Apologetics: Shadow or Reality?
In that interesting encounter between Jesus and the paralytic given to us by Luke, we see a defining reminder of the relationship between evidence and faith, the temporal and the eternal. The friends of this paralyzed man did everything they could to bring him within the sight and touch of Jesus (see Luke 5:17-26). They even disfigured the property of the person in whose house Jesus was visiting in the hope that He would perform a miracle for their friend. I suspect they must have reasoned that if Jesus could make a paralyzed man walk again, then replacing a roof would be a minor problem. But as they lowered this man within reach of the Savior, they were not expecting an apologetic discussion.
“Which of the two is harder,” asked the Lord, “to bring physical healing or to forgive a person’s sins?” The irresistible answer was self-evident, was it not? To bring physical healing because that would be such a miraculous thing, visible to the naked eye. The invisible act of forgiveness had far less evidentiary value. Yet, as they pondered and as we ponder, we discover repeatedly in life that the logic of God is so different to the logic of humanity. We move from the material to the spiritual in terms of the spectacular, but God moves from the spiritual to the material in terms of the essential. The physical is the concrete external—a shadow. The spiritual is the intangible internal—the objective actuality.
Yet we all chase shadows. We chase them because they are a haunting enticement of the substance without being the substance themselves. It takes a jolt, sometimes even a painful jolt, to remind us where reality lies and where shadows seduce.
I think of a man some years ago who was preoccupied with some activity that was quite trivial while he neglected the care of a little life in his trust. That life was lost in a tragic accident within a few feet away from him. Unaware of what was happening, he was giving his rapt attention to something of far lesser value. I have often thought of his unquenchable grief when he saw the cost of his neglect. We all are prone to doing the same thing and then finding out too late the cost we have paid.
Our Savior was so aware of this weakness within us that He often walked the second mile to meet us in order that something more dramatic might be used to put into perspective for us what is more real and of greater importance to God. Yes, He did heal that man, but not without the reminder of what the ultimate miracle was. Once we understand this, we understand the relationship between touching the soul and touching the body. Both are real, but one is the object; the other is the shadow. In this instance, Jesus followed the act of forgiveness with the easier act of physical healing so that the paralyzed man would feel the touch of the Savior from what was more meaningful to what was more felt. If he was a wise man he would walk with the awareness that the apparently less visible miracle was actually more miraculous than the more visible one—but his feeling of gratitude for his restored body would remain a constant reminder to him of the restoration of his soul.
As I have pondered this and the many other examples of Jesus’ acts of mercy, I look at our hurting world that is desensitized to the greatness of the Gospel message—the message that cleanses the soul and heals the inner being. Our world is weighed down with pain, fear, suffering, and poverty. In more than three decades of travel around the world I have seen this reality with my own eyes. I remember a woman without legs sitting on the sidewalk outside a hotel where we were staying, begging for money each time we passed by. She had a sweet face, a pleasant personality, and was a willing conversationalist as I would stop and chat with her every day. A year later I was in the same city and at the same hotel. I had taken some special gifts for her that I was looking forward to giving her with such joy in my heart. Yes, some friends had even sent some of their own gifts for me to take along. I arrived at night and so waited till the next day to go and see her. As I went to the spot, she was nowhere within sight. Finally, I asked the doorman of the hotel if he knew where I might find her. “Oh, that legless one,” he said. “She has gone back to her village to give birth to her child…. I have no idea if she will be back here.”
My heart skipped a beat or two or more as I thought of all that was said in that one statement. He didn’t know her name—she was “the legless one.” She was gone to deliver a baby? How could that be? Where is the husband? Did he think of the ramifications? How can an impoverished and tragically maimed beggar raise a child and care for that child’s needs?
As I asked the doorman these questions he seemed flabbergasted by my concern. None of these questions seem to have even occurred to him. He was just there to make his living by greeting the hotel guests. I felt a broken heart within me. Even to retell the story is hard. Yet, I say this to all who read, the heartache of millions is reflected in that little story. Our world is so broken that if we were to stare reality in the face, we would wish it really were only a shadow and not an actual embodiment. Such is the blind eye people turn to the familiar and dismiss as mere shadows what is tragically real. Both body and soul are forgotten.
The heartrending reality of impoverishment that has forced tens of thousands of women into the dehumanized world of prostitution is a terrifying tragedy of worldwide proportions. They have become victims of traffic in a “red light district,” a euphemism for a place of trafficking in souls through the means of the body. In one country, young boys are undergoing sex-change operations so that they can market themselves as women. Planeloads of “clients” from all over the world are brought in to savor the “delights” of their baser instincts. The cost in human suffering is beyond computation.
Walk with me into a small home in one land and see the shining faces of young children kicking a ball in the living room. This is their new home because they have no fathers and their mothers are dead from AIDS. Come with me into another residence where little ones are asleep on the floor while their mothers are on the streets selling themselves. The stories go on and on.
I saw these sights at the end of a day after I had spoken to some of the city’s leading businessmen and women on the power of the Gospel to transform the soul. They sat in rapt attention, listening, questioning, arguing. There was a harvest for God’s kingdom, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude. My mind was stirred and my heart was full. Now, late at night, I visited these homes where needs were being met that were a far cry from the day’s earlier appointments. What could I do? This time my heart was stirred, and my mind was questioning, “Can I shut my eyes to such need and suffering, or is there a role I can play that lifts the tiles of a roof to bring some of them within the touch of the Lord?” The overwhelming answer is Yes, there is a role that we can and must play.
RZIM is an apologetic ministry. We are here to lift the intellectual veil that casts a blinding shadow upon the eyes of the thinker. We exist to remove obstacles so that men and women may get a glimpse of the Cross of Jesus Christ. But not all shadows are imagined. Some are real. The pain and suffering of people is real. Can we not help lighten some loads so that many might see the reality of God’s love for them? With this as our burden we have launched a new arm of this ministry called RZIM Wellspring International, to reveal the love of Christ so that out of the hearts of those touched may come a spring that would well up to eternal life for many. I call this “apologetics with a touch.” Love is the most powerful apologetic. It is the essential component in reaching the whole person in a fragmented world. The need is vast, but it is also imperative that we be willing to follow the example of our Lord and meet the need.
What does this mean for us? It means giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name and telling the recipient to thank God and not man for that gift.
I recall a little roadside restaurant in an Asian city. No ambience was provided; you had to bring your own with you. I ate most of my meals there and enjoyed chatting with the employees in that little facility. While I would not take too many of my friends in there for reasons of health, I was raised with such risks and actually love those settings. On the last day I was there, I asked the man in charge (manager would be a rather exalted title in such a Spartan structure with a leaking roof and much that I was sure was better left unseen than seen), “How many work here?” “About ten,” he said. I put my hand into my pocket, took out what I had saved by not eating in my hotel, and gave it to him, asking him to distribute it among the ten men. There was a shocked look on his face. A couple of the staff stopped what they were doing to get a glimpse of what I had given him. Then he said, “Why, Sir? Why you do this?” “I am a follower of the Lord Jesus and I want to share His love with you,” I said. Not one in that restaurant came from a Christian background, and the silence was even more pronounced than their questions.
That happened over two years ago. I still receive letters from one of them called Ishmael. He says the same thing in each letter: “I will never forget you. Please come back and visit our restaurant. We want to serve you again.” Only eternity will reveal how deep and how real such an impact is, but our calling is clear: to let our light so shine that men, women, and children will see our good works and glorify our Father in Heaven.
I write this just two weeks away from revisiting the scene of another incident that I cannot help but share. On a recent visit to that country, my colleagues and I were staying in a particularly lovely hotel that always welcomes us, and because of what we do, gives us significant concessions that make it possible for us to stay there. The predominant religion in this country is Buddhism. On the last day I was there, the general manager, whom I have met before, saw me in the lobby and after a warm greeting asked, “What brings you here this time, Mr. Zacharias?” I told him we were visiting a house in a neighboring city where we would like to help a home for children who have been orphaned by AIDS. He was so taken by this effort that, with several of his key staff listening on, he said, “I would like to make a proposal to you. We are opening a new resort in that city. It will be one of the best in the world. I would like to offer the ballroom and host a dinner for the country’s leadership to come and hear about this need, if you will speak at the dinner. We will not only host the evening, we would like to raise some funds for you in that project.” And then he paused and said, “I’ve been reading the book you gave me the last time. It’s on my night table. I read two or three pages every night, and I’ve been deeply touched. I hope when I finish it we can sit down and talk about it, too.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This grand hotel would host a complimentary dinner and help us raise funds for a Christian orphanage? Is that not a miracle? But it came because all the reading in the world could not touch this society as much as the touch of the love of God through us upon the disenfranchised in their society, whose lives are valuable in the sight of God. The interesting thing is that the book and the touch went hand in hand. That is apologetics completed. That is confirming to the mind by the visible touch of the body. The mind is to the soul what the body is to the shadow. When we can touch both we have demonstrated the power of both thought and deed. It lifts the message out of the shadow and brings it into the light. Such is the power of love.
In the book of Acts we are told of the sick who sat by the road waiting for Peter and Paul to walk by, hoping even for their shadows to go over them. They knew that behind their shadows lay a reality. They could think. In this world full of darkness it is our job to understand which shadows point to the real.
I have a friend who teaches Russian Literature in one of the prominent universities of Moscow. She started to visit a little art shop where some great pieces of art were sold. She would periodically sit down and talk with the owner and tell him some little story about an artist or a painting that he had on display. One day as she shared, his eyes started to well up with tears. He held up his hand and asked her to stop for a moment. Walking to the other end of his shop, he called for his wife to come downstairs. My friend then overheard him say, “Come! I want you to meet an American with a Russian soul.” As she told me her story, she herself got teary, and then she said, “That is the greatest compliment he could have paid me.”
Unless we understand a person’s pain we will never understand a person’s soul. What a privilege we have to take the message of the Cross upon which “He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.” He is the best reminder of what is real and what is shadow. That is why Elizabeth Clephane wrote in her beautiful hymn “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”:
Beneath the Cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand,
The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land,
A home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way,
From the burning of the noontide heat, and the burden of the day.
Thankfully, the hymnwriter tells us why this rest may be secured:
Upon that cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see,
The very dying form of One Who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess;
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.
I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of His face;
Content to let the world go by to know no gain or loss,
My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.
Is there any danger for us in this new arm of ministry? Our mission at RZIM has always been to remove the obstacles so that men and women may see the Cross for what it is. That is the wonder of our message. Now we complete the picture because apologetics must not only be heard and argued; it must be seen and felt. Please pray that we will always keep that mission in the right order so that “Thy sins be forgiven thee” will always have priority over “Arise, take up thy bed and walk.” Is it not marvelous, though, to be the bearers of the good news that the Cross of Christ has made complete provision, both for the real and the shadow?