Has Christianity Failed You?
Ravi Zacharias sat down with Danielle DuRant to discuss his forthcoming book Has Christianity Failed You? (Zondervan: June 2010). This interview appears in the back of this book. Taken from Has Christianity Failed You? by RAVI ZACHARIAS. Copyright © 2010 by Ravi Zacharias. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com
Danielle DuRant: You’ve often said that you have a specific individual in mind—a particular person’s unique story and questions—when you write a book. Is this the case with this book?
Ravi Zacharias: In this particular book, I think some of my own early challenges kept surfacing. My struggle came between fifteen and seventeen. In India, you’re forced to be much more mature in your thinking because life hits you in the face, especially as far as religion is concerned. You can’t escape it; the conflict between religion and culture underlies everything. You just take it day by day and don’t ask questions. Yet I had questions. I wondered how it was that tens of millions could believe certain things that I found utterly irrational or possibly much more ceremonially driven than intellectually driven. But now, many decades later, after having practiced apologetics for so long and meeting honest unbelievers who are not necessarily trying to be difficult but have genuine questions, I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t meet a believer who has struggled with very serious issues. So this book is a response to the honest questions about the intellectual credibility of the gospel and the pragmatic struggles that emerge when someone does believe. I think this may well be one of the most important books I have written.
DD: Writing generally comes fairly easily for you, but you’ve expressed that this book was a difficult one to write. Was this a more personal book than you expected?
RZ: Yes, it confronted me on two or three levels. First, with my travel—continually being on the road—it’s difficult for me to set aside time for the focused attention that a narrow subject such as this requires. But second, I think the range of the struggle in the subjects covered here is very real. Who among us hasn’t struggled with unanswered prayer? Also the problem of pain. We wrestle with this every day— not just the intensity of it, but the volume of it. It’s all around us. Finally, I interviewed people who had walked away from their belief in God. I think it is crucial that the reader understand this: I’m not dealing with this subject theologically per se; for instance, the issue of eternal security is not a theme of this book. That requires rigorous theological discussion that looks at both sides of the questions. This book aims at people who have experienced what they feel is God’s failure in their lives, people who said they once believed and now don’t, or are straddling two worlds, trying to find answers to their questions. The questions asked in this book are real questions, not imaginary. This book is relevant to most people, if they are honest; and because there are faces behind these questions, it was much more difficult to deal objectively with the subject. If we as Christians don’t allow people who are angry with God or feel disappointed in him an honest venue in which to talk and share, I think we may become quick to hide behind words and not come out into the open light.
DD: Have you ever felt that Christianity has failed you, and have you struggled with some of the points of tension you address in your book?
RZ: The answer to the sharp edge of the question is No. I don’t feel that for a moment, and I do not mean to sound very spiritual—I recognize my own failings and shortcomings before the Lord. The two things I need in my itinerant ministry are a very strong back and a very strong voice—and I have neither of those. I could ask God why he has allowed me to struggle in these two areas that are so necessary for me to fulfill my calling, but you know, in the real drama of existence, they are minor issues. There are many more challenging questions than that. Personally, I don’t think I’ve had a moment of doubt about God since the day I came to know the Lord. The encounter I had with Christ was so revolutionizing that no matter what arguments fail me, I always go back to what happened on that suicide bed as a young teenager with nobody to help me understand what life is all about. There is no other way to explain what happened in my life than divine intervention. As I look back, I can see how God has used me in both the East and the West. Of course, I have run into situations where I can see why there are questions. Perhaps I see more of that than the average human being. When I was in my twenties, I was in Vietnam and in Cambodia—places in which people witnessed the elimination of thousands and thousands of people. I remember looking at all of that and wondering, Where is God in all of this? Then in the early days of my ministry when I was speaking in Poland and going through Auschwitz, I noticed the silence. Not a word was said as we walked through that place; the only sound was the sound of weeping. I’ve looked at all that and I think the darkness of sin is daunting to me. So yes, I would have to say that I have asked questions—and still do. To not ask questions would actually be to disengage from reality— but I have never doubted God.
DD: You seem very familiar with suffering. You’ve been afforded a perspective through growing up in India and in your travels that many Westerners don’t have. Looking back at your own conversion, I think it’s fairly unique and special that you had such an amazing conversion experience and that it still carries you through to this day.
RZ: And that I think is the clue to finding some answers, and I’ll tell you why. In India and in many other areas—for example, in Bangladesh or Pakistan or parts of the Middle East—you will see some pretty raw sights. Many who saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire have raised the question, “Is this for real?” People whom I’ve talked to, who work in that environment, will say, “If anything, it is made more palatable in the movie. The reality is even worse.” One of the most powerful movies ever produced in India is a movie called Mother India. Song after song in the movie asks: How do you cope with the poison of living when you have to drink it every day—you don’t die immediately, but you are dying a slow death? The Indian culture has learned to cope with the unfairness of life, and the odd thing is that, in spite of it, Indians are the most religious people in the world. Now a psychologist may have a field day with this and question it as a way of coping, along with all the other imaginary ways we look for help. On the other hand, it is a display of the human proclivity toward the spiritual in the absence of any material answers. Having said that, before I came to the West, I was under this illusion that I’ll have my own salary, my own home, my own car, my own everything—and I’ll have no questions about life. The Hindi songs became irrelevant to me. The truth of the matter is that if you read Western poets and listen to the country music artists, it becomes obvious that they are the real philosophers of society. They hide behind the poems and the music and tell it like it is: songs of betrayal, songs of brokenness, songs of loneliness, songs of giving up on life. All of them are the same. And to me this is a clue that what G. K. Chesterton said was right. Ultimately, meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain but from being weary of pleasure. Now if this is true, pain and suffering are not the problem. The problem is finding meaning in a world in which so much is available and yet where true meaning is still so difficult to find.
DD: You write, “God does not disappoint us. We often disappoint him and ourselves.” This seems to suggest that our relationship with God is based on our performance rather than his grace. And if God is all-knowing, aren’t his expectations of us viewed through his promise that he who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it? In other words, can we disappoint God?
RZ: It’s interesting how we attribute emotions to God, whether it’s an effect or whether it’s an affection that he feels. We can only take God at his word. His analogical use of language is for us to understand God, such as, “How often I have longed to gather you together, but you were not willing. What more could I have done for you that I have not already done?” “If you crucify the Son of God all over again and subject him to public disgrace, no sacrifice for sins is left.” Jesus looks on the city of Jerusalem with compassion, and the entire appeal he makes is in the fact he has done so much for them and yet they have responded with so little appreciation and love. When you look at Old Testament books such as Hosea, Malachi, and Jonah, you see the disproportionate response of his people to the abundance of grace God bestows. I think that’s why even the story of the prodigal son does not have a happy ending. He has come back, all is well, let’s have a celebration. But now you’ve got the older brother, who messes it up. It’s sort of one of those good news/bad news situations. The good news is that my son who was lost has come back. The bad news is that the fellow who stayed with me is still messed up. So I think we must understand God’s feelings by analogy. In terms of disappointing God, I do not mean that we therefore catch him by surprise. Rather, he would have to say to us, “What was it that kept you away from me?” The emotions of adoration and appreciation are legitimate emotions for a returning child of God. That’s what I think we need to be thinking of. The analogical use is to evoke within us a sense of, “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” I think that’s a marvelous use of language— using the one expression to show that God induces in us both fear and release from guilt.
DD: You’re speaking of religion in terms of an inviting and intimate relationship with God rather than a performance. The relationship is essential in this question, is it not?
RZ: Very well put. If our Christianity comes through as a performance, it is unfortunate because that is really not what is intended. The older I get, the more I learn by observing children—and they don’t even have to be your own children in order to make these observations. I may be sitting in a restaurant watching a parent-child interaction and notice the child taking advantage of the parent. Or I may go to a graduation ceremony. When a student is speaking, you can easily identify the parents. They are wearing the biggest smiles in the room. We see ourselves in children and in observing parent-child relationships. When I was struggling with my studies as a boy, my mother’s delight when I did well was part of my own reward. The thrill of doing well was not just in receiving a good mark but in going home and showing my grade to my mom. Her pleasure in my achievement was the affirmation I needed. So I think my relationship with God is not by any stretch of the imagination a performance for him. It would be like this: the first time you cook a meal for somebody you love, and if you burn it, you get really upset—not because they are going to love you any less for burning the meal but because you wanted to please them and do something to demonstrate that.
DD: What do you say to the person who cognitively believes God is good and wants to trust him but, based on a past heartache or a present situation, still struggles to experience him as compassionate and trustworthy?
RZ: These are what I call the rub questions. They are not easy to answer. And these situations are more often the rule than the exception in our experience. I think about this a lot, and I wonder how much we have been wrongly taught in these matters? Have our expectations for life as a Christian been wrong? In our efforts to be relevant, we have forgotten that some things are going to be irrelevant and unexplainable for us, and it is we who need to become relevant to the truth, not the other way around. We are not God. Imagine trying to force a square peg into a round hole—all you accomplish in the end is to damage the edges of the peg. Sometimes we try to force God to fit our mold for him, to fit our idea of how he should act, and then when he doesn’t meet these expectations, we blame him for not meeting our expectations. I have concluded that the greatest of loves comes at the greatest cost. The greatest of loves will never come cheaply. It takes everything you have to honor that love and everything you have to honor that trust. And the greatest love that any of us could have is our relationship with God. Look at any athletes who have succeeded. Discipline is an indispensable part of their lives— unless, of course, they cheat. And when you’ve got the discipline, you’ve got the marks on your body to demonstrate it. But we sit down Sunday after Sunday, in the West particularly, to a delicious buffet of programming. Then when the first temptation comes, we are walloped; we are thrashed, and we wonder where God is. God is exactly where we have left him—way behind, reshaped into our image. Something I heard from a Muslim doctor I met in Pakistan who had come to know Christ comes to my mind often. He told me about the two sentences he heard from a preacher that changed his life: “In surrendering, you win. In dying, you live.” This is the counterperspective. So when you say, “I don’t feel God here. I’m afraid to trust him here,” realize that there are many days when you don’t feel the love you want to feel from your spouse, your children, your family. But you have to be big enough to surrender your own needs and keep loving and “kicking against the goads,” as it were. I believe when it is over, you will discover that perseverance was what it was all about.
DD: A number of individuals you allude to in your book are angry with God. Listening to you, I’m anticipating your answer, but I wonder if you ever get angry with God? And what do you do with this difficult emotion in relation with him?
RZ: That’s a good question—do I ever get angry with God? I would have to say I am puzzled by him many times. I have to say that several years ago I would fairly quickly have said no, but in the last three to four years, I haven’t done well with the virtue of patience. I like to attribute it to this nagging back that gets me down quite often, and I think there’s something to that. But outbursts of anger have not been common for me. Silence, retreating into a shell— perhaps that’s been my way of dealing with anger. And this may sometimes carry over into my walk with the Lord too. My prayers become much more perfunctory rather than engendering a deep sense of communicating with God. It’s almost like I am saying to God, “You feel I should really be dealing with this. What’s the point in my even talking to you?” But I have to say that many times I have been really puzzled by God. When I look at some of the questions actually raised in the Bible (such as Why do the wicked prosper?), I have some questions for God.
DD: Given the amazing promises of Scripture and the way the church often proclaims the message that God answers prayer and the desires of our heart if we just have enough faith, it’s difficult to not feel disappointed when our prayers aren’t answered as we had hoped or in our expected time frame. What advice would you give to the person who once held firm, perhaps even rigid, expectations of God, and now struggles with halfhearted prayers and even resignation?
RZ: If we were to draw out the really hard questions of this book, this area would be where probably more people have faltered or have found what they feel is a legitimate gripe against God. It would be easy to dismiss this in the simplistic answers— you know, “God wants you to be patient,” and “Between the promise and the performance is the parenthesis.” The thing is, the parenthesis sometimes seems terribly protracted, so much so that you never see the performance of the promise. I find it amazing how Jesus dealt with prayer and how in the critical moments of his own calling, he stepped aside to pray. I find it absolutely fascinating that the biblical writers tell us how he prayed and what he prayed. If they had been manufacturing a persona of Jesus, they would never have told us the things he prayed for because clearly his prayers were often unanswered. His high priestly prayer, if anything, is one of the huge gaps between prayer and performance. The parenthesis seems to be very long. Nearly two thousand years have gone by since he prayed that we would be one, and you can’t even find us being one in one church, let alone in all of Christendom. So it says to me, as Jesus reminded us in the Lord’s Prayer, that I need to pray much more about my relationship with God and my understanding of his kingdom than with a wish list in front of me. The thing we may be missing most in our approach to prayer is a clear understanding of what communion with God really means. Such an understanding is able to cover a multitude of unanswered prayers and will give us the confidence of knowing that God is with us and that we can depend on him to sustain us with peace and fulfillment and meaning, even at the end of a dark day or in the midst of a dark night of the soul. Through prayer, God is preparing the wineskin to receive the new wine of grace. This is the work of God. If we think his desire is only to give us what we ask for, we misunderstand the process of preparing the wineskin.
DD: You have spoken of this parenthesis, and you speak of three tensions in the book that leave many feeling that Christianity has failed them. One such tension is the longing for sexual fulfillment. You write, “If marital consummation is an act of worship, and if the ultimate seduction is false worship, I would dare suggest that those who are longing for a relationship of touch and intimacy—that lesser act of worship which is marriage—seek the greater form of worship until the day they can legitimately participate in sexual love.” Why is the single person who is longing for marriage seen as not seeking this greater form of worship because they are also seeking the lesser form, when the married person has also longed for and is now even participating in this lesser form of worship?
RZ: I think this must be viewed from at least three different lenses. The first lens is an understanding of what consummate relationships are and what they’re not. I dare say that people who enjoy this intimacy sometimes fall into the trap of enjoying the feeling and ignoring the cost. I have met many women trapped in a wrong relationship who have told me, as crass as this may sound, that the men who seek them out are more often than not someone who has already experienced sex legitimately and then seeks for it in stolen waters. But I’ll tell you, the moment the human body experiences this kind of relationship, the seduction is to have the experience without having to pay the cost. Yet it is the cost—namely, commitment—that actually preserves the emotional side of the relationship. If there is no commitment, the feeling is merely physical, and the emotion that gives the relationship value ultimately dies. Sex is not just a feeling; it is a commitment, which, when properly expressed, preserves the feeling. If it is improperly expressed, the feeling will die, and the person becomes diminished in the process. The second lens is an understanding of what marriage is and what marriage offers to you. This may sound shocking, but marriage is not what it’s cracked up to be. In fact, I know many young people who, having observed their parents’ marriages, will say they are reluctant to become married themselves. I think that marriage has suffered an awful lot because of all the false images and expectations of marriage placed before us. This may be unpopular to say, but the exhaustion of a professional life drains marriage. You cannot serve two masters. Adrenaline keeps us moving throughout the day as we work, whether it’s selling shirts or automobiles or computers. When the adrenaline rush is over and you go home to your spouse and children (if you have any), there is little left in your tank to be able to give your family, and it becomes harder and harder to fulfill the obligations of marriage. And when both partners in a marriage work outside the home, the toll on the marriage is twice as great. The third lens is an understanding that this longing of sexual fulfillment is a God-planted desire in us. And with fleeting time it becomes a fleeting hope. The unrequited God-given longing for this kind of relationship is, I believe, and I say this carefully, one of the most difficult crosses to bear. This is not the Calvary you want. You find yourself asking God if there is any way to be spared from the ache of this longing and to receive the companionship you see so many others enjoying. Of course, marriage goes beyond the consummate relationship of the physical side; it means caring, cherishing, and loving. This should be what you are ultimately craving. To that person I say, as painful and perhaps flippant as it may sound, just as others who face other unmet desires, you have to learn to receive the strength from the Lord to crucify that desire and make Jesus Christ the focus of your desire to be cared for, cherished, and loved—because only he can ultimately meet this desire, even if you are married. It’s a little bit like doing a puzzle. You’ve got only three pieces missing out of five hundred, but you just can’t make it all come together. I just say, as F. W. Boreham does, that this longing for the legitimate expression of sexual love is one of those painful things that is easier borne by a person who has never experienced it than by the one who daily lives with this sense of loss. In other words, the emotions that are part of this longing cannot be fully understood by one who has not experienced it for whatever reason.
DD: You’ve expressed that in any intimate relationship there will be times of distance or even a sense of dryness. So perhaps we ought not to be surprised when we feel this in our relationship with God. What do you do during times of spiritual dryness? Are there particular authors, books, sermons, or disciplines that you turn to when you feel the passion that you long for just isn’t there?
RZ: If there is anybody who has not experienced what you have described, I really want to touch them. It’s not only a common thing; it can be a frequent thing. It’s like C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape telling the junior devil, “Encourage their horror of the Same Old Thing.” I think that’s actually what’s happened to the West right now. We’ve heard the gospel so much that we’re experiencing the horror of the same old thing. So we buy into nonsensical notions that are actually bizarre while sounding sophisticated. They don’t make any sense, but they come with mystical, new terminology, and we are wowed by them. This is why, by the way, I think people church-hop. There are no more unexpected moments at the church they’ve been going to, and all of a sudden, it’s the same old thing—and so they move on to something new. The human ability to remain firm in our convictions and commitments is very, very limited. That’s why I think good reading, good viewing, and good friendships are good places in which to find renewal. There are so many considerations to the dryness we may experience at any given time. You may not feel well, or you may be tired— all of this takes its toll on you. Sometimes a lack of discipline or a lack of perseverance may well be because of lack of sleep. It could be your mind, your body, is tired, and you need a vacation. You may have become stagnant because your reading material is not helping your growth process. Reading a variety of authors is a good way to light a new spark within you. I love reading biographies. I love reading authors whose language is outstanding because they quicken the imagination by just the right turn of phrase. Sometimes all it takes is one phrase to turn your life around. You have to have variety in your devotional life, in your relational life, in your church life. And it is important to remain balanced—to keep physically healthy, to keep your viewing life enchanted so that you’re looking at the right things. That’s one advantage I have in my life: I’m in new places so often that I experience an enormous array of God’s diversity.
DD: You seem to enjoy a warm and trusting relationship with God—it is evident when you speak in open forums and as you write. I wonder, then, even though you had a difficult relationship with your father, you don’t seem to struggle with relating to God as an angry or a distant father. Is that true?
RZ: No, I don’t because I don’t see anybody as totally reflective of God. Nobody. And I think the moment I put that load on them, I do them a disservice—and especially my father. Because I’m sure if my children were to look for a perfect father, I haven’t been that either. Maybe I focus more on my direct relationship with my heavenly Father than on an indirect relationship. What does it really matter what my father was like if my heavenly Father has shown me who he is? I don’t want to be overly critical, but I think we have made nearly everything so scientific in the West that we push so much into a paradigm that is beyond reason. Of course, we would all like our earthly fathers to perfectly reflect God, but very few of us are privileged to experience this in that relationship. I didn’t see my father as either reflecting or not reflecting God. I know my heavenly Father. In fact, I would say I miss my dad in these days. I wish he could have met our children and seen how God has blessed our lives and our ministry. Sometimes in our relationships we push expectations beyond reason. If we’ve had a warm and loving relationship with our fathers, we should be thankful for it. If we haven’t, we have to look beyond that relationship, or we will end up broken—and I don’t think that’s what God wants from us.
DD: You’ve raised many significant points today—that we must carefully examine our expectations of God and our disappointments, not denying them but bringing them to God and asking him to show us where we may be thinking improperly, and that we must come to him in prayer rather than turn our backs on our relationship, asking him to show us more of himself and his love for us.
RZ: There are two important implications, Danielle. Blaming our poor relationship with our heavenly Father on our poor relationships with our earthly fathers is similar to saying that Christianity has failed us because of what we see or experience in the church. This is a false extrapolation. Yes, the church is flawed; yes, it is broken. But if you think of the twelve men whom Jesus chose—my word! Certainly an insightful Divine Being could have picked better disciples than he did. And out of these less-than-perfect disciples, he took perhaps the least promising— Peter—and gave him the key spot. Then he took a terrorist—Paul— and made him the penman for one-third of the New Testament. So I think we take a great risk if we base our decision about ultimate matters only on what we can see. Second and very important, one of the chapters in this book is a response to Robert Price and his view of the irrationality and untenability of the Christian faith. This is not a face-value response, but I want the reader to understand this: Examine any other worldview, and you’ll find an important difference between it and the Christian faith. In the Christian faith, we may ask the questions, in fact, encourage questions, and while we may not always have comprehensive answers, we have very meaningful answers. In any other worldview, not only do they not have meaningful answers, they cannot even justify their questions. This is not to say that Christianity is the best of some horrible options. No! I think the questions of morality, meaning, love, destiny, values, sexuality, marriage, friendship, and word over feeling are most meaningfully answered in the Judeo-Christian worldview. I am more convinced of this than I was at the moment I first committed my life to Christ. So examine Christianity against all other alternatives, and I believe with my whole heart that you will find that Christianity has not failed you.
Ravi Zacharias is founder and chairman of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
Danielle DuRant is director of research and writing at RZIM.