With the recent Ravi Zacharias scandal, many are sharing their thoughts and laments about his improprieties and sexual sins, so I wanted to add some brief reflections.
Our trust is in Jesus and the truth of His gospel.
For many, Ravi was something of a spiritual mentor and hero, instrumental in leading them to Christ and/or helping them strengthen their faith in the face of opposition and doubt. But because Ravi claimed to represent Jesus and be living out his Christian walk with moral integrity, his double life and godless infidelity has served to strain the gospel’s credibility and deeply shaken the faith of some.
Whether we like it or not, the credibility of the message (not necessarily its truth value) is often directly related to the credibility of the messenger. That credibility increases or decreases depending on whether or not the life of the messenger matches at the claims of the message. This is why Paul repeatedly calls believers to live lives worthy of the God and the gospel (Phil 1:27; Eph 4:1). At the same time, Paul makes it clear that even if the gospel is preached pretentiously by people with selfish and impure motives, as long as the message remains the gospel, he is glad it’s being shared (Phil 1:15-18).
Thus, despite the deep disconnect between Ravi’s personal life and his gospel message, we can still depend upon the truth of the gospel. Why? Because its persuasive power and transformative nature ultimately and finally rest upon the trustworthiness and perfection of God in Jesus Christ—and nothing and no one else. He alone is the guarantor of the gospel’s reliability. As Romans 3:4 reminds us, God and His gospel are dependable even if everyone else is a liar.
All sins are not equal: Some sins really are more egregious than others.
In the aftermath of Ravi’s indecencies, some have claimed that “sin is sin,” and that Ravi was, like all of us, just another “sinner saved by grace.” While this may be true, putting it this way so soon after the revelations downplays the truly despicable nature of his sin. Yes, everyone sins, but certain sins produce far greater social and moral impact and damage than others. While all sins are wrong before a holy God, alienating us from Him, it’s not hard to see that the sin of murder (for example) has a far greater impact on one’s conscience and society as a whole than stealing a pack of gum.
Suggesting that Ravi was “just another sinner saved by grace” profoundly minimizes the tremendous authority and power he possessed. It also dismisses the ways in which his deceitful abuse and misuse of these in order to gratify ungodly sexual desires makes the ramifications of his sin that much greater. This is precisely why James 3:1 warns, “Do not become teachers in large numbers, my brothers, since you know that we who are teachers will incur a stricter judgment.” It is also why in the Old Testament some sins incurred greater consequences than others—sometimes even death, because they had a much greater societal and moral impact on the horizontal level.
Saying Ravi was “just another sinner” also suggests that what happened to these sexually abused women should just be “forgiven and forgotten” so we can just move on and get it over with. That’s easy for the unaffected to say but shows little concern or care for those (including Ravi’s immediate family) who have been profoundly hurt and damaged by his deceit, misuse of funds, sexual duplicity, and predatory behavior. While we recognize the power of and need for God’s forgiveness and grace, when serious and egregious wrong has been done, we must also make real restitution and provide genuine care for those who have been wronged. We should not use flippant calls for “grace” and “forgiveness” to undermine or minimize the horrific nature of what has been done and try to avoid any responsibility to make proper amends.
Was Ravi actually a Christian?
I’ve heard the question raised, “Was Ravi a true believer or a wolf in sheep’s clothing?” For some, even asking this question is shocking and inappropriate. Given his repeated claims to be a genuine believer in Jesus alongside the powerful ways God used His ministry, the answer might seem obvious: “Of course Ravi was a true Christian!”
But before we rush to make such definitive conclusions, I think it’s fair to admit there is some conflicting evidence here. By all outward appearances, Ravi’s faith was sincere. However, the ongoing level of deception, the despicable nature and extent of the sin, as well as Ravi’s complete lack of public or private remorse and repentance—even when facing his impending death, means that ultimately only God, the perfect and righteous Judge, knows if Ravi was sincere or was merely “peddling the word of God” (2 Cor 2:17) for his own selfish ends.
At the very least, passages like Matthew 7:21-23 and 23:25-27 should be sobering reminders to us all that even successful and seemingly righteous religious leaders can actually be wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). We should not be too shocked or devastated when respected religious leaders who have thriving ministries and who may even look morally impeccable on the outside (just like the Pharisees did in Jesus’ time) turn out to be filthy and ungodly on the inside. Ravi’s life is one more reminder that we should not be too enamored by someone’s giftedness and ministerial success. Just because someone is brilliant, exceptionally talented, and powerfully used of God does not prove they are right with Him or living a holy life.
Ravi was not given adequate accountability, and we are also susceptible to such sin.
The many ongoing failures of the RZIM ministries to provide appropriate accountability structures for Ravi give a sobering and gravely negative example that every Christian and ministry organization can and should learn from. But because we might be legitimately outraged and angered by what Ravi did, we also need to be very careful here. The great temptation is to look at Ravi or the ministry and be disgusted and judgmental without realizing that we need to take a hard and honest look at our own hearts. As humbling as it is to admit, none of us are immune from the possibility of becoming just like Ravi—or even worse, if we fail to put moral safeguards into place.
I suspect that Ravi’s life and ministry started out well enough. Over time, however, small and secret sins crept into his life, sins which remained unrevealed and unconfessed. These eventually and progressively became larger and more horrific. As he simultaneously became increasingly powerful and popular, more was at stake and there was greater temptation and pressure to hide his mounting moral struggles and failures. Over time, his conscience was seared, and his heart became callused and hard.
Instead, we need to be utterly honest about and constantly seeking to eradicate even the so-called “little sins” in our lives, sins that could easily lead us down a similar path of destruction and moral degradation. Are you hiding something out of fear and shame? Don’t let it remain hidden! Bring it into the freeing light of confession with a trusted friend and let the power of that secret sin finally be broken (James 5:16)!
At the end of the day, the lesson is clear: We need God’s daily grace, a deep desire for humility and holiness, as well as close friends and genuine accountability structures to help us avoid suffering the same fate as Ravi.
What will your legacy be?
My final challenge is to carefully consider the legacy you are leaving for the generations that follow. Everyone is an example. What kind of example are you setting for others, a good one, a bad one, or perhaps somewhere in between? And when you are gone and people sift through the hidden aspects of your life, what will they ultimately find? What do you want them to find, and how will you make your public and private life coincide with each other?
It’s too late for Ravi, but so long as you are living, there’s still time to turn your heart toward the gospel of our Savior Jesus Christ and through confession and repentance experience His cleansing power to forgive and redeem any and all sin, public or private, known or unknown.