3 Counter-Cultural Lessons from Elisabeth Elliot

Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature, and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. So far in our series:

I remember embarking on my first attempt to read a book written by Elisabeth Elliot. I figured the best place to start would be her first Through The Gates of Splendor. I sat comfortably on a lawn chair by the pool and a bubbly girl came to sit beside me. I could see her eyeing my book, so I turned towards her with a smile and asked if she’d read it before. To which her smile contorted and she said, “Her husband had a cool story, but it’s just too sad. Their lives were all about being missionaries. After reading some of her book I stopped because I didn’t like the lack of love they shared. Their marriage wasn’t about love, it was all about mission.” I was taken back by the abrasive truth she presented me and spent the next hour reconsidering my interest in her book. If marriage isn’t about love, then why be married?

I came across Elisabeth Elliot’s works several times through the years and passed by them with caution. Even if they were profound, I consistently had the mindset that she lacked the kind of passion I desired for my future marriage. I couldn’t embrace her wisdom because her will was too strong for my liking.

“Sometimes it is absolutely necessary for God to yank out of sight whatever we most prize, to drag us into spiritual traumas of the severest sort, to strip us naked in the winds of His purifying Spirit in order that we should learn to trust.” –Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity

I have three constant mentors that I turn to for advice, wisdom, and exhortation. One of which I do life with, one of which knows me deeper than anyone else, and the last knew me at my lowest. In the past four years, each of these highly admired women has quoted Elisabeth Elliot to me in times of need. Ironically, I started noticing something about this strong willed woman. Her words prodded at my spirit in a way that stuck. Her objective devotion to the Lord made me uncomfortable, and though I didn’t like it, it frustrated me in a convicting way.

1. Uniting Marriage and Mission

“From a respectful distance, with no knowledge on his part, I had the opportunity to observe the character of Jim Elliot. He was a man careful with his time. Friendly, and enthusiastic. I knew what kind of student he was. I watched him wrestle. I heard him pray and watched him lead. There was nothing pompous or stuffy about him. Long before I had any reason to think he might be interested in me, I had put him down as the sort of man I hoped to marry.” –Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity

“In regards to dating, many times the best thing to do is pray steadily and wait patiently till God makes the way plain.” –Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity

I was discontented when I was told to sit, wait, and pray. I am not a girl content with uncertainty. I covet understanding, value clarity, and seek insight. I cling to the truth in 1 Cor. 14:33 that declares confusion is not of God. In the past, I chose to ignore the patience required to labor in prayer. God has used countless trying relationships to refine me, but deeper than that, he has used those times to speak identity to me. The waiting, the watching, and the praying have been more sanctifying than the actual person and relationship. That is certainly because it’s in those times that God has been the center. God uses his people to sanctify his people, and that happens (most often) when the Church is on mission.

Elisabeth and Jim were not seekers of self but of God’s Great Commission. Their top priority was not to have a pleasing marriage by the world’s standards, but to glorify God through a sacrificial love in marriage. They met in college, then left for Ecuador both following God’s individual plan for their lives, then later got married in the mission field. When the two were not in physical company, they pursued the relationship as one with God’s mission. It was not separate from their call to share God’s gift of life, but a tool to use in the pursuit of his mission. Even afterwards, when Jim was killed and Elisabeth lived alone, she shared God’s glorious story and how her husband served to fulfill it with his life. The mission was never driven by their marriage, but the mission always drove their marriage.

How can we ever expect to go seek a relationship then find God’s will after we find the person? I don’t believe that was God’s initial intent for covenant marriage. The pastor of the church I attend often says, when speaking to singles, “Know who God has called you to be, pursue what he has called you to do, then watch for someone doing the same. Who can you imagine being on mission with you? They will, most likely, be God’s holy match.” Praise God for their example of pure, unbridled affection for the Kingdom of Heaven.

2. Loving Unto Death

In Let Me Be a Woman, one of her most popular books, Elliot paraphrases the biblical design of steadfast love.

This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience - it looks for a way of being constructive. Love is not possessive. Love is not anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own ideas. Love has good manners and does not pursue selfish advantage. Love is not touchy. Love does not keep account of evil or gloat over the wickedness of other people. On the contrary, it is glad with all good men when truth prevails. Love knows no limits to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is, in fact, the one thing that stands when all else has fallen. –Elisabeth Elliot, Let Me Be A Woman

If this is the biblical design for steadfast love, then we can examine it in light of God’s love and the love shared in marriage. I can return to my initial question with a revised question. Can you truly love a person and not be on mission with them? I’m not sure if it’s even possible to devote one’s life to God and neglect a shared mission with a spouse. Consider the depth of love Elisabeth Elliot had when she returned to serve the same tribe that killed her husband. Her love did not lack passion, but had unconditional passion and compassion—because her love for God was ultimate.

This love carries the story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. These two lived to tell God’s story and their story challenges because of the drastic measures they took to love the world. They lived counter-cultural lives. The world sees the loss of life and tragedy, whereas Elisabeth and Jim saw gain for the kingdom.

3. Counter-Cultural Manhood and Womanhood

Our culture shouts out their corrupted view of marriage. I contend that because our understanding of womanhood and manhood is fractured the culture has made headway with their own vision for each. I found that my own assumption was similar to that of Betty Elliot’s:

“In a civilization where, in order to be sure of manhood (or, alas even “personhood”), men must box, life weights, play football, jog, rappel or hang-glide, it was startling to realize that there was such a thing as spiritual commitment as robust, as total, and perhaps more demanding than the most fanatical commitment to physical fitness. It was a shock to learn that anybody cared that much about anything, especially if it was invisible.” –Elisabeth Elliot, Through The Gates of Splendor

The power of her words expose the culturally-twisted understanding of manhood/ womanhood. The standards of the world lack commitment, growth, and deep affection. Often, it seems like men do not care to persist or endure with something they can’t see. Yet, Elisabeth watched her husband and his team faithfully and fearlessly seek God’s will. She also risked her life in hopes of bringing life to this same violent tribe. She breaks free of the caricature of the passive, beaten down Christian woman and the aggressive, independent woman of our postmodern culture. She modeled biblical strength, dignity, submission, grace, and love.

Upon first hearing of Betty’s strong willed character, I was rattled and frustrated by her. I couldn’t support the seeming lack of passion found in her mission-fueled marriage. However, the past four years have led me to the truth of God’s intention for covenant marriages, and thus, deconstructed my rose-colored cultural expectation. This woman unknowingly discipled me by her deep devotion to the steadfast pursuit of God’s affectionate call. Her wisdom, life story, and fervent words have refined me to be a better woman, servant, and future wife. Sometimes the things that frustrate you the most, are the very things that your spirit needs to embrace.

Chelsea Vaughn has served a ministry she helped start in the DFW Metroplex since she graduated from college. She received her undergraduate degree at Dallas Baptist University in Communication Theory. She does freelance writing, editing, and speaking for various organizations and non-profits. She hopes to spend her life using her gift for communication to reach culture and communities with the love of Jesus.