If you’ve read here long, you know Elisabeth Elliot is a heroine of mine, a mentor from afar.
If you’re not familiar with Elisabeth, her husband and four of his colleagues were killed by a tribe they were trying to reach in the Ecuadorian jungle in 1956. She told the men’s stories in Through Gates of Splendor. Then, a few years later, she and her young daughter and the sister of one of the men went to live with the tribe in the jungle. A few years later, Elisabeth brought her daughter back to the US and became an author and speaker.
Jim and Elisabeth’s love story is unusual because they both thought God was going to send them to the mission field single. Jim was Elisabeth’s brother’s roommate in college and spent one Christmas vacation at their home. Then they had several classes together and began to study together.
They were different in personality. Jim was outgoing and spoke freely and easily (a little too freely sometimes). “The same bold, aggressive temperament that served him well as a daring disciple of Christ could sometimes come across as harsh and abrupt, even meddling, especially when dealing with a woman” (p. 258). Elisabeth was intellectual and reserved. But they thought alike on many subjects and began to find themselves drawn to each other.
Elisabeth seemed willing to take this development as from the Lord much sooner than Jim was. He had taken to heart Matthew 19:12 about some making themselves “eunuchs” for the kingdom of God (remaining single, unattached) and 1 Corinthians 7 about people being better able to serve God without distraction if they are single. He had given other guys in college a hard time about dating. He knew God was calling him to a pioneering field which would include rough living conditions. He didn’t feel he could ask a wife into that situation.
On top of everything else, he wrestled in his journal with the thought that if he loved a woman, it would mean that Jesus wasn’t enough for him. Somehow he missed that God Himself said “It is not good for man to be alone” when He created woman.
But for him, the thought of being romantically involved was a complete paradigm shift. It wasn’t something he could change his mind about in a short time. Plus, as they both graduated from college, each was not sure where God would have them. They worked at different jobs and helped in different ministries until they both felt led to go to Ecuador.
Elisabeth had told their love story in Passion and Purity and used it as a springboard to talk with young people about dating issues. She gave her letters and journals to her daughter, Valerie, to go through “when she had time.”
As a mother of eight, Valerie only recently had time. After reading the letters and journals and rereading her mother’s books, she felt she needed to share her parents’ love story. There was too much to copy entirely, so Lifeway helped her decide what to share. The result is Devotedly, The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot.
Valerie tells the story, interspersing the narrative with excerpts from her parents’ letters and journals. At times she adds a word of explanation, a little further insight, her thoughts on different points, or how her parents influenced her own story.
We’re so used to hearing the mature Elisabeth, who did most of her writing and speaking after decades of walking with the Lord. It’s interesting to read her young adult thoughts.
They spent a great deal of their relationship apart, so they got to know each other through letters. They went through the same difficulties as everyone else, with one person taking something the wrong way, the other having to explain, etc. They had no problem taking each other to task when they disagreed, but they did it as kindly as they could.
But mostly they encouraged each other to draw close to God and be and do all He wanted them to.
When they struggled with whether they should even be corresponding, they concluded that “what they shared together, even knowing the possibility they would spend their lifetimes apart, was more than worth it” (p. 42).
Valerie says they handled their love “with extraordinary sacredness” and “modeled—not perfectly, but persistently—the way God intends us to handle love, steward it, and keep it continually under His guidance” (pp. xiv-xv).
It’s interesting (and fun) to note the change in Jim’s writing from wrestling to acceptance that his love for Elisabeth was from God. He found that these two loves enriched each other rather than detracting from each other.
A few other thoughts that stood out to me:
Valerie noted that In the earliest pages of her mother’s journals, the words “though punctuated, of course, with the typical cares and crises of any young woman’s life—would never shift from this due-north orientation. God was first; God was supreme; God was all” (p. 1).
I thought this principle was a good one: comparing Christian life to a railroad, Jim wrote about decisions, “A block signal—a crisis—is lighted only where there is a special need. I may not always be in sight of a ‘go’ light, but sticking to the tracks will take me where the next one is” (p. 109).
Though we consider both Elliots stalwart examples of faith today, they each had their discouragements. Valerie wrote, “When you hear my mother at twenty-two saying she feels ‘useless’ and ‘fearful’ and ‘ashamed,’ recall what she went on to become in life by God’s grace and power. Think what our Father is capable of doing, encouraging you to press into Him, as she did, for His glory” (p. 66). As Elisabeth “grew older in Christ,” she realized she enjoyed “having the floor” and saw her tendency to want to “have the last word” and “straighten people out.” “She could be cut to the quick at times by her own insensitivity towards others who were speaking to her, and she wanted to become more gracious to those who didn’t have their words or facts straight” (p. 104).
Elisabeth had a nice singing voice and was often asked to sing in meetings. She wrote:
Oh, sometimes I wonder if I should not abstain from singing altogether until I know that Christ is my motive. Truly I do desire that my voice, as well as my life and will, be wholly given to His praise. But the flesh is ever with me—it manifests itself in the most singular forms sometimes. I discover that self-effacement, springing wholly from selfish motives, taints my very highest aspirations to act of God’s glory. So I am driven once again out of myself, for I am all unprofitable. . . I am but a branch, and without Thee can do nothing (pp. 138-139)
In Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, Ellen Vaughn mentions almost in passing an article someone had written proposing that perhaps Jim’s strong friendships with other men, his aversion to marriage, and his long wrestling over his relationship with Elisabeth meant that perhaps he was really homosexual at heart. One can’t read much of his writing without rendering such a possibility ridiculous. He wrote often of struggling against lustful thoughts, even more so the closer they got to their wedding. After one such entry, Valerie noted, “Let’s not pretend that my father was above the temptation. Yet, in response to it, he did what all godly men (and women) must do when accosted by strong, unholy thoughts. He called them out, considered it war, and made impassioned pleas that God would be his strength to endure” (p. 164). Even before, his teenage relationship with girls “warned me that my affections go out very easily and are jealously tenacious. Recognizing this fact, that I would lose my heart at every turn if I didn’t discipline myself carefully, I withdrew from dating and even close associations with girls whom I knew attracted me, or to whom I was somehow attractive” (p. 53).
Jim also wrestled with feeling inferior to Elisabeth and feeling “I can never be all she ought to have in a husband” (p. 192).
So we see that neither of them was perfect. That’s an encouragement to me, because I’m not, either. I wrestle with some of the same things they did. Sanctification is a lifelong process. But God’s grace is available every step of the way.
We miss a lot by not writing letters today. These letters are not only deeply spiritual, but they’re often poetic and literary as well. I’d love to include some of the more lyrical entries, but this is too long already.
Some years ago a philosophy started going around Christendom that God did not have a specific will for people regarding life work, location, spouse, etc.; He left it up to individuals to do what they wanted. That never set well with me, for too many reasons to go into here. But I saw anew one reason through these letters and journals: the sanctifying affect that waiting for and trying to discern the will of God could have. Near the end of the book, Valerie records her father’s words: “I have sought slowly the will of God, and the slowness has brought strength into the conviction of it, and joy in the realization of it” (p. 233).
Jim wrote, “The Lord has a certain slow dignity about His movings which constantly shames my fretting unbelief” (p. 163).
It touched my heart that they chose for their wedding verse Isaiah 25:9: “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for Him.”
Valerie shares that “If I could express my one hope for compiling this book, my prayer is that these entries of theirs would call us to search faithfully for God in His Word. And upon discovering His unchanging, faithful, merciful, and loving character, I pray we would be more fully moved in obedience to Him that we too might leave a lasting legacy of faith as my parents did” (p. 45).
The Elliots’ writing does encourage me in my walk with God and continues to spur me on to seek Him in His Word and find and do His will.
(By the way, last year, Revive Our Hearts did a series of interviews with Valerie about her parents’ story and writing the book here. I enjoyed listening to them then, and they have the transcripts up now.)