On Ravi Zacharias and Sexual Addiction

Around Christmas time last year, it was confirmed that Ravi Zacharias, world-famous Christian evangelist and apologist who passed away in May 2020, was in all likelihood guilty of numerous acts of sexual impropriety ranging from solicitation to assault and even at least one occasion of rape. The allegations appeared formally in August 2020, after which an investigate team was set up by the board of Zacharias’ organisation (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, RZIM) to verify as much as possible the truth of the accusations made.

In early February, the board released a full statement confirming their belief in the truth of these charges which also contains a link to the investigative report.

Needless to say, this is terribly tragic event not only for the Christian evangelical community but even more so for the numerous victims involved. The latter involved mainly massage therapists from whom Zacharias solicited ‘extra services’. In addition there was a lady, Lori Anne Thompson, with whom Zacharias very likely started an intimate and eventually explicit electronic conversation, leading to the exchange of nude photos. (For more information, see the investigative report; sadly, Thompson wasn’t the only woman Zacharias had such liaisons with).

Much fiery discussion has since raged on about many topics emerging from this scandal: The abuse of power and wealth by Christian leaders, the institutional culpability for abuse (or indifference towards victims), toxic church ministry cultures, how this scandal renders Zacharias’ approach to apologetics invalid, the refusal of some Christians to withdraw support for Zacharias (or their reluctance to condemn him 100%, same diff in some circles).

One Twitter thread even suggested that the problem lay with evangelical theologies of sex (a bridge too far, IMO).

My immediate 2 cents is that I don’t wish to pile on any more judgment nor justification; I don’t see how the victims (or anyone else) are helped by our social media fury or sophistry.

My next (more important) 2 cents relate to a warning/lesson not highlighted much so far in this case but which strikes me as crazy obvious: sexual addiction.

Reading the report, it seems self-evident that Zacharias was drawn into an unbreakable vortex of sexual desire since the turn of the century. This is undoubtedly speculation, but Zacharias’ career profile easily fits that of a relatively successful and high-flying individual who, over time, gradually gave in to more and more dubious activities, encouraged heavily by those many days and nights he was away from home.

If I’m right, then the process would’ve began with concerns which are relatively innocent (and even necessary) like massage therapy to treat a lower-back problem, but which slowly grew and opened the door for less than fully innocent ‘requests’. The latter, once indulged in, grew in intensity of explicitness and desire (replete with their own excuses and justifications, eg. “just one more time”, etc) until these sordid, shameful but oh-so-wonderful experiences became probably the main thing occupying one’s mind (especially when the emotional batteries are drained).

The one time became a few, which became many, which turned into an avalanche.

The number of women and ‘incidents’ and the escalation of the ‘intimacy index’ rose to a point that short of a full-blown rehabilitation and even medication (which would require an admission of guilt), I sadly imagine that Zacharias was rendered incapable of stopping.

[When I say ‘incapable’ of stopping I’m not suggesting innocence, I’m suggesting self-produced incapacitation of will, control, conscience, etc. This is anything but innocence, but this is also the language of addiction which, alas, isn’t the language of a Sith Lord plotting to control the galaxy.]

David Kessler coined the perfect word to describe the all-encompassing hold which an addiction slash obsession can have on the human mind: capture. It’s like the whole world is shut out and only that thing matters.

Throw in the money, the opportunities for hanky-panky, the power, the need to protect a reputation and a massive organization etc. and, short of accepting immense personal shame, it looks like he had passed the point of no return.

If one seeks an account of how addiction can destroy someone and create numerous victims and heartache, this is it. Churches and ministries discuss TEMPTATION and SIN almost every other week. But addiction?? That blackhole of desire which completely annihilates one’s self-control if not sense of self (and which James 1:14–15 barely hints at)? That curse in which you face a doppelgänger which looks and talks and behaves like you but seems hell-bent on slaughtering everything you care about? How often does anybody talk about that, let alone among religious circles?

Paradoxically, by bringing in addiction (surely one of the worst afflictions which can hit anyone), it allows us to construct a more realistic portrait of Zacharias’ vices and crimes:

  1. We need not resort to ideas of a cruel tyrant who does nothing but prey on helpless victims but is also preyed on by his own warped inclinations, yet do so WITHOUT denying the intensity and malice of what he did to many of them.
  2. Addiction helps us understand the desperation, shame and anger involved in his attempts at covering up his deeds WITHOUT at all denying the wrongness of these cover-ups.
  3. Addiction gives us a clue at the escalation involved until it practically encompassed his thought-life, infecting his personality and relationships.
  4. Finally, recognising the addiction in such cases humbles us; it tempers our judgments and rage because it touches on something all of us are not immune to, and wouldn’t dare talk about openly (without — again and in the least — brushing aside the real injustice and hurt done to all the women involved).

At the very least, in whatever we say or don’t say, the X factor of compassion is allowed more leg room.

I wish to close with a personal note.

Like many Christians who’ve read him, Ravi Zacharias had a lasting impact on my life. In fact, almost exactly a year ago during one of the worst family crises that I had to undergo, one of his early books helped sparked some hope that things will get better.

It is thus with much sadness that I accept that Zacharias can no longer be the role model of Christian character and witness I believed he was. I also hope that all the victims of his actions will be adequately redressed, compensated and that justice will be fully served (and seen to be served).

Finally, I think this case shows us how important it is to continually support and pray for our leaders, not only for their ‘success’ but for them to prevail against their worst inclinations.

Further Reading:

Kessler D (2017) Capture: Unravelling the Mystery of Mental Suffering. New York: Harper Perennial.

Lewis M (2016) The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease. Melbourne: Scribe.

Manning B and Blake J (2015) All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook.

Tan N (2021) I Am An Addict. The Star, 6 January. Available at: https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/all-the-pieces-matter/2021/01/06/i-am-an-addict.