Category Archives: Ravi Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Tearing Down the House of Cards

“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” was a slogan I heard over and over again as I grew up. As a young person, this slogan meant that all my plans would be wonderful because God loved me. Now that I am older, I understand that this slogan had more to do with the Christian Gospel’s understanding of salvation than it did with guiding me down the primrose path of life. Yet, it still reverberates in my head when I experience hardship, pain, and loss. For it is often difficult to square a belief in the love of God with a series of life experiences that run counter to the expectations for a wonderful plan.

The seeming contradictions between stated beliefs and life experience often make faith complicated. For me, many of the cherished beliefs I held imploded and what I once thought was an invincible fortress came crashing down as life experience smashed up against them like a battering ram. C.S. Lewis described his own spiritual dismantling after the death of his wife, Joy, this way: “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”(1) Yet having to dwell in the rubble of what is left of one’s faith doesn’t feel as if it is the work of a God who desires to smash all our false conceptions.

There is a “great cloud of witnesses” who have also experienced the difficult conflict between what was held to be the truth and reality. Knowing this can give comfort for all who experience the collapse of all they hold dear. I am reminded of the biblical narrative of Joseph, as one example. He was told by God through a sequence of dreams that he would be great one day—so great, in fact, that his own brothers would come and bow down out of reverence for him. He had been given a glimpse of his destiny as Jacob’s dearly loved child, and perhaps he believed his path to that destiny would be won with ease. Instead, his path took many unexpected turns. First, his own brothers attempted to murder him, he was enslaved, and he spent a large portion of his life in prison having been falsely accused of various crimes he did not commit. Surely, Joseph must have had days where he wondered if God’s plan for his life was a wonderful one.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Does Religion Oppress Women?

A New York Times blog written by Nicholas Kristof recently caught my attention.  “Does Religion Oppress Women?” was the question and the title of the article.  As someone who speaks and writes on behalf of the Christian faith, I have often heard this asserted as a reason against belief in the Christian faith—or any faith at all.  But I am also a woman and I wondered how a secular journalist like Kristof might answer this question.  Moreover, I wondered what in his travels and experience he had seen that made him write about this topic in particular.

Kristof has traveled extensively across the African continent and has spent time in some of Africa’s poorest communities.  In his many essays documenting these experiences, he often talks about the role of faith, acknowledging both its positive role and its negative contribution in the life of African women specifically.  He writes, “I’ve seen people kill in the name of religion… But I’ve also seen Catholic nuns showing unbelievable courage and compassion in corners of the world where no other aid workers are around, and mission clinics and church-financed schools too numerous to mention.”(1)  So, is religion, and Christianity in particular, good for women?  Kristof does not offer an easy answer to this question.

And of course, there are not easy answers.  As recently as April 2010, as reported in Christianity Today magazine, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that Christians in some countries in Africa still practiced female genital mutilation.(2)  For many, and particularly persons of faith, these findings are very troubling.

In fact, these findings take on doleful irony when one looks at the earliest Christian movement and its attraction for women in particular.  The world of the Roman Empire, filled with a diverse array of religious options, could not compete with the growing Christian movement in its appeal to women.  So many women were becoming Christians, in fact, that pagan religious leaders used its attraction to women as an argument against Christianity.  In his treatise, On True Doctrine, the pagan leader Celsus wrote in alarming terms about the subversive nature of Christianity to the stability of the Empire and regarded the disproportionate number of women among the Christians as evidence of the inherent irrationality and vulgarity of the Christian faith.  Historian David Bentley Hart writes of Celsus’s alarm:  “It is unlikely that Celsus would have thought the Christians worth his notice had he not recognized something uniquely dangerous lurking in their gospel of love and peace… [A]nd his treatise contains a considerable quantity of contempt for the ridiculous rabble and pliable simpletons that Christianity attracted into its fold: the lowborn and uneducated, slaves, women and children.”(3)  Indeed, Christianity attracted women and others deemed on the bottom rung of society because it elevated their status from an often oppressive Roman patriarchy.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Bittersweet

In today’s world, it is often difficult to summon optimism. Bad news swirls around us blowing our hopes and dreams like leaves in the fall wind. In this gale, we often find it hard to cling to hope and to a sense that the future will be a bright one. In general, I see myself as an optimistic person. I try to find the bright side of bad situations, and I work hard to walk the extra mile to give others the benefit of the doubt in personal relationships. I am not a naïve optimist like the character Pangloss in Voltaire’s biting satire Candide. When it is clear the ship is sinking, I don’t believe everything will be alright nor do I believe, as Pangloss would, that the sinking ship is the best thing that could happen to me. I do all that I can to bail out the rising water, even as I wrestle against the fear and anxiety that accompanies impending disaster!

Yet despite my generally optimistic attitude and outlook, there are times when sadness overwhelms me. It may be a growing storm of weary longing or a tide of lonely isolation that sweeps over me, drowning me with a dolor that submerges my hope. Sometimes it occurs when I think about the aging process and our hopeless fight against it. Sometimes it occurs when I am in the grocery line, looking at the baggers and clerks who wonder if this is all they will ever do for work. Oftentimes, it occurs when I cannot see the good through all the violence and evil that oppresses the world and its people. I can easily become overwhelmed by the numbers of people who are forgotten by our society—the last, the least, and the lost among us—and wonder who is there to help and to save them from drowning.

It is in these times that I befriend lament. And I take great comfort in the loud cries and mourning that have echoed throughout time and history as captured in the poems, songs, and statements of lament. Indeed, a great portion of the Hebrew Scriptures comes in the form of lament, both individual and communal lament. The Psalms, as the hymnal of Israel, record the deepest cries of agony, anger, confusion, disorientation, sorrow, grief, and protest. In so doing, they express hope that the God who delivered them in the exodus from Egypt, would once again deliver by listening and responding to their lament.(1) The prophets of Israel, who cry out in times of exile, present some of the most heart-wrenching cries to God in times of deep sorrow and distress. One can hear the anguish in Jeremiah’s cry, “Why has my pain been perpetual and my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will God indeed be to me like a deceptive stream with water that is unreliable?” (Jeremiah 15:18). In addition, Jeremiah cries out on behalf of the people of Judah: “Harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved. For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken; I mourn, dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has not the health of the daughter of my people been restored?” (Jeremiah 8:20-22).

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Acquainted With Grief

“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 ministered to C.S. Lewis half as much as this Christ 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 tremendous figure that fills the gospels towers above all attempts made to describe him.  Yet had you or I been in charge of writing the story of God becoming human, I doubt it would have been Christ either of us 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,” reads the description of Isaiah.  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.

There is, for me, immense comfort in a Christ who was not always smiling.  As I picture his face set as flint toward Jerusalem, 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 freed 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 by his own cries. We do not grieve alone.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Nouns and Adjectives on the Throne

For years, I never used the word “sovereign” as a noun.  I knew it could be used in this way—”Like a sovereign,” writes Shakespeare “he radiates worth, his eyes lending a double majesty”—I just never did.  But trial and tragedy have a way of waking us to words and realities overlooked.  There was a time that whenever I closed my eyes to pray I was leveled by the image of the throne, and it was empty.  It was somewhere in the midst of this recurrent vision that I realized my neglect of the noun.  Was God indeed the Sovereign who spoke and listened?  I had often used the word as an adjective.  But adjectives, like good moods, seem to come and go.

The prophet Jeremiah depicts a Sovereign that cannot come and go, simply because He is. God’s sovereignty is not a coat that can be taken off when all is going well or when all is going poorly. God does not cease to be the Sovereign though the world refuses to bow or “distant” seems a better adjective. And God’s words are not stripped of their sovereignty though no one is listening or no one responds. The Sovereign of all creation is always sovereign, active, and near. It is we who are inconsistent.

Jeremiah chapter 6 begins with an image of the Sovereign speaking to a people unwilling to listen, an honorable Judge whose words are dishonored. “To whom shall I speak?” the LORD inquires. The question is a lonely one, reflecting both the prophet who speaks and the Sovereign whose words are ignored.  The inquiry also has the force of sarcasm:  Why bother speaking to a people who won’t hear? But the words are not a commentary on God’s behavior; God is not throwing his hands up and suggesting the route of silence. Rather, it is a commentary on God’s words themselves, which are weighted with the compulsion to be heard. Though our ears are closed and we scorn his warnings, the Sovereign speaks and his words go forth with power. “God is always coming,” says Carlo Carretto. “God is always coming because God is life, and life has the unbridled force of creation.  God comes because God is light and light cannot remain hidden.”(1)  God’s decrees from the throne create and sustain the world. There is a person enthroned in every word, bidding the world’s response to every call and every sound.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Why Does It Matter?

I recently ran across three stories—and three individuals—in Mark 5 that surprised me.  Mark first introduces us to a demon-possessed man, who upon seeing Jesus on the shore at a distance, immediately runs to him and falls upon his knees before him.  Jesus heals him, sends him home to his family, and then gets back into a boat with his disciples.

Next Mark tells us, “When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake…one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came there.  Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet and pleaded earnestly with him, ‘My little daughter is dying.  Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.’”  And how does Jesus respond to this man?  Mark says simply, “So Jesus went with him.”

However, before Jesus can get to Jairus’s house, a large crowd presses upon him, including another desperate person seeking his help—this time a woman bleeding for twelve years.  Writes Mark, “She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, ‘If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.’  Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.  At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him.  He turned around in the crowd and asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?’”

Jesus’s question prompts his disciples to ask with urgency and impatience, “You see the people crowding against you…and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’”  Do you hear what they communicate?  “Jesus, we are trying to get to the home of this powerful synagogue ruler before its too late and his child dies, and you stop to ask who touched you in this throng of people?  What does it matter?  Why do you care?”  But Jesus kept looking around, Mark observes, to see who had done it.  “Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth.”

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Father Who Runs

The massive Rembrandt measures over eight and a half feet tall and six and a half feet wide, compelling viewers with a larger than life scene. “The Return of the Prodigal Son” hangs on the walls of the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum depicting Christian mercy, according to one curator, as if it were Rembrandt’s last “spiritual testament to the world.” Fittingly, it is one of the last paintings the artist ever completed and remains one of his most loved works.

The painting portrays the reunion of the wayward son and the waiting father as told in the Gospel of Luke. The elderly father is shown leaning in an embrace of his kneeling son in ragged shoes and torn clothes. With his back toward us, the son faces the father, his head bowed in regret. Clearly, it is the father Rembrandt wants us most to see. The aged man reaches out with both hands, his eyes on the son, his entire body inclining toward him.

It is understandable that viewers have spent hours looking at this solemn reflection of mercy and homecoming. The artist slows unstill minds to a scene where the parable’s characters are powerfully still. The kneeling son leans silently toward the father; the father calmly and tenderly leans toward the son. All is at rest. But in fact, this is far from the scene Jesus portrays in the parable itself.

The parable of the prodigal son is a long way from restful, and the father within it is anything but solemn and docile in his embrace of the wayward son. In the story Jesus tells, while the son was “still a long way off,” the father saw him and “was filled with compassion for him” (Luke 15:20). This father was literally moved by his compassion. The Greek word conveys an inward movement of concern and mercy, but this man was also clearly moved outwardly. The text is full of dramatic action. The father runs to the son, embraces him (literally, “falls upon his neck”), and kisses him. Unlike the depiction of Rembrandt, Jesus describes a scene far more abrupt and shocking. It is not the son who we find kneeling in this picture, but the father. The characters are not at rest but in radical motion. The father who runs to his wayward son runs without any assurance of repentance; he runs without any promise that the son is even home to stay.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – For Lazarus and Rachel

Jesus tells the story of a rich man who is content to live comfortably with the great chasm between his success and a poor man’s predicament. At his own gate each day, the man passes a beggar named Lazarus, who is covered in sores and waits with the hope that he might be satisfied with something that falls from the rich man’s table. But as Jesus describes the rich man, he sees neither Lazarus nor his plight. Ironically, when the rich man dies and is suffering in Hades with his own agony and aspirations, he still chooses to view Lazarus as inferior, worthy only of being a servant. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me,” he pleads, “and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony.”(1) Twice he makes it clear in his requests that he sees the man who sat at his gate as subordinate at best. Having refused all his days to see the waiting Lazarus as a fellow soul, a suffering neighbor, the chasms the rich man allowed in life had now grown fixed in death.

Another story that emerges from the life of Jesus came before he was old enough to tell stories of his own. The prophet Isaiah told of a child who would be born for the people, a son given to the world with authority resting on his shoulders. Hundreds of years later, in Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, this prophecy was being fulfilled: The angel had appeared. A child was born. The magi had come. The ancient story was taking shape in a field in Bethlehem. But when Herod learned from the magi that a king would be born, he gave orders to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under. At this murderous edict, another prophecy, this one spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, was sadly fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping; Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”(2) While the escape of Mary and Joseph to Egypt allowed Jesus to tell the story of Lazarus years later, the cost, as Rachel and all the mothers’ who didn’t escape knew well, was wrenchingly great.

Of the many objections to Christianity, one that stands out in my mind as troubling is the argument that to be Christian is to withdraw from the world around us, to follow fairy tales with wishful hearts and myths that insist we stop thinking and believe that all will be right in the end because God says so. In such a vein, Karl Marx depicts Christianity as a kind of drug that anesthetizes people to the suffering in the world and the wretchedness of life. Likewise, in Sigmund Freud’s estimation, belief in God functions as an infantile dream that helps us evade the pain and helplessness we both feel and see around us. I don’t find these critiques and others like them troubling because I find them accurate of the kingdom Jesus described in any way. I find them troubling because so many Christians live as if Freud and Marx are quite right in their analyses.

In our impervious boxes and minimalist depictions of the Christian story, we can comfortably live as if in our own world, blind and unconcerned with the world of suffering around us, intent to tell our feel-good stories while withdrawing from the harder scenes of life. In fact, to pretend as if Christianity does not at times function as a wishful escape from the world is perhaps another kind of wishful thinking. There are some critiques of Christianity we ignore at our own peril.

But in reality the stories Jesus left us with reach unapologetically beyond wishful thinking; his proclamations of the kingdom among us are far from declarations of escapism. The story of Rachel weeping for her slaughtered children and Lazarus waiting in agony at the gate of someone who could make a difference are two stories among many that refuse to let us sweep the suffering of the world under the rug of unimportance. The fact that they are included in the gospel that brings us the hope of Christ is not only what makes that hope endurable, but what proves Freud and Marx entirely wrong. Jesus embodies the kind of hope that can reach even the most hopeless among us. He hasn’t overlooked the suffering of the world anymore than he has invited his followers to do so. It is a part of the very story he tells; it is a story written on his own scarred hands and feet.

Thus, precisely because the faith Christians proclaim is not a drug that anesthetizes or a dream that deludes, we must tell the whole story and not merely the parts that lessen our own pain. We must also live as people watchful and ready to be near those who weep and wait—the poor, the demoralized, and the suffering. There are far too many Rachels who are still weeping and Lazaruses who are still waiting, waiting for men and women of faith to inhabit the good news they proclaim, to live into the startlingly real identity of Christ himself.

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

(1) Luke 16:24.

(2) Jeremiah 31:15, Matthew 2:16-18.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Story and Ice

 

Robi Damelin knows it is all too alluring for the media to depict an extremist screaming at the top of a mountain about a greater nation or the mother of a suicide bomber saying she’s proud to have given her child; the alternative does not sell as well as the sensational. “But I can tell you of all these mothers who’ve lost children,” she says. “I don’t care what they say to the media. I know what happens to them at night when they go to bed. We all share the same pain.”(1)

Damelin is a mother who knows this pain well. Sitting beside her, Ali Abu Awwad, a soft-spoken young man thirty years her junior, knows a similar pain. Robi and Ali each tell stories of loved ones lost to violence, stories that happen to intersect at a place that puts them at painful odds with one another. Each grieves the loss of a family member caused at hands on opposite sides of the same violent conflict. For Ali, filled with the loss of his beloved younger brother, that place of intersection was once filled with thoughts familiar to many in his situation: How many from the other side need to die in order to make my pain feel better? Yet bravely, he began to notice something else at the crossroads of his side and theirs. For both Robi and Ali, it was the tears of the other side that would change the way they tell their stories.

Some stories, as Kafka prescribed, indeed provide the ax for the frozen sea inside us. Rather than crafting for themselves stories that add to the cold sea of hatred and despair which devastated them, Robi and Ali tell of the common grief that cracks the frozen wall between them. They are now a part of a growing network of survivors on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict who share their sorrow, stories of loved ones, and ideas for lasting change. “It’s the shared pain that allows you to open to another place completely,” says Robi. “If you want to be right it’s very easy,” adds Ali. “But to be honest is very difficult. Being honest means to be human.”(2)

 

Their story brings something I have been thinking about personally into a much broader place. Namely, the stories we tell ourselves powerfully shape our worlds:  I am right. I am wounded. I am entitled. I am abandoned. I am in control. These simple narratives rest at the heart of the things we do and say, quietly but decidedly shaping our worldviews, our identities, our humanity. They at times act as self-fulfilling prophecies, narratives which keep us locked in worlds we may even claim we want to leave: I am devastated. I am betrayed. I am on my own. The tale of Ali and Robi shows two people willing to change the more common narratives of power and prerogative to the much less comfortable narratives of shared loss and weakness: We are human. We are grieving. We know the same pain. And as such, they are finding humanity where there was once only suspicion, relationship where a great divide often reigns, and a common story which chips away at a great frozen sea.

Unfortunately, ours is a world often suspicious with regards to common narratives. Even common stories of human existence can be seen as controlling attempts to manipulate or undermine the individual’s story, which is viewed as supreme. The master narrative is similarly dismissed, rejected on grounds of totalitarianism. According to Robert Royal in The New Religious Humanists, the current philosophy is one that favors “petites histoires, that is, personal stories as the only locus of rich meaning open to us.” In this view, he continues, “all the old grands recits—Christianity, Hegelianism, Marxism, even liberalism—are dangerous totalizing and potentially terroristic illusions.”(3) The pervasive postmodern mindset prefers an individual approach to seeing the world, speculating on our origins, perceiving our destinies—independently.

But without undermining the power of personal stories, can we be satisfied with them alone? If petites histoires are really the only locus of meaning open to us, are we content with the effects of being held within those walls? Is the world the better for it? Robi and Ali, for one, would remain enslaved and frozen in a bitter conflict without the commonality that opened their eyes to a deeper humanity. Moreover, without a grand narrative that can truly answer humanity’s grand questions, the individual story only axes away futilely at a frozen abyss it can never crack.

The most remarkable gift of the master narrative I have chosen to tell and retell is that the storytelling is not over. I am instead freed to hear and tell my petites histoires in light of the whole story, which is yet unfolding even as it proclaims a definitive end. Which means, that sometimes the stories I tell myself are mercifully corrected by far greater I am statements than my own. That is to say, the quiet narrative that insists I am alone is told beside, “I am the good shepherd who searches for even one that is lost.”(4) The subtle fable of personal control is confronted by a story of life, death, and resurrection; a remarkable beginning and a far more remarkable end. Stepping both into history and petites histoires, God as storyteller shows us what it means to be human: with one Word, breaking through every frozen barrier.

 

 

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

(1) Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad with Krista Tippett “No More Taking Sides,” Speaking of Faith, February 18, 2010.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Gregory Wolfe Ed., The New Religious Humanists (New York: Free Press, 1997), 98.

(4) Cf. John 10:11-14, Luke 15:1-10

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A Philosophy of the Good

Not long ago, I conducted an internet search on the tag “What is the good life?” and I was amazed at what came up as the top results of my search. Most of the top entries involved shopping or consumption of one variety or another. Some entries were on locations to live and still others involved self-help books or other media touting five easy steps to the good life. Other entries provided the names of stores selling goods to promote “the good life.”

“What is the good life?” is a question as old as philosophy itself. In fact, it is the question that birthed philosophy as we know it.(1) Posed by ancient Greek thinkers and incorporated into the thought of Socrates through Plato, and then Aristotle, this question gets at the heart of human meaning and purpose. Why are we here, and since we are here, what ought we to do? What is our meaning and purpose? As my internet search revealed, there were no immediate entries on Plato, Aristotle, or the philosophical quest that originated in that question. There were no results on wisdom or the quest for knowledge lived out in a virtuous life. Instead, the entries involved purely material pursuits and gains. Sadly, this search may reflect the substance of our modern definition of what is good.

Out of the early Greek quest for the answer to this question emerged two schools of thought. From Plato emerged rationalism: the good life consists of ascertaining unchanging ideals—justice, truth, goodness, beauty—those “forms” found in the ideal world. From Aristotle emerged empiricism: the good life consists of ascertaining knowledge through experience, what we can perceive of this world through our senses.(2) For both Aristotle and Plato, rational thought used in contemplation of ideas is the substance of the good life.

Despite the obvious emphasis by both on goodness emerging from the contemplative life of the mind (even though they disagreed on the source of rationality), both philosophers saw the quest for the good life as benefiting society. For Plato, the quest for the good life—that of justice, truth, goodness, and beauty—leads to the ideal society. For Aristotle, virtue lived out in society is the substance of the good life and well-being arises from well-doing.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – New Robes

Hans Christian Andersen tells of the emperor who loved new clothes. This emperor so admired modeling his new robes that he spent all of his time in his dressing room. In fact, he had little concern for anything else in his kingdom.

One day two swindlers came to town announcing they were weavers of the finest clothes imaginable. Their royal colors and fabrics, they claimed, were exceptionally stunning. In fact, they were of such quality that they were only visible to the finest few! Those who were unfit for their office or were hopelessly stupid would not be able to see them at all.

The emperor was immediately taken by this description and provided the weavers with large amounts of money. He wanted to know those who were unfit for their posts; he also wanted to see the foolish and the clever within his empire. Yet when the emperor went to try on the garments, he was most distraught to realize that it was he who saw nothing at all. But the king would not admit his stupidity or incompetence; he would not let anyone think him a fool. He announced that the cloth was very beautiful, and all the courtiers rapidly agreed. In a great procession the next day, everyone spoke in admiration of the emperor’s new clothes. They loved the detail! The colors were beautiful! The garments were like no other, they said. But then from the back of the crowd a child spoke up, observing what the rest would not: The emperor was wearing nothing.

Imagine finding out that the one thing you have desperately attempted to keep veiled in secrecy was not actually veiled at all. The thought bears the unsettling sense of finding yourself unclothed before a crowded room. Would you feel foolish? Would you run and hide? Or would you insist the veil was still there? Andersen ends with a glimpse into the mind of the king: “[The words of the child] made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right. But he thought to himself regardless, ‘Now I must bear up to the end.’” Idols are not easy to own up to; how much more so, when what we idolize is not really there in the first place.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Seen. Known. Understood.

“Do you see this woman?” For some reason, the familiar question confronted me this time as if it were aimed as much at me as the guests around the table. Jesus was eating at the house of a religious man who had invited him to dinner. They were reclining at the table when a woman who is very easily remembered for her flaws came stumbling over the dinner guests, making her way to the feet of Jesus. Weeping over them, she broke a costly vial of perfume, wiping his feet dry with her hair. Who didn’t see her? Who didn’t notice her strange commotion? Who among them didn’t immediately recognize how out of place she really was? Yet he asks, “Do you see this woman?”(1) He was either speaking ironically or he saw something the rest did not.

The late seventeenth century poet George Herbert once described prayer in a detailed list of stirring metaphors.  Among the first lines, prayer is described as “the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.” At those words I cannot help but picture this woman lying prostrate at Christ’s feet. As she poured out the perfume, so she poured out her soul. Her prayer was one without words, her worship spilled out as tears upon his feet. Onlookers saw a fallen and foolish woman, an extravagant waste. Jesus saw a heart in pilgrimage, a prayer understood.

I remember the first time I was unapologetically honest with God. My head was bowed but inwardly I was somewhat closer to pounding fists against a divine chest. In silent reflection, I shouted internally. Everyone around me seemed to be experiencing the still, small voice, the gentle touch of a Father’s hand, the assurance of God’s glory and power, the confirmation of a hope and a future, answered prayers, even dramatic miracles. But I couldn’t sense God’s presence, or hear God’s voice at all. I had more questions and uncertainty than answers and assurance. It seemed as though I was relating to an empty throne. Like an attention-starved child, I yelled at God for existing, for forgetting to love me, for failing to understand or care.

In Herbert’s list of words, my prayer this day was perhaps more fitting “reversed thunder” or “Christ-side-piercing spear.” My words pled for the presence of God, for the love and will of a good creator in my life, for complete access to the loving Father I believed was real but just not to me. But what I was asking for sharply (and probably quite irreverently) required the wedge that stood between us to be obliterated, the chasm crossed—indeed, the human death of the incarnate Son to show how deeply the Father longs to gather us up like a hen gathers her chicks, whether we are willing or not. I likely spoke in ignorance and in anger, making claims like Job without understanding. I was likely not as interested in hearing at that point as I was at shouting. But God heard. Responding to my interrogation, God revealed my true question. I was tired of being the stepchild, and yet I had been keeping the Father in my mind as something more like a distant uncle. Seeing me, God showed me what I did not.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Love Unsought

How do you know that God exists?  How do you know that God loves you?  These questions, upon the hearts of so many, have answers as real as the formative moments in your life.

As I have aged I seem to grow more and more prone to nostalgia.  Many of us do this instinctively, clinging to memories past, perhaps looking backwards with the hope of seeing a purpose for our lives.  When I travel to India, I make it a point to revisit time and again those significant marking points of my own life.  As I recall these moments past but not forgotten, I hear the gentle voice of the God very much in the present.  And God says, “I was there.”  “When on you were on your bike contemplating suicide, I was there.  When you were but nine years old and your grandmother died, I arranged for her gravestone to hold in time the very verse that would lead you to conversion.  I was there.”

It is often in these harrowing moments—your parents’ divorce, your child’s birth, the death of a loved one—where God leaves a defining mark.  There is reason you remember such moments so vividly.  We have a choice to hear or to ignore, but regardless his voice cries out in our memories, “I was there.”  God has been in our past.  God is here today.  God will be there in our future.

God exists, as Lewis worded it so well, in the “eternal now.”  And the psalmist, always writing with feet firmly planted in time, but arms ever reaching for the eternal, beautifully explains, “Thou art God from age to age the same.”  And while hindsight is often God’s means of gently revealing his presence all along, we can be comforted in the peril of the moment nonetheless.  As we encounter these markers in time, our sorrow is held in the beautiful mystery of one who wept with a friend, who answered her question “Where were you?” with tears of his own.  Beside Lazarus’s tomb, Jesus offered Mary a glimpse of the present love of God, though he knew a greater future.  God was with you then.  God is there with you now.  And He loves you.

William Shakespeare once reasoned, “Love sought is good, but given unsought is better.”  How do you know that God loves you?  While you and I were yet lost and wandering, Christ was wandering after us, by way of the Cross.  And this sacrifice stands as the greatest marker in all time.

Ravi Zacharias is founder and chairman of the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Reading Between the Lives

On any given week, three to five biographies make The New York Times best-seller list for non-fiction. Though historical biographies have changed with time, human interest in the genre is long-standing. The first known biographies were commissioned by ancient rulers to assure records of their accomplishments. The Old Testament writings, detailing the lives of patriarchs, prophets, and kings, are also some of the earliest biographies in existence. Throughout the Middle Ages, biographical histories were largely in the hands of monks; lives of martyrs and church fathers were recorded with the intention of edifying readers for years to come. Over time and with the invention of the printing press, biographies became increasingly influential and widely read, portraying a larger array of lives and their stories.

The popularity of the genre is understandable. As writer Thomas Carlyle once said, “Biography is the most universally pleasant and profitable of all reading.” Such books are pleasant because in reading the accounts of men and women in history, we find ourselves living in many places. They are profitable because in doing so, we hear fragments of our own stories. The questions and thoughts we considered our own suddenly appear before us in the life of another. The afflictions we find wearying are given meaning in the story of one who overcame much or the life of one who found hope in the midst of loss. Perhaps we move toward biography because we seem to know that life is too short to learn only by our own experience.

Christianity embraces a similar thought. The most direct attempt in Scripture to define faith is done so by the writer of Hebrews. The eleventh chapter begins, “Now faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.” To be honest, it is a definition that has always somewhat eluded me, and I was thankful to read I am not alone. John Wesley once observed of the same words, “There appears to be a depth in them, which I am in no wise able to fathom.” Perhaps recognizing the weight and mystery of faith and the difficulty of defining it, the writer of Hebrews immediately moves from this definition to descriptions of men and women who have lived “sure of hope” and “certain of the unseen.” From Noah and Abraham, to Rahab and saints left unnamed, we find faith moving across the pages of history, the gift of God sparkling in the eyes of the faithful, the hope by which countless lives were guided. In this brief gathering of biographies, the writer seems to tell us that faith is understood practically as much as philosophically, and that our own faith is more fully understood by looking at lives God has changed long before ours. For in between the lives that describe any faithful man or woman is the vicarious humanity of the Son of God who makes faith possible in the first place.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Age of Anxiety

Scott Stossel, the editor of The Atlantic Magazine, described his life-long struggle with anxiety in an article written in 2014. With incredible candor, Stossel described some of the most debilitating experiences with his illness:

“I wish I could say that my anxiety is a recent development, or that it is limited to public speaking. It’s not. My wedding was accompanied by sweating so torrential that it soaked through my clothes and by shakes so severe that I had to lean on my bride at the altar, so as not to collapse. At the birth of our first child, the nurses had to briefly stop ministering to my wife, who was in the throes of labor, to attend to me as I turned pale and keeled over… On ordinary days, doing ordinary things—reading a book, lying in bed, talking on the phone, sitting in a meeting, playing tennis—I have thousands of times been stricken by a pervasive sense of existential dread and been beset by nausea, vertigo, shaking, and a panoply of other physical symptoms… Even when not actively afflicted by such acute episodes, I am buffeted by worry.”(1)

While I often worry, I have never experienced the kind of crippling anxiety that Stossel describes in his article, or that I frequently hear about from dozens of individuals in search of relief from chronic anxiety. Yet many of us feel as if we are always on edge or we sense an underlying feeling of dread. For our world is often a very frightening place. Indeed, the time that we live in has been described as the “age of anxiety.” Perhaps this is true, in part, because our 24/7 access to technology ensures that we are immersed in global images and headlines of terrorism, epidemics, the threat of environmental collapse, violent crimes, economic woes, international conflict, and political strife. Particularly in the West, the incidence of anxiety-related diagnoses are increasing among individuals of all ages, including among teenagers, college-students and young adults who have grown up in a technological age full of anxiety-producing images.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Lightening the Darkness

They told me to give it three weeks. “Your eyes and your brain are getting reacquainted again,” he said. “Your eyesight will fluctuate for the next few days.” Less than a week after eye surgery, I was tired of fluctuating. At times my vision was so crisp that it was almost too much for me—like I was somehow seeing more than I should. But this clarity came and went; I was sometimes far-sighted, sometimes near-sighted, sometimes neither very well. Perfect sight was not as immediate as I anticipated.

My inhabiting of faith and belief is not so far from this. Fittingly, I was given the charge of writing about my meandering path toward Christian belief the same week of my eye surgery. The reflective task of peering into my life, looking at patterns and history with the hope of illumination seemed ironic as I squinted to see my computer screen. But it served as a helpful metaphor. My vision of Jesus has been far from immediate. It has been much closer to a fluctuating timeline of beholding and squinting, seeing, not-seeing, and straining to see. My experience has been something more like the blind man’s from Bethsaida:

“Do you see anything?” Jesus asks after placing his hands on the man’s eyes.

The man looks up and says, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Jesus puts his hands once more on the man’s eyes, and then “his eyes were opened; his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”(1)

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A Theology of Sleep

For some people, the fear of sleep accompanies the fear of death. For some, the fear of not being awake is akin to the fear of not being. Public Radio International personality Ira Glass spent a program discussing his own fear of sleep, along with others who find something worrisome in the altered, vulnerable state of slumber: “I’d lie awake at night scared to go to sleep,” says Glass of himself as a child. “‘Cause sleep seemed no different than death, you know? You were gone. Not moving, not talking, not thinking. Not aware. Not aware. What could be more frightening? What could be bigger?”(1)

Others describe a similar sense of foreboding in the still of night that is irrationally paralyzing for them: a seven year-old trains himself to resist sleep, a young student describes her extensive intake of caffeine and denial. But one man, speaking bluntly of the fear of death in the middle of the night, attests to the altogether rational quality of his fear. “It’s not an irrational fear… You understand that you’re a mortal; your life is going to be over at some point. You’re fighting the worst enemy in the world as you lie there in bed….you’re trying to fight death and there’s no way you can win.”(2)

Glass closes the program with an excerpt of Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” a poem about waking at 4 a.m. and staring around the bedroom, and seeing “what’s really always there:/ Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,/ Making all thought impossible but how/ And where and when I shall myself die.” Larkin, who died a bleak philosopher at 63, continues:

This is a special way of being afraid

No trick dispels. Religion used to try,

That vast moth-eaten musical brocade

Created to pretend we never die,

And specious stuff that says no rational being

Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing

that this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,

No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,

Nothing to love or link with,

The anaesthetic from which none come round.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – In Defense of Listening

 

“I like to listen,” said Ernest Hemingway. “I have learned a great deal from listening carefully.”

Hemingway speaks of a significant virtue, lamenting accurately, “Most people never listen.”

I wonder if he would feel differently if it were his books to which people were listening.

The popularity of audio books is redefining the notion of reading, and some authors—and readers—are unhappy about it. “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,” says literary critic Harold Bloom. “You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.” Others who doggedly defend the entire experience of reading—the feel of a book in their hands, the smell of its pages, the single-minded escape of delving into a story—find listening to a book something akin to cheating. “You didn’t read it,” they contest; “you only listened to it”—as if this somehow means they took in a different story.

For those who love the written word and printed page, for those who are elated at the sight of a bookstore, not only is listening to Hamlet or The Count of Monte Cristo something like picking up the cliff notes, e-books are almost equally offensive. There is no substitute for books, no surrogate for reading.

I mostly agree. I find myself responding to the question, “Have you read such and such?” with a similar admittance of guilt: “Well, I listened to it” (usually accompanied with a comment about Atlanta traffic). And yet, I am becoming more and more convinced that audio books definitely have their place in learning—with or without traffic. Auditory processing is vital to any learning. Hemingway is right; listening carefully is a vital skill to keep sharp.

I find that I pick up different facets when I listen to a paragraph than I might have gleaned from reading that same paragraph. C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity is a book I have read many times. When I bought the book on CD, however, I found listening to the work an entirely different, altogether helpful experience. Interestingly, Mere Christianity began as a series of lectures for the radio, perhaps amplifying its effectiveness as an audio book. And yet some words are simply powerful whether heard internally or aloud.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Creative Gardening

 

In the 1930s, a vine native to Japan was introduced throughout the United States as a highly effective means for controlling erosion. Forty years later, the USDA officially declared this miracle-vine a weed. While visitors to the South are immediately taken by scenic glimpses of kudzu-blanketed landscapes, natives keep their doors shut to keep the creeping plant from taking over their houses. Growing better in the South than it does even in its native environment, kudzu can grow as much as a foot per day, climbing trees, barns, telephone poles—and anything else that gets in its way. And while these vines actually do help prevent erosion, they also destroy entire forests, wrapping themselves around every inch, smothering every tree from needed sunlight.

The chronicles of southern kudzu came to mind at a similar story in recent headlines. The article describes an isolated farm village in the mountains of northern Mexico that has been about the work of recruiting cats. Attempting to counter a frightening population of rats for a town of 3,000 (health officials estimate as many as 500,000 rats in this small village), some believe importing cats is the most logical solution. But as “cat donations” begin to accumulate steadily, others are less sure it is a foolproof plan. Stray cats that haven’t been sterilized may only create more problems. Their plague of rats, some warn, may quickly be replaced by a plague of cats.

Does it ever feel like life is a similar testing ground of creative or destructive gardening, trial and error, cause and effect? What do you do when the attitude you attempted to import to control false hope somehow becomes a growing spirit of sarcasm? Or the vow you made to silence your critical words seems to evolve into a mounting plague of unvoiced frustration? Sometimes it feels like we are only bouncing between extremes, pulling weeds only to transplant them, working on the leak in one corner only to find we’ve sprung a leak in another.

Christianity can introduce a life that is not much different than problem-solving with cats and kudzu. Like the vines brought in to counter one problem, we, too, can easily end up introducing another. Fighting to counter our inattentiveness to this or that virtue, we might battle laziness and lethargy or struggle to correct our time and routine, only to find that as victory seems to loom in the garden the battle is now against a quickly creeping sense of self-righteousness. The plague of the weeds of apathy is easily replaced by an infestation of arrogance.

Jesus, who regularly countered apathy with active commands, seemed also to know well our capacity for self-righteousness, warning hearers to be on guard against the “yeast of the Pharisees.” It is all too often the weed that creeps in and takes over while we believed we were planting better fruit (and very well may have been). He also warned that our adversary is like an enemy who comes and sows weeds among the wheat while everyone is sleeping. And often, this mystery gardener may well be ourselves. Jesus who spoke thoroughly of seeds and sowing was well aware that tending the weeds of materialism or immorality or fear may simply leave us open to the planting of idolatry of a different varietal.

With these teachings in mind, C.S. Lewis once commented that errors often come in pairs. Our adversary, he writes, “always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking about which is the worse. […] He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.”(1) It is a struggle that calls us to be faithfully self-aware, lest we oscillate from one weed to another. “But do not let us be fooled” writes Lewis. “We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through both errors.”

And at this, the goal of course is Christ—nothing less, nothing added—not Christian truth, not Christian charity, but Christ himself. The goal is Christ, who walks at our side even as we find ourselves struggling to hike through the weeds we have created, the idol varietals we have simply exchanged, the plague where there was once a pest. “But you are of Christ,” the apostle Paul reminds, “and Christ is of God.” Wherever we find ourselves, this is our hope: that even in our oscillating we are being tilled and cultivated by the Spirit into the image of the one who created us. God is at work; God is the first and most able Gardner, and to this hope the Christian clings, lost in wonder, love, and praise. For after the first few steps of the Christian life and well into the journey of new creation, we realize that creeping vines and mounting plagues can be uprooted and transformed to beauty only in his able hands.

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

(1) The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2002), 100.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Breaking Headlines

Swedish chemist Alfred Bernhard Nobel was once largely known as a maker and inventor of explosives. In 1866 Nobel invented dynamite, which earned him both fame and the majority of his wealth. At one point in his life he held more than 350 patents, operated labs in 20 countries, and had more than 90 factories manufacturing explosives and ammunition. Yet today he is most often remembered as the name behind the Nobel Prize, the most highly regarded of international awards for efforts in peace, chemistry, physics, literature, and economics.

In 1888 a bizarre incident occurred, which seemed to have afforded Alfred Nobel an unlikely opportunity for reflection. Many believe it was this event that ultimately led to his establishment of the Nobel Prize and subsequent change in his reputation. Alfred’s brother Ludvig died while staying in Cannes, France, but the French newspapers mistakenly confused the two brothers, reporting the death of the inventor of explosives. One paper’s headline read brusquely: “Le marchand de la mort est mort”—the merchant of death is dead.

I can’t imagine reading the headlines of my life written at the hands of my harshest critic, but I do remember laboring over an assignment in middle school in which I was required to write my own obituary. Some of the class was given the task of writing it as if they died well into their eighties; others had to write as if they died that year. The assignment was meant to incite reflection, and in most of us it did—particularly those of us who were designated early deaths. As in the case with Alfred Nobel, my premature obituary suggested headlines I did not want to live with; that I was the one writing them made this all the more sobering.

In a very real sense, I am still (as is each of us) the writer of my own obituary. But I am no longer thinking about the words and headlines in the way I was thinking about them in middle school. As I struggled to find the words, it seemed I had so little material with which to work—no graduations, no family, no accomplishments worth mentioning, no humanitarian contributions, no overarching purpose for my life. I was imagining all the things I had not done and feeling quite insignificant about the things I had. At that point in time, it seemed clear that a few more years were necessary in order to make a meaningful headline.

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