Walking From East to West: God in the Shadows by Ravi Zacharias first came to my attention when Sherry recommended it to me. I had heard Ravi speak on the radio several times and appreciated his ministry and his way of thinking, and I generally like biographies and memoirs, so I was glad to pick this up.
The book came about when his publishers asked him to write his memoirs “in the simplest terms, with your heart on your sleeve.” In the beginning of the book, Ravi shares these lines from James Russell Lowell’s “The Present Crisis“:
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
Ravi shapes his story by pointing out God “in the shadows,” God at work throughout his life even when he did not perceive Him.
Ravi’s story begins in the East, in Chennai (formerly Madras) in India. His earliest religious associations were bound by fear but also by the rich heritage of the cultural stories, myths, and celebrations. His mother was spiritual but also superstitious. They even had an astrologist do readings of the family once, revealing a “cultural mix of religion, superstition, and ‘cover all bases’ mentality with regard to the supernatural.” A couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses were allowed to teach the children to read, especially the Bible, and the children were awed until they got to their teaching that only 144,000 were going to make it to Paradise. When Ravi realized that there were more than 144,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, so that not even all of their people were going to make it, much less the people they were teaching, he rejected their study as well as Christianity. He didn’t know then that there were differences between different sects, and between sects and cults.
His father had a powerful position in the government, and his siblings all seemed to have leadership personalities. Being successful professionally and influentially was one of the highest values of his culture. For various reasons, Ravi’s father did not seem to have the same esteem for him that he did his other children. He had names of endearment for the others, but not for Ravi, and Ravi was “consistently on the receiving end of his rather violent temper.” This, of course, made him even more hesitant around his father than he already was naturally, and made his father react against him further. His father told Ravi he was a failure and repeatedly told him in so many words that he would never amount to anything. Ravi felt the same way: even the astrologer mentioned gave him a disappointing reading. He felt an intense loneliness and inferiority even with friends, because they were all “either rich or brilliant, and I was neither. While they were always at the top of the class, I never did well in studies.” They always had money to spend, and he didn’t: he could only participate in what they did if they paid his way. No one “bared their heartaches or inner struggles” in his culture, so he kept it all inside.
He found something of an escape in sports, where he did excel, especially in cricket, though his father never came to any of his matches. He thought about playing professionally, but even the professional cricket players could not make a living at it and worked at other jobs. Ravi had been so poor at his studies that by his teens, when he was supposed to be finding his way in life, he had no idea what to do, and his father’s consistent belittling and his increasing sense of loneliness were all coming to a head.
About this time his sister started attending Youth For Christ rallies and invited him along. He was bored at first but came again when his sister was singing with a group that night. Then he heard a message on John 3:16 that spoke to his heart, and he responded to the invitation and prayed to receive Christ. Things were still vague and fuzzy for him for a long while.
Ravi went on to college but fell into his old habits of not studying and began to fail. His lack of purpose and sense of shame and failure finally led him to attempt to take his own life. As he recovered in the hospital over several days, a Youth For Christ leader brought his mother a Bible with a passage marked for Ravi. This leader had not known of the suicide attempt (no one did), but the passage he marked was John 14:19: “Because I live, you will also live.” When Ravi was well enough to receive it, “the words hit [him] like a ton of bricks.” He grasped at the hope in it and prayed that if God would get him well, he “would leave no stone unturned in [his] pursuit of truth.”
God continued to work in his heart, and he began to attend Youth For Christ functions more often. He had never been a reader, but now he began to devour Christian biographies and Bible commentaries. “For the first time, I felt my mind being stretched – and I loved it. I realized that thinking could be fun, and with that simple realization I was sent headlong into the lifelong discipline of reading.”
A friend of his father’s was a hotel manager and great chef, and Ravi admired him and decided he wanted to follow in his footsteps. His father pulled some strings to get him into the Institute of Hotel Management. He excelled and now felt he had a purpose, both life and in a profession.
As he continued to grow spiritually, reading, attending Youth For Christ and a new church, eventually he went with a team to a Youth Congress, part of which was a preaching contest. His friend who was designated to preach could not due to a conflict, so Ravi was asked to fill in with only three hours notice. Some of the men in that assembly recognized God’s hand on him and encouraged him. He still didn’t think that was what God was calling him to do, but he went on more preaching ministries and teams with Youth For Christ.
His family moved to Canada after his father’s retirement, and God continued to lead Ravi to people, churches, and organizations that helped him grow, and where he met his future wife. He continued studying and working in hotel management, but began to sense that “[his] priorities and [his] ‘heartbeat’ were changing toward other things.”
One thing that stood out to me was the encouragement from older Christians that God used in his life. He writes, “I don’t think older Christians can ever fully know what an important role they play in the affirmation of younger believers. When you’re just a youth, it means so much to have someone who’s farther along the road say to you, ‘I see something in you, and I want you to be encouraged in it.'”
As he continued preaching as opportunities came, many people told him they felt he was gifted with evangelism. He was encouraged but didn’t know the difference then between being an evangelist and “just preaching.” But he knew that “a special sensation rose up in me as I preached. I had an intense urge to persuade….I knew I wanted to preach to people who were on a quest, people whose minds were challenging what they saw around them, who were hurting on the inside, and who needed someone to speak to those issues.”
Eventually God led him to become a full-time preacher, to overseas opportunities to preach, and eventually into apologetics. Of the last, he said that people talk about truth having to get from the head to the heart for one to be converted, and that was true, but after he was converted, the truth traveled from his heart back to his head again, and he developed a “hunger to know the great depths of truth behind my faith.” He wanted to understand all the whys and wherefores of the faith, and his reading and study helped him find answers. “Most of the preaching in 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” and intellectuals.
Eventually God led him (and provided in a miraculous way!) to form “a ministry that would communicate the gospel effectively within the context of the prevailing skepticism. It would seek to reach the thinker and to clear all obstacles in his path so that he or she could see the cross, clearly and unhindered…I wanted to address those struggling people – the Thomases of the world – who saw life as not making sense. If the church didn’t place a value on a person’s questioning, then we were effectively absolving ourselves of any responsibility to that person. At the same time, if the skeptic’s questions weren’t honest, we had to address them in ways that exposed his or her dishonesty. Apologetics had to be about much more than answering questions – it had to focus on questioning the questions and clarifying truth claims.” “It is up to the thinking Christian to train the mind, take seriously the questioner, and respond with intelligence and relevance.”
I know some people demean apologetics, since it’s not the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16), but I’ve always agreed with Ravi’s thought here that it can help prepare the way for the gospel plus it can help clarify truth for the believer as well.
The ministry borne out of all this was Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). Ravi had another name in mind, but the others involved felt the ministry should have his name and “stand up behind your integrity, or fall with the lack of it,” a scary proposition indeed.
Regarding some of the dangers that came about in his ministry (including death threats), he says, “You have to learn that you cannot claim a path just because it is less intimidating. You must keep in mind that God does have an appointment with you, that there is a cost to serving Him. At the same time, you have to be wise and not careless. To deny the reality that there are some places where you cannot go is to play the fool. More important, if you have not learned to pay the smaller prices of following Christ in your daily life, you will not be prepared to pay the ultimate price in God’s calling.”
A few more quotes that stood out:
“Successes are hollow if you do not know the author of life and His purpose.”
After telling the United Nations that there are four absolutes that we all agree to, love, justice, evil, and forgiveness: “Only on the cross of Jesus do love, justice, evil, and forgiveness converge. Evil, in the heart of man, shown in the crucifixion; love, in the heart of God who gave His Son; forgiveness, because of the grace of Christ; and justice, because of the law of God revealed.”
“There are some wonderful things from your painful past, things with a beauty you may not have realized at the time.”
“Caution laced with wisdom and commitment must always be the key to the onward step.”
“Jesus wasn’t just the best option to me; He was the only option. He provided the skin of reason to the flesh and bones of reality. His answers to life’s questions were both unique and true. No one else answered the deepest questions of the soul the way He did.”
“Sometimes in the shadows of one’s self lie the problems, and in the shadows of one’s shaping lie the answers.”
A lot of the explanation behind the differences in Eastern vs. Western thinking was quite interesting. There is a plethora of fascinating information here, including various testimonies of God at work (including Ravi’s own father’s salvation) and how we led in Ravi’s personal life, family, and ministry.
I know some of my readers would wonder, so I’ll have to say here that, no, I wouldn’t endorse every single person and ministry mentioned in the book, but there is no denying the hand of God in the life and ministry of Ravi Zacharias. I loved reading this book and highly recommend it to you.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)