All Stretched Out - Private face of a public figure
Ravi Zacharias, author, broadcaster, mentor, a man someone has called “a singular apologist for our time”, a man of international renown. I wondered if he would be easy to talk to. But I needn’t have. As I entered the room, there he was, making himself a warm drink. Then he slid into the armchair with his legs completely stretched out.
Zacharias broke his back in 1985, more than 30 years ago, and had two titanium rods inserted in his back to hold up with his spine. Here is a man who has been living with pain on a daily basis. And without medication. He explained, “I don’t use medication. I never want to have short-term solutions and long-term problems, so we just manage with massage therapy, physiotherapy, stretching. I have a routine, a regimen, but when I am travelling, I can’t do it. That’s why I am stretching now.“
What else does this successful 70-year-old world traveller and speaker have to put up with? Well, there is his voice: “I never had the strongest voice.”
For Ravi Zacharias, those two weaknesses kept him dependent on God. I think of the Apostle Paul and his thorn in the flesh to keep him humble. Maybe that’s the lot of every servant of the Lord that He exalts.
Ravi Zacharias recently turned 70 with no plans for slowing down. “Old is anyone twenty years older than me.” He laughed heartily and continued, “I have reached the landmark year of 70; what I have learned more than anything else: how quickly time goes by; you never dreamed that you’d reach that stage. You always see yourself as a teenager, or in your 20s or 30s.” But it has been a beautiful life, a dream life, a fulfilling life. A life that the 17-year-old who attempted suicide, would never have imagined.
Following his suicide attempt, while in the hospital, a local Christian worker brought him a Bible and told his mother to read to him from John 14. The words of Jesus in John 14:19 touched him: "Because I live, you also will live." He said that he thought,"This may be my only hope: A new way of living. Life as defined by the Author of Life," and that he committed his life to Christ praying, "Jesus, if You are the one who gives life as it is meant to be, I want it. Please get me out of this hospital bed well, and I promise I will leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of truth.” And that he has done.
Now he looks forward to years of unparalleled influence. Quoting a study done by the National Association of Religious Broadcasters that found out that the most influential period of a leader’s life is the 60s and the 70s, Zacharias added, “It can continue on, provided your health continues. They say by your 60s and 70s you have earned your right to be heard and respected. So I am looking forward to another growing decade of my life, maybe the next best decade of my life, who knows?”
Ravi Zacharias has achieved fame and success most of us could only dream of. But he is ever conscious of how fleeting even that is.“The loneliest moment is just when you thought you have achieved ultimate success and it has let you down. It is a sense of betrayal. You thought it was all worth it, and it wasn’t. That is when you really feel disappointed and broken in the world. If the ultimate experience has let me down, what is left in life? That’s why I believe that only God is big enough to fill the heart. I see that in life, in a growing relationship with Him, day in day out, in everything, that you have an indwelling presence of Christ in you so that He changes your life.”
For a man of such stature, Ravi Zacharias says he wished he had spent more time studying. “If I could start all over again, I would have studied more. You need more time to prepare your soul. We think that preparation is prior to service but preparation is your service when you are preparing to serve Him.” A PhD would open doors for him to certain places. But he did not have the money then. Nor the time, for he was plunged early into ministry. Again, one is reminded of another great man, Billy Graham, who concluded too that if he could do it all over again, he would have spent more time studying.
But mere scholarship is not the thing that he wants to be known for. To him, it is most important that he‘d be a good husband and father. He continued,“If I don’t do that, I have failed my immediate responsibilities. So the person I married is very critical. As I am talking to you, in one week, we’ll be celebrating 44 years of married life, the 6th (of May) is our anniversary and it will be 44 years, so my wife and children are very important. What I enjoy doing most is going out to dinner with my wife. When you find me having dinner with my wife on a certain day, it is a good day.”
Ravi Zacharias prays that he would stay faithful, able to resist the temptations of the world, be close to his family at all times, and that God will give him wisdom never to lose sight of the priorities in the ministry. He added that the priority is not to become big but to become focused— on clearing the obstacles so that people can take a good look at the cross of Jesus Christ, all the intellectual and existential, emotional, cultural obstacles that stand in the way so that they can see the cross for what it is all about. That has been the task of apologetics. He said that was what RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries) needed to do.
To that end, he focuses on the team of apologists he is building. “Michael Ramsden, Amy Orr-Ewing and so on… great, great scholars. 47 full-time evangelist-apologists are on the team, and we could get 200 before long. We support them full-time. They are presenting the defence of the faith wherever they are, in 15 different countries, hopefully 30 countries before we are done.” But he requires almost everyone to go through one year at RZIM’s Oxford school, so they learn not only the task of apologetics but the life of the apologist—how to live the life; how to live with humility, how to live with accountability, how to live with relationships. “Apologetics is not a military term; it is a legal term with reasoned people but the life of an apologist is the biggest apologetic you have—how the person lives, so we build a methodology and a person into them before we build the content of apologetics.”
Then there is Ravi Zacharias the foodie: “Well, I am very disciplined in my dietary habits to keep the weight down. If you keep the weight down, your mind is sharp. I need the blood to go to the brain, so I have to have certain disciplines. But I also enjoy the foods of the world. Being from India, I would go for the spices but I am a culinary guy. I love Singapore because you can get any kind of food on any day; you go to a food court or you go to Serangoon Road or you go to Yumcha or something like that, you can find some great Indian food, Chinese food, English food. Singapore is a food haven, so I love coming here.”
Of Singapore, he also said, “I just think it’s a great country. It is amazing that a small country like this has such economic power, economic strength. I think that Singapore has more churches per capita than any other countries in the world. So I encourage young Singaporeans, raised in a pluralistic context, with some of the greatest minds—take it as a gift from God and use it. So many parts of the world are so unsafe today. Singapore’s got the greatest success stories so to the church, I say, you are needed because success can often take people away from God and more success can become a cursed thing.”
Finally, a word to the young: “Buy up the opportunities that are your gifts—the energy, the freshness of mind, to keep doing the right kind of reading, the right kind of thinking.” I would say to the youths, “It is a privileged time of your life; use it for the long run, not for a sprint; you are looking at many, many years ahead so do what God has called you to do well. Don’t be seduced by the glitter of the world; there is nothing there. Go for that which is truly good and beautiful that the Scriptures talk about.”
Dr Ravi Zacharias is Founder and President of RZIM. He spoke at LoveSingapore’s MoMentum 2016 conference.