Reading: The Fingerprints on Your Soul
The following is a portion of Ravi Zacharias’ chapter excerpted from the forthcoming book Indelible Ink: 22 Prominent Christian Leaders Discuss the Books That Shape Their Faith, edited by Scott Larsen (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2003). This book will be available in June. Reprinted from Indelible Ink. Copyright © 2003 by Scott Larsen. Used by permission of WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO. All rights reserved.
Lost somewhere in the enormous plains of time, there wanders a dwarf who is the image of God, who has produced on a yet more dwarfish scale an image of creation. The pigmy picture of God we call man; the pigmy picture of creation we call Art. G. K. Chesterton, “Lunacy and Letters” In Robert Knille’s As I Was Saying; A Chesterton Reader
I believe we greatly underestimate the weight of the influences in our lives, those realities that shape the development of how we think and how we live more purposefully than we ever realize. These influences come from two areas: from our reading and from our professors.
If I had even the faintest clue when I was younger as to how profound an impact books and professors would have upon my life, I would have kept a better record of my thoughts and emotions. Why? Because some books and teachers leave their indelible fingerprints on our souls. And when those fingerprints are left, it’s as if your DNA has been changed. Our physical body takes on characteristics because of our chemical DNA. Likewise, those whom we’ve read and those at whose feet we have studied will transform our passions, power, and purpose. So when I consider the books that have changed me, I am speaking not only of the fingerprints of particular words, but of the very lives of these authors as well.
Words That Shape One’s Call
A book by Leonard Ravenhill is the first that shaped me beyond any dispute (outside of the Scriptures) and probably more dramatically than any other book I have read. An English revivalist born in 1907, Ravenhill wrote several books on the theme of prayer and revival, and Why Revival Tarries is the volume that impacted me. 1 First published in 1959, the book is a series of addresses that Ravenhill gave on the prayer life of the minister. Oh, the power of that book! I still remember reading it in the library at Tyndale College in Toronto, where I received my undergraduate degree in theology. I was twenty-two years old and felt the call of God upon my life. I had left the hotel industry, in which I was preparing for management, and went into theological training.
The shift in my life’s trajectory did not occur quickly, however. There was a clear struggle in my heart. I came to know the Lord when I was seventeen, on a bed of suicide in New Delhi. In 1966, when I was twenty, my father sent my older brother and me to Canada to see if there was a future for us in the West. Jobs were difficult to find in India and the atmosphere was very competitive.
When I arrived in Canada, I had already completed two years of training in business management in the hospitality and catering industry. I find the food industry fascinating. It’s a place where one can see and really meet the world philosophically without the rigors of academics. People’s worldviews show very quickly in hotel rooms and in transient settings. They reveal their lives to you. Yet as I was working in banquet management, I felt the hunger to speak for the Lord. I was a new Christian, and wherever I spoke things would happen. People would ask if I had ever considered that God had gifted me in the role of evangelism. It was natural to me, whether I was behind the pulpit or speaking with someone one-on-one. So I started taking part-time courses at a theological seminary in Toronto.
The more time I spent studying, the more I became restless in the hotel industry. This was especially true because liquor plays such an important role in the catering life. I had never even held a glass of it. Even before I was a believer, I had some disciplines that I kept, and for me personally, avoiding alcohol was certainly one of them. And when I saw the effect drinking had on some people, I thought, Is this what my life is going to be reduced to—dealing with something that I don’t even want to be responsible for on the other side of the counter? As I wrestled with that reality, the burden to preach grew greater and greater.
Indeed, as God would have it, preaching opportunities came from hither and yon. So with this struggle in my heart, I informed my parents that I was going to give up my career in business. It would have been a very good career, for I was working for a major worldwide hotel chain. But I felt God’s increasing call on my life—the pressure in the soul, as it were—to proclaim and to preach the gospel, although I didn’t know what shape this call would take.
Looking back, it is interesting that at age nineteen, before I left India, I was asked to fill in for a young preacher representing Delhi at the Asian Youth Conference in Hyderabad. When the representative for Delhi didn’t show up, I was conscripted at 1:30 in the afternoon to speak at 4 P.M. That was the first time I had ever spoken publicly, and I was given my subject only thirty minutes before. In the audience were Jay Kesler and Sam Wolgemuth, leaders of Youth for Christ in the United States and internationally. God used that message in my own life, and through that particular address—and to my utter shock—I was awarded the Asian Youth Preacher Award. Time and again when I was studying the Scriptures in Canada, God brought that experience to my memory and said: I have used you before without any of your training. This is where I want you.
So in 1968 I left my business career and went to Tyndale College, where I was graduated in 1972. When I was still a student, the Christian and Missionary Alliance invited me to speak in Vietnam. To see what God did during those meetings—where literally thousands came to Christ—was amazing. Several years later when revival historians recorded what happened in Vietnam, they traced the seeds of a great revival back to a twenty-five-year-old evangelist and his seventeen-year-old interpreter. I happened to be reading one of these accounts and was so stunned when I stumbled upon this description that I had to reread it! It was clearly the grace of God at work, and He confirmed to me that He was shaping my life.
God uses various means to guide us, including, as I said, teachers and books. I’ll never forget laying my hands on the book Why Revival Tarries. From page after page, I made notes and wrote down what Leonard Ravenhill was saying. I got his tapes on prayer and revival and would listen to them at home. I still remember my mother asking, “Aren’t you tired of that man’s voice? Night after night you’re hearing his voice. It’s echoing through these walls.” That was the effect that the book was having on me; I couldn’t get enough.
Among the thoughts that shaped me most was the story Ravenhill told of the notorious British criminal Charlie Peace, who was going to his death on a capital offense. As the minister was reading from the Bible and another book, Charlie Peace asked him, “Do you really believe in such a place called hell?” The minister replied, “Yes.” Charlie responded—and this is the thought that impacted me—“Sir, if I believed what you and the church of God say that you believe, even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it, if need be, on hands and knees, and think it worth while living, just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that!” 2 That struck me. If what we lay claim to on these matters is true, then the dramatic influence in our lives is going to be inestimable. “Even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it.” That is the kind of reality and these are the words that shape one’s call. This was the truth I was going to proclaim.
Ravenhill was a fire-and-brimstone preacher, no doubt about it. When I read him today, I wonder, Will today’s audience really listen to this kind of teaching? But there was a time for him; there was an anointing upon him and a mission for him. And for me, Why Revival Tarries sealed my call to preach and proclaim, and it convinced me that this was a real message. I was not going to shirk from whatever sacrifice was required to take this message to the world. Little did I know that God was going to enable me to do just that.
Paradox That Propels Wonder
Upon graduation from Tyndale College in 1972, I continued speaking as an evangelist. And in that year I sensed the need for higher training, because I wanted to address the skeptic. So in 1973 I went to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and did my Master of Divinity. There, on my own initiative, I picked up the writings of G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Malcolm Muggeridge. It was Chesterton’s Orthodoxy that most shaped my life and my apologetic. 3 It is one of the greatest books ever written. I disagree with Chesterton theologically on many points, but I agree with his existentially compelling arguments for the hunger deep within the human heart for that sense of wonder and awe.
As such, we missed a glorious opportunity in the 1960s when the existentialist thinkers, namely Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, were penning pointed phrases and screaming at the top of their lungs about the anguish of life. Wrote Camus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest…comes afterward.” 4 We read Camus’s novel The Stranger and read Sartre’s two classic works, Nausea and No Exit. 5 These existentialists attempted to honestly consider life’s paradoxes.
Likewise, and well before the 1960s, Chesterton dealt with the paradoxes of Christianity in Orthodoxy, and in fact, devotes an entire chapter to this theme. Now I believe in the Law of Noncontradiction when I’m using the laws of logic, but I also know the paradoxes with which the human heart lives. Further, contradiction and paradox are not one and the same. The Law of Noncontradiction affirms that the same question cannot elicit two absolute answers that are opposite to each other. One of the two answers, if opposite to the other, would have to be qualified. A statement that makes claims to two things that are mutually exclusive is a contradictory statement. If the Law of Noncontradiction did not apply to reality, our law courts would be buried. When attempting to separate truth from falsehood, we seek to identify anything that is contradictory.
But a paradox is not a contradiction. Paradox involves two counter-points on the same issue, both of which are not claiming an absolute nature. Consider, for example, the roles of emotion and will in marriage. Which element assures the success and longevity of a marriage, emotion or will? To be sure, without the will the marriage cannot survive. At the same time, without strong emotion a marriage would become drudgery. God brings the paradoxical roles of will and commitment and emotion and feeling to bear upon marriage. When you hold these in tandem, you will find that there is a beautiful blend of two seemingly different strands of your personality.
The classic illustration of this in theology is the paradox between the responsibility of man and the sovereignty of God. How can God give us the freedom to exercise our own will and still be sovereign over the universe? Western theologians tend to confuse the question by asking which one of the two is binding. The answer is “both are binding.” This is a marvelous paradox that God brings to focus in the crucifixion of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Peter says in Acts, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (2:23). In the Crucifixion, God Himself was subject to evil men. Peter doesn’t tell us where God’s sovereignty ended and the responsibility of man began; he simply tells us that they are both real.
Another example is the paradox of Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, yet knowing that he would raise him in a moment. The fact that there is both pain and joy at the same time is a paradox and not a contradiction, for the emotions are not mutually exclusive. 6 What about the paradox of faith and reason? Are they mutually exclusive? Absolutely not. God has put enough into this world to make faith in him a most reasonable stance, but He has left enough out to make it impossible to live by reason alone. Such is the paradoxical nature of Christianity, and Chesterton deals with it in extenso in his masterwork, Orthodoxy.
Although the human mind is engaged by mystery, we do not in turn know how to engage it. In other words, the paradox we encounter in matters of faith is not comfortable because we do not know how to hold the two parts of it in balance. Our compartmentalizing minds want to put everything into a box, and yet the claims of Christian belief are not mutually exclusive. God, in His divine sovereignty, has given to us liberties and freedoms. Since our sovereign God chose to grant us this privilege, it cannot be something that in any way diminishes His sovereignty. He circumscribes the limits of that freedom such that we cannot violate His sovereign plan and His will, but that does not negate the freedom that we enjoy. Paradox sits uncomfortably on our rational mind, but then so should the Incarnation, since it is the advent of a Person who is proclaimed to be very God of very God while also being very man of very man. How can God be entirely man while still being entirely God? It’s a paradox of the highest order….
…One particular chapter in Orthodoxy, “The Ethics of Elfland,” is one of the greatest chapters ever penned in the English language. Chesterton asserts that what he learned in the nursery stood him in greater stead in life than anything he ever learned by dabbling in philosophy. (Keep in mind, however, that the only reason he could state these points so cogently is because he understood philosophy so very well.) He straddled the line between the simplicity of a child and the sophistication of a thinker. If you can blend those two in apologetics you connect the heart and mind, because the human heart yearns for things simple and wonderful, while at the same time we struggle with the philosophical side of things. Chesterton marvelously blended the two.
In “The Ethics of Elfland,” he writes:
[T]he fairy tale founded in me…that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is delightful….
This was my first conviction; made by the shock of my childish emotions meeting the modern creed in mid-career. I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think miracles in the stricter sense that they were wilful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic; now I thought it involved a magician…. I had always felt life first a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller. 7 ….
Books That Deliver Freedom
So do not underestimate the shaping power of the printed page and the voice under which you study. Recognize this truth and take seriously the process of remembering—and especially recording—what is going on in your life as these influences are molding you. As such, learning how to articulate and analyze what you read is one of most vital things you can do. The concern of reading great writers only is that you might conclude that they alone know how to say it well. Don’t fall into the trap of parroting someone else’s thoughts. The great writers should serve as igniters and inspirers that enable us to express the way God has gifted us, and not make us feel inadequate.
Finally, though the writings of Ravenhill, Chesterton, and Boreham have had a great influence on me, I always encourage Christians to read extensively from many authors. When you read a diversity of authors, you complement your propensity with someone else’s strength and are exposed to ideas you may not have otherwise considered. As the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy from his prison chamber, “Bring me the books.” 8 For he knew that a book—and especially the Good Book—could break the mind out beyond the walls and deliver true freedom.
1. Leonard Ravenhill, Why Revival Tarries (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany Fellowship, 1959).
2. Ibid., 19.
3. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith (New York: Image Books, 1990).
4. Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus” in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 3.
5. Albert Camus, The Stranger (New York: Vintage Books, 1989); Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1975); Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit and Three Other Plays (New York: Vintage Books, 1955).
7. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 58, 61.
8. Wrote Paul in 2 Timothy 4:13: “When you come bring…the books, especially the parchments,” NASB.
Ravi Zacharias is president of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries