Years ago, I needed to write a brief biography of Elisabeth Elliot as part of a larger project. I searched for book-length biographies that I could draw on for information about her life and came to the startling realization that, despite Elliot’s status as one of the most widely-known American Christians of the 20th century, there were none available. To complete my project, I had to turn to primary sources.
Elliot loved to read biographies, and she wrote three of them herself. She once said, “We read biographies to get out of ourselves and into another’s skin, to understand the convulsive drama that shapes, motivates, and issues from that other life.” I suspect this is also why we write biographies. I found that after the brief biographical sketch was written, I went on thinking about Elliot, pondering the things that had “shaped, motivated, and issued from” her life. Somewhere in the process of poring over bad photocopies of old magazine articles obtained through interlibrary loan, I had been hooked, captured by the process of trying “to understand … that other life.”
A Fuller Picture
It’s tricky to write about a life. No one has the complete picture—not even the person whose life it is. My parents, who have known me longer than I’ve known myself, see me in a way I never can. Only my siblings know what it was like to grow up with me. Each of my friends knows me a little differently, as I respond to their different personalities. By definition, only I can even hope to know the person I am when I’m alone. Each of these “selves” is a facet of the whole person.
One of the biographer’s tasks is to angle the stage lights, so to speak, so that they bring out as many facets of a life as possible. And every new spotlight lets us see a little more. So I’ve been looking forward to the publication of a new batch of Elliot’s writings, compiled by her daughter, Valerie Elliot Shepard, and released as Devotedly: The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot.
I was not disappointed. Shepard combines excerpts from her parents’ letters and journals, beautiful photographs, and her own memories and reflections to produce a delightful and thought-provoking book. By integrating portions from source materials unavailable for scholarship with her own responses to them as someone who knew Elliot long and well, she shines valuable light on each of her parents and on their relationship.
Much of the book’s basic outline will be familiar to readers of Elliot’s These Strange Ashes (1975), The Journals of Jim Elliot (1978), and Passion and Purity (1984). But Elliot’s writing tends toward the form of literary essay rather than straight narrative. Shepard fills in the gaps to give us a story.
Devotedly follows the young Betty Howard, as she was then, from college to a summer linguistics program and Bible school, and then through brief stints as a home missionary, speech teacher, tutor, department store clerk, camp counselor, and office assistant, before accompanying her to Ecuador and the beginning of her linguistic work there. Shepard places her mother’s life and relationship with Jim Elliot in historical context (imagine conducting an argument with your significant other by way of letters that take weeks to arrive!) and sets them against the very different backgrounds of the Howard and Elliot families.
We see an Elliot who is growing and becoming—a teenage girl, insecure about her looks and trying to hide her height with poor posture; a college student, scrupulously guarding her conscience and wrangling with her desire for romantic love; a young adult, developing her intellectual and theological underpinnings while rocking sunglasses and a good tan.
And we get a fuller view of the courtship memorialized in Passion and Purity—not, as in the book’s presentation, as a polished springboard for a series of meditations on romantic love for Christians but as a relationship unfolding tentatively and with missteps between two very human and very young people with very different personalities. This is helpful context for conversations around Elliot’s later writing on male-female relationships, particularly where it highlights ways in which her thinking on these lines was influenced by American culture more than New Testament teaching. A long letter on spiritual friendship, quoted extensively, is of interest in this regard, as are indicators of what Shepard calls “a storminess” in her parents’ pre-engagement relationship.
The ‘Terrible Truth’ of Suffering
Released alongside Devotedly is a companion volume of sorts, Suffering Is Never for Nothing. Originally written by Elisabeth Elliot as a series of six talks delivered at a 1989 Christian conference, this material has previously been accessible only in various audio or video versions. It’s now available as a book for those of us who like to underline, highlight, make notes in the margin, and generally chew over the written word. (For those who prefer, the talks are still available online as videos.) Avid readers of Elliot’s work will spot similarities to her 1990 book, A Path Through Suffering. Nevertheless, this new offering is a distinct book, worth reading even if you’ve read the other.
Both books cover the theme of suffering—but then, as Elliot’s friend Lesa Engelthaler has pointed out, in one way or another suffering is the theme of virtually everything Elliot ever wrote. Many of the thoughts of the 20-something woman in Devotedly appear in the writing of the 63-year-old who wrote Suffering Is Never for Nothing.
Because it was originally a spoken talk, Suffering Is Never for Nothing is more linear than A Path Through Suffering, a series of literary essays organized around Lilias Trotter’s meditations on nature. Editor Jennifer Lyell’s light touch has preserved Elliot’s spoken voice, with its dry, self-deprecating sense of humor and her great sense of comic timing, which comes through even when she is speaking on the subject of suffering.
As Shepard points out in Devotedly, Elliot had a lifelong tendency toward stoicism, and she could be hard on herself. “Too hard, perhaps,” her daughter says. Throughout her life, this sometimes resulted in Elliot coming across as too hard on other people as well. Traces of Elliot’s inclination toward stoicism do appear in this book. Sentences like “I look upon suffering as one of God’s ways of getting our attention” are ambiguous enough to give many readers pause, since they are open to the interpretation that God causes our pain so that we will listen better. The story of Job and his comforters should make us extraordinarily careful to avoid suggesting we know what God is doing and why things are happening. And Elliot’s enthusiasm for a young Fanny Crosby’s refusal to cry over hardship highlights what appears to have been a lifelong tendency to associate tears with weakness. It’s important to remember that stoicism is a pagan virtue, that God designed the human body with all the chemical reactions that create our emotional responses—and, in fact, that God is an emotional Being, and our emotions are one of the ways we are created in God’s image.
But in Suffering Is Never for Nothing, we find Elliot at her clearest. She repeatedly acknowledges and emphasizes the impossibility of explaining or solving the “tremendous mystery” of suffering:
God is my refuge. Was He Jim’s refuge? Was He his fortress? On the night before those five men who were killed by the Waorani went into the Waorani territory they sang, ‘We rest on [T]hee, our Shield and our Defender.’ What does your faith do with the irony of those words? There would be no intellectual satisfaction on this side of Heaven to that age-old question, why.
Instead, she offers a reminder of the character of God:
We stand up as a body in church—the church that I go to, for example—and we say a creed out loud together. We are not explaining anything. We are simply affirming. And that’s what Christianity is about. God is God. God is a three-personed God. He loves us. We are not adrift in chaos. To me that is the most fortifying, the most stabilizing, the most peace-giving thing that I know anything about in the universe. Every time things have seemingly fallen apart in my life, I have gone back to those things that do not change. Nothing in the universe can ever change those facts.
But knowing that there is more to reality than we can see does not make death or suffering okay. It offers a lens through which to view our lives, so that we can see what Elliot calls “two different levels on which things are to be understood. … [T]his visible world and an invisible kingdom on which the facts of this world are to be interpreted.”
This, she says, is the foundation of her comfort.
And I can’t answer your questions, or even my own, except in the words of Scripture. … And this is the part that brings me immeasurable comfort: The universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and enter upon the liberty and splendor of the children of God.
On this foundation, Elliot builds a list of suggestions for ways to approach our own suffering in chapters titled “Acceptance,” “Gratitude,” “Offering,” and “Transfiguration.”
One strength of the structure of this book in comparison to A Path Through Suffering is that the conversational tone gives Elliot more room to clarify her terms in helpful and important ways: “I want to try my best,” she writes, “to make very plain what I mean here when I say ‘accept.’ I’m not talking about things which can be changed and/or ought to be changed. … And there are things which must be changed, such as abuse.”
She also continues to emphasize that looking at life through the lens of the invisible kingdom does not in any sense negate or do away with what she calls “the terrible truth” of the visible world. These clarifications can be a helpful antidote to our cultural tendency to focus on pinnable one-sentence takeaways, which usually oversimplify complex topics.
The Visible and Invisible Worlds
Etienne Wenger, in his book Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, tells the story of two artisans shaping stones for the wall of a great cathedral. When a bystander asks what they are doing, one says, “I am cutting this stone in a perfectly square shape.” The other says, “I am building a cathedral.” Both answers are correct and meaningful, says Wenger, “but they reflect different relations to the world.”
The difference between these answers does not imply that one is a better stonecutter than the other, as far as holding the chisel is concerned. At the level of engagement, they may well be doing exactly the same thing. But it does suggest that their experiences of what they are doing and their sense of self in doing it are rather different. This difference is a function of imagination.
Elisabeth Elliot’s imagination was fired by glimpses of another dimension of reality beyond the one we can see. Devotedly and Suffering Is Never for Nothing show us a person who was as human as the rest of us—fumbling around in the dark of a broken world, just like we are; unavoidably shaped by her culture, just like we are; getting it wrong sometimes, just like we do—but whose whole life was shaped by her daily choice to see the visible world through the lens of the invisible, and who invited us to join her on the journey.
Lucy S. R. Austen is currently at work on a biography of Elisabeth Elliot, forthcoming from Crossway. She has worked as editor of Spring Hill Review, a journal of Northwest culture. You can connect with her on her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter @LucySRAusten.