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Four Things That Surprised Me about Ravi Zacharias

He sat across from me, but his face was blurry. I can’t see without glasses, and I didn’t have them with me despite the fact that this was an interview for which I had flown down from Ottawa to Atlanta. Although it was a job interview, I treasured the opportunity to meet one-on-one with Ravi Zacharias in the quiet of his office. Much surprised me during those precious 75 minutes and the two years that have followed since.

Awe, Wonder, And Humility

One of Ravi Zacharias’s most defining features was how he lived in awe, wonder, and humility. During my interview, I hoped to listen and learn from this man who meant so much to me, but instead Ravi warmly invited me to share my testimony with him. His ministry was a key part of my story and as I mentioned this, he put both hands on his heart and said, “Are you serious? God is so kind to let me be part of your story.”

I was confused. He was surprised?

I was confused because I had recently been at a stadium-like venue where Ravi was swarmed by people telling him the same thing: he played an instrumental role in introducing them to Jesus. This is a giant of the faith who crisscrossed the globe for nearly 50 years, speaking to stadiums, parliaments, and prisons, witnessing to heads of states, sheiks, celebrities, skeptics, and academics. He received 10 honorary doctorates and wrote many bestselling books, including the award-winning, Can Man Live Without God, and Jesus Among Other Gods. And yet every time he heard people heap accolades on him or thank him, he was genuinely surprised and beamed in awe of God’s grace in each person’s life. This was neither false humility nor vainglory. It was humble gratitude that God had rescued another beloved child by the power of His grace.

Ravi’s humility kept him from relying on his powerful public speaking skills and towering intellect. He was a man dedicated to prayer. He often stated that Jesus did not come to make bad people good, but to make dead people alive—this, Ravi reminded us, only Jesus can do and Ravi lived in awe and wonder at the gift of such grace.

Genuine Love for Skeptics

I joined Ravi’s team after working on Parliament Hill, where being good with names is an essential skill. Ravi was better at remembering names than any politician I have met. Many of you reading this article know exactly what I’m talking about. Like me, you met Ravi for a brief second at a massive event and then didn’t see him again for quite a while. When you saw him again, you heard him say your name. You wondered if he was actually saying your name, and then he would ask a question about something you had told him in your brief conversation. The more I saw this happen, the more I realized it wasn’t merely that he had an amazing memory. Every individual genuinely meant so much to him.

I can still see the affection in his eyes as he addressed 65,000 students at the Passion Conference in Atlanta this past January. It was a massive audience, but he didn’t see a sea of faces. He saw 65,000 individual men and women. Each young person meant so much to him because of whose image they were made in. “You are valuable to God,” he declared, pronouncing each syllable with just the right emphasis. “You are unique and fashioned in the image of God for a particular purpose. It’s not who you are alone that defines you, but whose you are.”

His love for each person is seen clearly in the hundreds of YouTube clips filmed during his Q&A sessions at universities and open forums around the world. A student would aggressively ask him a question. But instead of creating a sensational clip by schooling the student, Ravi would warmly and compassionately speak into their brokenness, taking seriously their question, and intelligently ministering to their heart. He would vulnerably share a story or joke at his own expense, and then point them to the beauty, credibility, and grace of Christ. Most people—including many skeptical questioners—would leave the auditorium marveling not at Ravi or his answers, but at the One whom he proclaimed.

Fierce Commitment to His Call

During my blurry-faced interview, I asked Ravi how he managed to continue growing in his affection for Christ throughout the decades of exhausting ministry. I also asked how, after nearly 50 years of doing the same thing year after year, he remained excellent and sharp at what he did. His reply: “You must say no to the deadening distractions and empty amusements of this world.” He said he refused to let his energy get drained by watching TV shows, sports or spending too much time on the news. He leaned forward and confessed his one exception: the occasional Toronto Maple Leafs game. As a Canucks fan, I didn’t know how to handle this information. Heartbreaking.

Ravi’s commitment to take seriously the call to know Christ and serve him with excellence reminded me of the Apostle Paul’s dying charge to Timothy: to be as disciplined and focused as a soldier, an athlete and a farmer. This is a message for every one of us, and one desperately needed in an age where we are, in the words of Neil Postman, “amusing ourselves to death.” I catch myself being tempted to attribute Ravi’s excellence to his natural talent or just his anointing. Instead, much of his impact can be attributed to the intentionality with which he cultivated intimacy with Christ and his diligent work ethic. We are called to do the same.

Equipping Others to Proclaim the Gospel

Ravi’s humility, love for others and fierce commitment to the Great Commission resulted in years spent pouring his energy into raising up others to proclaim the gospel.

Many effective leaders achieve what they do because they surround themselves with excellent and talented people to complement their weaknesses and help them accomplish their tasks. But that’s not what Ravi did. He surrounded himself with people who he believed could go even further than him and he poured himself into helping them fulfill their call to evangelism.

His team includes nearly 100 apologists based in more than 15 countries around the globe, evangelizing in many different languages and contexts through speaking, writing, and humanitarian work. He took delight in calling us “compassionate evangelists,” trained not only to answer people’s questions but to see the people behind the question.

He led his team in equipping thousands beyond his own organization to proclaim the gospel. Sixteen years ago, together with Oxford Professor Alister McGrath, he launched the OCCA, Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, through which more than 400 speakers, pastors, academics and leaders in the arts, business, media and politics from 50 countries around the world have been equipped in evangelism undergirded by apologetics. Six years ago, he founded the RZIM Online Academy through which he and our team have trained thousands of people from 140 countries to effectively share the gospel with gentleness and respect. Three years ago, he launched the Zacharias Institute in Atlanta to serve as another hub for equipping the local church across the world in apologetics and evangelism.

In the final days battling cancer, Ravi continued to make time to receive guests, urging each person to remain steadfast in proclaiming the gospel. This past week, as his strength was failing and he could barely utter a sound, Ravi gently repeated one word over and over again: “Gospel.”

2020 has been a difficult year for everyone, and now, during a time of global fear and pain, we have lost our beloved friend Ravi Zacharias. But amidst the constant bad news, Ravi’s dying words—like all his words—point us to the one thing we desperately need to hear again and again: the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ.