Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015)

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Early yesterday morning, Elisabeth Elliot slipped away from this earth into the fulness of the presence of her Savior, the One she loved so dearly and so well.  I didn’t find out until late last night and it greatly affected me.  Such a mix of emotions.  Somehow a world without her in it feels a little scarier–she was so passionate about holiness, about embracing the costly + sacrificial life Jesus calls us to, about obedience + mission, about giving up all else in eager pursuit of Him.  She wasn’t afraid to say what was unpopular in her day, often drawing criticism for being anti-feminist or anti-women.  She was committed to say and do whatever she found in Scripture, submitting entirely to God’s authority and upholding His Word, desiring more to obey and bring Him glory than to tickle the ears of her audience.

In her last days, the last ten years, she grew silent as her mind deteriorated under the shadow of dementia.  These past few weeks I’ve been reading “Keep a Quiet Heart” and often thinking of her, how revolutionary it must have been in her day to be a published female author, writing from the jungles of Ecuador.  How did she do it?  How did she juggle being a mother, a widowed mother, and find time to write?  How did she literally do it–by hand?  Shipping tattered pages likely blotted with sweat and the crumpled creases from a toddler’s hands across miles to an editor?  How did she go on to write 28 books over the course of 54 years?  I was going to write her a letter to ask her just such questions and found this recent article about her (then) current state.  I was profoundly affected by these words:

Elliot stopped giving speeches in 2004 as her health worsened. When she realized she was losing her memory, she put into practice what she had long preached: “From acceptance comes peace.” Her husband said she turned to the Bible for comfort, especially Isaiah 43:2: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

Gren says Elliot has handled dementia just as she did the deaths of her husbands. “She accepted those things, [knowing] they were no surprise to God,” Gren said. “It was something she would rather not have experienced, but she received it.”

Hearing these words, Elliot looked up and nodded, her eyes clear and strong. Then she spoke for the first time during the two-hour interview, nodding vigorously: “Yes.”

Having lost my own grandmother to the slow and dehumanizing effects of dementia/Alzheimers, I am familiar with what Elisabeth Elliot must have faced, and with what courage she faced it.  I mourned when I read those words, realizing she was, in essence, already gone, unreachable now.  All that I would have access to were her words.

And, oh, what a treasure trove of words.  I think of how In the Shadow of the Almighty convicted me in my college years, beckoning me to live a life of great purpose, devotion, ruthless trust in the face of suffering.  Passion and Purity helped, convicted, and shaped my dating years and in many ways kept me from much heartache and wasted time.  A Path through Suffering and Secure in the Everlasting Arms were two of the most prominent books that shaped me and comforted me in my early years of marriage; she introduced me to the Everlasting Arms that carried me when my dreams seemed shattered, my heart broken.  A number of weeks ago I began working slowly (and savoringly) through Keep a Quiet Heart, to which I turned because of how divided, fretful, distracted, busy, and overwhelmed my soul has felt lately in this season of mothering three little ones ages 4 and under.  In an age of internet, social media, constant connection, presence, and activity, I have felt the hushing whisper to keep a quiet heart.  Throughout some of my most difficult and formative seasons, her role has been that of a trusted and steady guide–much like the rudder on a boat tossed on the wild + stormy seas.  Quiet, unseen beneath the surface but firm, fixed, strong, steady, able to keep the weighty and unruly boat back onto its course.

It, for some reason, deeply spurs me on.  It reminds me–we only have so long here.  We have been given talents, gifts to be faithful with.  We have been given a certain allotment of time, a certain tenure on this earth in a particular generation.  As Ann Voskamp said recently, “A pail with a pinhole loses as much as the pail pushed right over.  A whole life can be lost in minutes wasted… in the small moments missed.”  What am I doing with my time here?  Am I numbering my days carefully, spending my life on what matters?  Whose kingdom am I building?  What/who determines my goals?

“It is better to go to the house of mourning
    than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
    and the living will lay it to heart.”
(Ecclesiastes 7:2)

It is good for us to reflect on Elliot’s life and death, to mark a life well-lived, to celebrate and observe it, to glean from it, to mourn it, to rejoice over her completion and restoration in the presence of God.  (“Her God,” I wanted to write, because how personally she loved and knew Him.)  I’ve been musing this week over the parable Jesus tells about the kingdom in Matthew 25, what we commonly refer to as “The Parable of the Talents.”  These verse struck a new chord with me this morning as my thoughts were fixed on Elliot:

“Take the thousand + give it to the one who risked the most.  And get rid of this ‘play-it-safe’ who won’t go out on a limb.  Throw him out into utter darkness.”  (Matt. 25:28-30 MSG)

She was one of those few that risked the most to invest the most.  She was a woman who suffered many things, so many losses, and yet she went forward bravely.  I read a comment written by a woman about her last night that has rolled over and over in my mind today:  “It was always comforting to know a person like Elisabeth Elliot existed among the moaning and groaning, unsatisfied women of our world.”  Yes, that was her.  Kind in her ways, but having no time for the whining and complaining of Christ-followers, fretting over their discomforts.  She struck me as having the salty preservative quality in her culture that Christians are called to have, being a voice and a presence that called straying, compromising feet back to the narrow path.  She makes me want to be a better writer, a better mother, a better lover of Jesus.  She makes me want to raise my daughters up to be like her: distinct, set-apart, meek yet strong, influential, uncompromising, loving much, loving widely, living obedient and pure lives.

This woman invested her life and time to pass on the wisdom she has gleaned in her journeying with Jesus and she did so masterfully in the form of the written word.  Truly, the family of Christ owes her a debt of gratitude, a debt of honor!  How wonderful it is to know she is satisfied and complete, made whole and perfected now in the presence of her Savior, although her presence here will be sorely missed!

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Here are some links to some other words about her:

Elisabeth Elliot by the Gospel Coalition

Alzheimer’s, the Brain + the Soul by Tony Reinke via Desiring God Ministries.

Words by Elliot’s husband, Lars Gren, on her website.

Peaches in Paradise by John Piper

4 thoughts on “Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015)

  1. Martha, I had the privilege of meeting her… Of hearing her speak in person. Very direct, to the point. She was speaking on being a keeper of the home and the only thing I remember her saying was, “do the next thing.” Don’t dwell on it, dawdle or think too much, just do whatever is next that God has placed in front of you! You have no idea how many times these words have sprung to mind as I’m cleaning a bathtub or other mundane job…
    I truly enjoyed all that you wrote!

    1. What a privilege to have met her in person! Yes, those words are so helpful. Somehow all of our activity, when done before God with a heart to serve Him in our serving others, is used by Him for His glory! I have this quote, pulled from her book “Keep a Quiet Heart” but written by Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott taped in my kitchen and have found it so true: “Great thoughts go best with common duties. Whatever therefore may be your office, regard it as a fragment in an immeasurable ministry of love.” Words written back in 1825 that are still true today! Thanks for reading, Robin!

  2. Martha, I too have been thinking on these things. You have put to paper so many of the thoughts that have been swirling in my head and stirring in my heart over the last couple of days. I’m so thankful for the written word and its ability to endure for us left behind those great great saints who go before. All Glory and Honor to Him!

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