Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Messageby Ravi Zacharias
Ravi Zacharias answers the timely and relevant question, "In a world with so many religions, why should I choose Jesus?" As he answers this question in his most important work to date, Zacharias contrasts the truth of Jesus with the founders of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. See more details below
Ravi Zacharias answers the timely and relevant question, "In a world with so many religions, why should I choose Jesus?" As he answers this question in his most important work to date, Zacharias contrasts the truth of Jesus with the founders of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
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Climbing a Massive Wall
I begin with an incident in my life that causes storms of emotion to well up within me. Some memories are easy to relive. Others, even with the passage of time, when recalled again, throb like a reinjured wound. For that reason alone I find this, of all my past memories, very difficult to retell. It is only because the intervening years have helped me to look beyond the earlier hurts that I am able to bring this long-past moment into the present. But more than that, this sad happening, alongside a handful of others, may well have begun my journey toward God by bringing me to a screeching halt and forcing me to ask myself some hard questions.
I was sixteen years old and a student in a community college because it provided a shortcut to finishing high school. One day after classes normally ended, I was cycling back home, little suspecting what lay ahead of me. It had been a routine day from my point of view, as normal as any other. But this one was going to end differently.
As I turned into our backyard, I saw a sight that was most unusual. Normally my father would not even be home at this time, but there he was, standing at the door with his arms stretched across the open doorway as if to block my entry into the house. I greeted him with a furtive glance, and he made no reply. I felt his eyes bearing down on me, which spelled terror into my heart.
My relationship with my father left a lot to be desired, and my aimless life was a cause of immense frustration to him. I can candidly say that I fearedhim in ways that to this day I am not sure I fully understand. This was a moment I will never forget.
"How was school?" he asked.
It was a question he had never asked before. My report card usually answered that question, giving rise to the resulting tense discussions. I should have known he had a reason for asking this day, but without any suspicion I answered, "Fine."
His exact language that followed would be hard to repeat, but the torrent of anger he unleashed on me and the thrashing I received left me trembling and sobbing. Had my mother not intervened, I could have been seriously hurt. My charade was over. A game I had foolishly played had come to a very bitter end, with no one the winner.
The truth is that I had not been at school that day. In fact, I had not been there for some time. I had spent my days wandering the streets on my bicycle in search of a cricket match I could watch or even perhaps take part in. Absent from classes, I would show up for the exams and squeak through. How I expected to get away with this ruse I will never know. But wrongdoing has a way of robbing one even of common sense.
Why had all this happened in the first place? One might think the whole episode merely indicated a passionate dislike for school. But there was far more than just that. No one who knew me would have ever suspected the depths of emptiness within me. I was one of those teenagers who struggled with much on the inside but did not know where to turn for answers. For that matter, I did not know if answers to my deepest hungers actually even existed. Was everyone I met in life facing the same degree of questioning and just masking it better? Or was skepticism the realm of just a hapless few? Putting it plainly, life, to me, just did not make sense. All the pent-up longings put together added up to nothing but a wish that had no possibility of fulfillment. Jean Paul Sartre's description of life as a useless passion seemed perfectly appropriate. That confrontation with my dad probably summed up all that was tearing me apart on the inside.
That night, I stood punished and facing a wall. It may well have been a fitting metaphor of my life. My most pressing struggles had imprisoned me, and in those hours, laden with remorse, I wondered how I would ever break free to breathe the fresh air of a life unshackled.
Oscar Wilde's poem "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which was written from prison, says it well:
I never saw sad men who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
We prisoners call the sky,
And at every careless cloud that passed
In happy freedom by.
I was one of those "sad men," although I never showed it. I had that wistful yearning to be free. Thus, as grim as that evening was, it put in perspective the walls that seemed immovable. I had to look reality in the face if I was ever to find a way to understand it.
The intense soul search that began that night was ultimately to lead me to the person of Jesus Christ. How that happened in a culture that is rigorously pantheistic and (at least on paper) religiously all-encompassing is a miracle in itself. I would like to trace some of those steps for you.
Seeing Milestones in Retrospect
Selecting defining moments is not an easy task. In a rigorous effort to be both fair and realistic, I have looked at some of the road marks I have crossed and wish to bring you to the starting point of my reasoning. From a chronological perspective, one might misconstrue the sequence as an experience that led to an argument. But looking back down the road years later, I can see that logically, the argument preceded, and with time, was sustained by the experience. This opening chapter, therefore, begins with my story, but the following chapters will stand on the argument.
The purpose of this book is to lay out for you, the reader, why I firmly believe Jesus Christ to be who He claimed to bethe Son of the living God, the One who came to seek and to save a lost humanity. At a time in our cultural history when the West is looking more like the East and the East is covertly trying to emulate the West, this is much needed. Religions are making a revival, but often as a hybrid of western marketing techniques and eastern mythologya devastating combination of seduction through media and mysticism. The first casualty in such a mix is truth, and, consequently, the person of God.
Yet if the human spirit is to survive and every legitimate discipline to find fruitful expression, truth cannot be sacrificed at the altar of a pretended tolerance. All religions, plainly and simply, cannot be true. Some beliefs are false, and we know them to be false. So it does no good to put a halo on the notion of tolerance as if everything could be equally true. To deem all beliefs equally true is sheer nonsense for the simple reason that to deny that statement would also, then, be true. But if the denial of the statement is also true, then all religions are not true.
In the real-life struggles between right and wrong, justice and injustice, life and death, we all realize that truth does matter. Jesus Christ repeatedly talked about the supreme value of truth. While His life has been scrutinized more than any other's, it is remarkable that even skeptics have granted and recognized His unparalleled life and impact. Here, for example, is an opinion from a highly respected scholar, the famed historian W. E. H. Lecky:
The character of Jesus has not only been the highest pattern of virtue, but the strongest incentive in its practice, and has exerted so deep an influence, that it may be truly said that the simple record of three years of active life has done more to regenerate and to soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists.
Historians, poets, philosophersand a host of othershave regarded Him as the centerpiece of history. He Himself made a statement that was very dramatic and daring when He said to the apostle Thomas, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Every word of that statement challenges the fundamental beliefs of the Indian culture from which I come, and in reality, actually stands against an entire world today.
Just look at the implicit claims in that statement. First and foremost, He asserted that there is only one way to God. That shocks postmodern moods and mind-sets. Hinduism and Bahaism have long challenged the concept of a single way to God. The Hindu religion, with its multifaceted belief system, vociferously attacks such exclusivity.
Jesus also unequivocally stated that God is the Author of life and that meaning in life lies in coming to Him. This assertion would be categorically denied by Buddhism, which is a nontheistic if not atheistic religion.
Jesus revealed Himself as the Son of God who led the way to the Father. Islam considers that claim to be blasphemous. How can God have a Son?
Jesus claimed that we can personally know God and the absolute nature of His truth. Agnostics deny that possibility.
One can go down the line and see that every claim that Jesus made of Himself challenged my culture's most basic assumptions about life and meaning. (It is important to remember, of course, that these basic religions within the Indian framework are also not in concert with each other. Buddha was a Hindu before he rejected some of Hinduism's fundamental doctrines and conceived in their place the Buddhist way. Islam radically differs from Hinduism.)
Ironically, it was that same apostle, Thomas, to whom Jesus spoke these words, who took the exclusive claims of Christ to India and paid for the gospel message with his life.
Was Jesus who He claimed to be? Is the Christian claim to uniqueness a myth? Can one study the life of Christ and demonstrate conclusively that He was and is the way, the truth, and the life? That is the question I propose to answer in this book. I believe there is overwhelming evidence to support Jesus' claims. I begin with my personal story only to put into context how my own journey began and how I arrived at the conclusion that Jesus is who He said He is.
A Perilous Glance
There is, understandably, in these preliminary thoughts a personal uncertainty. How do I say what I want to say without bringing hurt to anyone else or, for that matter, to any culture? This is hard. Home and culture are the treasured cradles in which one is nurtured. I find myself torn out of love for the truth and the cost of candor.
The hazard in such an undertaking struck me some months ago as I read the powerful book Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. The author recounts the ascent to Mount Everest by a team of climbers of which he was a part. I noted with empathy his anguished apology at the end of the book to many of the family members of those who lost their lives in the ascent, prompted by the errors he had made in some of his first stated recollections. Writing so soon after the tragedy found him erroneously recalling details that he later had to retract or correct. He conceded that had he waited before penning his account, he would have been less prone to such mistakes.
But there was more, and therein lay the rub. Some of what he had said reflected poorly not just on him, but on the character or efforts of others. For that he was truly sorry. This latter mistake is very serious, for one's own life may be laid bare at personal cost, but not at the cost of someone else's sacred trust. To that caution I shall pay close heed, and if I have failed, it is only because to suppress the incidents would be to distort the truth of my struggle.
I can now enjoy the benefit of time's distant view. The Jesus I know and love today I encountered at the age of seventeen. But His name and His tug in my life mean infinitely more now than they did when I first surrendered my life to Him. I came to Him because I did not know which way to turn. I have remained with Him because there is no other way I wish to turn. I came to Him longing for something I did not have. I remain with Him because I have something I will not trade. I came to Him as a stranger. I remain with Him in the most intimate of friendships. I came to Him unsure about the future. I remain with Him certain about my destiny. I came amid the thunderous cries of a culture that has three hundred and thirty million deities. I remain with Him knowing that truth cannot be all-inclusive. Truth by definition excludes.
You hear it a thousand times and more growing up in the East"We all come through different routes and end up in the same place." But I say to you, God is not a place or an experience or a feeling. Pluralistic cultures are beguiled by the cosmetically courteous idea that sincerity or privilege of birth is all that counts and that truth is subject to the beholder. In no other discipline of life can one be so naive as to claim inherited belief or insistent belief as the sole determiner of truth. Why, then, do we make the catastrophic error of thinking that all religions are right and that it does not matter whether the claims they make are objectively true?
All religions are not the same. All religions do not point to God. All religions do not say that all religions are the same. At the heart of every religion is an uncompromising commitment to a particular way of defining who God is or is not and accordingly, of defining life's purpose.
Anyone who claims that all religions are the same betrays not only an ignorance of all religions but also a caricatured view of even the best-known ones. Every religion at its core is exclusive.
But the concept of "many ways" was absorbed subliminally in my life as a youngster. I was conditioned into that way of thinking before I found out its smuggled prejudices. It took years to find out that the cry for openness is never what it purports to be. What the person means by saying, "You must be open to everything" is really, "You must be open to everything that I am open to, and anything that I disagree with, you must disagree with too."
Indian culture has that veneer of openness, but it is highly critical of anything that hints at a challenge to it. It is no accident that within that so-called tolerant culture was birthed the caste system. All-inclusive philosophies can only come at the cost of truth. And no religion denies its core beliefs.
Within such systemic relativism, one tends to drift and float with the cultural tide and give no thought to the unforgiving nature of reality. That is how life is lived out in pantheistic cultures. No doubt, there is a wealth of thought that has built an impressive culture for more than one billion people, a culture that has defied economic privation, political turmoil, and religious hostilities, existing in the words of its people as "Mother India."
One does not have the advantage of choosing where one is born. Yet the words of the poet"Breathes there the man with soul so dead, Who never to himself has said, `This is my own, my native land'"ring wrenchingly true. In that cultural air, my life, my language, and my values were shaped and tested. I will ever be grateful for that privilege and for the treasured gifts it bestowed on me. The songs, the language, and the dreams it lodged in me I hope I never outlive. But a search for the one true God in a land full of gods is a very daunting task. Religion has a checkered history, and some of it is reprehensible.
An inheritor of the complexity of this culture, I grew up with walls of quiet desperation gradually building within me that moved me moment by moment to a point of personal crisis. I have heard it said that every weakness in a capable person is generally a strength abused. The same applies to culture. In the context of my upbringing, the abuses of those strengths of culture confirmed that adage.
Vulnerability in Strength
First and foremost is the strength of the nuclear family. As I knew it, the culture is strong and commendably reverential of the immediate family. The bonds of the household are wrapped tightly in India. But that strength becomes easily vulnerable to abuse. Many parents seem to seek to relive their lives through their children, and the success of the children socially elevates the family. Individuality is swallowed up by the clan. Every day, hundreds of advertisements are printed across the newspapers of the land in what is called the matrimonial sectionparents looking for spouses for their children. Every prospective bride and groom is advertised as being from "a good home" and searching for someone from "a good home." "My son is an engineer." "My daughter is a doctor." "My son stood first in his class." "My daughter won a scholarship abroad." So run the boasts at social gatherings. Everything is done to keep the family as a single unit, with reverence for the parents' wishes on everything from jobs to marriage.
For me, the strength of the home was also the soil for the seeds of loneliness growing within. It centered on a vitally important facta highly successful and influential father who could not come to grips with an undisciplined son who flirted with failure in numerous directions. The father reached great heights of power. What would become of the son?
The second dimension, aside from the glue of the family, is the social reality of intense academic competition. Everything that defines an individual and his or her future is shaped by his or her performance in school. Every student wants to stand first in his or her class. It is not enough to do well. You must be at the top of your class or close to it. Intellect is worshiped.
When I was in school, every student's grades and position in the class were printed in the leading newspapers for all to see. Success or failure was reason for public pride or shame. One of my closest friends toyed with suicide after his high-school exams because he did not stand first in the entire city of New Delhi. Another one of my classmates in college actually burned himself to death because he did not make the grade.
Such distortion that has hurt so many still pervades many cultures. It is plainly wrong, but it is cherished with a passion.
This combination of the standard at home and the standard in society became a volatile mix in my life. I showed early signs that I would not be the boast of a powerful dad. This was not deliberate; it was just either the lack of capacity or capacity in search of a purpose. Life crept along while the long arm of cultural pressure was gradually creeping up on me, and I knew I would not pass the test.
Every morning, we would awaken to men and women standing outside our home, waiting for just one minute of my father's time. He held the keys to numerous jobs and contacts. With folded hands, they would plead for a chance at a job. On his way to the car, he would nod to them as if to say, "Leave it with me." And the truth is that many were helped by his connections. Scores of people revered his name because of such power. Could I not also have benefited someday from his influence? But too much lurked behind the scenes to offer a simplistic explanation.
In addition, my father had a foreboding side. With his enormous position in life, he battled a volatile temper. My lack of focus made it a situation awaiting crisis. That combination was to bring him and me into a relationship that I now regret. I am ever grateful to God that it did not end the way it began.
As committed as he was to a brilliant career for me, I was just as desirous of living for the sports fielda love of my life in which he had no interest. He had a point. Every boy growing up wanted to become a cricketer and play for India, just as every youngster in New York wants to play for the Yankees. But I did show some promise. I played for many teams at my collegecricket, hockey, tennis, and table tennisyet never once did my dad come to see me play, even in any big game. We were marching to different drumbeats.
Throughout these years, I never lost respect for him. To this day, I believe my father was a good man, indeed, even a great man, but he did not know how to get close to a hurting, struggling child. I, for my part, pondered within and lived with my own private pain. Over the years I have come to believe that these things matter more than ordinary people may realize, but perhaps less than extremists would lead us to believe. Somehow we learn to cope, except that it places us near the edge of self-rejection and renders us more vulnerable when dreams are shattered.
Let me illustrate this point.
A few years ago, a former Olympic athlete came to visit me. He was looking for some direction in his life. He was a strong and solidly built man. It was a privilege to be around himjust in the hopes that muscles were contagious!
He told me of the time he was representing his country at the Olympics. It was a story of dreams that had struggled against a potential nightmare. From the age of twelve, the Olympics had been all he labored for. He had put every penny he earned and every purchase he made into someday becoming a gold medalist in the event he loved. He was totally focused. This is what he wanted. But he had a very turbulent relationship with his father, who had no interest in this dream of his, and, therefore, he had funded every penny himself.
When he was only seventeen, he filmed the world champion in the event for which he was training and broke down his every stride, frame by frame, to study his technique. He then had himself filmed in the same distance and matched it, stride for stride. By precisely piecing together where he was losing the precious seconds to the world champion, he determined to bridge the gap. Through sheer willpower, discipline, and courage, his goal was within reach.
He made the cut for his country's team, and life was suddenly like being atop a floating cloud. He won every heat and was emerging as the surprise and potential winner when the finals came. Was this a dream or was it real? No, it was real, he reminded himself.
He was at the starting point for the finals, and his nation was watching. Millions were cheering for him, and hearts were racing, expecting this "country-boy-makes-it-big" story to hit the headlines the next day. In fact, I remember watching the event. The gun was about to go off, signaling the start. This was the moment he had waited for most of his life. But the mind with all its tenacity and resoluteness is also a storehouse of unuttered yearnings.
"From out of nowhere," he said, "an unexpected thought suddenly flooded my mindI wonder if my father is watching me."
That unanticipated thought momentarily overcame him and may have added a fraction of a second to his first two strides, robbing him of the gold. With great credit, he still won the bronze. The third fastest in the world is no mean accomplishment. Yet, to him, the victory on the track lost its luster when measured against the deeper yearnings of lifethe approval of the ones you love. Little did this Olympian know how my heart was beating as he shared this story with me. I understood him well.
Young dreams may be wild ones, but they are never corrected by ridiculing them. They must be steered by a loving voice that has earned the right to be heard, not one enforced by means of power. This is a very difficult lesson for parents to learn. And as cultures lose their restraining power, there will be greater need for mutual love and respect between parents and children if a relationship of trust is to be built, rather than banking on authority because of position.
Probably the most wrenching words I ever heard my father say to me were, "You will never make anything of your life!" And frankly, it seemed he was right. He was trying only to jolt me into reality. My mother's comfort could only carry me so far. In that sense, that fateful day when I cycled home was a critical point at which we ought to have sat down and talked. But I suppose the freedom to talk does not emerge in a vacuum. The moment of opportunity is built on hours of preparation.
Where Do I Seek That I Might Find?
Our strained relationship was only made worse by a foundational, self-perpetuating thought. If life had no purpose, why try to work it out anyway? When I talk about purpose and meaning, I do not just mean some sense of existential peace. I mean a direction to life that upholds both reason and emotion. This is very critical to understand.
Now as I have moved to the West, I find that although many young people here identify with the problem, it is unexplainably ignored in the adult world. Why do I say this?
In the corporate world, every major company formulates a mission statement. That, in turn, is invoked when measuring achievements and failures. If a company does not know why it exists, then it will never know if it is failing or succeeding. How indicting, then, it is to all of us who will labor for hours to establish a mission statement for a company to sell toothpicks or tombstones but never pause long enough to write one out for our individual lives.
At the very point of writing, I have read an article interviewing one of Australia's great cricketers. He is in the midst of the world cup of cricket, representing his country. Rather teary in his otherwise "no-holds-barred" posture to life, he muttered a regret. Even as he is playing these matches, his wife is minutes away from delivering their second child, thousands of miles away. "I was gone for the first one and now am absent for the second. I have concluded that cricket is important to my life, but it isn't everything."
But that invokes a question, does it not? What is everything? Is anything everything? Why are we so eager to prove to the world that we are the best at what we do and care not for why or who we are?
How I wish there had been answers for me to such questions. Maybe there were, but I could not discern them amid the deluge of voices in a religious land. Purpose is to life what the skeleton is to the body. The muscle may have strength, but it needs support and attachment. All my pursuits had no supporting structure. Life drifted with affections and sports, but without ultimate purpose.
Just think of the alternatives our cultures have given to us. Pleasure, wealth, power, fame, fate, charity, peace, education, ethnicitythe list goes on endlessly. And when none of these work, some amalgam of spirituality and pragmatism is embraced. But these pursuits do not tell us why we are here in the first place. These may be ways of ordering one's life, but is life to be defined by what I pursue, or must my pursuit be defined by what life was meant to be?
In a culture where the academic is the ultimate and my life was not measuring up, a culture where philosophy is abundant but purpose is never imparted, where could I turn? The ultimate loss is the loss of face when failure attends. This thing we call shame is deeply embedded in the Hindi language, so much so that when one fails, part of the scolding is to be branded a shameless individual. That night it seemed as if I had lost face forever, and my punishment was both a metaphor and a reality.
The Seeker Finds Out He Is Sought
Somewhere in the midst of all this turmoil, the Hound of Heaven was on my trail. His footprints are everywhere as I look over my shoulder now. He was, indeed, nearer than I thought. I can see now, in hindsight, the trail that is evident, even in the grimmest moments. When you live in a small, two-bedroom home with four siblings and two parents, you cannot run for a hiding place. Yet it is utterly amazing how one can hide within oneself.
But the work of God had long begun. From out of the blue, one day my sister was invited to a youth event that would feature music and a speaker. She invited me to attend this meeting with her. On this occasion the visiting speaker was a man who, though a total stranger to me, was a well-respected Christian leader internationally. My memory of it is too blurred to recall exactly all that transpired. But this I know. He spoke on a text that is probably the best-known text in the Bible: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16 KJV).
Even more powerful than what he said was his demeanor, and his heart came through in his words. There were both tenderness and power. Unaccustomed to being at such an event, I found myself walking conspicuously alone to the front at his invitation to trust in Jesus Christ as my Lord and my Savior. Although I had been raised in a church, I held out such little hope that its message had anything to do with life that I grasped only a portion of what he said. None of these things meant anything to me. To this vocabulary I was a stranger. I only knew that my life was wrong and that I needed somebody to make it right. I wanted new hungers, new longings, new disciplines, and new loves. I knew God had to matter. I just did not know how to find Him.
I left that night with a hint in my mind that there was something so right about the message, even though I had not got it all together. My confusion notwithstanding, a very important context was put into place. As the weeks went by, I continued to attend all of the popular Hindu festivals and to enjoy watching dramatic presentations of their mythology. I had an ardent Hindu friend who worked very hard at getting me to embrace the Hindu view of life.
Then a very significant event took place. I was cycling past a cremation site and stopped to ask the Hindu priest where that person, whose body was nothing more than a pile of ashes, was now.
"Young man," he said, "that is a question you will be asking all your life, and you will never find a certain answer."
If that is the best a priest can do, I thought, what hope is there for a novice like me?
As the months went by, without the further explanation that I needed, the continued loss of meaning led me to a tragic moment. Had I read the atheistic philosopher Jean Paul Sartre at that stage of my life, he would have confirmed every sense of isolation that I felt. Two of his best-selling books, Nausea and No Exit, exactly described my state. Sartre went so far as to say that the only question he could not answer was why he did not commit suicide. Is it not amazing that when life seems meaningless, the poets and artists are unafraid to plead guilty while the rationalists denounce that posture and wax eloquent with little reason?
My decision was firm but calm. A quiet exit would save my family and me any further failure. I put my plan into action. As a result, I found myself on a hospital bed, having been rushed there in the throes of an attempted suicide. In that hospital room, a Bible was brought to me, and in the desolation of my condition, a passage of Scripture was read to me. The speaker's message from that youth event still rang in my ears. I needed it as a base on which to build. He had preached from the third chapter of the Gospel according to John about God's love. Now in the hospital, I was being read the fourteenth chapter of John about God's purpose.
The words in that chapter were spoken to the apostle Thomas, who, as I said, came to India. His memorial exists to this day, just a few miles away from where I was born. Remember that Jesus had said to him, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except through Me." But my attention was captured by a few words farther along, when Jesus said to His disciples, "Because I live, you shall live also." Again, I was not sure of all that it meant. I knew it meant more than just biological life. Piecing together God's love in Christ, the way that was provided because of Christ, and the promise of life through Him, on that hospital bed I made my commitment to give my life and my pursuits into His hands. The struggles of my relationships, my origin, and my destiny were all addressed in that conversation Jesus had with His disciples two thousand years ago. My commitment stands now as the most wonderful transaction I ever made. I turned my life completely over to Jesus Christ.
In the same poem I quoted earlier, Oscar Wilde said:
And all the woe that moved him so
That gave that bitter cry,
And the wild regrets and bloody sweats,
None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
More deaths than one must die ...
And every human heart that breaks
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper's house
With the scent of costliest nard.
Ah! Happy day they whose hearts can break
And peace and pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?
I walked out of that hospital room a new man. The Lord Christ had entered in. The transformation was as dramatic as I could have ever imagined. There is no other way to describe it. From then on, my longings, my hopes, my dreams, and my every effort has been to live for Him who rescued me, to study for Him who gave me this mind, to serve Him who fashioned my will, and to speak for Him who gave me a voice.
The passion for learning, the recognition of the value of study, and the need to understand great thinkers and their thoughtsall were gradually put into their legitimate place. Our intellect is not intended to be an end in itself, but only a means to the very mind of God. Books, which were once a curse, became a gold mine.
The Hebrews had a motif by which they symbolized the ideal: "Every man under his own fig tree." If the Lord were to allow me a metaphor today, it would be, "Every man in his own library." The very pursuits that at one time brought so much inner heartache are now for me the transcending delight of my heart. Little did I know the long academic journey that lay ahead of me. I have loved it.
So much has transpired since that day that it would fill volumes. God has given me the privilege of speaking for Him on every continent and in dozens of cities, presenting a defense of the Christian faith in some of the finest institutions of the world. I am privileged beyond measure. I am as much at home in New Delhi as I am in Atlanta or Toronto. I love the peoples of this world, each with their accents and cuisines and idiosyncrasies. I have truly enjoyed the challenge and privilege that being a Christian apologist has brought my way. Christian apologetics is the task of presenting a defense of the person and the message of Jesus Christ. Over the years, I have become more convinced than ever that He is exactly who He claimed to beGod incarnate, who came to give us life to the fullest and to point us to the beauty and freedom of truth. The thrill of seeing thousands of lives transformed is a thrill I cannot deny.
The Pattern Unfolds
As I bring this chapter to a close, I would like to share how a purposeful design emerges when God weaves a pattern from what, to us, may often seem disparate threads.
Some years ago, I was visiting a place where some of the most beautiful saris are made. The sari, of course, is the garment worn by Indian women. It is usually about six yards long. Wedding saris are a work of art; they are rich in gold and silver threads, resplendent with an array of colors.
The place I was visiting was known for making the best wedding saris in the world. I expected to see some elaborate system of machines and designs that would boggle the mind. Not so! Each sari was being made individually by a father-and-son team. The father sat above on a platform two to three feet higher than the son, surrounded by several spools of thread, some dark, some shining. The son did just one thing. At a nod from his father, he would move the shuttle from one side to the other and back again. The father would gather some threads in his fingers, nod once more, and the son would move the shuttle again. This would be repeated for hundreds of hours, till you would begin to see a magnificent pattern emerging.
The son had the easy taskjust to move at the father's nod. All along, the father had the design in his mind and brought the right threads together.
The more I reflect on my own life and study the lives of others, I am fascinated to see the design God has for each one of us, individually, if we would only respond to Him. Little reminders come my way to show the threads He has woven into this life. The following story is a small pointer to that end.
Almost thirty years to the day after my surrender to Christ, my wife and I were visiting India and decided to visit my grandmother's grave. I had only vague recollections of her funeral, the first funeral I had ever attended. I had a challenge trying to tell the cemetery manager the year of her death. We finally arrived at the yearas I recalled I was probably nine or ten when it might have happened. After thumbing through old registers that were bigger than his desk, we eventually found her name. With the help of a gardener, we walked through the accumulated weeds and dirt and rubble in the cemetery until we found the large slab of stone marking her grave.
No one had visited her grave for almost thirty years. With his little bucket of water and a small brush, the gardener cleared off the caked-on dirt and, to our utter surprise, under her name, a verse gradually appeared. My wife clasped my hand and said, "Look at the verse? It read, "Because I live, you shall live also." As I said, He was on my trail long before I knew it.
As the years have gone by, we have made a study of when the gospel first made inroads into our family. On both my mother's and my father's sides, five and six generations ago, the first believers came from the highest caste of the Hindu priesthood. The first to come to the Lord was a woman. She was intrigued by the message brought to her village by missionaries and continued to seek them out, in spite of her family's terrible displeasure. But one day, as she was about to leave the missionary compound in order to be home before her family found out where she had been, the doors of the compound were shut because a cholera epidemic had broken out in the village. She had to remain with the missionaries for several weeks until the time of quarantine was past. By that time, she had committed her life to the Lord. The walls of a closed compound were the means of bringing her face to face with Jesus Christ.
All walls are not barriers. They may be there for a purpose. As I look back upon the journey, there is one image and two poets who come to mind. In the New Testament, we are told of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. He, of course, was a terrorist to the Christians. God graciously tracked him down with His love to make him one of His choice apostles. Those who were once his friends now threatened his life. The disciples put him in a basket and lowered him over a city wall that he might escape his tormentors.
For me, the torment was within. God planted the feet of some who lifted me in a basket of love and persuasion and lowered me over the walls I could not scale on my own. Such is the grace of Christ who meets us where we are.
Readers of English poetry will recall the turbulent life of Francis Thompson. His father longed for him to study at Oxford, but Francis lost his way in drugs and failed to make the grade on more than one occasion. Those who knew him knew that inside was a slumbering genius, if only his life could be rescued.
When Francis Thompson finally succumbed to the pursuing Christ, he penned his immortal "Hound of Heaven," describing the years behind the moment of transaction:
I fled Him down the nights and down the days.
I fled Him down the arches of the years,
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
of my own mind: And in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
Down titanic glooms of chasmed fears
From those strong feet that followed, that followed after
For though I knew His love that followed
Yet I was sore adread
Lest having Him I have naught else beside.
All that I took from thee I did but take
Not for thy harms
But just that thou might'st seek it in my arms.
All which thy child's mistake fancies are lost
I have stored for thee at home:
"Rise, clasp my hand, and come."
Halts by me that footfall:
is my gloom after all,
shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly.
Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am he whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, that dravest me.
What a wonderful day it was when I stopped running and, by His strength, let the embrace of His love envelop me. The words of a famous hymn by Charles Wesley reflect that triumph and my story:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature's night.
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed thee.
Only one thing need be added. I was twenty years old when my family moved to Canada. There, my mom and dad made their commitments to Christ too. It was a new day for all of us. My dad worked hard at recovering the lost years. In 1974, I was in my twenties, young in the ministry, and I was in Cambodia, preaching in some very fearsome circumstances. My father sent a letter with me that he wanted me to read after I left. In it he reflected upon the days when all seemed lost to me and to him in our relationship. It was a beautiful letter. I read it, lying in my bed in Phnom Penh. One line summed it up when he said, "I thank God that He considered our family in calling as one of His servants, one of my children."
He passed away in 1979 at the age of sixty-seven. I do miss him in these wonderful years of ministry. He would have been such an encouragement. God's grace is beyond description. He lifted all of us over the walls of our own imprisonment.
So much for the story. Now to the argument.
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