God owes his existence to no one. God does not need anything or anyone in all of creation in order to exist or for any other reason. God draws from himself unending energy and inexhaustible resources. He is dependent on no one. God did not create you because he was lonely or starving for company. He could have been completely happy and completely fulfilled without you. AND YET, He loves you, sent his Son to die for you. Waits with open arms to receive you. O the wonder of His grace.
Christianity Without Christ
Sadao Watanabe, Descent from the Cross, hand dyed kappazuri stencil print on momigami (crumpled) paper, 1973.
Paul Tillich, the noted existentialist theologian, traveled to Asia to hold conferences with various Buddhist thinkers. He was studying the significance of religious leaders to the movements they had engendered. Tillich asked a simple question. "What if by some fluke, the Buddha had never lived and turned out to be some sort of fabrication? What would be the implications for Buddhism?" Mind you, Tillich was concerned with the indispensability of the Buddha—not his authenticity.
The scholars did not hesitate to answer. If the Buddha was a myth, they said, it did not matter at all. Why? Because Buddhism should be judged as an abstract philosophy—as a system of living. Whether its concepts originated with the Buddha is irrelevant. As an aside, I think the Buddha himself would have concurred. Knowing that his death was imminent, he beseeched his followers not to focus on him but to remember his teachings. Not his life but his way of life was to be attended to and propagated.
So, what of other world religions? Hinduism, as a conglomeration of thinkers and philosophies and gods, can certainly do without many of its deities. Some other major religions face the same predicament.
Is Christianity similar? Could God the Father have sent another instead of Jesus? May I say to you, and please hear me, that the answer is most categorically No. Jesus did not merely claim to be a prophet in a continuum of prophets. He is the unique Son of God, part of the very godhead that Christianity calls the Trinity. The apostle Paul says it this way:
"[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible... He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together... For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross."(1)
Moreover, Jesus himself prayed, "[Father] you have given [me] authority over all people to give eternal life to all whom you have given [me]. And this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."(2)
As many have observed, Christianity is Christ. Indeed, Englishman John Stott writes, "If Jesus was not God in human flesh, Christianity is exploded. We are left with just another religion with some beautiful ideas and noble ethics; its unique distinction has gone."(3) At the very heart of Christianity, Jesus is the image and the incarnation of the invisible God. And it changes everything.
Ravi Zacharias is founder and chairman of the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
(1) Colossians 1:15-20.
(2) John 17:2-3
(3) John Stott, Basic Christianity (London: Intervarsity Press, 1971), 8.
Space for Sorrow
Dirk Volckertsz Coornhert, Elijah Fed by Ravens, etching, 1549.
Sitting with clients in therapy, I am frequently overwhelmed by their experiences of loss, heartache, and suffering. Many of my clients did not have the opportunity to grieve or feel the weight of their suffering. Messages sent and received with good intention functioned to suppress emotional expression. But suppressing emotions does not mean they go away. Sooner or later they come out and often in ways that end up being destructive to the individual and to her relationships. Within the safety of the therapeutic relationship, these emotions are encouraged towards an appropriate expression.
Giving voice to grief and sadness over the loss of Ravi Zacharias—particularly during the ongoing constraints of the COVID19 pandemic feels particularly important to me. I have found myself saying to many people that even though we do not grieve as those who have no hope, we still grieve. We still experience the emotions of those who are bereft of a dearly loved leader, friend, mentor, father, brother and spouse. We grieve the loss of his presence among us and the loss of his ongoing and influential ministry around the world as an author and speaker. Holding Christian hope in the resurrection of the body does not preclude feeling and giving expression to the sorrow that is felt over the loss of Ravi's life and the huge absence left now that he is gone from our lives in the present.
As a young girl, one of my favorite bible stories was the epic encounter between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. With David meets Goliath odds, Elijah faces off against 450 prophets of Baal in a contest pitting the God of Israel against the Canaanite god Baal. Which deity would answer the prayers of the respective prophets to consume the altar sacrifice?
This is a narrative filled with dramatic tension and awesome displays of power. The Lord answers Elijah with fire from heaven that not only consumes the sacrifice, but also licks up every last drop of water poured out from not one, but four pitchers of water. The story ends with the destruction of the prophets of Baal and the peoples' declaration that the Lord is God.
I still love this story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, but not for the reasons I loved it as a young girl. Instead, I love what seems to be an anti-climactic postscript to the story. Despite seeing the glory and power of God on display in such dramatic fashion, and winning a great victory, Elijah falls into what would today be described as major depression. Fleeing to the wilderness, he prays to God to take his life, not once but two times. As one commentator notes, "Those who have suffered mental anguish in their lives know all too well the depths to which Elijah has descended. He (and they) has entered the deep spots in the psychological ocean, and then has found a narrow slit in the ocean floor, a Marianas Trench of the soul, where he descends further still into the inky abyss. All he can think of is his desire to die."(2)
Reading and re-reading this story, especially as I sit with grieving clients and experience the weight of loss, I recognize the author's desire to highlight something profound about human sorrow and despair and the comfort of God. The readers of these narrative in I Kings 18 and 19 are meant to be shocked by Elijah's emotional response to Queen Jezebel's threats to kill him. After all, didn't we just see God's dramatic demonstration of power in consuming fire? One might expect a God who would reproach Elijah for wanting to die, for his apparent lack of faith, and for his despair. And yet, the narrative offers no exhortation or chastening. Instead, an angelic messenger comes to urge Elijah to eat bread and water—to be nourished for the journey is too great for you.
Given God's powerful display from heaven in the encounter with the prophets of Baal, the reader might expect another dramatic display from God to correct Elijah's depressed mood. And indeed, as Elijah waits on Mount Horeb, the Mountain of God, he experiences a strong wind, and a mighty earthquake, and then a consuming fire; but with each of these cataclysms the narrator repeats a refrain: The Lord was not in the wind, or the earthquake or the fire. Instead, the Lord comes to Elijah in a gentle blowing. God meets Elijah at the very place of his despair, not with correction or reprimand, not with a buck up and get going or a keep your chin up but with a grace as gentle as a soft breeze.
Like Elijah, there are days when we feel at the height of heights, assured of all answers, victorious in our daily battles, maybe even confident of God's saving activity all around. But there are also days when regardless of all that we have seen and witnessed of God's power and glory, we crumble under the weight of sadness. Despair feels like our only friend and the daily obstacles and challenges of life conspire against any faith, hope, and love. It is deeply encouraging to see that even in this place, God draws near with gentleness.
The comforting news of these narratives is that God is not only available to us when we feel good, but makes his dwelling with us even in the darkness of despair. There can often be a pressure to suppress these more difficult emotions, to avoid the problem, to "get over" bad feelings. But the God of Elijah is not put off by our sorrow, or our depression or the weariness of despair. The God of Elijah draws near as a gentle breeze surrounding us with grace and welcoming the full expression of our anguish or tears. God is present in the victory, to be sure, but just as present in what feels like defeat. The God of Elijah prepares a meal, provides shelter, welcomes our sadness, and speaks gently into all our uncertainties.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) See 1 Kings 18-19:18.
(2) Bill Long, “Man on the Run,” June 9, 2007, www.drbilllong.com, accessed October 10, 2011.
Memorial Day (USA)
Heavenly Father, on this Memorial Day, we pray for those who courageously laid down their lives for the cause of freedom. May the examples of their sacrifice inspire in us the selfless love of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Bless the families of our fallen troops, and fill their homes and their lives with Your strength and peace. In union with people of goodwill of every nation, embolden us to answer the call to work for peace and justice, and thus, seek an end to violence and conflict around the globe. We ask this in the name of Your Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Face to Face
Craig Hawkins, Bird No.2, charcoal on paper.
Many of us may likely have missed it. Couched between Wednesday’s building crescendo of assignments and zoom calls and Friday’s promise of their conclusion, Thursday hardly seems more than a means to an end. Though the day is every bit as holy as Easter Sunday, most of the world moves through it unsuspectingly—even those who have confessed the momentous lines of the Apostles’ Creed: “On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.”
Last Thursday was Ascension Day, the day that marks the ascension of Jesus Christ. For those of us grieving losses and loved ones, it is a profession of faith worth peering into closely. For those of us grieving the immense loss of Ravi Zacharias, the Ascension is a personal and particular comfort we might hold near. Forty days after the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus, the church around the world holds in remembrance this eventful day. The gospel writer records: “Then [Jesus] said to his disciples…. ‘See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”(1)
The ascension of Christ may not seem as momentous to the Christian story as the resurrection or as rousing as the image of Jesus on the cross. After the death and resurrection, in fact, the ascension might even seem somewhat anti-climatic. The resurrection and ascension statements of the Apostles’ Creed are essentially treated as one in the same: On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. One might even think that the one miraculous act flowed immediately into the other: as if the death of the body of Jesus was answered in the resurrection, a presence who then floated onto heaven. Unfortunately, the result of this impression is that many think of the ascension as somehow casting off of Christ’s human nature, as if Jesus is a presence that only used to be human. Hence, Jesus seems one more fit to memorialize than one we might expect to actually see face-to-face one day.
But in fact, this couldn’t be farther from the experience of the disciples, to whom Jesus appeared repeatedly in the days following the resurrection. To them it was abundantly clear that Jesus was not any sort of spiritual ghost or remote presence. He ate with them; he talked with them; he instructed them as to the ministries they would lead and the deaths they would face because of him. He was in fact more fully human than they ever realized, and it was this holy body, this divine person that they held near as they lived and died to proclaim his kingdom. In the words of poet Malcolm Guite:
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
The ascension they reported was no different than the very future they envisioned with him: he was raised as a human, fully human. As the disciples were watching and Jesus was taken up before their very eyes, a cloud hid him from their sight. The text then refers to them “looking intently up into the sky as he was going” when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them: “‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go'”(3) In this resurrected body, Christ ascended to heaven, fully human, fully divine, entirely glorified. They said goodbye face-to-face. And it will be the same when they greet him again.
For the Christian, no action of Jesus is without weight, and this, his last action on earth, is weighed with far more hope than is often realized. Ascending to heaven, the work God sent him to accomplish was finally completed. The ascension was a living and public declaration of his dying words on the Cross: It is finished. In the ascension, Jesus furthered the victory of Easter—the victory of a physical body in whom God had conquered death. Because of the ascension, the incarnation is not a past or throwaway event. Because of the ascension, we know that the incarnate Son who was raised from the dead is sharing in our humanity even now. And just as the men in white informed the disciples, so we carry in our own flesh a guarantee that Christ will one day bring us to himself. It is for these reasons that N.T. Wright affirms, “To embrace the Ascension is to heave a sigh of relief, to give up the struggle to be God (and with it the inevitable despair at our constant failure), and to enjoy our status as creatures: image-bearing creatures, but creatures nonetheless.”(3)
Ascension Day, a holy day falling inconspicuously on a Thursday in May, is the conspicuous declaration that we are not left as orphans. In the same post-resurrection body that he invited Thomas to touch, Jesus invites us to full humanity even today. He ascended with a body, he shares in our humanity, extending his own body even now, promising to return for our own bodies. Christ is preparing a room for us, and we can know it is real because he himself is real. We say goodbye face-to-face. And it will be the same when we greet our Lord and our loved ones once again.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Luke 24:49-53.
(2) Acts 1:9-11.
(3) N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 114.
The greatest power ever unleashed on earth was not the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the recent earthquake off the shores of Alaska, the monster tsunamis of recent memory or one third of Mount St. Helens exploding into and raining from the sky. The mightiest power ever displayed was when God held Satan and all his forces at bey and raised Christ from the dead.
What makes a man or woman a champion, a leader, is their resolve, their dogged determination, to live an uncompromising life when it comes to their morality or Christian convictions. It is that moment in time, that moment of decision, which results in a life worthy to be honored and emulated. Whether you are a child, a teenager, middle-aged, or even in the senior years of your life, it is never too late, no matter what your past, no matter how great your failures, to become a champion!