I hadn’t seen any new material from my heroine Elisabeth Elliot in quite a few years. She, the prolific author and speaker and saint. She who might be considered an anachronism by some modern Christian women.
And then I read the recent WORLD Magazine article by Tiffany Owens. Elisabeth has been battling dementia for the last ten years.
I was anxious to read the article to find out how a woman known for bringing gracious clarity to difficult issues of faith would handle this last and maybe most difficult of assignments. The answer was what I might have guessed: with grace and dignity.
You see, when a person lives their life in total surrender to the One who holds all things in His hands, there is nothing that will come that will cause bitterness and defeat. After a life lived as a long obedience in the same direction (as Pastor Eugene Peterson says) trouble is the next step toward the ultimate Prize.
And there have been many of those steps in Elisabeth Elliot’s life. She became well known after her missionary husband, Jim Elliot, was speared to death by the very people he was trying to help, the Auca Indians of Ecuador.
After that tragedy, she displayed a holy resolve best summed up by the now-famous quote from her husband Jim’s journal, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Instead of packing her bags and young children and returning to the safety of the States, she remained in Ecuador for seven more years, loving the Auca Indians, being a model of mercy and grace that pointed them to the ultimate Source of those things. Because of her surrender to her God, a large percentage of that tribe now know Him and will live in never-ending joy with Jim and Elisabeth in eternity.
She went on to pen 28 books, many of them modern-day classics. One must-read is her account of the events in Ecuador, “Through Gates of Splendor.” Her “Passion and Purity” has taught women how to find their lives not in striving for more, but in selfless surrender.
She says in that book, “I realized that the deepest spiritual lessons are not learned by His letting us have our way in the end, but by His making us wait, bearing with us in love and patience until we are able to honestly to pray what He taught His disciples to pray: Thy will be done.”
Her life is an example of Jesus’ words that those who try to find their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for HIm, will find them. Even the title of her biography of 19th century missionary to India, Amy Carmichael is telling: “A CHANCE to Die.”
That kind of intensity might have been overbearing and exasperating if not for her humility and self-depracating sense of humor. When a rabid fan once asked her, “Who is the real Elisabeth Elliot?” her response was, “I don’t know and may God keep me from ever finding out.”
Her third husband, Lars Gren, (she lost her 2nd husband to cancer shortly after they were married), said that she has turned to the words of Isaiah 43:2 for comfort as the dementia has worsened,
“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.”
According to the WORLD reporter, Elisabeth had sat silently throughout the entire two-hour interview with her and her husband. Gone is the gift of clear articulation for which she is known. Yet true character shines through even in the absence of the finer gifts.
Gren explained to the reporter that Elisabeth has handled her dementia just as she did the other challenges in her life, by accepting it, and knowing that it is no surprise to God. Upon hearing this, Elisabeth looked up, nodded vigorously and spoke for the first time with an emphatic, “yes.”
Because she knows that she is in the hands of a good and faithful God who will soon welcome her home with the commendation , “well done, good and faithful servant.”