Actually this is mostly the tale of one important man. But since I have discovered many parallels with his life and my own, I will use this opportunity to tell his story, along with bits of my own. This is in fact a book review, but one which interweaves some of my own journey along the way.
The book being considered here is Walking from East to West. And the man behind the story is Ravi Zacharias, the international Christian apologist. I admit to being a bit slow here. This autobiography has been out since 2006 (published by Zondervan), but I only bought it yesterday and read it last night. But as I read the story of Ravi Zacharias, on numerous occasions I said, “That’s me”, or “That’s my story”.
Of course he is light years ahead of me in every department, so I am not claiming any equivalence here with the great man. But we have in a number of ways followed similar paths. The differences are greater than our similarities, but we have both been on somewhat parallel paths leading up to the work that we now do.
Of course Zacharias was born in India, while I was born in the US. That makes things pretty different to begin with. But we had somewhat similar childhoods. Zacharias never did very well in school, and he never tried very hard to succeed in his education. While his brothers and sisters and peers were all doing very well, he was not. Thus by the time he was a teenager he had become very depressed and lonely.
Although good at sport – especially cricket – and surrounded with many great friends, he still felt very alone, and was constantly saddened that he had not pleased his father. His dad grew impatient with him, telling him he would never amount to anything. This growing sense of failure and despair, coupled with his father’s disapproval, and his inner struggles and searching which he could not freely share with others, took its toll. So suicide was the only course of action for young Zacharias.
I too did not so well at school, and I also was greatly depressed as a teenager. I too was suicidal. I explored different religions, and political ideologies, but none answered the deep questions of life. Life held no meaning for me, and suicide seemed to be the only way to escape the pain and loneliness.
Although about 6 years older than I, Zacharias became a Christian at somewhat the same age: he at 17 and me at 18. Both of us were desperate for truth, hope, meaning and purpose. Indeed, we both longed for acceptance and a reason to live. Shortly after his suicide attempt some Youth for Christ people helped to lead Zacharias to the Lord.
The first half of this book details his years as a non-believer. The second half of the book chronicles his time as a believer, as a Christian evangelist, and as a renowned apologist. Indeed, today Ravi Zacharias is perhaps the premier Christian apologist. He has spoken in over 50 nations; he has spoken at almost all the major universities of the world; he has discussed the big questions of life with political leaders, academics, religious leaders, and even military leaders; and he has written a number of excellent books on apologetics over the past 25 or so years.
His early days in the faith were helped along in various ways. He devoured Christian biographies and stories of great believers, missionaries, evangelists and revivalists. He also came to love the writings of people like CS Lewis and GK Chesterton. Reading of these great men, said Zacharias, reminded him of the old adage: “fire begets fire”. He said, “The standards these Christians set by their examples set the bar for me. . . . Their examples stoked my conscience as to what the Christian life could be”.
Bible commentaries were also a favourite read for Zacharias. And one of the things that attracted him to his Canadian wife was her love of reading. His new found love of reading and study meant that when he now undertook university courses, he did very well indeed, unlike his earlier days.
I too grew strong early on in my Christian journey as I read all the biographies and autobiographies I could find of mighty men and women of God. Thus I went through many books featuring such great men as CT Studd, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, William Carey, John Wesley, George Whitefield, etc. And I loved theological works and biblical commentaries as well.
I had to laugh when I read Zacharias say this: “I was spending most of my money in those days on books. My mind was hungrier than ever, and books had become my biggest expense; I quickly learned to look for newspaper ads for used books and would end up first in line.” My wife knows exactly what that is all about. She once did our household budget and told me – with a stern look – that more money was being spent on books than on food!
I too was introduced early on to great Christian thinkers like Francis Schaeffer and CS Lewis. They in turn led me to George MacDonald, GK Chesterton and others. I too fell in love with a woman from another country, who also loved to read. My voracious appetite for reading served me well as I went on to obtain several university degrees, all with rather high marks. And like Zacharias, I also ended up living in the country of my wife’s birth: Zacharias ended up in Canada (later, the US), and I ended up in Australia.
Zacharias eventually undertook theological studies in Canada and the US. He did his seminary training at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago. He loved the professors there, including Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser and apologist Norman Geisler. And he loved the ministries of evangelisation and missions.
I too was at Trinity, but at their liberal arts college across the road. But I often would sit in on various seminary classes, and enjoy soaking up all that Kaiser, Geisler, and others had to offer. I too became involved with missions, going to Europe with YWAM. Interestingly, when Billy Graham hosted a conference for itinerant evangelists in Amsterdam in 1983, my wife and I volunteered to be stewards for the conference. Ravi Zacharias was also there, as one of the major speakers.
It has been during the last three decades or so that he became convinced that there was a pressing need to reach intellectuals, academics, university students and others with the claims of Jesus Christ. He thus undertook further studies at Cambridge, and has since devoted his life to reaching sceptics and those of other – or no – faiths.
When I was back at Trinity College, taking an apologetics course, and engaged in a mock debate with unbelievers, one student came up to me afterward and said that he felt I really had a gift for that sort of work, and should make it my life course.
That is pretty much what I am now doing on a very small scale. Of course Zacharias is doing this on a grand scale, but we both have a passion to see the lost reached, and to see honest answers provided for honest questions.
In this moving autobiography Zacharias speaks of many hardships and difficulties along the way, and the costs of serving our Lord. But he sees with hindsight the ways God was directing his paths and using past hurts – even his suicide attempt – as means to bring greater glory to God and to reach many who also are lost, struggling, hurting and in despair. And he notes how strong friends, mentors and counsellors have helped him along the way.
I too have seen how even my wild and rebellious youth is now being used by God for his purposes, and I also see the great value in godly friends and spiritual mentors. I even have a spiritual mother and father in the faith here in Australia who are of Indian origin.
It is wonderful to know that God can take a broken, messed up and insignificant person such as myself and use me for his purposes. Indeed, little did I know when I was a stoned-out hippy in the US, that one day I would be speaking to Prime Ministers and others in foreign lands, making a small difference for Christ and his Kingdom. As Zacharias says, “There is no greater discovery than seeing God as the author of your destiny.”
Numerous other parallels could be mentioned. We both have three children, both are living outside of our land of birth, and both have apologetics ministries that involve much travel and lots of speaking engagements. Of course my work load is nothing compared to his. But I do take inspiration from him, his passion and love for Christ, his concern for the lost and the poor and needy, and his willingness to seek to reach out to the intellectuals, the educated and academics of life.
Like Zacharias, I often ask, “why me Lord?” I often feel most unqualified for this work, and wonder why God has chosen me for this task, when there are so many others far more qualified than I. Says Zacharias, “As I work on a speech, some old familiar but fleeting feelings come back: ‘I am so unfit for this. I am unsure of myself. Why do these people want to listen to me? I would never have wanted this. It’s not my natural inclination’.”
We both can grow discouraged and think we are not sufficient for the job at hand. But others will come along, as one man urged Zacharias, saying, “Please don’t give up on what you’re doing. It is making a difference.” Such encouragement means a lot.
And persevere we must. For I am fully convinced that Zacharias is absolutely right when he says, “Outside of the gospel, there are no answers for humanity’s most fundamental questions”.