Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Dannah Gresh: Ellen Vaughn says, anytime we want the Christian life to look a certain idealized way, we need to be careful.

Ellen Vaughn: A results-oriented faith is one that is not faith at all, because essentially, we’re walking by sight. If I can see the results, my “faith” is robust.

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, co-author of You Can Trust God to Write Your Story, for September 16, 2020. I’m Dannah Gresh. 

Do you love Jesus, but find your own performance-based thinking gets in the way? How do you respond when you’ve done everything right, but things just don’t go according to your plan? That’s something Elisabeth Elliot had to grapple with early in her adult life. 

This week on Revive Our Hearts, Nancy’s in conversation with Ellen Vaughn. Ellen wrote the authorized biography Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. Some of what Nancy and Ellen are going to discuss on today’s program might be a little too violent for young children, so you might want to busy them elsewhere.

Remember, you can always listen later through the Revive Our Hearts app or at ReviveOurHearts.com. Here’s Nancy.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Ellen, one of my favorite Elisabeth Elliot books actually records events that took place before she was Elisabeth Elliot, when she was still Betty Howard. It’s the book called These Strange Ashes. I know you’ve read it; you’re familiar with it. 

That book has so impacted my life, as we see some of what Elisabeth had dreamed of, had thought she was going to do as she was serving the Lord . . . and how at a period of time it seemed like it all amounted to nothing. We’re going to talk about that season of her life today.

First, thank you for joining us here on Revive Our Hearts again. I’m loving hearing you tell these stories about the early years of Elisabeth Elliot. Thanks for being with us here again.

Ellen: Thank you, Nancy. It’s fun to be with you.

Nancy: And thank you for writing this book! You’ve poured so much of your life over the last couple of years into the research, reading the journals, interviewing people who knew Elisabeth and even yourself going to the jungle of Ecuador to be in some of the places where Elisabeth lived and served.

The product of all of that labor is now off the press: Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. Congratulations for finishing this work and doing such a great job on it!

Ellen: Thank you. It’s by God’s grace this book is even done, so I’m glad to see it!

Nancy: My husband and I have cheered for you and have so loved seeing the process of this book being written. There have been some hard places in that journey for you, but it’s made it an even better book. And we’re making it available to our listeners this week.

I hope that every one of our listeners is going to have a copy of this book in your home, and not just in your home but in your heart, as the takeaway lessons from the early years of Elisabeth Elliot are so powerful, so profound, so rich. We’re making this book available to you today when you make a donation of thirty dollars or more to support the work of Revive Our Hearts.

This is our way of saying “thank you” for partnering with us in this ministry. We have the same heart that Elisabeth did, and we actually inherited the baton that became Revive Our Hearts as Gateway To Joy went off the air on a Friday at the end of August in 2001, and then the next Monday—Labor Day—Revive Our Hearts came on the air.

I was so mindful of the fact that all of you Elisabeth Elliot listeners were wondering where she had gone and what had happened, but thank you for sticking with this ministry, because the Word that she loved, the Christ that she served, are the same Word and the same Christ that we love here at Revive Our Hearts.

I feel like we’ve grown up together as Elisabeth Elliot listeners! The Lord has done sweet things in our lives in these last nearly twenty years. I’m so thankful, as we have inherited a part of that mission in the life of Elisabeth, as we’ve been so influenced by it, that we now have this wonderful authorized biography available. 

You may think you know a lot about Elisabeth Elliot, but you’re going to find things in this book that you didn’t know, focusing on the early years.

So, Ellen, when we left off yesterday, Elisabeth and Jim were in this relationship that was on-again and off-again, kind of. They loved each other deeply, but they loved Christ and they wanted to serve Him. They both end up on the mission field but at two different mission stations.

Elisabeth walks through a period of her life serving as a single missionary, where there’s no glamour, and where everything she thought she was going to accomplish for Christ seems to have come to naught.

Elisabeth Elliot from a past recording: Picture a small clearing in the Amazon jungle. There are six or eight little thatched houses, none with walls. Only two people are awake: Mincaye, who is singing [she sings a droning, nasal tune in another language] And I did count seventy repetitions! (laughter) And the only other person is wearing clothes!

She sits in her hammock by the fire, pondering the mysteries of the ways of God as she thinks of one Scripture passage, loaded now with meaning:

We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body (1 Cor. 4:7–10 NIV84).

Yes, I thought, I’m a clay pot, like the pots these Auca women make! Nobody’s interested in the pot. They’re all alike, all made from the same clay. What interested them was the contents. I’m here to be a vessel, to share somehow this priceless treasure—the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Nancy: This is a huge part of the underpinnings of the woman who ministered to us so publicly and effectively in later years. Kind of unpack for us how that journey began and some of the disappointments that she experienced.

Ellen: Yes, it was a period of her life I wasn’t as familiar with, because we all think of Elisabeth Elliot as married to Jim and ministering to the Waodani. This was a period when this idealistic, young, single missionary, Betty Howard at the time, was sold out to Jesus and arrives in Ecuador and settles in Quito. Then, oh my goodness, what happens!

Jim Elliot is also settled in Quito with his buddy, Pete Fleming, with whom he would later die. All of them are studying Spanish and getting ready to minister in the Amazonian jungle, although in different places. If her life was a movie, this would be sort of the idyllic period where the theme music is playing, and they were in love in Quito, and they go to bullfights, and they climb mountains, and they have time together of really loving each other and being together.

So that’s a sweet period, but it ends with Jim is still not ready to go ahead and propose to Betty. She feels like, well, if he is not ready yet, does not yet feel led by God in that commitment, then she was going to the western jungle in Ecuador to work among an indigenous people group, the Colorados, a tribal group there. And Jim, meanwhile, is going to the eastern jungle to work with the Quichuas.

So they’re on two separate assignments, if you will. It was during this period that Elisabeth Elliot-to-be (Betty Howard at the time) really experienced, I think, one of the most devastating losses of her life.

She had been trained as a linguist, and her opportunity among the Coloradoswas to learn their impossibly difficult language and to translate the New Testament into that language, to make it available to them. So to do that, she settles into a little clearing, a little hamlet in the jungle, and as only Elisabeth Elliot can describe it, it’s almost a comically bizarre set-up!

Elisabeth from a past recording: It was amazing to me how these Indians had taken to mechanical things without any difficulty at all. They enjoyed very much talking into the microphone of this tape recorder. The sort of things that Gikita was saying into that microphone were, [Elisabeth pronounces a variety of tonal sounds, vocal noises, and growls].

Now, can you imagine writing that down!? This was a language which had never been written down in any form. Part of my objective in becoming a missionary was to go to tribes which had unwritten languages with a view, ultimately, of reducing those languages to writing, in order that I might translate the Bible into those languages.

Ellen: She’s living with several British missionaries, and the Colorados are polite to the white women, but they really have no interest in the gospel or in anything else. And Elisabeth prays earnestly, “Oh, Lord, please give me someone who can serve as an informant!” An informant is someone who speaks the native language and also the language that the translator speaks to make it possible for the translator to make it possible for the translator to get the unspoken language into writing. 

Nancy: Yes, a really important role!

Ellen: It was an important role, and she could find no one who spoke the Colorado language as well as Spanish. And then, against all odds, God answers her prayer and a man named Don Macario appears on the scene. He had grown up speaking Colorado and Spanish! And so they work together, and he is a linguist’s dream!

He is patient with her, he’s working for what she can afford to pay, she’s making great progress: all of her notecards are neatly listed, she’s going to conquer this Colorado language. In her journal at the time you see this exultant tone of a young, idealistic missionary, thinking, Ah, yes! We are doing great things for the Kingdom of God, and God is with us! 

And certainly, of course, He was and He is. As they continue and they’re getting closer to finishing up the language, early one morning the young, idealistic missionary—Elisabeth Howard at the time—has just had her quiet time. She hears the sound of hoofbeats, of horses galloping in the clearing in the jungle.

And she hears people shouting, “Murdered! Don Macario has been murdered!” She had heard gunshots, but didn’t think it anything unusual; there was often hunting in the area. But now people are running in. They’re saying that, “Don Macario has been killed!” There was a dispute between him and another man, who whipped out a gun and shot him point-blank in the forehead.

Elisabeth is absolutely shocked, crestfallen: “What is going on!?” There is silence in the clearing; the missionaries are waiting, don’t know what to do. Then some of the brothers in the Christian community bring back the body of Macario. Betty is just looking at his face and his shattered head, and there is a long, grizzly description (which I will spare your listeners right now) about an improvised autopsy in which they have to recover the bullets.

But as Betty is looking at the shattered brains, actually, of this man who had been appointed by God to help her decipher this difficult, difficult language, she feels the complete end of her mission that God had given her as she had understood it. and a feeling of complete futility! What was God up to? Why would He allow this?!

It’s an interesting point in her journey, because she had been assuming—like many of us do—that because she was about the work of the Kingdom, God would supply everything she needed to have great success!

Nancy: That it would work! That she would have a finished accomplishment and be able to move on to the next thing, and yet here is the death of this vision. And really, it was for Elisabeth—as I’ve heard you tell it—maybe the first major death; not just a literal, physical death, but the death of something precious to her, important to her, and she felt important to the Lord!

Ellen: Yes. It was an experience in futility, and she didn’t know what to do with it. It was really a season of just prostrating herself, basically, before God and saying, “Lord, what would You have me do?” And really understanding that an intimacy with Christ is not based on working hand-in-hand with God to accomplish great things for the Kingdom but on a clinging to who God is, no matter what!

And I think—and it’s borne out in her writings over the long years of the rest of her life—it was one of the most painful losses of her life.

So, what happened then? Well, being Elisabeth Elliot, she kind of gathers herself together and begins to look for another person with whom she can work to decipher this difficult language. There’s no one! No one!

But then, by God’s Providence, the brother of the chief of the Colorados agrees to stay sober on Saturdays just long enough to work with Elisabeth as an informant, in terms of deciphering the language. His name is Samuel; she works with Samuel. And bit by bit just through working, working, working, she reconstructs and finishes out, almost, her work on the Colorado language. 

And so, in an incredible moment she feels like, “My goodness, I was able to finish this. God is good!”

Nancy: It felt like the situation had been redeemed.

Ellen: Somehow. So, let’s leave it there for a minute.

Then the next thing that happens is Jim Elliot, meanwhile, is working in a Quichua settlement known as Shandia. He has carefully built the buildings, hand-planed all the boards, and made buildings for the settlement there, to be used to the glory of God. Then an enormous flood comes and wipes out the whole settlement!

All of the buildings he has so painstakingly built to the glory of God and for His service are washed into the river. Jim, himself, is nearly catapulted into the river and nearly loses his life. So here we have these two people sold out to do the work of God for the glory of God, both confronting great loss!

Nancy: The script doesn't seem to be unfolding the way it should.

Ellen: Right! Where’s the neat story and all of the great victories in the midst of it?

Nancy: Yes, right . . . you serve the Lord, and it all comes into this great ministry . . .

Ellen: Exactly! And so, then we have, Elisabeth is sitting at her desk late at night, and she hears the sound of hoofbeats. What is it now? It is someone running a message that has come to the nearby town, and he’s brought it by horseback to Elisabeth; it’s a telegram! She rips it open. It is from Ed McCully, Jim’s closest friend.

It says, “Jim will be in Quito. Come.” She knows it can only mean one thing: could it be? It is the engagement for which she has been waiting, waiting, waiting anxiously for five long years! She rushes around, she pulls things together, she takes a twelve-hour trip on the back of a pickup truck and makes her way to Quito.

And there the long-awaited moment occurs! Jim Elliot kneels before a fire with a ring in his hand and asks for her hand in marriage. And this culmination of many years of longing and desiring is realized in that moment, right at the same time that they both are at a time of great loss in the midst of ministry.

Nancy: And, of course, not realizing in that beautiful moment that what she’s receiving in Jim, she’s also going to have to give up, in God’s Providence, much sooner than anyone would have imagined!

Ellen: Exactly! And right around the same time period . . . I tell it in the book in a way that is more easy to follow perhaps. She gets a letter from one of her fellow missionaries back among the Colorados. When she had left there to come to Quito for the joyous engagement, she had packed up all of her language notes and everything into a suitcase, very carefully so it would be available for the other missionaries to use toward the end that the New Testament could be translated into the Colorado language. 

Nancy: So this is all the fruit of her work, hard-fought-for, hard-won.

Ellen: Yes! It was pulled out of the fire, after Macario’s death, and in Quito, then, she gets a letter from one of her fellow missionaries saying that that suitcase has been stolen off the back of a pickup truck, and all of that work is completely lost!

Nancy: Okay, I remember the first time I read that story years ago. It’s told in Elisabeth’s book These Strange Ashes. It’s also told beautifully in your book Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. My heart just sank! I think especially as a writer . . .

Ellen: Oh, my goodness!

Nancy: You know on computers what it is . . . This happened to my sweet husband just recently where some weeks of work were lost, never to be recovered. But to have all you’ve poured your heart into, in the midst trial and tribulation, and it’s gone! I could not fathom what she must have felt, and the huge loss this must have been. Because you’ve poured your life into this, and psssht! It’s gone!

Ellen: All gone! And there’s no tidy explanation of why. 

Nancy: Yes, right. This is so . . . There’s no, “Here’s the reason God did this, and now we can see He was intending to do.” It doesn’t tie up that neatly. 

Ellen: No, never. This period in her life is interesting to me, because many of us have focused, understandably, on what was to follow, as you mentioned—the loss of Jim and his colleagues.

Nancy: This all preceded that.

Ellen: Yes, but it was a season of great loss, and it was a season where I think the assumptions that Elisabeth had made about, “If I am faithful and I do the next right thing according to what God would have me do, then He will do “x” and then “y” will happen, and the result will be great things for the Kingdom of God! Her motivations were always about, “What will build up the Kingdom?”

Nancy: And isn’t that the way we so often think? “If I do this and this and have my devotions; I work hard at this; I serve the Lord; I say, ‘Yes, Lord!’ I love my husband; I love my kids; I serve the Lord faithfully as a single woman and I stay morally pure, then the outcome is going to be beautiful!”

Ellen: Right.

Nancy: In the near term, this side of eternity, sometimes it is not beautiful. It’s messy. It’s painful, and there are no explanations that we can see.

Ellen: Right, and so as I say in the book, for Elisabeth to confront that head-on, it was for the first time for her coming up against that which is unexplainable through some tidy Christian formula. She had a sense again of almost taking off her shoes; she stands on holy ground.

She said, “Oh, God! You are up to far more than I can understand! And at this point I either turn away or I embrace You, who are unknowable.” 

Nancy: And you make that sound like that was not too hard a process, but was it gut-wrenching for her? 

Ellen: I think so, and I think she mourned these types of losses that appeared as futility, in some ways for the rest of her life. There are other times, as we’ll get to in a later program, where she experienced the same thing yet again, after Jim’s death. 

And so for me, as her biographer, watching these stories unfold in the pages of her journals and reading her letters, I mourn! You get involved. You think, “Oh, how can I help?!” At any rate, you mourn these losses, and yet you see, is it not the same in our own lives? 

During the period of writing this book, I was going through very difficult times. And one of the great benefits for me of being immersed in Elisabeth’s life—even as my own life was pretty heavy—was that sense of, “None of us is alone.”

Even in times of quarantine, even in times of isolation, we are not alone. That’s where I think and where I would hope that this book could be used to encourage people. Books are a reminder that we’re all on this journey together. God is good even when we can’t figure out what’s going on, and we are not the first people to run into inexplicable challenges.

Nancy: I think about how much of Elisabeth’s later life and ministry, her books that have blessed untold numbers of people, ourselves included, her public speaking ministry, her Gateway To Joy ministry . . . I mean, this was such a rich fountain of grace and truth we received from this woman. You look at that and you think, Wow! Isn’t that beautiful?

It impacted our lives, the truth, the grace that she received, and the things she taught us. But I think we forget, sometimes, the price she paid for that message, that pure sweet ministry of the Word to be part of who she was.

You look at Joni Eareckson Tada. You get around her and you think, Wow! Here’s a woman who’s singing hymns all the time in elevators and in airplanes, and who always seems to have the joy of the Lord and have the right word. We admire that, and we’re blessed by it, but we don’t want to pay the price of having to deal with horrendous loss and pain and grief to get there.

We want the fruit, we want the outcome, we want the sweetness of what it produces, but God’s Word tells us that suffering is vital in our lives—not just Elisabeth Elliot’s and Joni Tada’s, but ours as well. It produces a sweet fruit for those who are willing to be trained by it. 

I’m thinking, as you’re unpacking these stories, Ellen, of the book Robert and I wrote together: You Can Trust God to Write Your Story, subtitled Embracing the Mysteries of Providence. When God’s ways make no sense, what do you do?

I jotted down a phrase you said a few minutes ago: “Elisabeth Elliot was clinging to God, no matter what.” When she couldn’t see any outcome that was worthy of writing home in a missionary letter . . . I mean, you don’t raise money off of, “Oh, all this work I did over all these months and years is, poof!, gone!” You don’t write support letters on that.

But the determination to cling to God when His ways were something she could not fathom, she couldn’t understand, and there was no visible evidence of why God might have done this.

Elisabeth from a past recording: There are really only two choices. You either trust God, or you don’t trust God. And when we’ve made a lifetime commitment to trust God, then He tests us again and again and again.

He says, “You trusted Me back here; okay, how about now?” Alright, you might pass that test, and He says, “And what about now?” And the lessons are never ended, are they? Not as long as we are here in this flesh, because we are always tempted to doubt. Doubt becomes a habit and a luxury—a habit that we must kick, as Christians.

Ellen: I think that is why Elisabeth Elliot is very appealing to me, and I think will be appealing, perhaps, to millennials who aren’t familiar with her story. She was very impatient, if you will, with the evangelical subculture that always wanted to tie a bow on things or to have a pat Christian answer, or to report back to the supporters all these glorious and victorious results.

I think one of the key things for us in our day is the way that our faith in Jesus has been enculturated by a constant expectation of certain results. I think that a results-oriented faith is one that is not faith at all, because essentially, we’re walking by sight! If I can see the results, my “faith” is robust.

Nancy: It’s sure vulnerable and can be flimsy when the storms do come and the losses come; what happened to your faith? What you were trusting in didn’t make it through!

Ellen: Yes. One of the images I use a lot in the book—because it was part of Elisabeth’s life—is, she writes very dramatically about traveling down these jungle rivers in a narrow canoe and with indigenous people poling either end. You could be crashed up on the rocks at any moment, and there were rapids, and there were piranha, and there are alligators.

I feel like, to use the image that was her expectation of most of life, that it’s a difficult journey on the river . . . as opposed to many of us in North America today. We think, “Oh, we’re on the lazy river on our inner tube gettin’ tanned.”

Nancy: “Because we’re Christians.”

Ellen: Yeah, and maybe occasionally there will be a bump. Maybe we’ll have a little falls or a rapids or something. In fact, I think it’s a healthier and really a liberating view to see it as, “The norm is, we’re going to be in the rapids! Anytime that it is easy, that is a wonderful gift.” 

But what I found in Elisabeth Elliot, and I’ll change the image again. I don’t know if you love the ocean . . .

Nancy: I do! Yes, of course! 

Ellen: Yay! Well, okay, me, too. I love the pull of the big waves, and there’s always that temptation when a giant wave is coming toward you to turn around and run the other way, when in fact, the best way is to run toward the wave and dive into it so you won’t be pulled into the undertow and pummeled down into the sand, right?

Nancy: Right.

Ellen: I felt that image a lot when I was writing this book, that Elisabeth faced the waves, and she dove into them—that can be cold, it can be salty, it can be painful. But in that there is a purity about her adherence to Christ, no matter what, that I felt, “I can apply this in my own life. I’m not running from the waves!”

Nancy: Yes, she did that, but what I see you pulling out of her journals was, that wasn’t always easy! It wasn’t always natural.

Ellen: Oh, no! 

Nancy: And, again, we think of the older Elisabeth Elliot, who seemed to have mastered some of this. Although, when Volume Two comes out we’ll see, even in her older life, there were hard things that she faced.

Ellen: Sure!

Nancy: The hard things weren’t all in the early part of her life, but she grappled with sometimes just clinging to Christ with raw, naked faith, when you couldn’t see, you couldn’t make sense. It was totally a walk of faith and not of sight.

But her view of who God was, and that He was God and she wasn’t, made her willing to trust a God whose ways she could not see or understand, frequently. And in these huge losses, there in that Ecuadorian jungle, I think we see a beautiful, powerful lesson for our own lives, living in the jungles of life in the twenty-first century.

Whether it’s in a COVID era or facing personal loss. You have faced some very difficult health situations with your own husband. We’ll maybe talk about that a little later in this series, but whatever it is in your life that you’re facing today that seems inexplicable, it’s mysterious, it doesn’t seem like God to do this. You can’t see, “What’s the point of this?” It seems futile; it seems unnecessary; it seems counterproductive. Maybe it’s with one of your children, maybe it’s with your mate or your parents or your vocational life or your health. It’s mystery!

Rather than throw in the towel and give up on God and decide you’ve had enough of this Christian stuff, now is the time to cling in faith to the God who loves you, the God who is faithful, the God who is good, the God who is doing all things to accomplish His purposes in this world, and purposes that we will not see—many of them—this side of heaven.

That speaks to me, that speaks to us today, and I’m so thankful, Ellen, that you’ve pulled out some of these hard things in the life of Elisabeth Elliot and helped us to think through, “So, what can I take away that will help me in my piece of the jungle right now?”

We want to continue this conversation. We’ve got so much more to talk about, and we’ve got to get the most famous part of Elisabeth Elliot’s story, the loss of her husband, who was martyred in 1956, just before both you and I were born! You’re going to give us some fresh perspective on that as well, some behind-the-scenes glimpses from Elisabeth Elliot’s journals during that season.

I want you to have a copy of Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. It’s fascinating; it’s rich; it’s thought-provoking. We would love to send it to you as our way of saying “thank you” when you make an investment in the ministry of Revive Our Hearts. As you send a gift of thirty dollars or more—whatever the Lord puts on your heart—we’ll be glad to send this to you.

You can ask for that online when you make your donation at ReviveOurHearts.com, or you can call us at 1–800–569–5959. If you’ve missed any of the previous conversations Ellen and I have had this week, go to ReviveOurHearts.com, and you can read or watch them there. I hope you’ll join us again tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Challenging you to trust God when—not if—things don’t go according to your plan! Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.

About the Speakers

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love …

Read More
Ellen Vaughn

Ellen Vaughn

Ellen is a New York Times bestselling author and speaker who has written or co-written twenty-three books. Former vice president of executive communications at Prison Fellowship, she collaborated with the …

Read More