The Heart of a True Missionary
Elisabeth Elliot talks about cross-bearing Christianity, the immaterial wealth of her mission heritage, and what has given her strength in the face of adversity.
In a great number of North American evangelical homes today, Elisabeth Elliot is a household word. Her radio program, “Gateway to Joy,” is broadcast on some 250 English-speaking stations and some 250 more in translation. She speaks of “soldierly qualities” and the need for a cross-bearing Christianity. She reiterates the need for wives to be submissive to husbands. She challenges outright the dating practices of our youth. Simply put, she advocates a Christianity that is a striking contrast to much of what fills the “bestseller” section in Christian bookstores today.
But Elisabeth Elliot may be best-known as the surviving wife of Jim Elliot, the 28 year-old missionary speared to death in 1956 with four of his co-laborers—Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Edward McCully. Along with their wives and children, these five men were in the early efforts of reaching the Auca tribe (now known as the Huaorani) in the dense jungles of northern Ecuador. They were nervous but optimistic as they landed their small Piper aircraft on a shallow part of the Curaray River.
Elisabeth Elliot’s riveting account of this story and the follow-up to it—Through Gates of Splendor and The Savage My Kinsman—quickly became standard missionary fare and remain so today, over 40 years later. The event itself—known as the Palm Beach incident for the shallow beach where the plane landed-continues to have a riveting impact on successive generations of young people. Countless youth have been called to service in the fields of the harvest as a result. All have been called to live lives of increasing sanctification.
A prolific writer of over 20 books who has moved well beyond the pale of specifically mission-focused material, Elliot’s writing efforts over the last 20 years have covered a range of topics—including God’s plan for the Christian family, suffering, loneliness and a re-evaluation of Christian dating. While some find her a bit harsh and dogmatic, she has articulated a spiritual passion in the face of all of life’s hardships that has given many a more upright spiritual posture.
Elliot’s immediate response to the Palm Beach incident placed her, along with co-laborer Rachel Saint (Sister of the slain Nate Saint) in the memory of evangelicals as modern-day saints. Shortly after the incident, she returned to the tribe to continue the church planting work among the Huaorani. They made it clear that they did not want to prosecute the murderers. Today, the numerous Huaorani followers of Wnagogi (“creator God”) may well be her most profound legacy. The sweet though costly irony was illustrated most poignantly as Stephen Saint, son to martyred Nate Saint was baptized by a Huaorani pastor—one of the spear—wielding Indians who took part in the slaying of his father years earlier. The living testimony of Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint’s work amongst the Huaorani is a superb example of the vital and strategic role of women in the frontier mission task.
In addressing her preparedness for the initial tragedy Elliot attributes her strength in adversity to her upbringing-one that had missions at its very core.
“I grew up in a very strong, missionary-minded home. We had dozens, perhaps hundreds of missionaries visiting in our home. I have my mother’s guest book that has 42 countries represented in it. Therefore, I had read missionary books, we had looked at thousands of missionary slides, heard many missionary stories and we knew that there would be hardships.
“Of course, I didn’t know what the nature of mine might be and I didn’t expect it to be quite so soon.” She notes that in each of the major blows to her faith that first year in Ecuador, it was a return to the cross of Christ that provided the deepest counsel. But she recognizes that there are precious few who have a similar background and its component part—preparedness for adversity—with which she was so blessed. “So, when I have the opportunity to speak to prospective missionaries, I do want to emphasize an encounter with the cross. I think it takes a deep, spiritual encounter with the cross before we’re really qualified to call ourselves missionaries.”
While hesitant to generalize too broadly, Elliot sees in the younger generation an aversion not so much to the grand cause of martyrdom but to the mundane discipline of yielding to Christ’s lordship in the small things. Her words to prospective cross-cultural workers: “I would take them first to the foot of the cross and just ask them if they understand what the cross was all about and what it means in our daily life. If Jesus told us that we must take up our cross daily and follow Him, in what tiny little ways might we experience this?
“These students do know that five missionaries were killed in 1956 and that was a very dramatic event that is still in the minds of many. I am amazed at how many decades have gone by and it seems as though more people are acquainted with that story now than when it happened.
“But the great question is the tiny, little things which are not dramatic and not heroic, but those are the ways the cross is going to be presented to us. I often ask a group, ‘In what ways do you expect the cross to be presented to you?’
“Well, the chances are not very great that it is going to be anything dramatic or heroic; it is probably going to be, as John H. Newman put it, ‘the carrying on of small duties which are distasteful to us.’
“My impression is that they have not had the same kind of earnestness and preparation for suffering. America loves comfort and fun. And we need to face squarely the words that ‘If we endure, we shall also reign with Him’ (2 Tim. 2:12).
“I don’t run across very many people who have the depth of understanding that we were given. I am very deeply aware of the privileges that I had. I want to do my best to pass on to younger people those soldierly qualities and necessities that we have to learn. Jesus spelled it out very clearly that, if we were going to follow Him, there was going to be suffering. It’s not going to be different.”
While writing and speaking on a wide variety of subjects, center stage on her agenda has been the sad state of the North American family (e.g. Passion and Purity and The Shaping of the Christian Family). For Elliot, the connection of the deteriorating family structure with the impact on the message we export through the mission enterprise is not a difficult one to make. This is highlighted by recognizing that the family structure of many “pagan” peoples we attempt to reach is—shall we say?—much more Biblical.
“I did come from a strong missionary family. We ate, lived and breathed missions. My parents had been missionaries and five out of the six of us kids became missionaries. This whole thing of divorce just becomes so endemic that it can’t help but have a tremendous impact on missions. If we are sending that kind of message around the world it undermines the Gospel itself.
“I want to do everything that I can to strengthen the Christian family. I’ve written a book on that subject and I’m often asked to do seminars on the Christian family. It takes a strong father, a submissive wife and obedient children. But there was never any question in our minds that our parents were perfectly serious when they laid down the rules of the house. What they said, they meant, and what they said, they meant the first time. These were all factors that gave us self-discipline.”
One of the fundamental flaws that Elliot recognized in North America upon returning to the States was the carefree practice of dating—which presented a striking contrast to her early years with Jim Elliot. “It became very obvious to me back in the 70’s that this whole business of courtship and dating—actually, it wasn’t called courtship at all, it was just called dating, and it was simply taken for granted—became more and more dangerous as all the old rules were discarded.
“So, I felt duty-bound to just tell my own story of how Jim Elliot and I made up our minds long before we ever fell in love, that we did not belong to ourselves, but to God Himself; and this body in which I live is holy, it belongs to God until God gives it to somebody else. So, Jim and I were perfectly clear about that independent of each other and then, when he came along and confessed to me that he was in love with me, he followed that immediately with saying, ‘I’m not asking you to marry me. You go ahead and go to Africa and I’ll go to South America, and if God wants to bring us together, God knows how to do it.’
“I thought I was going to Africa, but in various ways, God indicated that it was South America. And so, we waited 5 ½ years for each other. That, of course, is another tremendous lesson in sacrifice. Young people today, it is my impression, are not prepared to sacrifice. They want what they want and they want it now. They’re going to get what they want, any way they can get it. When you start at the foot of the cross and lay yourself totally at God’s disposal, there are a whole lot of pitfalls that are avoided.”
Elliot’s hard language of placing oneself “totally at God’s disposal” is a striking contrast to the rights language so prevalent in both secular and Christian media today. But it is the depth of her conviction on a number of matters that has emboldened many in their own calling to Christian work. She calls for unadorned, sacrificial living directed by a simple tenet: “Keep going back to the Old Book.”
The Bible, she says, is simply “our authority. There is no other way except the way of the cross. Jesus made it so crystal clear. He simply said, ‘If you want to be my disciple...,’ and that stands just exactly the same way today. He is saying that to each of us, ‘Do you want to be my disciple?’
“If the answer is ‘yes,’ then there can be no question about the willingness to fulfill the three conditions of discipleship which is [first of all] to give up your right to yourself—and that flies in the face of everything that the world is saying. When the world is saying ‘be good to yourself, work on yourself, do your own thing,’ that is the absolute opposite of giving up your right to yourself. You can’t take up the cross until you’ve given up your right to yourself.
“The second condition is ‘take up your cross,’ and that certainly means suffering of one sort or another. And the third thing, of course, is ‘to follow.’ And that means a determined obedience, from here to eternity.
“You don’t tell God you will do two years of missionary work, period, and consider that you have done your job. Following means one step at a time, one day at a time, but we have a Leader who will show us the way.”
Elliot is now living near Massachusetts Bay in Massachusetts—by her own admission a long way from the jungles of Ecuador. Her acquaintance with grief, however, did not end upon her return to the States. After Jim Elliot, she would lose a second husband (Addison Leitch) in a tough battle with cancer in 1973. Today, she is married again—to Lars Gren, who serves as a manager for Elliot’s personal ministry.
Elliot certainly doesn’t hold herself up as one who deserves any special awards of merit for having borne heavy burdens. She insists her lot is no more difficult than the numerous others who have lost husbands—including the recent example of Gladys Staines who lost her husband and two sons while serving in India.
Reflecting again on the Palm Beach incident, she recalled how she knew it was very serious when Jim Elliot and crew turned up missing. “And when we got the word that they were all dead, what can you do except turn to Christ and say, ‘Lord, you are in charge, I accept this.’ The great principle that Amy Carmichael taught was ‘in acceptance lieth peace.’ We cannot change what has happened, we cannot be angry at God because then there is no other refuge. I’m always aghast when I hear anyone say that he’s mad at God, because where else can you turn?”
This interview first appeared in Mission Frontiers, August 1999. Elisabeth Elliot is a speaker, radio host, former missionary and prolific writer. She has written many books including Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life Under Christ's Control, Through Gates of Splendor and A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael. Find out more about her ministry and radio program “Gateway to Joy,” at www.gatewaytojoy.org.