Christian missionary, author, and speaker Elisabeth Elliot passed away June 15. Now, at the end of her life, her influence is most clearly evidenced. Every major Christian publication has posted countless articles online commemorating her life and service. They describe her as down-to-earth, unsentimental, and blunt, but she left a legacy that flowers with all the grace and beauty of a rose in full bloom.
She is probably best known, and most rare, for her decision to go live with the very same people who had just murdered her missionary husband, Jim Elliot. Elisabeth took her three-year-old daughter Veronica and moved to the remote village of the Auca tribe not even two years after they had speared her husband and his companions to death. She took the risk of living there, isolated from civilization and safety, in order to minister to the people who had proven their great need for the Gospel.
As a prolific writer, radio host, speaker, and Christian leader she is well known in many other spheres as well. I haven’t read all of her writings, I never met her in person, and I can’t recall having heard her radio program, but even so her impact on my life has been great. There are three things about her life and her faith that have always stood out to me since I first became acquainted with Elisabeth Elliot by reading her books such as Through Gates of Splendor, A Chance to Die, and Passion and Purity.
First, I am awed by her faith-filled patience. She met and fell in love with her future husband Jim Elliot while they were attending college at Wheaton College, but they waited five years after their graduation from college before they were engaged. During that time, which she writes about in Through Gates of Splendor and other books, they maintained their long-distance relationship through long handwritten letters expressing their love and longing for one another. Reading those words as a young teen, I found a model of “longsuffering” faithfulness that is rarely seen in our culture today.
Second, I admire her simply as a woman, the way she lived out her femininity in a way that was bold but gracious, supple yet strong. She wasn’t any kind of blushing, giggling, exclaiming girlie-girl. She was the type of woman feminists would have loved to claim for themselves: courageous, undaunted, outspoken, capable. But in all ways, she exemplified, and overtly preached, the far-from-feminist virtues called upon for a Christian woman: submissive, obedient, self-sacrificing, a good wife and mother, and a slave to Jesus.
And above all, the characteristic that stands out the more you learn of her was how she quietly demonstrated how to live with sorrow, even the most huge, crushing, and enduring sorrow. Having lived through the death of two husbands, each after just a few years of marriage and a long wait before the marriage, she experienced heart-wrenching sorrow. In her understated but honest way, she wrote, “Sooner or later many of us experience the greatest desolation of all: he’s gone. The one who made life what it was for us, who was, in fact, our life. … The death of the beloved is also the lover’s death, for it means, in a different but perhaps equally fearsome way, a going through the Valley of the Shadow.”
A going through the Valley of the Shadow, how she must have experienced that in dark hours that were never spoken of, never seen by others. Yet, she did not become self-righteous or self-pitying in reaction to the experience. She accepted it, as from the hand of God, who was good but beyond her understanding. That was also how she endured the long wait for her love to be fulfilled by marriage, how she performed her role as a woman and her task as a missionary; it is the code by which she lived her life.
As described by one of her friends, her radio producer Jan Wismer, “Elisabeth believed in asking this foundational question: Is this God's will for me, right now, in this place? … Unapologetically, Elisabeth espoused such truths as: give to get, lose to find, and die to live.”
Such was the pattern shaping her life, her ministry, and her death. And, unlike many other Christian leaders, her legacy was not generational or only reaching a specific demographic. Men, women, old, young, mainstream and evangelical, American and international, all speak to her influence on their lives. Hers was the kind of legacy we all want to leave, but few are ready or willing to emulate the sacrificial and God-honoring life she lived.