The year 2020 will be remembered for the Wuhan Virus and – for reasons we can only weep about – the fading legacy of Ravi Zacharias. The once internationally renowned Christian apologist will now be remembered as one of the greatest fake Christians ever, a tragedy of immense proportions.
Almost every Christian is grieving about, or grappling with, the mess that the late Ravi Zacharias left behind. That is not to mention “the scorn of the wicked” that one can imagine is going wild out there in the world, or the untold grief Mr. Zacharias’ wife and children must be experiencing right now.
I do not want to repeat the many good things that others have said in the wake of this mammoth scandal. I only want to add what I found missing in their musings, and in so doing being as brief as possible.
It now seems very clear that Ravi’s entire ministry was a scam, at least over the last two decades. It seems that his travels abroad were at least in part a pretext to visiting his many massage salons, to see his young female massage therapists, some of whom must have offered him more than relief for his back. He once stayed for over 250 days in an apartment in Bangkok, with his young Thai massage therapist occupying another apartment in the same building. Both apartments belonged to Zacharias. Everywhere Ravi went, he was in need of a massage, because of a sore back, or so he assured his board at RZIM in Atlanta. He even took a therapist along with him on many of his trips.
What Scripture teaches us
Our first observation should be this. Since when was it okay for a Christian man to frequent massage salons, with young ladies massaging his body, while he is only covered under a bathroom towel? I find it striking that nobody is commenting on this. Why is it strange? Because what Ravi did was tantamount to dancing on the edge of a smoldering volcano. It is not for no reason that the ancient Romans named the brightest and hottest planet in our solar system Venus, the goddess of love, sculpted as a very seductive woman. You go too close, you burn.
The fact is, our Saviour would never have allowed, let alone advised, anyone of us to go there. Never. Mr. Zacharias behavior came down to a flagrant abuse of his Christian liberty. Moreover, it was foolishness plain and simple. Oh yes, we are all broken sinners by nature, capable of anything (as many blogs and videos rightly remind us), but Scripture has very little sympathy for you and me if we act like fools.
If we are normal men, then one serious reading of Proverbs 2 or 5 or 7 would cure us from the folly of dancing on the edge of a volcano, or flirting with Venus. That is if we dare to heed the Holy Spirit’s warning in these passages. For how can Ravi’s love affair with massage salons possibly be reconciled with I Thessalonians 4? “It is God’s will… that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable”. Or with the Messiah’s call to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and to follow him? What has happened to the apostle’s injunction to kill the deeds of the body through the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:14)? John Owen once wrote a treatise on that verse called The Mortification of Sin. We would be well advised to take this Puritan classic up and read it for our souls’ sake. It is a powerful book.
What has happened to that perspective? And what about all the other warnings in Scripture to shun even the appearance of evil? And the warning of our Savior never to cause one of these little ones to stumble through our own misconduct? Did Mr. Zacharias really read his Bible on his many trips? Did he really pray the Lord’s Prayer from his heart? Is this ever a warning to all of us, not to fool ourselves when we say we are “having devotions” or that we are “worshipping the Lord”.
Testimony from the Third Century
Long ago back in the third century, The Apostolic Constitutions (written by a Christian bishop for his flock), started off by telling the children of God “to do all things in obedience to God; and in all things to please Christ our Lord”. It called on them to “abstain from all unlawful desires and injustice”. The faithful were reminded that “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife…” for all of this is from the evil one and that “whosoever shall look on his neighbour’s wife to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her in his heart”.
Would you believe that the next paragraph in this third-century-advice from a bishop to his flock is then devoted to how men should never cause women to stumble by how they dress and appear in public? It instructs them: You, my brother, may not wound her heart “by thy beauty, and youth, and adorning” or you will be found guilty of transgression. The bishop tells his flock that they should meditate on God’s law day and night, for then they wont wander to unseemly places in the city. The book even goes so far as to give advice to men which books to read (there was no formal New Testament canon yet) and to abstain “from all the heathen books”.
It then goes on also to give practical advice to a Christian woman, quoting extensively from Proverbs 31. She is lovingly counseled (among other things) against “painting her face” and encouraged to veil herself when walking in public. Most interestingly she is told to “avoid that disorderly practice of bathing in the same place with men; for many are the nets of the evil one.” She is also advised not to use the Roman baths in the middle of the day when it is busy, neither to go there too often, so as to avoid curious eyes. Christian women are to “demonstrate (their) piety by modesty and meekness to all without the church”.
(For a humble but powerful plea for the Christian head covering, watch this…)
But what do we say of all this? Many Christians today will probably shout: “Legalism!” Yet that was the Christianity that conquered an empire and produced so many martyrs. And that was a pastor truly caring for his flock.
This is why I believe Ravi’s painful story is an indictment of the Christianity that we have been imbibing for at least a good century now. Making justification, or at least the forgiveness of our sin, the single most important theme in the Bible, left us very weak and vulnerable. Reducing all of what God has to say us in the Bible to him loving us and having a plan for our lives, has much to do with this crisis. For in such a context, not His glory, and our neighbour’s common good, but my salvation, happiness and Christian liberty, are the most important themes in life.
One prominent theologian went so far as to call justification the telos, i.e., the very goal and purpose of God’s entire revelation in creation and Scripture. Coupled with this emphasis is another which reminds us incessantly “that we are all sinners”, lest anyone should dare to stress the need for joyful evangelical obedience too strongly. But speaking of justification, could Mr. Zacharias possibly have known the peace and joy that David felt and spoke about so boldly in Psalm 32, in his own life for all those years?
If we really believe that God the Son came down to us, to live among us, to suffer and die on that cursed lonely cross, so as to redeem us from this present evil age for His Father, and to transform us fallen, broken sinners into temples of the Holy Spirit, so that we may eventually reign with Him in a new creation (soon to be unveiled), then it makes a world of difference. I think Mr. Zacharias might have preached the latter, but the evangelical Christianity so prevalent in his world and ours, also subtly teaches us the former, i.e., God is always merciful and we are just sinners. That is why Christian men can frequent massage parlors and flirt with Venus, and Christian women can walk around in skimpy clothing, with no scruples. God is gracious and Jesus will forgive, for we are all sinners.
I once read the story of St. Anthony of Egypt. He lived around the time when The Apostolic Constitutions mentioned above were written in the third century. I remember wishing I could meet that remarkable man, widely considered to be the father of the monastic movement. His story gripped me like few others. The teenage orphan Anthony was afraid what the end of persecution, and the influx of the world, might do to the body of Christ in his hometown Alexandria. So, he gave away his huge inheritance (some of it to his sister) and went deep into the Egyptian desert, not far from the Red Sea, where he found a cave. As people came to look for him, he moved ever deeper and deeper into the desert yet, where he lived by keeping a vegetable garden and meditating on the Gospel. He eventually found a very special cave near a spring where he continued to live until his death at the age of 105!
Anthony’s amazing wisdom and miracle working prayers were sought out not only by disciples, but even by governors and the emperor of Rome. St. Athanasius of Alexandria later wrote his biography, a book famous for many centuries which was instrumental in the conversion of St. Augustine.
What is my point? It is this. This is the Christianity we need when we are stressed and troubled. If you really need to relax, or if you struggle to cope, “go into the desert with just enough to survive”. Deprive yourself of the world, of its empty entertainment, its vain luxury and nice foods. Go sleep proverbially on the bare dirt, sing the Psalms and meditate much on Scripture, and give anything you don’t really need to the poor. And don’t do it thinking God needs it, or so that others may admire you for your piety, but only because you (and all of us) need it so badly! And if your back really hurts, go ask someone that would be no temptation to your flesh, to rub your back in with oil, and to pray to our heavenly Father to extend his healing hand to your weary body. But please don’t go Ravi’s way, for it is the way of the flesh and the world, which will only lead you right into the snare of the devil. And what applies for massage parlors, applies to a host of other things as well.
Worshipping the body
But there is one final observation to be made. We noted that Ravi’s tragic story is an indictment on contemporary Christianity. It is so for yet another reason too. In our search for relief from stress and pain, we have become used (ever since the days of John Lennon and Yoko Ono) to search out almost anything in quest or a cure. This explains the newfound excitement about yoga among many Christians in the West, as well as our openness to all manner of alternative methods of healing from the East.
Someone has remarked that Westerners get converted to Eastern spirituality in search for physical wellbeing, while Easterners convert to Christianity, in their search for the living God! Yet, Indian Christian scholar Vishal Mangalwadi somewhere made this telling observation about yoga: “Before embracing yoga for your mental and spiritual wellbeing, ask yourself why it has never been able to lift India out of its misery!”
Ravi however seemed not to have been concerned about yoga too much. He promoted it, if I am not mistaken. He also promoted Ayurvedic massage and hoped many such therapists would come to America to promote it there. But here is what I read on www.elle.com about this form of massage, also called abhyanga aka: “Your therapist’s main goal is relaxation, and in India, the practice is tied deeply to the notion of self-care. Sneha is the root word for this type of massage in Sanskrit… which translates to mean ‘love’. Depending on your skin type, Ayurveda suggests performing abhyanga anywhere from once a week to once a day”.
Please note how this therapy is said to be embedded in the Sanskrit, one of the Hinduism’s most revered and ancient writings. The article’s title and subtitle read as follows: “So what is an Ayurvedic massage?” Answer: “It is based on a type of holistic medicine established 3000 years ago in India”.
I did not have time to do more research on the topic. I know one thing for sure though, that there are forms of yoga and schools in Hinduism, that promote rampant sexual promiscuity. Hinduism does not teach the radical contrast between good and evil that the Gospel does. Is it possible that Mr. Zacharias (in spite of his profound teachings) never really dealt with the dark remnants of a Hindu worldview in his own heart and life?
In the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, believers are warned never to go seek for healing and cures at any cost anywhere, for this is exactly how the Evil One gets a foot in the door. It often proves to be the first step back to paganism. Just ask Christians in Africa, or true believers in India for that matter, and they will tell you how real this danger still is today, and how easily it will lead you back into bondage. Tragically, unsuspecting Western Christians think they may experiment with all that the East has on offer, for the sake of a little relief.
One famous preacher’s tragic fall has hopefully awakened us to the folly of a self-focused Christianity and the idolatry of the body. Jesus said: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”. It is by living in that blood-bought freedom that we will have peace, for it teaches us the joy of evangelical obedience. Those who heed their Master’s voice, and who don’t go seek physical wellness and mental relief beyond the bounds of the Kingdom, will always be the happiest, also when their bodies are aching, for God said: “He that honours me, I will honour too!”