Elisabeth Elliot: A Woman Who Knew God

June 16, 2015

Today’s New York Times’ obituary section features stories about, among others, the passing of a Hollywood actress, a stripper, a movie producer, a Grand Ole Opry star, and “a host to legendary maestros.”

Not listed is Elisabeth Elliot, perhaps the most influential woman in American Evangelicalism of the past half-century.

She was the widow of missionary martyr Jim Elliot and later of Gordon-Conwell Seminary theologian Addison Leitch; in total, she was married to them for about six years. She knew loss and pain throughout her life. Then God brought her to Lars Gren, with whom she enjoyed many years of marriage and ministry. She also rejoiced in her daughter with Jim, Valerie Elliot Shepard, and many grandchildren.

Numerous moving obituaries have been written about her. I recommend Justin Taylor’s at The Gospel Coalition (“She was a beautiful woman of whom the world was not worthy”), John Piper’s (“Peaches in Paradise: Why I Loved Elisabeth Elliot”), Tsh Oxenreider’s at the Washington Post, and the collation of tributes at Christianity Today. These remembrances feature many quotes from Mrs. Elliot, whose love for her Savior and devotion to taking up His cross daily fed millions for many years.

Her ministry for Jesus Christ was her gracious but uncompromising. Consider Mrs. Elliot’s utterly fearless decision to live with three Ecuadorean Indian tribes (taking her year-old daughter with her and beginning with the tribe that murdered her husband and his four missionary colleagues); her 13 year-long radio devotional; her more than 20 books; her extraordinary speaking ministry; and her extensive personal correspondence with generations of young women seeking the compassionate but firmly truthful counsel for which she was both known and honored. Like Abel, she, being dead, yet speaketh (Hebrews 11:4), and will speak for many years to come.

Mrs. Elliot was also a gracious but unflinching advocate for the unborn and their mothers. “We are faced with only one question,” she wrote. “Are we talking about an object, or might it by any stretch of the imagination be a person? If we cannot be sure of the answer, at least we may pick up a clue or two from the word of the Lord which came to Jeremiah: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you for my own; before you were born I consecrated you, I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ To God, at least, Jeremiah was already a person. For my part, I will try to regard whatever bears the marks of humanity as God’s property and not mine.”

As a young man, her book about her husband Jim, Shadow of the Almighty, had a greater effect on my own devotion to Christ than any book but the Bible. When she came to speak at the seminary I attended in Oregon, the venue must have had a special meaning to her. Western Seminary is located on the eastern slope of Portland’s Mt. Tabor; Jim had been raised only a few blocks away on the northern slope.

Mrs. Elliot’s omission from the obituary section of the nation’s “paper of record” is unsurprising. It’s also unimportant. Elisabeth Elliot lived a life “despising the shame” of the cross, just as did the Prince of Life nailed to it, the eternal Son she followed with perseverance and humble fidelity.

There is so much to say, but one thing should not be neglected: Mrs. Elliot was not occupied with Evangelicalism’s many self-preoccupations, endless self-analyses, constant bickering over secondary things, the latest techniques of ministry, or the embarrassing and fruitless professionalization of the ministry of the Gospel and the church’s sordid aping of the business world. She harkened her fellow believers to a deep and intimate walk with the Savior not just for what they could derive from it but because He deserves lives of full submission to Him. And, as that submission is given, daily, the peace, joy, and contentment for which we all long follows.

No short blog of mine can capture fully the magnificence of Mrs. Elliot’s utter surrender to the Lord Jesus. Perhaps a story related by Steve Saint, the son of one of Jim’s colleagues, is a good way to close:

… moments after killing the five missionaries who had come to deliver to them the gospel, these native Indian men saw hazy figures above the tree line and heard them singing music they had never heard before. Many months later, several of these tribesmen were converted to Christ. Afterwards, they sat listening to a missionary’s record player … (playing) a choir singing hymns. The natives recognized the music and said it was like the music they had heard that day on the sandy beach coming from the figures hovering above the tree line.

Mrs. Elliot has, in person, now heard those “figures” – those angels – singing. And she has met the One of Whom they sang, and sing, for all eternity.