Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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Dannah Gresh: Ellen Vaughn describes a woman we can all admire, because we saw Jesus in her!

Ellen Vaughn: Elisabeth Elliot was an authentic hero! Part of her journey of loss and heartbreak and ministry—radical ministry—was about getting to know: “Who is Jesus, really? What is His call in my life? How do I obey that, no matter what?”

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, co-author of You Can Trust God to Write Your Story, for September 14, 2020. I’m Dannah Gresh. 

Elisabeth Elliot (from a past recording of her radio program Gateway To Joy]: “You are loved with an everlasting love . . . and underneath are the everlasting arms.” That’s what the Bible says. (see Jer. 31:3 and Deut. 33:26–28 KJV) This is your friend, Elisabeth Elliot. 

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: If you’ve been a longtime Revive Our Hearts listener, you may be thinking, Whoa! Did I get the wrong program?! Has Gateway To Joy come back on the air?

Maybe you were a listener to Elisabeth Elliot for years, as many of our listeners were, and you’ve now grown up with Revive Our Hearts over these past nearly-twenty years, and you love hearing that voice—Elisabeth Elliot! So many women have told us over the years what a friend, a mentor, a spiritual mother she was to them.

Revive Our Hearts stands squarely on the shoulders of this remarkable woman of God. I’ve read many of her books over the years—maybe most or even all of them—and loved them. I’ve been discipled and influenced by them, and you probably have some of those same feelings.

But nearly twenty years ago, when Elisabeth Elliot and Gateway To Joy went off the air, the Lord gave Revive Our Hearts the privilege of going on the air as a successor to Gateway To Joy. Anywhere I go to speak, over all these years, I always have women come up to me and say, “I was an Elisabeth Elliot listener, and when her program went off the air, I really, really missed her!” 

In fact, some people have said to me, “I was mad that you came on the air, because I didn’t want to lose Elisabeth Elliot!” Well, no one could fill Elisabeth Elliot’s shoes, and I had to come to the place where I realized that I wasn’t supposed to fill Elisabeth Elliot’s shoes.

God had given her distinct and unique ministry for her generation, and that now He was giving a distinct and unique ministry to me and to Revive Our Hearts. But I’ve been so influenced—as have you—by her walk, her words, her ministry.

And now, I’m so excited that the new authorized biography of Elisabeth Elliot is off the press! I’m holding the first copy in my hands; it’s called Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. And over these next days, you’re going to get to meet the author, Ellen Vaughn, and you’re going to hear why it’s called Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, and get a taste of what’s included in this first of two volumes of the Elisabeth Elliot biography. 

Now, I want to introduce you to Ellen, who is the author. Ellen, welcome to Revive Our Hearts! It’s such a joy to have you here to talk about this story.

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

Nancy: I’ve known of you for years because you and my husband have known each other for a lot of years. You’ve worked together on a lot of publishing projects. I knew you back when you were Ellen Santilli and you were working for Prison Fellowship . . . or at least that’s the name you wrote under some.

You worked with Chuck Colson over a lot of years. If you listeners have seen a book with Chuck Colson’s name on it, it probably has had Ellen Santilli Vaughn on it as well. You’ve written over twenty-three books; you’re a New York Times bestselling author.

When I knew that we were talking about a biography of Elisabeth Elliot coming to be, you were the person I thought, Wouldn’t it be great if Ellen Vaughn could write this biography? You’re a great storyteller; you’re a great researcher; you’re a beautiful writer, and I’m just so thrilled that you’ve done all the hard work to bring us this story!

You’re going to share some things with us that are new, even to Elisabeth Elliot aficionados. But also we have a lot of listeners who may not know who Elisabeth Elliot even is and was. We want to introduce a new generation of listeners and readers to the life of this woman, because her message is timeless!

You’ve dug deep into the early chapters of her life, and there are things there that you’re going to bring to light that people haven’t been aware of before. So, thank you for taking this journey and taking us on a journey. We’re very excited about it!

Ellen: Thank you, Nancy. It was a great honor to write this book. I grew up knowing who Elisabeth Elliot was. I read some of her books. I heard her speak at my church and other venues in the Washington, D.C. area, and I really admired Elisabeth.

I thought, Oh my goodness! Here’s this woman who is a renowned missionary who lost her husband to violence, who went and lived among the tribal people who killed her husband. Who does that?! And then she went on to write two dozen books and really became—in the second half of the twentieth century—a spokesperson for evangelicals at a time when there weren’t that many women’s voices in that arena.

She was a great leader. So I admired her, but I found her a little bit intimidating . . . and I wasn’t sure I liked her very much.

Nancy: You’re not the only woman who has ever felt that way!

Ellen: Right? Evidently! And so when I was approached by her daughter and her best friend about the possibility of writing the authorized biography, I was thrilled! Here was a person whose thinking was so robust and her faith was so counter-cultural. I was anxious to get to know her better, and I was given all of her journals.

Now, many people are familiar with Elisabeth Elliot’s books. We know and love those volumes, but to read “the story behind the story,” the inside scoop, what was she really feeling as she was going through so many incredibly dramatic losses and delightful times and adventures in the jungle, and everything in-between . . . 

To read those pages was an incredible journey for me, to get inside not just her brain—which was very formidable; she was an incredibly gifted, intellectual woman—but also to get inside her spirit, to have a sense of the poignancy of what she was going through.

Nancy: And it wasn’t all just beautiful painting in those journals; there are very realistic human fears and wrestlings and things she grappled with that we didn’t always know, because she always seemed so poised and put together and had just the right words for just the right occasion.

Ellen: Right!

Nancy: She did have a sense of humor. We heard that at times in her speaking, and I can still hear her mimicking accents. 

Elisabeth (on an old audio clip): . . . so she prayed that God would choose a man for her in England, call him, and send him straight out to her part of China and have him propose [marriage]!” (laughter) 

Then as she told me this story, she leaned toward me on the sofa where we were sitting, her bony little finger pointing into my face, and she said [Elisabeth takes on a dramatic elderly English accent], “Elisabeth, I believe God answers prayer! He called him . . .but he never came!” (laughter)

Nancy: But the inner part of Elisabeth’s heart, where she wrestled with God and with some of the experiences in her life,more of that comes out in her journals. And because you’ve had access to those journals, more of that is found in this book than even those of us who knew and loved Elisabeth Elliot were probably aware of.

Ellen: Right, right! That’s why this volume really focuses on her early years. 

Nancy: That’s the “becoming” Elisabeth Elliot. 

Ellen: Yes, the “becoming,” because in the early years of our lives in our journey with Jesus, we’re all “becoming.” That’s true as we grow older and as we’re godly old ladies one day, right? But I think that maybe people who admired Elisabeth Elliot, but are a little bit put off by her, as I used to be, will enjoy seeing the processes God used in her life to really mold her into a woman who, then, had quite a platform to speak around the world three-hundred days a year, and to influence lives through radio, through books in way that has left quite a legacy for generations!

And for people our age, we’re well familiar with Elisabeth Elliot, and I gather your listeners are as well. She’s well-loved at Revive Our Hearts.

Nancy: Many are, but then you have those in the younger generation who are saying, “Elisabeth who?” In fact, you had that experience as you were talking with people about the book you were working on.

Ellen: Right. I went to Wheaton College, which is her alma mater; Jim Elliot also went there. 

Nancy: Her library is housed there. 

Ellen: Right. And there’s Elliot Hall; there’s a dormitory there named after Jim. I would ask students, “Do you know Elisabeth Elliot?” 

And they would say, “No-o-o . . . uh, what year is she?” 

Ellen: So even at that place, among people who are in their twenties, maybe Elisabeth Elliot’s name is known; maybe Jim Elliot is known: “Oh, yeah, he’s the guy who got speared.” But there is a story, I think, for millennials and for younger generations that is in this book, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, that is a rich story to be discovered, because Elisabeth Elliot was an authentic hero! 

She was a person who didn’t just adhere to sort of a cultural Christianity: “This is what we do because it’s expected, and we check off all the boxes.” But part of her journey of loss and heartbreak and ministry, radical ministry among indigenous people in the Amazonian jungle . . . Part of that journey was about getting to know, “Who is Jesus, really? What is His call in my life? And how do I obey that, no matter what?” 

I think that’s a kind of robust message, a robust way of living that very much would appeal to people who have never heard of Elisabeth Elliot.

Nancy: And she wasn’t afraid to challenge the current thinking, the status quo, to rock some boats. She was courageous and would say things that maybe many others weren’t saying. But she would do it in a way that made you think, that brought you along.You might be mad at it at first, but then you’d find yourself often saying, “Wow, that makes a lot of sense!”

Ellen: True! One thing I tried to do in this book was to give the reader an experience; I wanted to tell a story. A lot of Elisabeth’s books that we all know and love are rather didactic in nature. I wanted this to be an unfolding story for the reader, that they would be able to travel along in the jungle.

And for me, part of the pleasure of doing this book was going deep into the Amazon jungle and living briefly among the Waodani, the tribal people with whom Elisabeth Elliot lived, the tribal people who killed Jim Elliot and his four colleagues so many years ago back in 1956. I found that experience almost like time travel.

First of all, I have to say that I am not necessarily a nature traveler.

Nancy: Not a camper.

Ellen: Camping is good as long a toilet is involved and you have electricity. Neither of those were present deep in the jungle, I’m telling you! To be among the Waodani and to be sleeping in a hammock and to be wearing these knee-high rubber boots so you wouldn’t get gnawed upon by creatures, and having to sleep with something over your head so the vampire bats wouldn’t nibble at your head in the night, and to use the most beautiful outhouse in the Amazon . . . 

The hunters would go out each day, and they would bring back a monkey or a wild pig, and we would all feast together after it had been roasted over the fire.

There was a great sense of community with the Waodani, who are themselves a few generations removed from those who killed the missionaries. 

One of the men who killed the missionaries that day so long ago back in 1956 was still living then, Mincaye.

Nancy: He would have been in his nineties, right?

Ellen: Yes! No one knows how old he was. He was a brother who loved Christ. Even though we did not speak the same language, we had such a connection that you sometimes feel with people where you know the Spirit draws you together, even though you are so, so different.

And to sit with Mincaye while he took a long, long piece of hardwood and carved a spear with a knife-sharp machete . . . he’s carving this spear and sharpening its point to give to me as a gift. 

I had this time-travel moment of feeling like, “Oh my goodness, all those years before . . . Mincaye sitting and sharpening his spear to kill the missionaries! And the miracle of what God does in human lives!” 

How did Mincaye come to know Jesus, how did he come to change his ways? Really, through the most unlikely circumstances where two women, one of whom was Elisabeth Elliot, and a little girl, Elisabeth’s three-year-old daughter Valerie, going into the jungle and living with the tribal people who had killed their loved ones. They demonstrated that there is another way to live. The power of Christ to forgive can change lives and can change generations.

And for me, one of the sweetest parts of writing this book was to go and to be in the Amazon jungle and to see the sense of how God works in human time. It’s according to His eternal precepts, but also He is doing things that none of us can even imagine, because we just dwell here in real time.

Nancy: And things that Elisabeth herself couldn’t see back then . . . In fact, we’ll talk about this later in this series, but in some ways Elisabeth’s ministry there in the jungle, by modern standards, would have been considered a colossal failure and not success as we measure success today.

Ellen: Correct.

Nancy: But she learned a different measurement of success that we need to learn as we think about what God has called us to do. What our world considers brilliant or capable or accomplished isn’t always what furthers the kingdom of God. 

Sometimes it’s the things that look like they don’t work or they don’t come together or they don’t make sense . . . the conundrums to which there are no easy answers. It’s through these things that God sometimes does His longest term and sweetest work! And Elisabeth walked through a journey of experiencing and learning that herself.

Ellen: Yes! I was surprised myself, again, as I delved into those journals, as I saw the story inside the story. I think in evangelicalism, sometimes the story of Jim Elliot and Nate Saint and Ed McCully and Roger Youderian and Pete Fleming and their martyrdom at the hands of this indigenous people, has been presented almost as a glorious triumph: “And then the whole tribe came to Christ!” And God’s work is in much more subtle and majestic ways than we can understand, really.

Nancy: There were a lot of broken pieces and parts of that whole story, and we’ll talk about some of those. 

Ellen: Yes.

Nancy: But there were things that just seemed counterproductive and like, “The kingdom of God is coming through this!?” But yes, it does. It comes through broken, flawed, insecure individuals. God sends His Spirit and does His work.

You don’t see until eternity, really, the whole package, the story that God is writing and is unfolding. There are points when we have to be content and satisfied with mystery and not understanding. 

And for Elisabeth, we knew there were hard things in her life, but it wasn’t just the martyrdom of her first husband. She was actually twice a widow, and we’ll talk about that later, but it was in some of the behind-the-scenes stories that come out through these journals. 

Which, by the way, you have a copy of one of the journals. Not a copy . . . you have one of the actual journals right here. I know that handwriting; I would know it anywhere!

Ellen: Right. Well, and I have to tell you, when you were just talking it brought it to mind. In my experience in going through these journals, Nancy, it was like Elisabeth’s life was unfolding for me in real time, page by page by page. I knew what was coming . . . and she didn’t!

Nancy: Just like we don’t know in the story that God is writing in our lives right now.

Ellen: Yes. And so the Scripture that really came to mind for me is in Psalm 139:16, and it’s where the psalmist is talking about how God formed us in our mother’s wombs. We know this great psalm, and the section that talks about, “All the days that were ordained for me were all known to You, O Lord, before even one of them came to be” (v. 16).

And for me, I was going through some rough waters myself as I read these journals. (We’ll talk about that more later.) And I thought, O Lord, Elisabeth couldn’t see that all of these days ordained for her were planned by God, even as she lived them. And that transferred to me.

Nancy: Yes, that was going to become part of your story.

Ellen: Exactly, and so my days as they unfold, if they feel futile, if they feel tragic, if they feel whatever, how the days feel is not the test of what God is doing.

Nancy: Yes.

Ellen: That’s a similar point to what you said earlier. We are so conditioned by our North American culture to think of things in terms of success and to check things off, and, “How did that go?” “What were the numbers?” “What were the results?”

Nancy: To see the end of the project. 

Ellen: Yes. “How did my day go? Can I check off that I felt victorious and happy and fulfilled this day?”—whatever it is. I think those are acculturations that Satan would love to use to trip us up, and that really impeded us from having a freedom in Christ that knows, “O Lord, if this day in my journal is a mess, a weeping mess, it is not wasted in Your economy. You are doing things in eternity that I cannot see. I don’t get it, and my heart hurts, and this is awful! But You are with me, and Your words can be trusted.”

Nancy: And sometimes that horrible, weeping mess is because of circumstances over which we have no control, as Elisabeth had many of those in her life. And sometimes it’s just our own brokenness and sinfulness. 

Elisabeth Elliot is iconic in the Christian world. We tend to just have this very beautiful picture. She was always mature; she was always godly; she always knew the right answer. But what you see in these journals is a woman who was very frail, who knew her own sinfulness, who sometimes had responses that were not something she would have been proud of.

In fact, you talk about how she went back, years later, and saw some of the things earlier in her journals and said, “DId I write that?!” But she was becoming a woman of God!

Ellen: Right! And those of us who follow can see that; we get to see the story completed—not completed as it is in eternity, but completed in that her faithfulness yielded fruit that she never could have dreamed of.

Nancy: And even her faithfulness when she didn’t feel faithful, or when she was grappling with rogue emotions. There’s something endearing to me that makes her more approachable. “Approachable” was not a word that people used about Elisabeth Elliot. “Intimidating” was maybe the word you would have thought of first.

Ellen: “Severe.”

Nancy: But when you read the backstory here, you realize that here’s a woman who had feet of clay just like we do! She knew her own bents and inclinations to worry, to be severe. And she let God surface those in her life—many times through these hard circumstances—and she let Him sanctify her.

And so, the Elisabeth Elliot we came to know and love in her later years, mostly through her writings and her radio ministry Gateway To Joy, was not this ready-made saint. 

Ellen: Correct.

Nancy: She was developing, she was becoming this woman of God. This gives me hope when I see the frailties and the failures of my own heart! And there are times, Ellen, when I think, “If the women who love this ministry could see me now! If they could see what I’m thinking, if they could see what I’m feeling, if they could know the things that make the Lord sad and that make me sad about my own failures, they wouldn’t pay any attention to what I say! They wouldn’t be interested in following this ministry!

But I love the fact that we’re in this journey together, and that God is taking broken, needy, weak, flawed people who are willing to offer themselves up to Him, and He makes us like Jesus! He’s in the process of transfiguring us, transforming us. And we see that in Elisabeth in a way that, I think, is really encouraging!

Ellen: Yes, and I think one thing that is greatly needed in all of our communities of faith is a real transparency. We don’t need to be people who are coming together like we’ve got it all together. 

Nancy: Yes.

Ellen: I think when I read Elisabeth’s younger journals, I felt for her. And one thing that I wish that she had had--if I may say that--were close friends with whom she could be vulnerable. In her younger years she really struggled with not wanting to show emotions. 

And think that all of us. . .my sense about you and the community of people who are a part of Revive Our Hearts. . .is a real focus on the fellowship of Christian sisters. . .

Nancy: Yes.

Ellen: We can come together and not necessarily “exhort one another” with what one should be doing, but just to be able to grieve together or to say, “I have been struggling with this ugly response to my husband in certain situations,” or “I feel hopeless about this,” or whatever the emotions are. 

For there be a freedom to say, “This is how we are, and Jesus, who draws near to us, who comforts us in our afflictions, who cares for us—not because of how well we perform, but because of His own grace and love—that He draws near!”

And so, if anything in these journals, there will be times where Elisabeth is writing along in her beautiful, flowing handwriting and saying, “O Lord, help me! I am ridiculous!” And I, as the biographer, reading along, I feel comforted, like, “Oh good! She was ridiculous too, because I know I am!”

Nancy: “It’s not just me!” Well, we’re going to delve into some of these early years of Elisabeth Elliot’s life as we talk about what you learned writing this biography Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. You’ve already encouraged me as I’ve read the book, and then listening to you as you describe your journey as you wrote the book.

We’re going to continue this conversation tomorrow, and there’s lots more to learn, even for those of us who thought we knew a lot about Elisabeth Elliot . . . and even more so for those who are not familiar with her life. I hope all of our listeners will get a copy of Becoming Elisabeth Elliot.

It’s beautifully written, it’s compelling writing, and it really spoke to me in so many personal ways, which we’ll talk about some of those over the next several days. We’re making this book available to any listener who makes a donation of thirty dollars or more to Revive Our Hearts. When you make that donation, this book is our way of saying “thank you” for supporting the ministry of Revive Our Hearts.

Now, we know you can get this book at other online retailers—and you may want to do that—but when you make a donation to Revive Our Hearts, you’re helping the ministry of Elisabeth Elliot and Revive Our Hearts continue reaching out to women around the world who need to hear that the same truths that made her who she was are the same truths God wants to work into our lives! 

So you can make a donation by visiting us online at ReviveOurHearts.com, or you can call us at 1–800–569–5959. When you make your gift of thirty dollars or more, be sure and tell us you’d like the new biography on Elisabeth Elliot.

Thank you so much for joining us for this conversation, and be sure and join us tomorrow again as we continue talking with Ellen Vaughn about Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, right here on Revive Our Hearts. 

Dannah: Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants you to remember: “You are loved with an everlasting love, and underneath are the everlasting arms!” Nobody could ever say that like Elisabeth! 

This program 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 …

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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 …

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