These seven words end the verse Christian apologists cite as their directive to give a defense for Christianity. The verse can be found in 1 Peter 3:15 and it says
but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,1 Peter 3:15 (ESV)
Most apologists (myself included) have the middle part ingrained in us. We get excited at the challenge of ideas. Getting into debates with others can be quite exhilarating and feels almost like combat. Yet, Peter tells us that an attitude of battle is not the mindset we should be in when giving a defense. Christian case making is not supposed to be a submission match. Telling people why we think Christianity is true is supposed to be done with gentleness and respect. And, I can’t think of a better example of this being lived out than in the life of Ravi Zacharias.
Ravi started ministry in 1971 when he visited US soldiers and Viet Cong prisoners in Vietnam. Later, in 1974, he would minister in Cambodia until it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge. Going into hostile foreign territory would be the aim of much of Ravi’s work. In 1984 he started Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and continued to visit countries across the globe – oftentimes risking arrest or worse.
When people ask “who was Ravi Zacharias” the typical response is “he was an apologist” and/or “he was a philosopher”. But, first and foremost, Ravi was an evangelist. His greatest concern was spreading the good news. That was the cornerstone of who he was. His apologetics flowed from that.
When doing apologetics, we are told to go after ideas and not make it personal. This is good advice. Hopefully, by focusing on the intellectual issues, we can make reason and logic the basis of our deductions. We learn about the intellectual responses to things like the problem of evil. But, we have to be careful and not make our responses too impersonal. We can’t completely forget that – as Ravi famously said – “behind every question is a questioner”. Some people have questions because they have been through something tough. They lost an infant child. They were abused by someone they trusted. Something bad happened to them at a church they used to attend. These are all legitimate reasons for pain and cause people to ask questions. It’s easy to cast aspersions at someone who doesn’t agree with us and assume their challenge is because “they don’t know any better”. Maybe part of that assumption is true, but we can’t automatically go to the mindset of wanting to educate this person on the folly of their thinking. True, maybe their challenge does come from a lack of knowledge on a given topic. But, to cut the questioner’s humanity out of the conversation entirely could be a missed opportunity to get to the heart of the issue the person has. Sometimes, what people really need is emotional healing and not intellectual correction.
Ravi cared about giving people the hope of the gospel first and giving responses to their questions second. This week, Vince Vitale recalled an incident on the RZIM Ask Away podcast where, during a Q&A session they were a part of, a questioner came to the mic and continued to throw question after question and challenge after challenge at Ravi with no intention of letting Ravi get a word in. After his tirade was over, he turned away and stormed out of the back of the auditorium. This person had no desire to have any of his questions answered; he just wanted to get something off of his chest. For Ravi, this was the person in the audience he was looking for. The person who needed hope. So, rather than let the man storm off, he jumped up and beckoned the man to come back. “Please, sir, let me address some of your concerns”. If Ravi wanted to “win” the argument, he would have let the man go. He had already embarrassed himself. But, Ravi cared about this person and the hurt he was feeling inside. That was the focus of his work; not to win debates or correct ideas but to win people to Christ. To give them the hope he had received.
A lesson that I continue to learn is that not everyone with questions or challenges is seeking an intellectual response. Many people come with a lot of history behind the question they raise. And, it is only through seeing the person behind the question that I can keep my responses gentle and caring. Also, my character is the first thing people evaluate – not the power of my well thought out arguments. It doesn’t matter how airtight my case is, if I don’t show that I care about them then they won’t listen.
Most of us will not affect as many people as Ravi did. Most of us will not get a platform that covers the globe the way RZIM does. But, just imagine the impact we can have on the global scale if we, too, develop the ability to give people reasons for the hope that lies within us. That all starts with our actions, our personality, how we treat others and remembering that it’s people we are dealing with and not just their arguments.