Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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Avoiding the Irrelevant Question

Dannah Gresh: Ellen Vaughn has pored over the private journals of the late Elisabeth Elliot. She describes a poignant moment after Elisabeth and Valerie Elliot had gone to live among the Waodani [also referred to as Auca] people in Ecuador.

Ellen Vaughn: She sees this strong, young man by the firelight. Valerie, who’s just a little girl, says, “Mommy, is that my daddy?”

And Elisabeth: “The truth is, no, that’s not your daddy. In fact, that man is one of the ones who killed your daddy.”

Dannah: Today we’ll see that, even though it sounds impressive for Elisabeth to live among the very ones who violently murdered her husband, it wasn’t all daisies and butterflies. There was emotional pain mixed in with the joy.

This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, co-author of You Can Trust God to Write Your Story, for September 18, 2020. I’m Dannah Gresh. Nancy is continuing her conversation with bestselling biographer Ellen Vaughn.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: A few days ago as we were preparing to produce this series with Ellen Vaughn on the early years of Elisabeth Elliot, I put a question out on my social media—on Twitter and Facebook—and asked people, “How did the Lord use Elisabeth Elliot in your life?”

Well, not surprisingly, I got a ton of responses. I’ve got a sheaf of paper here with just scores and scores of responses, and they’re still coming in. Let me just read to you a few excerpts of the kinds of things people said.

One woman said, “Elisabeth Elliot was my radio mentor in the late 80s and 90s.” Some of you remember Gateway To Joy, a radio program Elisabeth did for thirteen years, that she did not begin until the age of sixty-three . . . This has always amazed me, because I’m approaching that age. 

I’ve been doing radio for almost twenty years now, and some days I just feel really tired! I think, “How in the world did the older Elisabeth Elliot do that?!” She did it because she was living her life based on principles that she had embraced from the time she was younger, and they stood her in good stead when she got to those older years. So that’s been a great example for me! 

This woman said, “Elisabeth was my radio mentor during my young mothering years.” Another woman said, “I read and re-read anything she wrote about singleness.” Another says, “I’m inspired by the servanthood and grace displayed in Mrs. Elliot’s life! I’ve wondered how she was able to gather strength to go back into the people who had taken the life of her husband.”

Here’s another one: “I’m from Honduras, and I listened to the Elisabeth story for the first time five years ago, and it really impacted my life.” Another woman says, “I grew up listening to my mother tell the story of Jim Elliot and the other missionaries. I’ve read all the books, watched all the movies, and have always been inspired by the faith and faithfulness of Elisabeth Elliot.”

Another one: “Elisabeth Elliot had a huge impact on my life. I also consider her a mentor, although I never knew her personally.”

People talked about coming into her writings, her teaching, her radio program, her conferences when they were at a season of their life when they were really needing the wisdom and input of a woman of God.

So many women said, “Elisabeth Elliot was the spiritual mother I never had.” Perhaps you’ve felt that way, and if so, I know that you’ve been enjoying this conversation with Ellen Vaughn, who is the author of the newly released authorized biography called Becoming Elisabeth Elliot.

And perhaps you’re saying, “Well, I never heard of Elisabeth Elliot until this week!” Well, you’re not too late to be hearing about her. Maybe you couldn’t write what some of these other people did about her influence in your life, but you can read this book and get a glimpse of the early years of Elisabeth Elliot. 

What were the streams of grace, the discipleship that fed into her life that resulted in that later ministry that so many of us valued? It’s not all pretty pictures. It’s not all, “You live right for God, and everything will turn out right.” There were a lot of heartaches, heartbreaks, hardships in the young Elisabeth Elliot’s life.

But through them she came to find the faithfulness of God, which she imparted to us later in her life. So, Ellen, thank you for digging deep and going to the Amazonian jungles. (Did I say that right?)

Ellen: I think you did.

Nancy: Thank you for reading these journals that have been entrusted to you in Elisabeth’s unmistakable, beautiful handwriting, and talking with people, interviewing people, and just as a biographer doing a yeoman’s job of just letting us have a glimpse of the early years of this woman’s life.

Now, when we say “early years,” am I safe to say, is it okay to say, that there’s going to be a second volume, Lord willing, that covers her later years? Can I announce that?

Ellen: Certainly! This book covers the first thirty-two years of her life. There is a lot of story left. Her life was so full of a very strong, great narrative. It was too much for one volume. So, Lord willing, as you say, Volume Two will come out at a later time.

For me, I knew the outlines of Elisabeth’s story, like many. But as her biographer, to get the inside scoop, to get what her journals were saying and not just sort of this story as it has been passed down in evangelical lore . . .

And so, Elisabeth is best known for the loss of her husband, Jim Elliot, who with four of his colleagues was speared to death by an indigenous people group in the late 1950s. Where we’re picking up today, I believe, is in talking about Elisabeth’s story after Jim’s death—her beloved husband whom she waited for, enduring a five-year courtship. 

They were married only a couple of years. They had a young daughter, Valerie. One thing that truly drew me to the story of Elisabeth Elliot is:

  • You’ve got this young woman in the jungle.
  • Her husband has just been speared to death.
  • She’s got a toddler daughter.
  • She purposes to go and to live among the tribal people who killed her husband and his colleagues.

Who does that?!

What would impel a person to do that? That makes me very curious. And so, certainly, that was one of the great hooks that drew me into the Elisabeth Elliot story. I wanted to get inside the head and the heart and the radical faith of this woman who would do such a thing! 

Nancy: And what I love, as you unpack that story . . . It does have a lot of twists and turns; there’s a lot more to it than what we’re going to cover in this conversation, but you do it so beautifully in the Becoming Elisabeth Elliot book.

But what I love is that you, by giving us a glimpse into her first-hand journals, in her own penmanship, is that there were things going on in the depths of her heart that the whole rest of the world didn’t know. It’s as if she was processing these things with the Lord in that secret place of those journals. She didn’t know that we’d be talking about them, or that you would write about them, or she’d probably be mortified if she did know. 

She never wanted to be glorified or made much of. She was awkward about that, and that’s one of the endearing things about her. But I think it’s helpful to us now. “[She] being dead yet speaks.” We read about some of these saints, those of faith who have gone before us, in Hebrews 11 (see v. 4 KJV).

There’s so much we can learn about our lives and about our walk with the Lord, which may never take us to Ecuador or to a jungle or to a vocational missionary life or to widowhood. Our story will be very different than hers. But the same truths that grounded her heart and directed her steps in that journey are the truths you and I need to walk in the journey God has for us today.

That’s why we’re wanting to talk about some of the takeaways. Take us back to . . . now Elisabeth is a young widow. She’s having to make some tough choices: what is she going to do? Is she just going to pack it up and head back to the safety of home? Not Elisabeth Elliot!

And yet, it wasn’t just that she was this amazing, astonishing strong woman who, “I’m just going to do the right thing!” There was grappling within her own soul about what God wanted and how she would get the strength to do it. Am I right?

Ellen: I think you’re right. I think that any time any of us is in a horrific shock, there’s a feeling of shock where perhaps the feelings are at the forefront. As I read Elisabeth’s journal and the aftermath of the deaths of Jim and his four colleagues . . . And what a shock that was in the missionary community and all the reverberations through everyone’s life afterwards!

I found that the more time that went by, it seemed that the more Elisabeth was grieving her husband's loss. She dreamed of him incessantly; she ached for her husband; she missed him! She never had any sense of blaming God for Jim’s death. I think she had grown up in a household, in a faith community that was familiar with the notion of martyrdom.

The other thing, though, that I found astonishing is that there was not a shred of blame that I found in Elisabeth, nor in any of the other widows, toward the Waodani who had killed their husbands! There was no sense of bitterness.

It was like reading an alternative form of literature to read these journals where Elisabeth, contrary to everything human, felt a profound love for the Waodani. She felt since Jim had loved them enough to die for them, she loved them, too.

Elisabeth Elliot from a past recording: Jim knew that he was disposable. In 1956, he and four other missionaries sang a hymn together: “We Rest on Thee, Our Shield and Our Defender.” Then they went into what we knew was very dangerous territory, from which no one seemed to come back alive. They were trusting God to give them an opening for the gospel. All five were slaughtered.

Mincaye, the man in the little house near mine, was one of those that did the slaughtering. Mincaye was now singing about God! Obedience is our task; the results of that obedience are God’s . . . and God’s alone.

Ellen: So a persistent theme, right in the aftermath of Jim’s death, was that she wanted to go to the Waodani. She wanted to go into the tribe. Perhaps a woman could go where men had not been able to successfully penetrate . . . perhaps a woman and a child, Valerie.

So she prayed a lot. There’s a prayer that was in her journal that I cite in the book, where she said, “God uses the weak things of this world for His purposes. [from 1 Corinthians 1:27] Certainly Val and I qualify!”

Nancy: She didn’t see herself as some great heroic, strong woman.

Ellen: By no means! She did not see herself as Superwoman. She was just a woman in her twenties encountering things she had not expected, but determining in her spirit to stay true to God and to follow Him as best she could.

Nancy: And you can’t romanticize what that looked like, because in following the will of God, there were some really hard things that lay ahead for her.

Ellen: Sure. Day after day after day of pain, for one. We don’t have time to here, as you alluded, go into the whole story. But I tried to do two things in this book: I tried to tell a story that would make people laugh and cry and identify and keep turning pages. That’s what I tried to do as a storyteller.

But also, for me, as I studied Elisabeth’s life, there were takeaways that I could harvest out of her life, that in fact worked in my own life, that enriched my life. I was enriched by knowing this sister’s story.

Nancy: I think one of those takeaways was that she understood that there are certain kinds of questions that’s helpful to ask, and certain kinds of questions that it’s not helpful to ask in the wake of a crisis or a tragedy.

So you talk, for example, about a question that to Elisabeth Elliot was pretty much irrelevant, though it might seem natural to us.

Ellen: That is the question, “Why?” Elisabeth, as far as I can tell by scouring her most private writings, never asked God why He had taken Jim and the other men in the flower of their youth. They could have done great things in the service for Christ and His Kingdom, and God chose to take them.

Elisabeth never asked, “Why?” She felt like the question, “Why?” was a waste of time. God is inscrutable. Do we, as creatures, know the ways of the Creator? Can we question God, who dwells in eternity in dimensions that we can’t even know? For Elisabeth Elliot, “Why?” wasn’t on the table!

Nancy: Because He is God, and we are not!

Ellen: Right. And so, if God could be boiled down to, “Well, here’s why God did what He did,” He wouldn’t be God.

Nancy: Or we would be God, if we knew all that God knows.

Ellen: Which is a horrifying thought!

Nancy: Yes, for sure!

Ellen: She was a very practical person, also. She just moved on to the question that she considered the relevant question, which was, “What?” As in, “Lord, what would you have me to do? What is the next thing?”

And what I was impressed with was that immediately in the aftermath of Jim’s terrible death and all of the sorrow, there were many things right in front of her that she needed to do. It was impressive to see in the 1950 that this woman in Ecuador, in a time when women were not necessarily in positions of leadership . . .

She often was behind the scenes working with discipleship of the Quichua believers in the church that Jim had worked to establish, so they could become self-sufficient, so that church—that community of believers—could stand on their own feet. It was a beautiful season. There were many who came to faith in Christ, who were certainly galvanized by the missionaries’ deaths. 

But also, the Holy Spirit was at work. Elisabeth saw God moving among the Quichua church that Jim had established. She had many things where she needed to continue the work that Jim had established on a practical level, things that she had no clue about how to do the next thing. Bit by bit, she trusted in God and did the work.

But all the while with her eye toward the future, she prayed, “Lord, if it is Your will, send me to the Waodani.” 

Nancy: She wanted that from the get-go.

Ellen: From the beginning. To tell the story now would take too long, but in the book, there were some false starts. It seemed like God was leading her to go to the tribal people, and then setbacks! There was a violent episode that I write about in the book that I had not previously been aware of that would have sent any of the rest of us . . .

Nancy: Packing!

Ellen: Like, “I am out of here! I’m going back to the U.S.!” But she persisted. Then God—against all odds—opened the doors for Elisabeth Elliot and little Valerie and Rachel Saint . . . (Rachel was Nate Saint’s sister. Nate was the pilot who really was the leader of the operation where the men sought to reach out to the Waodani.)

Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel, was a missionary with Wycliffe Bible Translators. She and Elisabeth and Valerie along with Dayuma went and lived among the very tribal people who had slaughtered the missionaries. (Dayuma was of the Waodani people, but had left the Waodani when she was young and now was returning to her people. She was kind of a broker between the two cultures.)

Nancy: Did people try to dissuade Elisabeth from doing this? 

Ellen: Her mother-in-law, Jim’s mom, really begged her not to go. Family members wrote her letters: “Don’t do it! At least if you do it, don’t take Valerie!” There was a tremendous amount of pressure—which is quite understandable—that came to Elisabeth, pleading with her not to do it.

Nancy: But she just believed this was what God wanted her to do, and she did it.

Ellen: Correct.

Elisabeth from a past recording: The will of God is not something you add to your life. It is a course that you choose. You either line yourself up with the Son of God and say to the Father, “Thy will be done,” or you capitulate to the principle which governs the rest of the world and you say, “My will be done.” 

Ellen: Even though it was counter-cultural . . . Who takes a toddler into a group of indigenous killers (as they were known at the time)? But Elisabeth had a strong sense that God was leading and she “set her face like flint.” She packed up all of her pots and pans and things that she would need to live in the jungle.

They received (this certainly was a sign from God!) an invitation from the Waodani to come. That’s a long story; it’s in the book. She and Rachel and Valerie made their way. I have to tell you in reading the journals of this period of time, it had been a goal for Elisabeth for so long!

Now she’s sitting by the campfire and a man comes. And Valerie, who’s just a little girl, says, “Mommy, is that my daddy?”

Nancy: This is one of the indigenous people.

Ellen: Yes, one of the tribal members. Valerie had heard stories of her strong, young daddy. (She was only ten months old when her dad was killed.) She sees this strong, young man by the firelight: “Is that my daddy?” And Elisabeth said, “The truth is, no, that’s not your daddy. In fact, that man was one of the ones who killed your daddy.”

And so, to be reading these journals and seeing these scenes by the fire, as Elisabeth and Val and Rachel Saint all live with the tribal people who accept them, who hunt for them . . . the Holy Spirit was doing incredible things in this clearing in the Amazon jungle circa 1958!

It was a great reminder to me. All of us sort of have in our heads a paradigm of what is or what could be, and we limit God. And what God put Elisabeth Elliot in, as she was living among The People, was extraordinary! There are enough of the journal excerpts in the book that it makes really surreal reading, almost.

She writes, “Today I met some of the men that killed my husband, and I love them with the love that Jim had for them.” She’s trying desperately to find out what happened, why did the killings take place. There’s that sort of quest for what happened.

And so, her time among the Waodani is also characterized by her desire that they would come to know of Jesus, who was speared for them. I found that, in Elisabeth, there’s none of that sort of Western superiority. She didn’t see herself as civilized, and they were uncivilized. She, in fact, admired the way that they lived. She was not an affectionate person, and yet she overflowed with love for them. It’s extraordinary!

Nancy: It was extraordinary, and only God could do that. That’s where she was anchoring her life. I’ve heard bits and pieces of this all my life. I was born in 1958, about the time that she was going back there. So I grew up hearing the story of Elisabeth Elliot, Jim Elliot, and Elisabeth and Val going back into the jungle.

Somehow, I got the impression—and I think maybe other people have as well—that it was just this amazing. You know, she went back to the tribe, and they all came to know Jesus, and they lived happily ever after. When in fact, God was doing a work. But also, wherever God is working, there is opposition; there are challenges; there are trials.

The trials, the hardships in Elisabeth Elliot’s life didn’t stop when she said, “Okay, I’m going to obey God, and I’m going to love these people that my husband gave his life for.” It wasn’t a romanticized, sanitized easy life that she signed up for at this point.

Ellen: Right. If it was a movie, or if we were writing the script, you’re right, it would have had a happy ending . . . tied up with a bow. The whole tribe comes to faith in Jesus and lived happily ever after!

And after a happy beginning, when Elisabeth felt herself just full of wonder: “Oh my goodness, Lord Jesus, here I am among these people,” she was supremely happy. But then, bit by bit, conflict began to develop between Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint. They were both strong women who loved Jesus, who desired to do His will, but their personalities could not get along.

So we don’t know what to do with that; that’s not part of the happy story. And for Elisabeth to be among the tribe, and then to feel once again—as she had at various points in the past—that the great work she wanted to do for the kingdom was being stymied by circumstances beyond her control, was a really, really hard lesson.

She spent time among the Waodani. But she came to the fact that she realized, “Lord, even as You have called me among them, now You are calling me out.” As Val got to be school age, Elisabeth realized that she needed to leave and come back to the United States so that Val could go to school.And Rachel Saint championed on; she lived among the Waodani for many decades, until her death.

Nancy: And in both of their cases, God was writing the script. He was writing the story, and it took twists and turns that are not what you would have written if you were writing it . . . like the ideal picture book story. But it was a story God was writing.

I love, Ellen, how with Rachel Saint’s life, Elisabeth Elliot’s life, your life, my life, our listeners’ lives, how God takes and uses frail and broken people, crazy circumstances, circumstances that are not what we would have written, that don’t seem to be in a straight line toward the glory of God; but He takes that and He redeems it in His way and in His time, for His glory and for His Kingdom purposes that we can’t see here and now or yet.

Elisabeth Elliot had no way of seeing at that moment when she went into the jungle that when she came back out of the jungle to return to the United States what God was unfolding for her, how He wanted to use her life, how her life is still being used today, years after her death!

But we get a glimpse of it. And you give us a glimpse of that in this book Becoming Elisabeth Elliot that encourages me; it challenges me. 

It says that the things in my life that I wouldn’t have scripted the way they’re unfolding, that it’s okay. I can trust the God who loves me, the God who is writing the script. I can trust Him with the outcome. In the meantime, I don’t ask, “Why?” 

I ask, “Lord, what is it that You’re wanting to do? What is the next thing? How can I obey You even when my feelings would want to do something different?” In Elisabeth Elliot we see an example that calls us to Christ in the hard places of our lives. 

We want to continue this conversation, but I want to encourage our listeners to get a copy of this fabulous book you’ve written: Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. It’s on the early years. We’re already looking forward to Volume Two, at least I am! I know our listeners will be after they read Volume One. There is plenty here to fill our hearts and to make us think!

We want to offer this newly-released authorized biography to any of our listeners who would like to make a donation to help with the work of Revive Our Hearts, a work that in a great sense was started by Elisabeth Elliot. She did not know what Revive Our Hearts would become or the role that she played in it.

But again, it’s part of the story that God was writing. She couldn’t see, she trusted. We owe a huge debt—I owe a huge debt of gratitude—to this woman. I want our listeners who loved and knew her, and I want our listeners to whom she’s a new name, to become more familiar with her life and to be challenged by it.

So when you make a donation to this ministry, thirty dollars or more to help support this ministry and to help it continue reaching women and calling them to a life of obedience and faith . . . “Trust and obey,” that was Elisabeth Elliot, and that comes through loud and clear in this book. 

If you go to our website, ReviveOurHearts.com, you could make a donation, and you can also listen to the previous programs in this series if you’ve missed any of them. Ellen, you’re such a great story teller! I know our listeners will want to catch up with those episodes.

You can also call us to make your gift at 1–800–569–5959. When you make your gift, be sure to let us know that you want a copy of the new biography on Elisabeth Elliot. And, Ellen, I’m going to ask you to come back and continue this conversation with us for another couple of episodes.

I hope that you’ll have a great weekend, worship the Lord in a special way on the Lord’s Day, and then join us again on Monday for Revive Our Hearts.

Encouraging you to do the next thing. Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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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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