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“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:28-29)
On Monday, June 15th, the world lost a spiritual giant as Elisabeth Elliot passed away at the age of 88. Elliot was a prolific author and speaker, perhaps best known for two of her books. The first, Through Gates of Splendor, recounted the story of the martyrdom of her husband, Jim Elliot, along with four other missionaries, at the hands of the Auca people in the Amazonian rainforests of Ecuador as they sought to bring the gospel to them (the 2005 movie End of the Spear also told the story, from another family’s perspective). The second, Passion and Purity, was about honoring God with one’s love life.
The only fictional novel Elliot ever wrote, No Graven Image, was written in 1966 and was loosely based on her experiences as a young missionary to Ecuador. Of all her books, this book is noteworthy because it is so unlike the majority of Christian fictional books and movies. In her book, Elliot tells the story of a young unmarried woman named Margaret, who becomes a missionary to Ecuador in order to work with a native tribe and translate the Bible into their language. Throughout the novel, we read of Margaret’s struggles with loneliness and discouragement, the difficulty she has establishing relationships and adjusting to life without modern comforts, and the challenge she faces dealing with the American Christian equation of success with numbers instead of faithfulness.
In the story, Margaret meets a man named Pedro, the only one in the tribe who knows both English and the dialect of the local tribe. Pedro begins to teach her the language so that she can translate the Bible. One day, Margaret is travelling to see Pedro, and she praises God for how everything seems to have come together to allow her to serve Him in this way. When she arrives at Pedro’s home, she finds that he has an infected, painful wound in his leg. Margaret helped with medical care among the tribe, and so she injects Pedro with penicillin. But Pedro has a reaction, experiences anaphylaxis. The family gathers around, and his wife says “Can’t you see he’s dying? You killed him!” Margaret prays for God to save him, but Pedro dies, and her years of labor are wiped away in a moment. She ends by writing “I do not write prayer letters to my supporters anymore, for I have nothing to say about my work. It seemed, on the night of Pedro’s death, as though Finis were written below all I had done.” The book ends with no silver lining, no last-minute reversal.
How’s that for a book? Apparently when the book was published, it was outrageous to many in the evangelical Christian world, who protested that God would never allow such a thing to happen. But in fact it was based on a missionary experience from Elliot’s own life, which ended with all of her translation note cards being washed away in a flood. Add to that experience the loss of her husband a few years later at the hands of the very people he was trying to reach with the gospel, and you begin to realize that Elisabeth Elliot spoke and wrote from a place far more profound than so many of the shallow books and movies that pass for Christian today, where God always comes through in the end and everything comes together in wonderful ways.
Elliot’s book challenged the Christian world to come to terms with the reality that God does not always do things the way we want Him to, that God is not our heavenly assistant who supports our plans and helps us achieve our dreams in life. He is God, and His ways are not our ways. Yes, Romans 8:28 tells us that God works everything together for our good. But that good, according to verse 29, is not a life of comfort and luxury, but a life of being conformed to the image of Christ, the man who suffered and died for the sins of the world. The man who loved and obeyed and trusted His Father even when that obedience led to the cross.
Elisabeth Elliot not only taught, but modeled a life that instructed others to trust in a good and sovereign God, even when His ways make no sense from our human perspective. May her life encourage you to trust and obey God, not for what you get out of it, but simply because He is worthy of our whole life.
Perhaps some future day, Lord,
Thy strong hand will lead me to the place
Where I must stand utterly alone;
Alone, Oh gracious Lover, but for Thee.
I shall be satisfied if I can see Jesus only.
I do not know Thy plan for years to come.
My spirit finds in Thee its perfect home: sufficiency.
Lord, all my desire is before Thee now.
Lead on no matter where, no matter how,
I trust in Thee.
- Written by Elisabeth Elliot when she was in college
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Thank you for this, Eric. It is especially poignant and relevant for me at this time.