Have you ever heard about a horrible highway accident and realized that you had been on the same road that day, traveling in the same direction? It could have been you! You feel terrible for the victims, of course, but your sympathy is mixed with relief and gratitude that you were spared. That’s how I felt when I heard the news about Ravi Zacharias.
To be clear, I understand that what Ravi Zacharias did was not an accident. The evidence shows that Ravi engaged in a pattern of predatory sexual behavior over the course of many years, leaving dozens, maybe hundreds, of confused and wounded victims in his wake. When threatened with exposure he counter-attacked, sometimes viciously. Ravi successfully maintained his reputation for sexual and spiritual integrity using misdirection, misrepresentation, and distraction, and he died a hero to millions. Ten months after his death, however, the truth leaked out, and almost overnight Ravi became the next Bill Cosby.
Ravi—the public Ravi—was the sort of man I wanted to become when I entered the ministry. I loved the image of the Christian intellectual, someone equally at home in university auditoriums and small-town living rooms. Ravi was that guy. Yes, he carried a bible and prayed with passion, but he was also an urbane and articulate apologist, a captivating speaker, an evangelist who built an immense following over more than 40 years of ministry.
I met Ravi only once, at a wedding. I don’t normally attend weddings, but I had agreed to attend this one after learning that Ravi would be there. With his snow-white hair and erect bearing, Ravi dominated the church from the moment he arrived. He was courtly and solicitous, and he blessed the bride and groom with an admonition and a prayer that seemed to come directly from heaven. I remember feeling both inspired and ashamed that day. Ravi’s presence was truly inspiring, but at the same time I couldn’t help feeling ashamed of my own inability to match his level of integrity, and the success of his ministry served only to accentuate the failure of mine.
I had abandoned the ministry on my thirtieth birthday, distraught over my inability to control my sexual behavior and terrified of being caught. I adored my wife and children, truly loved God and the church I served, but none of those attachments were strong enough to overcome my progressive fascination with pornography and prostitutes. I despised my own hypocrisy, but for reasons I could not understand I simply could not stop what I was doing. Since I couldn’t quit the behavior, I chose what seemed to be the only alternative. I quit the ministry.
Looking back, I can see that my decision to quit was fairly easy. My ministry had been only marginally successful, so there were no large crowds clamoring for me to continue. My decision to leave wasn’t putting anyone else out of a job. And I was still young enough to start over in a new career. So that’s what I did. I launched into the world of business and joined a new congregation as a layman.
Another alternative—honestly confessing the true nature of my struggle and asking for help—did not seem realistic at the time. My wife and I were deeply embedded in the Christian community, and I knew my reputation would be shattered and my family would be shamed if anyone ever learned the extent of my sexual sin. The humiliation and banishment would be too much for us to bear. My only viable option, it seemed to me, was to renew my private commitment to holiness and battle the beast on my own.
It takes a lot of effort to maintain a double life, but I managed it for another decade. It was a miserable existence, since the diminishing pleasures of my secret behavior were increasingly drowned by tidal waves of disgust and regret. My happiest times during those years were in church, because that’s where I was able to be—or at least pretend to be—the person I desperately wanted to be. In church I was Saint Nate, the committed Christian and dedicated family man. My performances in church were so heartfelt and convincing that, when it came to matters of sexual morality, I’m quite sure that I was above reproach.
That’s where I feel some sympathy of Ravi. It’s hard for me to believe that he was nothing but a cynical fraud. I see him, rather, as someone who truly believed the message he was proclaiming, but who, due to his celebrity and the unthinkable consequences for his reputation, his family, and his entire organization if his sexual transgressions were ever discovered, concluded that he needed to battle the beast on his own. At some point, however, Ravi apparently signed a truce with the beast. He made the fateful decision to open a couple of health spas, which he staffed with masseuses imported from India and Thailand. These spas gave him with an almost inexhaustible supply of potential victims.
By this time, Ravi’s stature as a Christian leader insulated him from suspicion. Yes, it was unusual for a Christian leader to open a health spa, but this was Ravi Zacharias, a man above reproach. When allegations of impropriety began to surface, his fans and followers naturally rallied to his defense.
When I think about the lengths to which Ravi went to discredit and silence his accusers, I am horrified, but I can’t help wondering how I would have behaved if I were facing the same catastrophic consequences. I’m not sure I would have come clean. After all, I lied for a long time to protect much less.
There are a few lessons we can learn from this shipwreck. One of them is that intellectual brilliance is no defense against folly. Another is that a lifetime of admirable work can be undone in an instant. Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn is that no leader is morally bulletproof. As a group of elders once told me after a sexual scandal had almost capsized their megachurch, “We learned that we should never give unquestioned authority and blind trust to any one man. We all have our weaknesses, and when we are alone and unaccountable we are capable of almost anything.”