When Your Heroes Fall

By February 15, 2021 February 16th, 2021 Accountability, blog, Christian Living, Faith, Idolatry

There’s a story in the Gospels where Jesus saw a fig tree from a distance, and since he was hungry, he approached it to gather and eat of its fruit.  Yet, as he approached the tree that seemed to bear fruit, he found that “when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves” (Mark 8:13).

On Friday, February 12, a report was released by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) detailing the findings of a months-long investigation into the sexually immoral and abusive actions of the man who the organization is named after.  You can read the findings of the report here, and an in-depth covering of the story from Christianity Today here.

My intention now is not to give a detailed commentary on the story and the various contextual realities that allowed for it to happen.  There are others far more qualified than me who have done so, and I would encourage you to read them.  Rather, I want to provide a pastoral word to Christians on how to think and process through the moral failure of others in general, and in this case, influential Christian leaders in particular. 

In the past 72 hours, I have heard from over a dozen members of Grace who are shaken by the exposure of Ravi’s private sin, and I count myself among them.  It’s not the first time a Christian leader has been disqualified, but something about this story has made it more disorienting than the others.  I don’t only write this for the benefit of others, because in many ways, I’m writing this in order to process my own emotions as well.

For those who have never heard of Ravi Zacharias, he was one of the most renown apologists and evangelists of our generation.  His ministry’s tagline was, “helping the thinker believe, and the believer think.”  He had access to political leaders across the world and was invited to speak at both religious and secular institutions alike, including ivy league universities where he would fill auditoriums of young adults to speak about the reasonable faith of Christianity and then do long Q&A interactions with the audience.

A combination of factors led to Ravi having a significant impact in my own spiritual journey.  After years of drifting away from the Lord in college, God drew me back to Himself through a variety of factors, and I developed an unquenchable hunger to learn more about God’s Word and the truth of the Christian faith.  This coincided with a rise in a relatively new video-driven website called YouTube.  Enter Ravi. It is difficult to convey how vital his lectures and Q&A sessions, particularly at college campuses to speak with those my own age at the time, had on my life and faith.  It’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve watched hundreds of hours, and have routinely recommended these videos to believers and nonbelievers alike.

I’m not naïve to the fact that Christian leaders are human and flawed, even the “best” ones, and Ravi is certainly not the first high-profile Christian to be exposed of sexual immorality. However, before this news was exposed, if you asked me to list out all the influential Christian leaders of our day and rank them by those whom I trusted the most to never fall due to moral sin, Ravi Zacharias would be near to, if not at the top of the list.

Ravi Zacharias died of cancer in May 2020, and in the months following, reports came out detailing his sexual abuse of massage therapists both in the United States and abroad.  In September, RZIM hired an external firm to do an in-depth investigation, and the newly released report confirmed the allegations, and then some.  I cannot imagine the pain and trauma that the direct victims of Ravi’s abuse have suffered, and continue to suffer, and they should be the ones who primarily receive care and considerations. 

With that said, Ravi’s massive influence within the church leaves many, including myself, with a lingering question.  How can and should Christians react when their Christian heroes fall?

I want to briefly offer 8 things:

1. Lament

There can be a tendency amongst Christians to immediately say, “well we shouldn’t be surprised by this” because of how often it seems to happen and therefore keep ourselves from having the space to truly lament.  Lament is a biblical prayer language that opens the door to the deep emotions of sorrow, hurt, misunderstanding and injustice.[1]  We need to fight off the coping mechanism that seeks to avoid the pain and pretend we’re not affected by this, for lament is the proper response to any case of deep injustice. 

When Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus in John 11, he wasn’t crying over the death of his friend, for he was about to raise him from the dead, but he was weeping over a fallen creation where death is a reality and injustice is prevalent.  Lament is not a solution, nor the only step, but it acknowledges the reality of pain while trusting in God’s promises and fueling proper action against injustice.

2. Don’t Gloss Over It

In the fast-paced news cycle of the day, a story like this can come and go without ever giving it much thought.  We read a headline, get a text from someone asking if we’ve seen it, see a couple people post articles on social media, and we move on.  Again, there is a coping mechanism to this, and those who are victims of spiritual abuse in their own life may have good reason not dig deeper into it for it will trigger traumatic experiences.

For others, glossing over it could be for less helpful reasons.  Perhaps you don’t want to ruin your view of Ravi Zacharias so that you can still consider him an influential and important voice in your life.  Maybe you want to still recommend his books, watch his lectures, and not allow this blemish on his life cancel all the good he has done.  In the obsessive talk about “cancel culture”, you don’t want to cancel Ravi, so you swing the pendulum too far to the other side and barely give his exposure a second thought.  And lastly, maybe even with decent intentions, you don’t want to bring more attention to it out of fear that it will just fuel nonbelievers’ claims that Christianity is a charade.

Whatever the underlying reasons may be, believer, don’t gloss over it.  Eat the fruit of bitter grief and acknowledge the sin and brokenness that led to this abuse.  Glossing over the news and moving on without second thought does far more harm to your witness than shining a light on it.  The more you dig into the story, the worse it will feel, but it is worse even still to neglect it altogether.

3. Acknowledge the Greater Problem

Among the most grievous aspects of this story, is that it is not the first time someone tried to shed light upon Ravi’s hidden, sexual abuse.  There are claims from women that go back to 2017 and even a lawsuit that escaped the news cycle for everyday Christians who follow him.  From what I understand, there were also various women within the organization who tried to sound the alarm to RZIM leadership who were either dismissed or belittled and disciplined as a result of it. 

This is not a hot take, but it bears repeating, especially amongst Christian institutions.  We need to listen to victims when they come forward.  The power structures in place often work to silence victims instead of hearing them, especially in the cases of sexual immorality involving powerful men and their victims.  As hard as it may be to admit, this case is a symptom of the greater problem that exists within culture, and yes, even the church.  Unless we see this in the context of a greater problem, then no lessons will be learned to prevent it from happening again and again.

4. Call for Increased Accountability from Christian Institutions

Accountability follows acknowledgment.  I don’t claim to know all the answers here, but the problems are not limited to sinful people, it is built into weak systems that allow for sinful people to get away with it.  

What processes are in formally in place for Christian boards (both Board of Elders in churches and Board of Directors in organization) to rightly hold their leaders accountable to Biblical standards of leadership, receive and consider allegations that may come against them, and provide proper discipline when those allegations are proven to be true?  This calls for both better offense and defense, for preventative and reactive measures that honor God, protect victims, and allow pathways for concerns to be shared.  While these processes should be put in place for allegations against both men and women, the hard reality is that men are often the perpetrators of sexual abuse and men overwhelmingly make up the highest leadership positions.  As Christians, and specifically, as members of a local church, it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that accountability measures are in place.  Grace Church will be evaluating its measures currently in place and addressing it, and we need many voices speaking into it.

5. Be Careful Not to Fall

Upon hearing the news, my wife and I’s first reaction was to ask, “how could he ever justify this to himself while leading and preaching to others?”  It’s a hard question, and yet at a deeper level, we unfortunately do know how he could.  Sin distorts reality, it separates us from God and others, and the only thing worse than sinning against the Lord is immediately justifying it to ourselves as being fine.  It’s called cognitive dissonance – “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and actions especially related to behavioral change.”

The reports of the victims reveal that Ravi would often say that he is allowed to have these inappropriate relationships as a reward for all that he has done for the kingdom of God.  I get chills even writing that, not only because it’s so horrid, but because I know that I’m far more capable of having similar thoughts to justify all sorts of hidden sin than I’d like to admit.

Rather than echo the words of the Pharisee who prayed, “God I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, evildoers, adulterers, or even like the tax collector.” (Luke 18:11), but rather echo the words of Paul, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling at to present you blameless before the presence of glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25)

6. Trust in God’s Providence

How should I process this, as someone who was greatly helped and matured in the faith by a man who hid such deviant sinful behavior?  I, and many others I’ve heard from in recent days, have felt knocked off balance in our faith as a result of this.  Can we trust what we’ve heard?  What about the scores of people who were led to Christ by Ravi, let alone grown in the faith due in part to his ministry?

It’s not often that Twitter is a space where we find edifying, timely encouragement and reminders, but the day the report came out, that is what happened for me.  Jennifer Michelle Greenberg wrote, “If you feel you were led to Christ by Ravi Zacharias and feel shaken, please hear me: You were not saved by any man, but by the Holy Spirit working through a sinner.  Regardless of his wickedness, the Spirit who called you is Holy.  Cling to God. Do not fear. He is faithful.”

7. Focus on the Local Church

Christian celebrity should be an oxymoron, but it’s not.  Our celebrity-crazed culture bleeds into the church, and it places certain people above accountability.  I don’t know the ways to avoid it, for while many Christian leaders crave and cultivate that aura of celebrity, many others enter into it unwillingly.  No one chooses to be a celebrity, they are made so by their followers.  So, I believe there needs to be a greater focus amongst believers to be committed primarily to the teaching and building up of their local churches.  Well known authors and speakers can be a supplement to your Christian discipleship, but they shouldn’t be the primary voices in your discipleship.  Dig deep under the leadership of pastors who will never be well-known.  Commit to fellow members in a covenant to use your gifts to build them up, commit to know them and be truly known by them.

God’s plan for making disciples of all nations will be done primarily through the ministry of the local churches that carry out their calling, not the work of Christian celebrities with big platforms and little accountability.

8. Look to Jesus

Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

The word for “looking” in the passage literally means to fix your gaze upon.  Gaze upon Jesus, his sacrificial love shown on the cross, and his victory over the grave as he sits at the right hand of his Father.  We can look at the things of this world, including the fallen aspects of creation all around us, but we should only gaze upon Jesus.  When we gaze upon him, we shall never be broken, overcome, or defeated.

Jesus got up close to the fig tree in Mark 11 and found that upon closer inspection, the tree that looked so promising from afar was nothing but leaves.  Jesus Himself is the only one who, upon the most scrutinous inspection, proves to be even better than he first appeared.  This is why we need a Savior, a substitute who imputes his righteousness on all who believe, and who draws our eyes to Himself in all things that we may be kept in his perfect peace.

 

[1] My perspective on lament has been shaped deeply by Mark Vroegopp’s book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament