Thursday, April 18, 2013

Elisabeth Elliot: My Writing Muse

Elisabeth Elliot was my invisible mentor for many, many years. I found Shadow of the Almighty, The Journals of Jim Elliot, and Passion and Purity in a Baptist church library as a teenager and hung onto them like a life raft through rocky adolescence. Elliot's biography of Amy Carmichael, A Chance to Die, introduced me to Carmichael's own books and at the same time enthralled me with Elliot's style. I trusted Elisabeth to always write and speak honestly, even if the way she saw things would upset people. I collected her books for years, got her monthly newsletters, listened to her on the radio when I could.

Elisabeth offered me a pattern for courtship in Quest for Love, which I in turn recommended to many friends. A Path Through Suffering was reminiscent of Amy Carmichael's own writings. Mom read Let Me Be a Woman with my sister and me, though she put a sticker on the cover photo because she found Elisabeth's sweater to be indecently tight. (A later edition cropped the offending garment altogether.)

The Liberty of Obedience (published in 1968) helped me see light out of the tunnel of legalism. This little volume, no longer available on her website, details a few of her questions about applying the New Testament to the Auca culture.
"A sincere attempt to discover ways in which I might guide the Aucas in making moral choices led me to the realization that I had sometimes called things sinful which the Bible did not call sinful; and if I had imposed these on the Indians, I would have been guilty of the Pharisees' sin of laying burdens too heavy to be borne. It may take a new kind of courage for us to believe that God must interpret His Word to His people."
"Does the Scripture teach that sin is sin, in the sense that what is sin for one man is always sin for all? It does not. In fact, it shows that what may be sin in one man may glorify God in another."
Gold By Moonlight was my favorite of Amy Carmichael's books. I kept it close to my bed and read it over and over again. In many ways, her approach to faith and her relationship with her God resembled Hannah Hurnard's devotional stories in Hind's Feet on High Places and Mountains of Spices. Both authors were influenced strongly by the Keswick movement, which in many ways was part of my "spiritual lineage", as well. However, these books also reinforced a mindset that tolerated abusive relationships. In the words of St. Theresa of Avila: "If this is the way you treat your friends, God, no wonder you have so few."

Or, as Mother Theresa wrote:
"Sorrow, suffering, is but a kiss of Jesus - a sign that you have come so close to Jesus that He can kiss you. I think this is the most beautiful definition of suffering. So let us be happy when Jesus stoops down to kiss us." 
"I love Him - not for what He gives - but for what He takes."
"I am ready to accept whatever He gives and to give whatever He takes with a big smile."
This was the submissive bride I aimed to be. Whenever I began to doubt that this God of mine was loving, I would return to Elliot, or Amy Carmichael, or Hind's Feet, and reaffirm my willingness to be "tied to the altar" and have my undying longing for love torn out of my heart by my perfect Priest. Before you have to ask, of course it was sexual--I was in my 20's and had never been kissed! I had felt my heart wrung out with suffering, though, and any attention showed that Someone was thinking about me, right?

Besides walking me through the late stages of puberty; guiding me through love, hope, disappointment; shaping my views of relationships and womanhood; infusing me with courage and determination: reassuring me that my ordinary life had meaning and teaching me to write, Elisabeth Elliot introduced me to J.B. Phillips New Testament paraphrase. The New Testament in Modern English remains my favorite English version. I remember an evangelist friend sneering at my "paraphrase" when I brought it to our IFB church, but to me it seemed more throbbingly alive than any other translation I'd found.


Years and years later, after I'd traversed the courtship swamp, left legalism in the dust, figured out birth control, and found everything about marriage to be entirely different than I was taught, I was shopping at a homeschool book fair. I was feeling confused and, oh, so out of my element: surrounded by IBLP followers, Quiver-full couples, and Christian fundamentalists of every stripe. Dressed for maximum confidence in belted jeans and a sweater, wearing a knobby necklace that had once hung round the neck of a missionary linguist named Hazel, I wandered past booths promoting courtship guidebooks, "melodious" music CDs, sanitized "science" books, character curricula, and midwives. I picked up a used Usborne "encyclopedia" for kids and found the pages about human reproduction had been pasted together. A t-shirt on display had an orange diamond: "Warning: Unsocialized Homeschooled Kid". Another had an illustration with little humans cooking on an oversize BBQ. I've forgotten the caption. Maybe God's hellfire grill is open all night?

This was "my tribe", the familiar culture I'd grown up in, but it didn't seem so comfortable now. In fact, it felt slightly sinister. I sought refuge in a corner cozy with towering bookshelves. The tightly-packed volumes smelled of must and ink, their jackets were torn and brittle, their spines worn and labeled with old library codes. I found titles and authors familiar from my childhood. They made me smile. Books were always my escape, my lifeline, "the key that opens an enchanted door to worlds you never knew before". Ah, J.B. Phillips, a comforting name. A name that brought back enthusiastic feelings of fresh life overwhelming death, light driving back darkness, hope overcoming doubt.
Happy are those who are hungry and thirsty for goodness, for they will be fully satisfied!
Happy are the merciful, for they will have mercy shown to them!
Happy are the utterly sincere, for they will see God!
Happy are those who make peace, for they will be sons of God!
Happy are those who have suffered persecution for the cause of goodness, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs!            (Matthew 5:6-10, Phillips)
The slim paperback was titled Your God Is Too Small. I paid for it, and went outside. Sitting in the sun beside my kids' education for the year, I pulled out Phillips' book and began reading while I waited for Chris to pick me up.  

Continued here...


  1. The way you write, it seems like you'll end up as a book author yourself one day. Very well written! (Just don't start writing your book too soon yet.)

    Had to laugh about the sticker and the pages glued together. :-D

    And yes I agree (as a Bible translator even), many of the English Bible versions in modern use hold Christians back to using archaic terms and language that you don't hear in everyday use. :-(

  2. Glad to have found your blog and looking forward to reading more. Your writing is amazing.