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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 – Love and Sorrow Meet

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself, alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

His hour had come. He had walked among them, taught them, performed miraculous signs, and he had loved and cared for them. But now, his hour had come and the cross lay ahead of him. The hour he faced would be filled with trial and suffering: Now, my soul has become troubled and what shall I say, Father, save me from this hour?(1)

Jesus would walk the long, lonely road to the cross. Rather than taking the way of self-preservation, he would offer his life, like a grain of wheat. He would die; he would be buried in the darkness of the earth, but as a result he would bear much fruit. Despite what lay ahead of him, and despite the trouble in his soul, he affirms: For this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Thy Name.

Of what was transacted there on that cross, there are many theories.(2) In formal theology, these theories attempt to get at the very nature and the very essence of what Jesus accomplished through his death. For theologians, atonement studies are a fertile field of inquiry because the meaning and impact of the atonement are rich, complex, and paradoxical. One theory, for example, suggests that the atonement stands as the preeminent example of a sacrificial life—an example that followers of Jesus are called to model in their own lives. Other theories argue that the cross is the ultimate symbol of divine love, or that the cross demonstrates God’s divine justice against sin as the violation of his perfect law. Still other theories suggest the cross overcame the forces of sin and evil, restored God’s honor in relation to God’s holiness and righteousness, or served as a substitution for the death we all deserved because of sin.

 

While the nature of the atonement may include a portion of all of these theories, Jesus’s statements as recorded in John’s gospel indicate that his death would be a path to abundant life resulting in the production of much fruit. And in this case, Jesus doesn’t construct a theory of the atonement, but instead chooses an agrarian image to indicate what would be accomplished in the cross. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified… unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Charles Spurgeon, the nineteenth century theologian and preacher, wrote that this passage of Scripture is rich with paradoxical statements describing the nature of atonement:

“[P]aradox is this—that his glory was to come to him through shame…[that] the greatest fulness of our Lord’s glory arises out of his emptying himself, and becoming obedient to death, even the death of the cross. It is his highest reputation that he made himself of no reputation. His crown derives new luster from his cross….We must never forget this, and if ever we are tempted to merge the crucified Saviour in the coming King we should feel rebuked by the fact that thus we should rob our Lord of his highest honour.”(3)

Spurgeon expands on the paradoxical nature of death bringing forth life. It is only through the cross, just as a kernel of wheat must die in order to produce a harvest, that new life in Christ and reconciliation with God are accomplished. Most powerfully, Spurgeon notes that this teaches us where the vital point of Christianity lies, Christ’s death is the life of his teaching. See here: if Christ’s preaching had been the essential point, or if his example had been the vital point, he could have brought forth fruit and multiplied Christians by his preaching, and by his example. But he declares that, except he shall die, he shall not bring forth fruit.(4)

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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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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Building Culture or Making Ruins

 

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Greece and Turkey. While there, I marveled at the ancient ruins of the Greek temples and wondered at the beautiful mosaics of Christ covering the ceilings of every church—from a tiny chapel in the countryside to the great cathedral of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. During the tour, we often saw the ruins of the temples standing side by side with ancient Christian churches. Other times, our guide informed us that the Christian church was built upon the now decimated ruins of an ancient temple.

I remember feeling a bit disturbed over the loss of these ancient ruins, which would never be seen again, now built over by largely abandoned Christian chapels. And yet I understood the sweeping movement of Christianity—overturning the pagan environment of Greece and Rome and building churches and chapels as signposts of that victory.

This scene replicated across the landscapes of Greece and Turkey served metaphorically as a picture of the uneasy tension between Christianity and its surrounding culture. On the one hand, church and pagan temple stood side by side, a living picture of the parable Jesus once told about allowing wheat and tares to grow up together until the judgment. On the other hand, churches built on the ruins of pagan temples presented the image of Christianity conquering the pagan religions of the day, standing in triumph and uprooting the tares in victory.

Christianity wrestles with this same tension today, vacillating between constructive engagement in culture on the one hand and eschewing the culture on the other. The art world is often an arena for this battle. Should Christians engage in the arts? If so, how should they engage in the arts? Should there be Christian music, art, and literature? Or should there simply be Christians who make music, produce art, and write literature? In other words, should Christians build next to the pagan temple or replace the pagan temple with a church?

While the answers to these questions can often be complex, perhaps there are some insights from another picture of early Christian interaction using art from the prevailing culture. The catacombs under the streets of Rome are filled with art produced by the early Christians. Interestingly enough, however, the Christian scenes normally used non-Christian forms. Some of the portrayals of Jesus as the Good Shepherd are clearly modeled after pagan pictures in which Orpheus was the central figure.(1) It is not an accident that the early Christians chose to model their art after the pagan depictions of Orpheus. In Greek mythology, Orpheus was such a brilliant musician that “he moved everything animate and inanimate; his music enchanted the trees and rocks and tamed wild beasts, and even the rivers turned in their course to follow him.”(2) Clearly, the early Christians used this artistic rendering for apologetic reasons; like the myth of Orpheus, they believed Jesus had a cataclysmic influence on all of creation.

In every generation, art has been used as a means to communicate the Christian faith, even as an uneasy tension exists with artistic engagement. Yet, without thoughtful engagement a vacuum is left, unfilled. Without a new Orpheus, all that is left to do is bemoan the binding of the arts to darker forces. And while Christians often raise the complaint, there is also a blindness at times to the very ways in which the church is inextricably bound to culture.

C.S. Lewis once wrote about the value of Christian involvement in popular scholarship. When understood broadly, Lewis’s words are instructive for Christian engagement in the arts or in any other discipline. Flannery O’Connor, like C.S. Lewis, believed that any Christian who can make good art or write good stories or teach mathematics well will do much more by that than by setting out to make Christian art or to write Christian stories. What we need isn’t more books about Christianity, but more artists and writers and scientists and mathematicians who with excellence approach their work in any and every subject—with their Christianity latent. Perhaps building such subtle cathedrals on the landscape of culture is indeed more winsome than making ruins.

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

(1) Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500, vol. 1 (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1975), 251.
(2) Encarta, Orpheus.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Reigning From a Cross

 

His final hours were spent in prayer. Yet, the Gospel of Luke tells us that there was nothing unusual about this practice. “And he came out and proceeded as was his custom to the Mount of Olives…and when he arrived at the place…he withdrew from them…and knelt down and began to pray.”(1) As was his custom, Jesus would go to pray. We do not often hear the content of these prayers, but in this case, in these final hours, we see him gripped with passion. Luke tells us that he was in such agony that his sweat “became like drops of blood.” Under conditions of extreme duress, it is possible to rupture capillaries in the head. Blood pours out of the skin like perspiration. Whatever the case, Jesus had never been in this much distress before—even in his wilderness testing—we have no other portrait of him in anguish during prayer.

“And being in agony he was praying very fervently,” writes Luke. What was the source of his agony? Was Jesus in agony over the physical torture and death he was about to endure? Was he in agony over the spiritual condition of his disciples, one who would betray him and the others who would all abandon him in his time of need? Certainly, the latter is a real possibility as he exhorts his disciples at least two times to “watch and pray that you might not enter into temptation.”(2)

Whatever the reason for his agony, Jesus’s humanity was on full display in his prayer. He did not want to walk the path that was unfolding before him, and he pleads with God to provide an alternative path. Matthew’s gospel reveals more of his struggle. He tells his disciples “I am deeply grieved, to the point of death.” Then he prays to his Father, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but your will be done.”(3) The via dolorosa, the way of suffering, unfolded before him and he would go to his death, despite his anguished prayers for another way.

As Christians meditate on the passionate prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, his human agony and suffering on full display, all are brought face to face with the contrast between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the agony that now awaited. How easy it is to follow Jesus as the victorious, but not as a fellow sufferer. How often the pursuit is after the glory and the grandeur of Palm Sunday as the entryway to the kingdom. But as author Kim Reisman has noted, “That is not the Jesus way. God doesn’t dispense with death. God resurrects us from it. The truth is that the Jesus way isn’t about God taking pain away from God’s people; it’s about God providing us with strength, courage, and meaning, with abundant life, often in the midst of pain.”(4)

Even those who do not share this Christian conviction might wonder at the very human portrait of Jesus’s agonizing struggle with his own suffering. This one has also suffered, struggled, and wrestled with the circumstances of this life. Perhaps Jesus knows something of my own suffering, and of yours. And this man from Nazareth shows the God who takes on death and suffering and brings about resurrection from the dead. As Christian pilgrims, and all those who wonder and might long for a closer look, turn toward Gethsemane and remember this one who reigns not from a throne, but from the Cross.

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

(1) Luke 22:39-41.
(2) Luke 22:40; 46.
(3) Matthew 26:38-39.
(4) Kimberly Dunnam Reisman, Following At a Distance (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 75.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Suffer the Children

 

What I remember most about Katie was her large, brown eyes.(1) From those large eyes fell even larger tears as she recounted the horrors perpetrated against her by her parents. She had suffered so much in her young life that she had difficulty recalling many moments of child-like play, imagination, adventure, or happy memories. Unlike Katie, my childhood was filled with many cherished memories—our two childhoods couldn’t be more different. While I certainly had my fair share of difficult memories—of getting lost at the shopping mall, getting into trouble for mischief gone too far, or arguments with my siblings, I look back on my childhood with fondness and an appreciation for a nurturing, caring home life.

Unfortunately, there are many other children like Katie. Their memories are filled with violence, neglect, and abuse. The Children’s Bureau of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families reports through the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System in 2012, “an estimated 3.4 million reports were received by Child Protective Service agencies in the United States alleging that 6.3 million children were maltreated by their parents or guardians. Nationally, approximately 1,560 children die each year as a result of maltreatment.” (1) And in my own home state, Child Protective Services received more than 88,709 reports of child abuse and neglect. (2) Around the world, according to the World Health Organization, one in five women and one in thirteen men were sexually abused as children.(3)

Many historians have noted how modern societies take for granted the innocence and vulnerability of children that makes them beings of particular value and entitled to particular protection and care. In an article entitled “How Christianity Invented Children” author Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry cites historians who suggest that children were considered non-persons in ancient Greece and Rome.(4) In these societies, Gobry notes, “the entire social worldview was undergirded by a universally-held, if implicit, view: Society was organized in concentric circles, with the circle at the center containing the highest value people, and the people in the outside circles having little-to-no value.”(5) At the center of value was the freeborn, adult male. The value of all other persons depended on their similarity to freeborn, adult males. Foreigners, slaves, women and children were at the periphery of those value circles. As a result of this kind of social structure, Gobry, citing historical sociologist Rodney Stark, highlights the frequent practice in the ancient world that involved the abandonment of unwanted infants—especially infant girls—because of their low status.(6)

This is the world into which Christianity emerged, condemning infanticide, calling attention to children and ascribing special worth to them. Following the example of Jesus, the earliest Christians moved children from the periphery of value into the center. For Jesus welcomed children, instructed his adult followers to imitate children in their devotion to God and said that “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Of course, Jesus’s welcome extended to other categories of vulnerable people—often the most marginalized in his society. And in our contemporary world, where the gift of hospitality seems a virtue on the verge of disappearing, might we return to that early Christian vision of creating space for welcome and room for inclusion of those on the margins?

The value of children, like Katie, as treasured human beings reflects a God who cherishes the least, the last, and the most vulnerable among us. This God chose to come as a child, as one who was vulnerable. All are invited to wonder and consider the mystery of a faith that proclaims the weakness of God and the foolishness of God to be strength and wisdom. The one who said, “suffer the children and do not hinder them from coming to me” is the God revealed as a vulnerable child in the person of Jesus.

 

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

 

(1) Not her real name in order to protect her privacy.
(2) Washington State Department of Social & Health Services, Protecting the Abused and Neglected Child: A guide for recognizing & reporting child abuse & neglect, 2015.
(3) Ibid.
(4) “Child Maltreatment,” World Health Organization, 30 September 2016, www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/child-maltreatment, accessed January 5, 2019.
(4) Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “How Christianity Invented Children,” The Week, April 23, 2015. Accessed December 22, 2018.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Cost of Cynicism

 

“Why bother?” Have you been caught off guard by this retort…or perhaps uttered it yourself? The way of thinking goes: “There’s no use trying. This is just the way it is.” And such an outlook may seem realistic in the face of some insurmountable challenge. Indeed, we encounter this reasoning in Mark 5 shortly after a man named Jairus asks Jesus to follow him to his home to heal his dying daughter. Mark reports, “While Jesus was still speaking, some men came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. ‘Your daughter is dead,’ they said. ‘Why bother the teacher any more?'” (v.35).

Given this ominous news, their rhetorical question appears entirely reasonable, though they surely show a lack of compassion for Jairus or an understanding of what has just taken place: Jesus was speaking with a woman who was immediately healed when she touched his garments. Yet what interests me further is the attitude often veiled in this question: resignation, cynicism, and false pride.

 

In the face of disappointment or despair our world may encourage a “Why bother?” attitude, but if we take a few moments to really consider this way of thinking we discover just how costly it really is. Moreover, it is anathema to the Scriptures and all that Jesus taught. In fact, Jesus’s response couldn’t be more revealing: “Ignoring what they said, Jesus told the synagogue ruler, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe'” Arriving at Jairus’s home, Jesus then ushers those cynically laughing at him out of the house and raises the child to life again before her father and mother.

Now we may reason, “That was then; this is now. Am I honestly to pray and believe that God is going to resurrect a loved one?” No, this isn’t quite what this passage is teaching, for such historical narrative first and foremost provides evidence that Jesus is God incarnate (rather than three principles for receiving an answer to prayer). However, the evidence of Jesus’s identity and power unfolds a very tangible application, and one that we find throughout the gospels. That is this: If God can really overcome death and raise someone to life, surely is God not also able to strengthen, heal, or provide for us in times of trouble? Furthermore, “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Romans 8:11). The question it seems then is whether we believe that this same life-giving power can be at work within us or whether we’ve resigned ourselves to “This is just the way it is.”

A widow without a family in first-century Greco-Roman society could have easily concluded “Why bother?” before a powerful judge who “neither feared God nor cared about men” and who refused her petition for justice.(1) Yet Jesus employs this very story to teach us about prayer. Refusing to believe that “this is just the way it is,” the widow persists in her cry for justice to the judge. “For some time he refused,” says Jesus. “But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!'”

David Wells comments on this parable: “Nothing destroys petitionary prayer (and with it, a Christian view of God) as quickly as resignation. ‘At all times,’ Jesus declared, ‘we should pray’ and not ‘lose heart,’ thereby acquiescing to what is.”

For “what is” is not always “just the way it is” if we will bother to pray and not lose heart. Yes, such fearless persistence and prayer is indeed costly, yet to counter “Why bother?” is surely costlier still.

Danielle DuRant is research assistant for Ravi Zacharias at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) See Luke 18: 1-8.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – In Critical Care

 

The “doorknob phenomenon” is an occurrence many physicians know well. Doctors can proceed meticulously through complete examinations and medical histories, taking care to hear a patient’s questions and concerns, but it is often in the last thirty seconds of the appointment that the most helpful information is revealed. When a doctor’s hand is on the doorknob, body halfway out the door, vital inquiries are often made; when a patient is nearly outside the office, crucial information is shared almost in passing. Many have speculated as to the reasons behind the doorknob phenomenon (which is perhaps not limited to the field of medicine), though a cure seems unlikely. Until then, words uttered on the threshold remain a valuable entity to the physician.

If I can speak on behalf of patients (perhaps I’ve been a perpetrator of the phenomenon myself), I would note that the doorway marks our last chance to be heard. Whatever the reason for not speaking up until that point—fear, discomfort, shame, denial—we know the criticalness of that moment. In thirty seconds, we will no longer be in the presence of one who might offer healing or hope or change. At the threshold between doctor’s office and daily life, the right words are imperative; time is of the essence.

One of the many names for God used by the writers of the Bible is the Great Physician. It is curious to think of how the doorknob phenomenon might apply. Perhaps there are times in prayer when the prayer feels as if we are moving down sterile lists of conditions and information. Work. Finances. Mom. Jack. Future. Of course, while bringing to God in prayer a laundry list of concerns with repeated perseverance is at times both necessary and helpful, perhaps there are also times when we have silenced the greater diagnosis with the words we have chosen to leave unspoken. Can a physician heal wounds we will not show, symptoms we will not mention, wounds we cannot find the words to explain?

Thankfully, mercifully, yes. The Great Physician can heal wounds one cannot even articulate. Scripture writers speak of a God who hears even our groanings too deep for words. On the other hand, choosing to leave out certain details is hardly helpful before any doctor. Can God begin the work that needs to be done if we won’t really come near as a patient? Is there a cure for those who do not seek it? Mercifully, there is a physician who seeks us.

The ancient prophet Jeremiah once cried, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? No healing for the wound of my people?” Jeremiah lived during one of the most troublesome periods of Hebrew history. He stood on the threshold between a people sick with rebellion and despair and the great Physician to whom they refused to cry out in honesty.

“I have listened attentively,” the LORD declared, “but they do not say what is right. No one repents of his wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Each pursues his own course like a horse charging into battle.”(1) His words describe behavior a doctor likely recognizes. A patient who complains of a cough while a fatal wound is bleeding will neither find respite for the cough nor her unspoken pain, and of course, a good physician would not treat the cough until the bleeding has been stopped.

In Jeremiah’s day, as in our own, the promise of a quick and effortless remedy was cunningly presented in many ways. Of these “prophets of deceit” God declared, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”(2) There are some promises that are quite easy to stand beside but crumble under the weight of us. To stand in honesty before a physician is more difficult. To stand in honesty with the greatest of Physicians is to submit to a kindness that may undo us. It is to ask to be made well, to be made new, to be made truly human by the Son with human hands, knowing that the way to my remedy rests in his own wounded hands.

The great Christmas hymn places before us this powerful resolution:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make His blessing flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found.(3)

The woundedness of humanity is serious: cries of injustice, the wounds of racism, despair and lament at cancers around us, the devastating marks of our own failings left shamefully upon others and ourselves. This cannot be bandaged as anything less than a mortal wound. But the threshold is now. Christ comes near. He weeps with us, ready to address the indications of our illness, imparting healing and kindness. In the coming of Christ, God offers a cure extending as far as the wound can ever fester.

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

(1) Jeremiah 8:6.
(2) Jeremiah 8:11.
(3) Isaac Watts, Joy to the World, 1719.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Harmless Petty Sins

A familiar fable tells of the hunter who lost his life to the leopard he himself had saved as a pet for his children when the leopard was just a cub. The moral of the story can be deduced easily from the title, Little Leopards Become Big Leopards; or else, sin is easier to deal with before it becomes a habitual practice that eventually defines our lives.(1) Though the story as it stands is a beautiful illustration of a profound truth, there is a deeper lesson regarding the nature of sin that is easily concealed by this line of thinking and which, I believe, lies at the very essence of the Christian call to Christ-likeness. The problem is that the parallel between little harmless leopard cubs and little harmless sins can be dangerously deceptive.

Whereas leopard cubs are indeed harmless, there is no stage of development at which sin can be said to be harmless, for individual acts of sin are merely the symptoms of the true condition of our hearts. It is not accidental that the call to Christian growth in the Scriptures repeatedly zeros-in on such seemingly benign “human shortcomings” as bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, slander, and malicious behavior (Ephesians 4:31). In his watershed address, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus placed a great deal of emphasis on lust, anger, and contempt—behaviors and attitudes that would probably not rank high on our lists of problems in need of urgent resolution. Armed with firm and sometimes unconscious categories of serious versus tolerable sins, we gloss over lists of vices in the Scriptures because they seem to be of little consequence to life as we experience it.

But when we fail to grasp the subtleties of sin, we run the risk of rendering much of biblical wisdom irrelevant to our daily life and practice. While we appreciate the uniqueness and necessity of the sacrificial death of Jesus on our behalf, his specific teachings can at times appear to be farfetched and the emphasis misplaced. Does it not seem incredible that the God who made this world would visit it in its brokenness, dwell among us for over thirty years, and then leave behind the command that we must be nice to each other? Can the problems of the world really be solved by having people “turn the other cheek” and “get rid of anger and malice”?

 

Unfortunately, those “little” sins are not only the mere symptoms of a much bigger problem; they are also effective means of alienating us from God and other human beings. How many careers have been ruined only because of jealousy? How many people have been deprived of genuine help as a result of the seemingly side-comment of someone who secretly despised them? How many relationships have been destroyed by bitterness? How many churches have split up because of selfish ambitions couched in pietistic terms? How much evil has resulted from misinformation, a little coloring around the edges of truth? And have you noticed how much we can control other people just through our body language? From the political arena to the basic family unit, the worst enemy of human harmony is not spectacular wickedness but those seemingly harmless petty sins routinely assumed to be part of what it means to be human.

According to a NASA scientist, a two-degree miscalculation when launching a spacecraft to the moon would send the spacecraft 11,121 miles away from the moon: all one has to do is take time and distance into account.(2) How perceptive then was George MacDonald when he uttered these chilling words, “A man may sink by such slow degrees that, long after he is a devil, he may go on being a good churchman or a good dissenter, and thinking himself a good Christian”!(3) Similarly, C.S. Lewis warned that cards are a welcome substitute for murder if the former will set the believer on a path away from God. “Indeed,” he wrote, “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”(4) This is as true as much for the individual as for communities.

Now the decisive path out of this quandary is not just a greater resolve to be obedient to God. Such a response is usually motivated by guilt, and the duration of our effort will be directly proportional to the amount of guilt we feel: we will be right back where we started from when the guilt is no longer as strong. The appropriate response must begin with a greater appreciation of the holiness of God and a clear vision of life in God. It is only along the path of Christ-likeness that the true nature of sin is revealed and its appeal blunted. Yes, brazen sinfulness is appallingly evil and destructive, but it only makes a louder growl in a forest populated by stealthier, deadly hunters masquerading as little leopards. It is no idle, perfunctory pastime to pray with King David:

Search us, O God, and know our hearts;
Test us and know our thoughts.
Point out anything in us that offends you,
And lead us along the path of everlasting life.

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

(1) For example, Paul White’s, Little Leopards Become Big Leopards, published by African Christian Press.
(2) John Trent, Heartshift: The Two Degree Difference That Will Change Your Heart, Your Home, and Your Health (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2004), 17.
(3)George MacDonald, in George MacDonald: An Anthology by C. S. Lewis (New York: Dolphin Books, 1962), 118.
(4) C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, in A C.S. Lewis Treasury: Three Classics in One Volume (New York: Harcourt & Company, 1988), 250.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Lazarus Waits, Rachel Weeps

 

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 some 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 apathy. 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 – Come to Me

 

Grief is a strange thing in that its memory is more characterized by what the relationship was or was not than by what characterized the death.(1) You look forward and ache over what has now been lost for the future. You look backward and grieve what never truly was and can now never be.

The award-winning author Paulo Coelho is a beautiful writer, and his lines of pure poetry are disguised as novels. His book The Witch of Portobello, a mystical story with many unusual turns, remains on my shelf, no matter where I live. I often pull it off, brush my hand across the cover, and flip it open to a page I have nearly memorized.

The story begins in Beirut, Lebanon, a country that boasts of warm hospitality, platefuls of hummus and tabouli, the Mediterranean coast, and beautiful cedars. Coelho describes his heroine, Athena, as an unusual girl who possessed a sense of spirituality from the time of her youth. She married when she was nineteen and wanted to have a baby right away. Her husband left her when the baby was still young, and Athena had to raise him alone.

During one Sunday Mass, the priest watched as Athena walked toward him to receive Communion, and his heart was filled with dread. Athena stood in front of the priest, drew her eyes closed, and opened her mouth to receive. I picture her standing there in vulnerability, asking to receive Christ’s body, given for her. She was hungry for the grace that it offered.

But he did not give it to her.

The young girl opened her eyes, terribly confused. The priest tried to tell her in hushed tones that they would talk about it later, but she would not be turned away. She persisted until she received an answer.

“Athena, the Church forbids divorced people from receiving the sacrament. You signed your divorce papers this week. We’ll talk later.”(2)

She was crushed, speechless, numb. People began to step around her, an obstacle in the way of their path.

 

I imagine Athena devastated. She had lost something that mattered to her, something she thought would always be hers. And when it was gone, it claimed her dreams, her respect, her ability to hope, her very sense of self. I imagine that many of her friends turned against her. Some saw her as tainted, regardless of the details. I imagine that her marital status became part of her name, as in “Athena, the girl who is divorced.” I wonder if they told her there was no place for her in ministry, if they sat in comfortable chairs, dressed in their suits, and held meetings behind closed doors to decide, while their own stories remained tucked away with their coordinated handkerchiefs. Did someone say, “Do you know that God hates divorce?” And did she answer, “I know. So do I. Possibly even more than you”? I wonder if it hurt when they pinned the Scarlet D on her, or if she was so wounded and fragile that she added the pain and guilt to the shame she had already inflicted on herself.

Did they know how hard it was for her to come to church that day? And now, in a final act of driving the knife into her gaping wound, she was told she was no longer worthy to come to Christ, the one who could give refuge in her anguish. For unlike them, he did know all that lay within her heart. And it was to him that she actually answered, not the masses who tried to occupy his place.

As the priest finished administering the Sacrament, he slowly stepped back to the altar. Athena stood where he left her and cried out what many have only cried on the inside: “A curse on all those who have never listened to the words of Christ and who have transformed his message into a stone building. For Christ said: ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ Well, I’m heavy laden, and they won’t let me come to him. Today I’ve learned that the Church has changed those words to read: ‘Come unto me all ye who follow our rules, and let the heavy laden go hang!”(3) Athena vowed to never set foot in a church again. She turned on her heels and left with her crying baby, tears streaming down her own cheeks.

Years pass within this single chapter, and the priest cannot forget her face, the forlorn look in her eyes, the poignancy of her words, and Christ’s: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” As he looks back on life and ministry, the priest affirms his confidence in God and in a practice of faith made up of human beings trying to do the best they can, though they fall short. The chapter ends with the priest’s words: “I like to imagine that when she left the church, Athena met Jesus. Weeping and confused, she would have thrown herself into his arms, asking him to explain why she was being excluded… And looking at Athena, Jesus might have replied, ‘My child, I’ve been excluded too.”(4)

As for me, I imagine that Jesus took her broken heart and held it carefully, gently. I imagine he called her by her first name, and it was not followed by any failures. I imagine he loosened the Scarlet D they had pinned to her and told her she carried his image and his name. I imagine he opened his hand to show her the scar of a nail, maybe he pointed to the mark that the spear had left in his side. And then he called her to his table and told her that his broken body was also offered for her.

And I imagine she left with a grace all-sufficient for her broken story too.

Naomi Zacharias is director of Wellspring International at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

(1) The following essay is an excerpt from Naomi Zacharias’s The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).
(2) Paulo Coelho, The Witch of Portobello (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 44.
(3) Ibid., 45.
(4) Ibid., 46.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – In Defiance, Hope?

For many Jewish people living after the Holocaust, God’s absence is an ever-present reality. It is as tangible as the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, and as haunting as the empty chair at a table once occupied with a loved one long-silenced by the gas chambers. In his tragic account of the horror and loss in the camps at Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel intones the cries of many who likewise experienced God’s absence: “It is the end. God is no longer with us….I know that Man is too small, too humble, and inconsiderable to seek to understand the mysterious ways of God. But what can I do? Where is the divine Mercy? Where is God? How can I believe? How can anyone believe in this merciful God?”(1)

This experience of absence, dramatic in its implications for the victims of the Holocaust, has repeated itself over and over again in the ravaged stories of those who struggle to hold on to faith, or those who have lost faith altogether in the face of personal holocaust. In a world where tragedy and suffering are daily realities seemingly unchecked by both local and divine government, the absence of God seems a cruel abdication.

The words of Job, ancient in origin, speak of this same kind of experience:

Behold, I go forward, but He is not there,
And backward, but I cannot perceive Him;
When He acts on the left, I cannot behold Him;
He turns on the right, I cannot see Him.(2)

The story of Job is at least in part a story of the experience of God’s absence. While the narrator of the story and the readers of the story know the beginning and the end, Job finds himself in the silent middle struck down by unjust suffering. His story poignantly explores the silent mystery of a God who seems to go missing in the moments of greatest need. Job’s cries out: “Oh that I knew where I might find Him that I might come to his seat” (Job 23:3). Somehow, Job clings tenaciously to the hope that he will find God, and find a just God in his case. “I am not silenced by the darkness,” Job proclaims, “nor deep gloom which covers me.”

Job’s anguished cries against God’s absence paradoxically assume God’s presence. There is no hint of atheism in his cries. Rather, Job cries out of a tenacious faith in God who seems distant from his pain, silent to his cries, and absent from his world. In the face of his suffering, Job affirms God’s presence by taking issue with the injustice of God’s apparent absence. He longs to plead his case with God as one would with a neighbor.

Surely, Job’s cries represent each and every person who protests God’s apparent abandonment in the midst of suffering and injustice. The current cries of racial injustice emerging from our hurting cities and communities ring with a similar weariness: How long, O LORD? As one author notes, “In a roundabout way, man’s indignant protest against God’s silence would be deprived of meaning if there were no Presence behind the Silence.”(3) And here, an unexpectedly encouraging apologetic is found in this paradox.

C.S. Lewis suggests that “the defiance…hurled at an apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos is really an unconscious homage to something in or behind that cosmos which he recognizes as infinitely valuable and authoritative: for if mercy and justice were really only private whims of his own with no objective and impersonal roots, and if he realized this, he could not go on being indignant. The fact that he arraigns heaven itself for disregarding them means that at some level of his mind he knows they are enthroned in a higher heaven still.”(4)

Lewis goes on to argue that this is, in fact, a central offering from the book of Job. While no explanation of the problem of God’s absence in the face of unjust suffering is given, Job’s wrestling with God ultimately receives divine approval. Indeed, Job’s righteous friends who attempt to explain away Job’s pain and justify God are actually condemned. Lewis concludes: “Apparently the way to advance from our imperfect apprehension of justice to the absolute justice is not to throw our imperfect apprehensions aside but boldly to go on applying them.”(5)

In this season of uncertainty as we grope in the darkness of our own imperfect apprehension of God and all that is happening in the world, and as we wrestle with God’s absence as Job did, we might come to experience the presence of God in a different way. For it is also the season of Pentecost, where we remember the movement of the Spirit who changed the world by changing the hearts and minds of a handful of disciples. Perhaps we too might proclaim with Job: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye has seen you.”(6)

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

 

(1) Elie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, The Accident (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 83.
(2) Job 23:8-9.
(3) Gary Henry, “Story and Silence: Transcendence in the Work of Elie Wiesel,” Public Broadcasting System, www.pbs.org, 2002.
(4) C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 69-70, cited by Gary Henry in “Story and Silence: Transcendence in the Work of Elie Wiesel,” appendix.
(5) Ibid., 69-70.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Beginning and the End

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you understand.”

—God to Job in the whirlwind

To a child of four or five, the rejoinder sounded something like the response of a parent who had reached the end of her rope with the current line of questioning.

“Mom, what happens when we die?”

“We go to heaven to be with Jesus.”

“What’s heaven like?”

“It’s a place where all of our tears are dried up, and we dance on golden streets in the presence of God.”

“For how long?”

“Forever.”

“But won’t we get tired of dancing?”

“No, we won’t.”

“But why not?”

“Because we’ll be with God.”

“But what if it’s boring?”

“It won’t be.”

“Why?”

“Because God said so.”

A child learns quickly that there are certain lines parents use to signal the end of the current arsenal of questioning. Coming from a parent, “Because I said so” is intended to be a conversation stopper. “Because God said so” is even trickier. There was nothing my five-year-old mind could even begin to conjure up to counter that one.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Christianity Without Christ?

 

Paul Tillich, the noted existentialist theologian, traveled to Asia to hold conferences with various Buddhist thinkers. He was studying the significance of religious leaders to the movements they had engendered. Tillich asked a simple question. “What if by some fluke, the Buddha had never lived and turned out to be some sort of fabrication? What would be the implications for Buddhism?” Mind you, Tillich was concerned with the indispensability of the Buddha—not his authenticity.

The scholars did not hesitate to answer. If the Buddha was a myth, they said, it did not matter at all. Why? Because Buddhism should be judged as an abstract philosophy—as a system of living. Whether its concepts originated with the Buddha is irrelevant. As an aside, I think the Buddha himself would have concurred. Knowing that his death was imminent, he beseeched his followers not to focus on him but to remember his teachings. Not his life but his way of life was to be attended to and propagated.

So, what of other world religions? Hinduism, as a conglomeration of thinkers and philosophies and gods, can certainly do without many of its deities. Some other major religions face the same predicament.

Is Christianity similar? Could God the Father have sent another instead of Jesus? May I say to you, and please hear me, that the answer is most categorically No. Jesus did not merely claim to be a prophet in a continuum of prophets. He is the unique Son of God, part of the very godhead that Christianity calls the Trinity. The apostle Paul says it this way:

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