Ravi Zacharias - Christianity, A Failed Hope?
I've often told my colleagues, when you're speaking to people, always remember you're not answering a question, you're answering a questioner. Always remember that. You're not merely answering a question, you're answering a questioner. Behind the question is a person who has brought with himself or herself a cumulative experience, often with value-laden and hurt-laden struggles behind it. Many years ago as I would read some of my favorite authors, one of them was James Stewart of Scotland. And he, in one of his books, the strong name, makes this comment about Jesus.
He was the meekest and lowliest of all the sons of men yet he spoke of coming on the clouds of heaven with the glory of God. He was so austere that evil spirits and demons cried out at his presence and yet the little children loved to play with him and nestle in his arms. His presence at the innocent gaiety of a village wedding was like the presence of sunshine. No one was half so kind or compassionate to sinners, yet no one of us spoke such red-hot scorching words about sin. A bruised reed he would not break. His whole life was love yet on one occasion he demanded of the pharisees how they ever expected to escape the damnation of hell. He was a dreamer of dreams and a see-er of visions yet for sheer stark reality he has all of the self-styled realists soundly beaten. He was the servant of all washing the disciples' feet yet masterfully strode into the temple and the hucksters and money-changers fell over one another as they saw the fire blazing in his eyes. He saved others, yet, at the end, himself he did not save.
Now listen to this line: "There is nothing in history like the union of contrasts which confronts us in the Gospels: the mystery of Jesus," says Stewart, "Is the mystery of divine personality". He starts off by talking about a startling coalescence of contrarieties. A startling coalescence, not a desperate idea, but a startling coalescence of contrarieties. And in the end, he says, there's nothing like this in history that seized the person of God in such stark contrast. There's a difference between a contradiction and a contrariety. Remember that. A contradiction is where there are two mutually exclusive absolutes being affirmed at the same time and in the same sense. But a contrariety is that which pulls together the two polarities of the same truth. We deal with this all the time. Long may our land be bright with freedom's holy light. Freedom gives you liberty. Holiness gives you constraint.
So when we talk about, "May the land be bright with freedom's holy light," isn't America's entire experiment an attempt to reconcile liberty with law? And we struggle with it. We struggle with the idea of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of the human being. We struggle with the idea of justice and mercy so the songwriter says, "There's a kindness in God's mercy which is more than liberty". And does that strength in his justice which calls you and me to task. So whether it's liberty or holiness at the same time, whether it's justice and mercy, we must come to terms with the contrarieties that we see in the person of Jesus Christ. If we don't see that, we are bound to be disappointed in the sum and substance of his message. Let me take you to three of these contrarieties with which people struggle and then see why it is that we end up wondering if the Christian faith has disappointed us.
The first is this: it is a life of meaning but not without tears. It is a life that Jesus offers that's meaningful but he never, ever promises to us that it'll be a life free from tears. In fact, I find one of the most profound moments in holy writ, when Jesus, himself, knowing he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, wept by the grave for his friend. Because he knew this is exactly what you and I would live with. Knowing he would raise him up, he wept. And he shed those tears of loss knowing this family would sooner or later feel the loss of their brother, Lazarus, and one by one we will all be called to that moment. You know, life is often defined by people in sheerly material terms. I will plunder you as long as I can. I will indulge in rapacious act of your lives, your homes, your economy, and so on and if I have to go, I have to go.
How is life ultimately defined by these people? What does Richard Dawkins define as the essential value of life? He totally disregards, totally disregards the fact of evil. The fact of evil. How does he define it? You know, I've often been asked the question on the problem of evil. How can a good God allow so much suffering and evil in this world? And when we talk about evil, we assume good. When we talk about good, we assume a moral law. When we talk about a moral law, we assume that there's a moral law giver. You say, "Well, why do you have to assume that? Why do you have to assume a moral law giver? Why can't you just stop from evil to good and good to moral law? Can you not just put the parenthesis then stop"? No! Because every time the problem of evil is actually raised, it is either raised by a person or about a person which means it attributes intrinsic worth to personhood. The intrinsic value of personhood is indispensable to the validity of the question and naturalism cannot give you that bequest.
We weep. It is a life of meaning but not without tears. What then is the struggle in this meaning? One of the greatest, blatantness philosophers, Elma Moore, wrote this in a concluding paragraph in one of his books. Here's what he said: "My longing is for some audible voice out of the infinite silence. My longing is for some audible voice out of the infinite silence and it rose to a pitch within me of torture, this longing to be satisfied I must see face to face. I must, as it were, handle and feel and how can this be"? Said this longing is so agonizing that I really want ultimately to be face to face. I need to be able to touch and feel. It's the way we are wired. It's the way we are made. And so I say to you that we have this longing, we long for meaning, and one of the poets, John Gillespie, wrote this when he was a World War II pilot, "Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings: I put my hand out and I have touched the face of God".
How is that? How is that? When you talk about touching the face of God, when you talk about longing for that feeling, when you talk about longing for that reality of confrontation one on one, knowing that God's presence is indisputable, you're not just dealing with a theoretical idea here. I've often said this: the Hebrews, their ultimate was light. For the Greeks, it was knowledge. For the Romans, it was glory. For the Hebrews, it was light. For the Greeks, it was knowledge. For the Romans, it was glory. The apostle Paul who was a Hebrew by birth who'd studied in a Greek city and was a citizen of Rome, he says this to the church at Corinth, "God, who caused the light to shine out of darkness, has caused his light to shine in our hearts to give to us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus, our Lord". It was not just an abstraction. It was seen in the very face and in the very person of Jesus Christ.
So here's what I say to you, please understand what I'm saying, so much of our Christian Gospel is tied up in words and so little of it is often stressed on how important that moment of encounter is with Jesus Christ in your own soul and in your own innermost being. I've studied philosophy. I've taught philosophy. I've done apologetics. But even when all of the arguments fade away into the distance, I'll tell you what I'll never forget. I'll never forget that at the age of seventeen, in a hospital room in Delhi, having given up all hope and never having cracked open a Bible to read it for myself, and a man walked into the room and brought me this little red New Testament. And my mother there read it out to me and I cried out and I said, "Jesus, I don't know much about you but if you are who you claim to be, the Author of Life, I want to receive you into my life, into my heart. I want to follow you. I don't know much about you but if you are who you claim to be, please take me out of this hospital bed and I will leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of truth. That is my commitment to you".
I was seventeen years old then. It transformed everything in my life. Everything. There's a man in the audience here who I happened to meet just a month ago. He's a businessman. He and his wife and his parents drove to Toronto where I was speaking. He was a man from a Hindu background who found Christ a year ago. Totally transformed his life. He brought his parents from Ottawa and he and his wife drove from Cleveland. He's here tonight to meet up with us again. This man in his forties and his mother was in her sixties and came to the backroom and as we sat, stood there and talked, she had all her questions from the study of her scriptures and so on. And then that moment came when she recognized the need to trust in Christ for herself. I tell you in his presence here, he put his head on my shoulder and wept as his mother had the tears running down her face and just praying that prayer to trust in Christ, to see this family totally enveloped with the transforming power of Christ. And then he goes back and the parents go back to Ottawa and he and his wife go back to Cleveland. And he writes to me the next day, "My mother said to me, in her entire life, this is the first night she has totally peaceful sleep in her life". Totally peaceful rest and sleep in her life.
I saw a man in China who looked at me and told me he hated Christians: hated Christians. Didn't want to believe any of this stuff. By the end of one week, after sitting and listening, he came to me and said, "You know, my country needs exactly what you've given here. I'm willing to invest any amount of money you ask to do and I'll pour in a lot of it. Bring your message to China. This is what my country needs". You see, it's a life that desperately searches meaning but is not without tears. And the only way I know you begin is not with argument, it's with that relationship and with that presence that carries you through the tears. Secondly, it's a life of perfection that reaches out to the flawed and we need to understand this. God is perfect. We are imperfect and we are flawed. And many times, I say this very cautiously now, we see people who come into our churches and they make a big blunder in their private life. They flounder, they falter, they slip, and they stumble and you know what? We never let them forget it. We never let them forget it.
We interviewed people on the street before we addressed this subject and when we took the roving cameras, the microphone through many parts of the Southern United States, one woman said this from another part of the state. She said, "You know, I used to go to church. I used to believe all this". She said, "I, unfortunately, slipped and had a momentary affair that completely destroyed my own life and my relationship", and she said, "I tried to crawl my way back to God and back into life so that I could rebuild it", she said, "But I was never able to attend any service without feeling that sense of condemnation and the harshness that I had failed and had betrayed and all this stuff: I could never be at peace again and, therefore, I just stopped going".
I'm not saying we extend a kind of all-embrace that it doesn't really matter: not at all. C.S. Lewis said, "I'm hardest on myself for my own private life, but I've learned to be much patient with other people in their privates lives and recognize that the hand of grace and the arms of grace need to be reaching out to people across the distances". In my own life, yes, you be tough and be stringent and be careful what you do, but I have to realize that the arms of God reach out and he's a perfect being who is reaching out to the flawed. The uniqueness of the prodigal son's story is that as that young boy comes running home, it's not so much that he's come to the end of himself and he's coming home, anybody here from the East, I ask you this: which of you knows a father in the East who would have left the home and gone running to meet the son because the son had already insulted him a long time before and said, "Give me my right. I'm walking out of you". That father who left the comfort of his room, knowing the son was on his way, and ran halfway to meet him shows you the grace and the love and the tenderness of God. Meeting you even before you were all the way home because of his love and his embrace for you.
That's the mercy, that's the grace of God. This is the unique aspect of the Christian faith. I dare you to show me any other worldview, any other worldview, that does not lean on your works. It's not true in Islam. A good deed's going to outweigh your bad deeds if you have to enter paradise. Not true in pantheistic worldviews. The law karma: every birth is a rebirth and you pay in each life for the previous life. Bible tells you and me, "My grace is sufficient for thee". It's a life of perfection, reaching out to the flawed, and I think we need to be more gentle and more tolerant of the weaker brother who's floundered and fallen and failed. Until then, such people will never really come back to hear the message.
I had a woman once contact me and she was shattered with the way her daughter's life had gone: completely shattered. She wept and wept. I wondered what had happened and she said, "I just don't even want to go for this wedding. I don't want to be there. I don't want to be seeing what it is that's happening". She said, "Ravi, what do you say"? I said, "You know, ma'am, you're hurting. I just want to say to you this, 'if you take your voice out of her life, all you are doing is leaving her within the reach of contrary voices and your voice will never be heard anymore except as a voice of rejection.'" It's hard. It's hard. You and I are flawed. We've stumbled. We found ourselves floundering sometimes. But I want you to know God is a God of grace who reaches out and we had better be patient also.
And, number three, a life of harsh physicality but the triumph is that of the spirit. It's a life of harsh physicality but the triumph is that of the spirit. What do I mean by that? Every temptation you and I face up to somehow is within this physical frame. Every temptation and you begin to feel it. You begin to feel it. It's the way life actually goes: the physicality. Does temptation go? No. Does temptation go? No. Lust, greed, pride. These are the three things you and I battle. I want to tie this together in a way that I think is going to be very important for you and for me. C.S. Lewis, in his book, Perelandra, makes this incredible comment and I think it's so fascinating about this good, respectable man, one day confronted by an unknown presence of the aura of holiness.
Listen very carefully. "I felt sure that the creature was what we call 'good' but I wasn't sure whether I really liked goodness so much as I had supposed. This is a very terrible experience. As long as what you're afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle through to the good and find that that is also so dreadful. How if food itself turns out to be the very thing you can't eat and the home the very place you can't live? And the very comfort of the person who makes you uncomfortable? Then, indeed, there is no rescue possible. The last card has been played. For a second or two, I was nearly in that condition. Here, at last, was a bit of that world from beyond the world which I had always supposed that I loved and desired. Breaking through and appearing to my senses and I didn't like it. I wanted it to go away. I wanted every possible distance, gulf, curtain, blanket, and barrier to be placed between it and me".
You know, he said it is quite possible that we will never hear the Gospel until we have actually first been made uneasy by it. Goodness can discomfort you. We will never really hear the Gospel until you are first made uneasy by it. Michael ended on two notes. I want to end on the identical notes coming to it from a different angle. You know, we think sometimes our belief in God has left us disappointed and we're just not taught what it was going to be. Do you know who the loneliest people in the world are? The loneliest people in the world are not those who become weary of pain but are those who become weary of pleasure. That is the ultimate form of disappointment. When pleasure has nothing left to give to you and to me. We've tried it all, indulged, and indulged, and indulged. I have talked to people in that very situation. It is the most pitiable condition to be in. Nothing to look forward to for excitement.
Such a man was Oscar Wilde. In his forties, dying in Paris. I visited the hotel: I visited the place where his funeral was held. Ironically, there was no music in his funeral at all. And Oscar Wilde is lying on his bed and he looks at his lover, Robbie Ross, and he says this to him, he said, "Robbie, did you ever love anyone of those boys for their own sake? Did you ever love anyone of those boys for their own sake"? He said, "No". He said, "Robbie, neither did I, neither did I". Can I ask you why a hedonist is suddenly thinking of loving for somebody else's own sake? He says, "Bring me a priest". He says, "Only the blood of Christ is big enough now to cleanse this heart of mine".
And if you haven't read his "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", read it. It's the most brilliant piece of poetry, where he talks about how the woman with the alabaster ointment is the only one who could express to him what lostness really meant and here, Wilde gives me a hint. Do you know what that hint is? The ultimate fulfillment in life comes from learning to worship God in spirit and in truth and learning to live within those contrarieties because he loves you for your own sake, just as you serve him for the essence of who he really is.
And I close with this. I was in Damascus, Syria talking to a muslim cleric. He was the head of the Shiites, Sheikh Hussein. We had about a three-hour dialogue. I would ask him one question: he would answer it. He would ask me one question: I would answer it. An audience in front: sitting between us was the interpreter. He was a fine man. A real gentleman. And, finally, at the end, he leaned over after I'd shared the story of the Gospel and what it meant. And he says to me, "Professor Zacharias", he said, "Maybe it's time for us in the Islamic world,", this is a Shiite cleric saying it to me and I quote him, Sheikh Hussein from Damascus, "Maybe it's time for us in the Islamic world to stop asking the question, 'if Jesus Christ died' and start asking the question, 'why?'.
Ladies and gentlemen, with all of the contrarieties we see, nothing is a greater contrariety than the cross of Jesus Christ. Showing his love, taking your pain, and with these tensions that we see within the Christian faith, understand the Gospel and what it means, know his presence in your life personally as he calls us to do, and recognize that at the heart of the Gospel is the cross and without that, there is no answer. Both pain and pleasure will disappoint you. That's why the songwriter says, "What language shall I borrow to thank you, dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow that I pity without end, oh, make me thine forever and should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never outlive my love for thee". There's a wideness in God's mercy which is wider than the sea. There's a kindness in God's justice which is more than liberty. That justice and liberty came together in the cross and God gives you that same imperative as to how to live it out for I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, I live yet not I but Christ liveth in me. That's the heart of the Gospel and transformation. God bless you!