On a routine day, while in university, I was walking back to my hostel, along with a few brothers in Christ, when I did something I didn’t on other days after our Bible study: I went with one of them to his lodging instead of walking on to mine. It wasn’t a planned visit, but the Lord sure had plans.
In that room — which was in a state of disarray (college boys!) — my eyes were drawn to a CD with no label on it. There were numerous other CDs strewn all around, but I picked up this unlabelled one for no discernable reason. Seeing it in my hand, my friend promptly said, “It’s full of sermons; you’ll love it.” So, I inserted it into his computer.
I was immediately captivated by the voice of a man who spoke with clarity and conviction, and a distinct Indian accent. He was answering the top five questions that had been asked by the students of the University of Iowa about Christianity. The first question was: “What is the meaning of life?” Something about the way the speaker expounded the answer left an indelible mark in my mind. What was it?
Was it this new approach to answering such heartfelt questions? Was it his cogency and winsomeness? A dawning realisation that my faith could stand up to scrutiny? Or the new confidence that there were honest answers to life’s deepest questions? I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it was a blend of all of the above. But that was my introduction, in God’s providence, to the life and ministry of a man who has since had an enormous impact on my life — Ravi Zacharias.
Something about the way the speaker expounded the answer left an indelible mark in my mind
That was nineteen years ago. Today, as I try to put my thoughts together about the impact of his well-lived life, there is, in my heart, a profound sense of sadness. On occasion, I’ve considered capturing, in one piece, the influence of his ministry on my life — but never did I think it would be this soon.
It came as a rude shock, therefore, when I read of his passing yesterday, and I can’t imagine what it must be like for his family and the RZIM team. Each email update I got from their office over the last couple of weeks made me cringe and hesitate to open it. But I went on to read each of them with the confidence that “our God is in the heavens; He does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
This article may or may not reach the RZIM family, but it’s my sincere prayer that, as they look to “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4), they will experience a comprehensive sense of comfort during this difficult time.
Ever since that day when I first heard him, I’d always wanted to meet Ravi-ji. And in an effort to enrich my own spiritual life, I began to listen (and re-listen) to as many of his sermons as I could find. It’s hard to pick a favourite: “The lostness of man”, “Wicked and strong Jezebel”, “Jesus as they saw Him”, “Though the fig tree does not bud”… In fact, all of his sermons have shaped and transformed my thinking.
His books weren’t too easily available in those days. I borrowed a few, bought several later, and have read many of his works. I especially treasure Cries of the Heart and Walking from East to West because he personally signed those books for me. I got to meet Ravi-ji on two separate occasions in Bangalore, India — and even got to chat with him briefly at one of those events. I came away from those two meetings having seen, in close proximity, a man of humility who sought to honour the Lord Jesus Christ in his life and calling — nothing more!
I came away from those two meetings having seen, in close proximity, a man who sought to honour the Lord Jesus — nothing more!
For nearly two decades, I’ve followed his ministry closely. I’ve read much of what he’d written and listened to nearly everything he’d preached. These avenues have given me a window into his heart and helped me understand the man and his calling probably much more than I would have if he were my acquaintance. That’s why I write this note, not merely to say “thank you” to Ravi-ji, but to celebrate his life for running the race well and being a model of faith to millions around the world.
Although much more could be written about what can be learnt from a life like his, I’d like to put down a few lessons that will hopefully paint a clearer image in your mind of the man whom I’ve considered my mentor — albeit from a distance! These lessons should encourage us to emulate men like Ravi Zacharias in our lives and callings.
1. The Lord is able to do much more through your life than you can imagine when you are fully submitted to Him. Ravi-ji would often quote a poem which arguably had a profound effect on his calling.
When God wants to drill a man, and thrill a man, and skill a man;
When God wants to mold a man to play the noblest part;
When He yearns with all His heart to create so great and bold a man
That all the world might be amazed;
Watch His methods, watch His ways.
How He ruthlessly perfects whom He royally elects.
How He hammers and hurts him, and with mighty blows converts him,
Into trial shapes of clay which only God understands,
While his tortured heart is crying and he lifts beseeching hands.
Yet he bends but never breaks, when his good He undertakes.
How He uses whom He chooses and with every purpose fuses him,
With mighty acts induces him to try His splendor out.
God knows what He’s about.
Although it is usually credited to anonymity, Ravi-ji often said it may have been written by someone in ministry. Could it be because that poem was the story of his life? You wouldn’t be wrong to believe that.
From being a failure in studies with no real purpose in life, this unruly boy from Delhi was lifted out by God and made to stand in front of huge audiences to defend and proclaim the Christian faith. He had spoken at various world-renowned universities, to several heads of states, and to countless sceptics and believers across the globe. Ravi-ji frequently admitted it didn’t come without a cost. “When God wants to drill a man… to play the noblest part… watch His methods, watch His ways!”
From being a failure in studies, this unruly boy from Delhi was made to stand before huge audiences and defend the Christian faith
Ravi-ji was known to be away for almost 250 days a year for more than 40 years! On one occasion, he wrote, “It’s a reality my family has graciously coped with. Those wonderful days when I could study at home, enjoy lunch breaks with my family, take thirty-minute naps, and have afternoon tea are long gone… But there is a brighter side,” he added, “a much brighter side than I can fully state. The rewards of this ministry have been immeasurable, too numerous even to name.” I’m sure, included in those numerous blessings, was the satisfaction that all his children are serving the Lord in their own ways.
While we easily take note of his eloquence, his ability to quote philosophers at will, and his masterful skill to narrate heart-touching stories, let’s never forget that, at the core of these, stood a man who was humble and ever-willing to proclaim the name of Jesus in some of the toughest settings, no matter what it cost him.
2. It is possible to winsomely defend the Christian faith and proclaim the gospel, even in tough settings. In 1983, Ravi-ji was invited by Dr. Billy Graham to address a gathering of 4,000 evangelists in Amsterdam. He said:
“Before I left Amsterdam… something very curious struck me about the event. I pondered that there were so few people operating in the arena of apologetics. Most of the preaching in the area of evangelism was geared to the ‘unhappy pagan.’ What about the ‘happy pagan,’ I thought, the one who has no qualms about his life? Life was about to change for me in my heartfelt desire to preach to the skeptic.”
The founding of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries was a result of this grand vision. The rest, as they say, is history. Ravi Zacharias brought the discipline of apologetics within the reach of the church. Today, RZIM has offices across the globe and, true to its founder’s vision, the team has been challenging those who shape the ideas of a culture with the credibility of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Although the field of apologetics could often become too cerebral, Ravi-ji, through his life and ministry, has clearly shown how important it is to wed scholarship and a love for the Lord. He also loved people and always demonstrated his priority for winning them over winning an argument. He often quoted an Indian proverb, “Once you’ve cut-off a person’s nose, there’s no point giving him a rose to smell.”
Ravi-ji loved people and always demonstrated his priority for winning them over winning an argument
Sheikh Talal Sider, one of the four founders of Hamas, once gave an audience to Ravi-ji and some other Christian leaders, as they tried to help in the peace process between Palestine and Israel. The leader of Hamas gave them a great meal, and told them of the 18 years he’d served in prison while some of his children had been lost in suicide bombings.
When the talks were done, before everyone left, Ravi-ji said, “Sheik, you and I may never see each other again, so I want you to hear me. A little distance from here is a mountain upon which Abraham went 5,000 years ago to offer his son. You may say the son was one; I may say it’s another. Let’s not argue about that. He took his son up there. And as the axe was about to fall, God said, ‘Stop.’ Do you know what God said after that?”
The Hamas leader shook his head. Ravi-ji continued, “God said, ‘I myself will provide’…Very close to where you and I are sitting, Sheik, is a hill. Two thousand years ago, God kept that promise and brought his own Son and the axe did not stop this time. He sacrificed his own Son…Sheik, I just want you to hear this. Until you and I receive the Son God has provided, we’ll be offering our own sons and daughters on the battlefields of this world for many of the wrong reasons.”
Courageous and winsome! That’s why I say Ravi Zacharias was perhaps the greatest apologist of our time — one who could touch both the heart and the intellect of the thinkers and influencers.
3. There is a Grand Weaver who is able to orchestrate things for our good and His glory. Ravi-ji never shied away from narrating the story of his conversion to Christ. When he was 17 years old, he attempted to take his life owing to much despair. It was a miracle that his servant found him unconscious in the bathroom and rushed him to a hospital in Delhi. When he was revived and on his way to recovery, a Bible was brought to him by Fred David, one of the Directors of Youth for Christ. Ravi-ji’s mother, wanting to read the Bible to him, turned to John 14 and read out these life changing words of Jesus to him: “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).
He never shied away from narrating the story of his conversion to Christ. When he was 17 years old, he attempted to take his own life
In his own words, he said:
“The words hit me like a ton of bricks. This ‘life’ sounded very different from ordinary life. I had no real idea about what it all meant, and no idea of the context of the words. All I knew was that it spoke of something beyond what I had experienced. This may be my only hope. A new way of living. Life as defined by the author of life.” He then began to pray inwardly, “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.”
He was very clear in his mind as he left the hospital that he had made a commitment to Christ. The verse was going to stick with him and come up at crucial moments of his life and remind him again and again of “the Grand Weaver” by whom every detail of life was woven into its perfect place. When Ravi-ji’s mother died in 1974, he had the same verse (John 14:19) inscribed on her gravestone.
There’s another related incident that he usually narrated about finding his grandmother’s grave:
“In the 1990s, my wife and I were in Delhi and decided to visit my grandmother’s grave. She had died in 1955, and it was no small feat to find the plot number. We discovered that the gravestone had sunk into the ground by at least a foot. After some effort, we got the gardener to dig out the detritus that had piled up on the plot over almost forty years. As he dug away the rubble, one spadeful at a time, we wondered whether we were really at the right spot. Then he hit stone. We knew it was a grave stone. Shovel by shovel, the dirt was lifted, and the stone was gradually revealed. All of a sudden, my grandmother’s name became visible, and my wife clutched my arm. There it was — her name, the date of her death, and then the same verse etched on my heart and my mother’s grave: Jesus said, ‘Because I live, you also will live.’ For me, the dots were connected — 1955…1963…1974…the 1990s…and on into the future.”
Ravi-ji’s life is a testimony to this truth that our backgrounds, our disappointments, our triumphs, and our beliefs are all part of the intentional and perfect work of the Grand Weaver.
In writing this, I’ve skimmed through several of his books and sermons. It has been a fascinating exercise. As I type this, I’m quite emotional and in tears. He’s no more with us, but with the One he’d so passionately preached about all his life. Sarah Davis summarised it well in her email announcing her dad’s passing:
“It was his Savior, Jesus Christ, that my dad always wanted most to talk about. Even in his final days, until he lacked the energy and breath to speak, he turned every conversation to Jesus and what the Lord had done. He perpetually marveled that God took a seventeen-year-old skeptic, defeated in hopelessness and unbelief, and called him into a life of glorious hope and belief in the truth of Scripture — a message he would carry across the globe for 48 years… Some have said my dad blazed a trail when he began commending the Christian faith and addressing life’s great questions of meaning nearly five decades ago. As one friend dear to him remarked, he has also paved that path, desiring that his teammates around the world would continue so untold millions might know the same Jesus he faithfully served — the one he now sees face-to-face.”
That’s our great hope — we will see Him face to face. And that’s certainly a matter to rejoice over.
I bring this to a close by saying: “Thank you Ravi-ji. You have served Him well and have kept the faith. There is laid up for you ‘the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to [you] on that day, and not only to [you] but also to all who have loved His appearing’ (2 Timothy 4:8). I will always remember you for your influence on my life and ministry, and as the greatest apologist of our century. Farewell, my hero! See you on the other shore!”
A weekly brief of new resources and Scripture-based insights from our editorial team.