Early this morning, Elisabeth Elliot came face to face with her heart’s truest love—Jesus Christ. On Earth, she married three times—her first two husbands preceded her in death – but from earliest childhood her deepest affections were for her Savior, and it was for Him that her soul yearned. June 15, 2015 is the day her lifelong passion, zeal, and rugged obedience see fulfillment in his presence. I am thrilled for her!
I, on the other hand, am sitting here with tears in my eyes, already missing one of my most sacred companions on the journey towards home. I know from the get-go that I will not be able to fully articulate her impact on me; words are going to fail me in my attempt to honor her, but I have to try.
As a college freshman in 1972, I got to be a part of history. My little (at the time) college—California Baptist—was no different than hundreds of other Christian colleges. We lived in the era of no dancing, drinking, smoking, girls couldn’t wear pants to class, “mixed bathing” was frowned upon, drums and guitar in worship were radical ideas, and boys with long hair were instantly pegged as hippies (which was definitely not a good thing). Our faith was buttoned up, quiet, respectful, filled with rules and regulations, and not very exciting or challenging.
But then the Jesus Movement began to explode across the nation, captivating young adults with the message that God was cool and that to be a Jesus Freak was even cooler. Our campus jumped in as well and long hair, granny dresses, guitars, drums, psychedelic posters and phrases like “Sell out to Jesus!” and “I’d rather burn out than rust out!” infiltrated our conversations—and we began to burn with a fire for our spiritually confused and lost world.
I stayed up late reading about Christians from generations past, biographies of men and women who lived full-bore for Christ. When I should have been studying English Lit and the History of Civilization, I was enraptured by the likes of C.T. Studd, Leonard Ravenhill, Andrew Murray, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, William Carey, David Brainerd, Evangeline Booth, and Duncan Campbell and Amy Carmichael.
And then I read The Shadow of the Almighty and Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliott, and my life was never the same. She wrote first of her husband, Jim, and four other passionate, dedicated young men who were martyred in the Amazon jungle by the Indians they were trying to reach for Christ. I was transfixed by the story of these five couples (and children) that let go of earthly ties to tell the good news to some who might never otherwise hear of God’s love.
Their sacrifices, commitment, radical obedience, and willingness to risk death if necessary struck a chord in my 19-year-old soul. I finished Through Gates of Splendor and saved up enough money to buy The Shadow of the Almighty next – the chronicle of Jim Elliot’s life and journals. I read, constantly wiping the tears from my eyes so I could read the next sentence, and then cried even harder—and more than 40 years later those two books elicit the same response from me as they did sitting in my simple dorm room. Why? Because Elisabeth and Jim Elliott gave me a flesh-and-blood example of people in my generation who were willing to give their all to Jesus.
I love the Apostle Paul and other biblical characters – but to be honest, sometimes that’s all they are to me – characters in a story. But Elisabeth and Jim were people I could see photos of – their story happened in the years that corresponded with mine – I could even hope to meet Elisabeth (and did, once – she was very shy) in person and give her a hug. I could identify with them as real people.
And it wasn’t just their stories that impacted me; it was their breathtaking way with words. Both Jim and Elisabeth could turn a phrase or condense a theology course into a sentence and feed my starving soul for days…or years….or decades.
Jim’s words, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep for that which he cannot lose” echo deep inside of me and have been a constant reminder of what to hold onto in life. “Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” Those words revolutionized my approach to living – as a person prone to anxiety, his reminder to be fully present in the now keeps me steady. And “I seek not a long life, but a full one, like you Lord Jesus” expressed completely my heart’s cry to give all that I am to Jesus.
Elisabeth became a sacred companion through the years. She mentored me from afar without ever knowing me. I voraciously gobbled up anything and everything she ever wrote. Her book in the mid-‘70s Let Me Be a Woman—written to her only daughter, Val, as she got married, is absolute poetry. Her words about the male/female relationship being a dance still thrill my soul when I read them. And her words on the staggering importance of wedding vows have shaped my commitment to hang in there many times when Rick and I felt we couldn’t start over one more time:
Your provider may someday lose his job. Your strength may show unexpected weakness. Your knight in armor may experience a public defeat. Your teacher may make a serious mistake that you tried to warn him about. Your lover may become a helpless patient, sick, sore and sad, needing your presence and care every minute of the day and night. “This isn’t the man I married,” you will say, and it will be true.
But you married him for better or worse, in sickness and in health, and those tremendous promises took into account the possibility of radical change. That was why promises were necessary. There are things in life which can make what seems to be a mockery out of the solemn promises. “To love, honor and obey” your husband can seem the last ironies in the face of the unspeakable humiliations and indignities of illness.
Love, honor, and obey this beaten, anguished, angry man who will not take his pill? The vows are serious. Staggeringly serious. But you did not take them trusting in your own strength to perform. The grace that enabled you to take those vows will be there to draw on when the performance of them seems impossible.
More than anything else, it was Elisabeth’s settled assurance that God was in control of the circumstances of her life that made her a woman I would like to emulate. She knew extreme sorrow and loss—the martyrdom of her first husband in the wilds of the Amazon; the slow, agonizing death from cancer of her second husband Addison Leach, her own diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in 2004 and a thousand other daily losses all threatened to topple her little boat.
But she never wavered. Not in her belief that we are never at the mercy of chance, that our identify is found in whom we belong to, and that with God, nothing is fully lost, and that God’s story never ends with “ashes.” She never wavered in her submission to this God to whom she owed her soul’s very existence, and she never wavered in her steadfast conviction that the Christian’s sole response to God is always trust and obey.
Elisabeth, thank you for shaping me into the woman I am, for modeling for me what it looks like to follow hard after Jesus, for never walking away from God in your darkest days and for holding true to your faith to the end. Thank you on behalf of millions of other women – young and old—who found in you a woman worthy to emulate. Your humble sense of self would instantly push this praise aside, but please know we only follow in your footsteps because you follow our Master.
And so, dear sacred companion of my soul, go with God. The unfulfilled longings of your soul are finally and fully realized and no “ashes” remain. Heaven’s glories are yours now and forever more. Well done, my Sister.
Kay Warren, wife of Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, is an author, speaker, and advocate for causes including HIV, orphans, and mental health. She originally posted this tribute on her Facebook page.
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