo. If that name does not mean much to you, you are not alone. It does not seem to have meant much to anyone else except, perhaps, him who bore it. In fact it was not even his name. His real name was Vincenzo Riccardi, and nobody seemed to get it right after the sensational discovery of his mummified body in Southampton, New York. He had been dead for 13 months, but his television was still on, and his body was propped up in a chair in front of it.(1) The television was his only companion, and though it had much to tell him, it did not care whether he lived or died.

Riccardi’s story raises many unsettling questions. How can a human being vanish for over a year and not be missed by anyone? Where was his family? What about his relatives? Why was the power still on in his house? Whatever the answers are to these and other questions, one thing is clear: Riccardi was a lonely individual whose life can be summed up in one word, alienation. You see, Riccardi was blind, so he never really watched television; he needed this virtual reality to feed his need for real companionship. Moreover, his frequent “outbursts and paranoid behavior” may have played a role in driving people away from him.(2)

This is indeed a tragic and extreme tale, but it makes a powerful statement about how cold and lonely life can be for millions across the globe. Even those who seem to have all of their ducks in a row are not immune to the pangs of loneliness and alienation. The Christian story attests that alienation affects us at three different levels. We are alienated from ourselves, from others, and most significantly, we are alienated from God. That is the reality in which we exist. The restoration process involves all three dimensions, but it begins with a proper relationship with God. We cannot get along with ourselves or with others until we are properly related to God. The good news of the Christian gospel is that abundant restoration is available to all who want it.

This process is well illustrated in an encounter Jesus had with another deeply wounded man who lived in a cemetery. Relatives, and perhaps friends, had tried unsuccessfully to bind him with iron chains to keep him home. He preferred to live among the tombs (alienation from others), cutting himself with stones, his identity concealed in his new name—”Legion” (alienation from self). His mind and body were hopelessly enslaved by Satan’s agents, and his life was no longer his own (alienation from God). It took an encounter with Jesus for the man to be fully restored, “dressed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15). Only then could he follow Jesus’s command to go back to his family and tell them what God had done for him.

The restoration process remains the same today. Until we are properly related to God, our true identity and potential will always elude us. No virtual reality or gadget can even begin to address the problem, for they only give back to us what we have put into them. They are like the message in a bottle which a castaway on a remote island excitedly received, only to realize that it was a cry for help that he himself had sent out months before. As Augustine prayed, “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” We are finite creatures, created for a relationship with an Infinite Being, and no finite substitute can ever meet our deepest needs. Trying to meet our real needs without Christ is like trying to satisfy our thirst with salty water: the more we drink, the thirstier we become. This is a sure path to various sorts of addictions.

But when we turn toward the Bread of Life who offers himself up, calling each one of us to the table by name, loneliness is countered with the hope of embrace. We become members of God’s extended family. With Abraham, we look “forward to the city with foundations whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Day by day, we learn to trust God as we travel with others along a heavily trodden path that never disappoints. Friends and relatives may desert us, but we are never alone. We may grieve and lament, but never like those without hope. We have peace and joy within, and even in our own hour of need, others can still find their way to God through us. The alternative is a crippling sense of isolation and alienation within a worldly system whose offerings, however sophisticated and well-intentioned, can never arouse us from spiritual death.

J.M. Njoroge is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Nairobi, Kenya.

 

(1) Erika Hayasaki, “He Died in Vast Isolation,” LA Times, March 31, 2007.
(2) Ibid.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Upending the Status Quo

 

Author Dorothy Sayers was never one to live by convention. The only child of an Anglican clergyman, she was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University in 1915. After graduating from Oxford, she made her living writing advertising copy until she was able to publish more and more of her fiction. In the early stages of her career, she fell in love with a member of a motorcycle gang in England, and joined them in their travels far and wide.(1) Had she convinced C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams to ride with her, the Inklings group might have taken on an entirely different character!

Perhaps it was her unconventional life that led her to highlight the more unconventional side of Jesus’s own life and ministry. In a collection of essays published after her death, she wrote:

“He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But he had ‘a daily beauty in his life that made us ugly,’ and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness.”(2)

Indeed, Jesus stormed into the temple—the site of religious convention—consumed by zeal. He upset the tables of the moneychangers and he drove the vendors out with righteous rage. There was nothing dull about this first act John’s Gospel records for us as Jesus entered Jerusalem for Passover. Perhaps it was the last act that finally got him killed. He upended the commoditization of temple worship, driving out those who would prevent prayer by charging a fee. He was anything but dull.

Jesus was disruptive. And his disruption disturbed the status quo. So disruptive was he that the religious leaders of his day feared the entire nation might perish as a result of his advent. As Caiaphas, the high priest warned, “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:50).

Those who sought to kill him did so because they sought to protect law and order, tradition and teaching. It was not vice and corruption that sought him dead, but piety and due process. After all, wasn’t this man the one who allowed prostitutes and tax collectors into his presence, dining with them? Wasn’t this the man who allowed a pound of the finest perfume to be poured on his feet by Mary who then wiped his feet with her hair? Was this not the one of whom it was said, “Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax gatherers and sinners” (Matthew 11:19)! He was too much for the status quo to handle; “If we let him go on like this, all men will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:48). So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness.

It is a painful irony that the ones who wanted him dead were not the lawless, but the pious and the righteous ones. These are the very ones Jesus argued for his followers to exceed in terms of the standards of righteousness: “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” But the righteousness that Jesus espoused looked radically different from the righteousness of the religious leaders who now called for his death. In his upending way, he revealed that those who often appeared to be righteous were really “white-washed sepulchers.” His was a righteousness of compassion and not sacrifice, of reconciliation with offended brothers and sisters, of faithfulness and not lust, of commitment to spouses and not divorce, of keeping one’s word and repaying evil with good.(3) His was a righteousness that pierced straight to the heart where the transformation of mind, body, and action began. His was a righteousness that did not maintain peace and quietness.

As Dorothy Sayers wisely noted in her life and her writing, into every generation and every life Jesus comes to upend and disrupt the status quo. He is not dull. And he calls those who would follow him to forsake self-righteousness and the pride of piety. Like those before us, would we instead do away with God in the name of whatever peace and quietness we now seek to maintain? The journey to Golgotha is lined with the righteous as well as with sinners.

 

Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.

(1) “Dorothy Sayers, Writer and Theologian,” Biographical Sketches of Memorable Christians of the Past, 17 December 1957.
(2) Dorothy Sayers, The Whimsical Christian: Eighteen Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 17.
(3) See Matthew 12:7 and Matthew 5:20-48, the Sermon on the Mount.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Suffering Included

 

There is a part of me that feels the twinge of being scolded whenever my name is spoken to me. “Jill, what are you doing?” “Hurry, Jill, we need to go.” (Perhaps those of us that share this idiosyncrasy got in trouble a lot as kids.) But I have often wondered how Peter felt when Jesus’s scathing rebuke confronted not “Peter,” which would have yet had its sting, but “Satan.”

In those days, Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law. He began to explain to those who loved him that he would be put to death. Peter, like most of us reacting to the suffering of our loved ones, swore to protect him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” I can only imagine his shock at Jesus’s response. Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16:23).

I cannot read that passage without picturing my reaction to those words. I probably would have been devastated. But I also know that when Jesus says something devastating it seems to be something I should pay attention to all the more. The intensity of his reaction to Peter portrays the intensity with which he knew he had to suffer, the weight of history, prophecy, and salvation he felt on his soldiers, and his severe understanding of our need for his affliction. To get in the way of his necessary suffering was to be as an enemy obstructing the plan of God.

 

As I look at Peter standing before Christ with good intentions, not wanting to see the one he loved broken or defeated, I wonder how many times I, too, have obstructed suffering God deemed necessary. My gut reaction in the face of pain—my own and others—is to make it stop. Like Peter I vow to fix it, not knowing what I mean, just wanting it gone. Yet in the midst of suffering, Jesus warns, we must decide whether we will have in mind the things of humanity or the things of God.

The Christian understanding of suffering might seem odd to the world around it, for it is forged at the foot of the Cross. At the Cross, is the unpopular suggestion that God’s plan for our lives includes suffering. Christ was wounded and crushed for our iniquities. By the suffering and shame he endured, we are healed. Can God not also have a plan for our own pain?

As one theologian notes, “Jesus did not die in order to spare us the indignities of a wounded creation. He died that we might see those wounds as our own.”(1) At the Cross, we see our sin and the suffering that we have caused because of it. But we also find meaning even in suffering that doesn’t come as a result of our sin. We see, as Paul observed, that suffering produces perseverance, that we are purified in its fires, that what was meant for ill God intends for good. We see that Christ who suffered for us, so walks with us in our own suffering. “For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:5). At the Cross, we see that some suffering is not only necessary but meaningful.

Peter not only picked himself up from a rebuke more severe than anything he heard Jesus give the Pharisees, he took Jesus’s words to heart. In a letter meant to encourage fellow believers, he wrote, “It is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God” (1 Peter 2:19). Peter chose in the end to keep in mind not on human things, but the things of God.

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) Peter Gomes, Sermons (New York: Morrow, 1998), 72.

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