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Review: Becoming Elisabeth Elliot

The book that changed my mind about “Betty”
By Sherry Fiscella

You know that classic conversation starter, “Who would you most like to have dinner with, living or dead?” I never know who to choose. I can tell you who I wouldn’t. Elisabeth Elliot. She’s someone I’ve tried to avoid. Super mature and charitable of me, I know.

The brutal spearing of her missionary husband, Jim, by the Ecuadorian Waodani tribe in 1956, was more violent than I could bear to know, even from a distance of years and miles. I need Kleenex for Hallmark movies and Folgers coffee commercials; her real-life suffering was more than I wanted to process.

And sometimes, Elliot’s wisdom reduced to snippets on Facebook felt cold to me in the reflection of her own losses, or she didn’t seem to sympathize with those she was trying to advise. Her understanding of God appeared to be on a spiritual plane that I couldn’t relate to. She said things like, “The secret is Christ in me, not me in different circumstances,” and “I am not a theologian or a scholar, but I am very aware of the fact that pain is necessary to all of us.” At a deep level, I just didn’t want to fully assent to that. Wouldn’t a God who loves us change our circumstances and spare us from pain and suffering, at least a little? Is pain necessarily necessary?

I guess I kind of made up my mind I didn’t much like her.

After reading Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by New York Times best-selling biographer Ellen Vaughn, I changed my mind.

Vaughn reveals a more tender-hearted Elisabeth, or “Betty” as she was known to friends, who provides “in an age of antiheroes… an authentic witness” (p. xiv). While it’s true that Elliot was at times accused by her contemporaries of being aloof or unemotional much in the way I had imagined her, excerpts from Elliot’s private journals included in the book detail her wrestling with God over jungle mosquitoes, missionary disappointments, and a widow’s grief. She once described herself as a “slow learner.” Her eventual arrival at the profound spiritual insights for which she’s best known were the result of steadfast consistency in studying scripture and daily choosing hard obedience. Processing her doubts on paper and in prayer was a spiritual discipline that allowed her to live by bold faith in public. Her words were not the detached, pharisaical platitudes I once assumed them to be.

About a year after Elliot’s husband, Jim, and his missionary colleagues were murdered, she took courage and her 3-year-old daughter, Valerie, to re-establish connection and live for three years with the notorious Waodani tribe. Elliot’s anguished conflict with her new missionary partner, however, led to frustration and lament over results that did not materialize in the way she’d hoped. Not only did Elliot struggle over the loss of her husband, but also over the loss of her perceived purpose and identity as a missionary.

Relinquishing her work as a translator and returning to the United States, Elliot responded with obedience to the new direction God had for her. She penned over 20 books and contributed to the New International Version of the Bible. Elliot developed a loyal following as a gifted public speaker and radio show host at a time when there were few women’s voices in the conservative, evangelical world. Her primary message was simple, and softer than I realized. She opened her radio show for 13 years with words of friendship and gospel comfort:

“You are loved with an everlasting love, that’s what the Bible says, and underneath are the everlasting arms. This is your friend, Elisabeth Elliot.”

Three years ago, my husband suffered a massive heart attack leading to several additional traumas including brain injury from a stroke. His health crises, and resulting changes to the plans I thought I had, have probably helped me better appreciate Elliot’s candor. Perhaps she cut to the chase because she learned that there’s spiritual efficiency in getting straight to the truth—straight to Jesus.

Elliot explained,

“The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things I know about God.”

Deep waters and hot fires aren’t exactly my favorite things, but I do desire to go deeper with my Savior. I’m thankful for a godly woman like Elisabeth Elliot who bravely modeled in modern times how to faithfully follow the (sometimes painful) re-directing of a sovereign God. I pray for maturing courage to offer the grace of comfort to others as it has been offered so generously to me in Christ Jesus. To be willing to “sit down to dinner,” and if needed, to sit with suffering.

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