Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Held in the Everlasting Arms: A Message From Elisabeth Elliot

Leslie Basham: Here’s Elisabeth Elliot.

Elisabeth Elliot: Man decided that his own idea of perfection and joy was better than God’s and believed what Satan told him, and therefore sin and suffering entered into the world. Now we’re saying, “Why doesn’t God do something about it?”

And the Christian answer is, “He did. He became the victim, the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world.”

Leslie Basham: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Friday, June 28.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: A few months ago on Revive Our Hearts we shared a message by Elisabeth Elliot on the subject of suffering. Elisabeth shared how she felt on that day in the 1950s when her husband Jim was martyred in the jungles of Ecuador. She drew on that experience many years ago to give us insight on suffering in our lives.

Well, our listeners always appreciate Elisabeth Elliot, and they particularly appreciated that program. One listener wrote and said, “I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a better, more Christ-centered biblical explanation of the value of suffering in our lives.”

Another woman responded by telling us about her seventeen-year-old son who was trapped in the use of pornography. She said, “This has been my deepest suffering, my deepest waters and hottest fires. It’s my prayer that I and my precious son will know the Lord deeper and better through this experience.”

Well, today, Elisabeth Elliot is going to give us some more insight into painful situations like this one. We’re going to hear another message from her on the topic of suffering—one that she is so familiar with. She’ll explore the book of Job and help us grapple with this question: Will you trust God even when life doesn’t make sense? Here’s Elisabeth Elliot.

Elisabeth: I look upon suffering as one of God’s ways of getting our attention. In fact, C.S. Lewis calls pain “God’s megaphone.” He said, “God whispers to us in our conscience, speaks to us in our joys, and shouts to us in our pain. Pain is God’s megaphone.”

I’d like for us to think about some of the things which God needs to say to us that He needs to get our attention for, first of all. It’s interesting to me, it’s of great significance I think, that as far as we know, the oldest book in the Bible, the book of Job, is the one that deals most specifically and head on with the subject of suffering.

You remember that Job was called a blameless man, that righteous man. God Himself said that Job was a blameless man. If the morality of those days was that a good man would be blessed and an evil man would be punished, then Job’s experience seemed to turn that completely upside down.

Job lost everything. You remember that there was a drama that went on behind the scenes that as far as we know, Job was never given a clue about. Satan challenged God in heaven and he said, “Of course Job trusts you, but does he trust you for nothing? Try taking away all those blessings and then see where Job’s faith goes.” God accepted Satan’s challenge. And here we have a mystery which we cannot begin to explain.

In fact, it was God who called Satan’s attention to that individual, Job. He gave Satan permission to take things away from Job. He lost his flocks and his herds and his servants and his sons and his daughters and his house and finally even the confidence of his wife. As he sat on his ash heap and his health had been touched by that time and he was scraping himself with potsherds in utter anguish and misery, he kept silence for seven days as his friends, as they were called, sat there and looked at him and apparently didn’t say anything either, for seven days.

When Job finally broke silence, he howled his complaints at God. We hear Job called a patient man, but if you read the book of Job, you won’t really find a lot of evidence that he was patient. But he never doubted that God existed. He said some of the very worst things that could possibly be said about God.

Isn’t it interesting that the Spirit of God preserved those things for you and me. God is big enough to take anything that we can dish out to Him. He even saw to it that Job’s howls and complaints were preserved in black and white for our instruction. So never hesitate to say what you really feel to God because remember that God knows what you think before you know and He certainly knows what you’re going to say before you even think it.

So for some samples of these dreadful things that this patient man, Job, said to God, how about Job 3:11, 19 and 20, where he says, “Why was I not stillborn? Why did I not die when I came out of the womb? Why should the sufferer be born to see the light? Why is life given to men who find it so bitter?”

You see Job here dialoguing with God. There’s no question in Job’s mind throughout this entire book of the existence of God. He knows that it is God with whom he has to deal. “Somebody is behind all this,” he’s saying. And the question "Why?" presupposes that there is reason, that there is a mind behind all that may appear to be mindless suffering.

We would never ask the question “Why?” if we really believed that the whole of the universe was an accident and that you and I are completely at the mercy of chance. The very question “Why?” even if it is flung at us by one who calls himself an unbeliever or an atheist is a dead giveaway that there is that sneaking suspicion in the back of every human mind that there is somebody, some reason, some thinking individual behind this.

Then Job addresses God directly in the tenth chapter and he says, “Can’t you take your eyes off me? Won’t you leave me alone long enough to swallow my spit? You shaped me and made me. Now you’ve turned to destroy me. You kneaded me like clay, and now you are grinding me to a powder.” Anybody ever felt like that? Does that ring any bells out there? “God is grinding me to a powder. He doesn’t give me a chance to swallow my spit.”

And then, of course, his friends who are very orthodox, they never say a word that is not theologically sound. They begin to accuse him of foolish notions, a belly full of wind, they say. Job is utterly lacking in the fear of God and he is pitting himself against the Almighty, charging Him head down like an angry bull.

And then Job calls Eliphaz a windbag. This is the pot calling the kettle black. But his friend and enemies can’t hold a candle to God who has “set upon me and mauled me, seized me by the neck and worried me. He set me up as his target. His arrows rained up on me from every side. He is pitiless. He cut deep into my vitals. He spilt my gall on the ground.” Now, can you top that? Would you dare to say such things aloud?

Then Job asks God question after question after question. At one point he says, “If I ask him a thousand questions he won’t even answer one of them.” And he was right. Remember that when God finally breaks His silence, God does not answer a single question. God’s response to Job’s questions is mystery. In other words, God answers Job’s mystery with the mystery of Himself.

He starts right in snowing poor Job with questions. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the world? Have you seen the treasures of the snow? Have you walked in the great deep? Do you know where the wild ass gives birth? Have you presided over the doe in labor?” And He goes on and on and on, question after question after question. But what He’s doing is revealing to Job who He is.

As I said in my first talk, God through my own troubles and sufferings has not given me explanations, but He has met me as a person, as an individual. And that’s what we need. Who of us in the worst pit that we’ve been in needs anything as much as we need company—just somebody perhaps who will sit there in silence and just be with us? Job never denies God’s existence, never imagines that God has nothing to do with his troubles but has a thousand questions, and so do we.

If your prayers don’t get answered the way that you thought they were supposed to be, what happens to your faith? The world says, “God doesn’t love you.” The Scriptures tell me something very different. Those “Blessed’s” of the Beatitudes; Paul’s word, “It is my happiness to suffer for You.” We don’t know the answer, but we know it lies deep within the mystery of the freedom to choose.

When God created man, Adam and Eve, He created them with the freedom to choose—to love Him or to defy Him. They chose to defy Him. Adam and Eve abused that freedom. And C.S. Lewis says in his book, The Problem of Pain, “Man is now a horror to God and to himself and a creature ill-adapted to the universe not because God made him so but because he has made himself so by the abuse of his free will.”

Lewis goes on to state this naughty problem in its simplest form. “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy. And if God were Almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy; therefore, God lacks either the goodness or the power or both.”

So answering the question depends upon our definition of “good.” Ancient man thought of “goodness” in moral terms. Modern man equates “good” with “happiness.” If it ain’t fun, it ain’t good. The two things almost seem to be mutually exclusive. If it’s good, it’s not fun. It has nothing to do with my happiness. Moral man was concerned primarily with moral goodness.

If we learn to know God in the midst of our pain, we come to know Him as one who is not a High Priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. He is one who has been over every inch of the road. I love that old hymn from I think the seventeenth century by Richard Baxter: “Christ leads me through no darker rooms than He went through before.” I love those words.

I have some dear friends who are missionaries in North Africa. He was one of the many seminary students who have lived in our house. I had a letter from them about a year or so ago to tell me that they had just lost their baby girl. I think it was either at birth or just within a few hours after birth. Their letter was filled with the anguish that that cost them. And of course, I wanted to answer the letter. But I never lost a baby. I only have one child who was ten months old when her father was killed. So I couldn’t write to Phil and Janet and say, “I know exactly what you’ve been through.”

But I’ve read the wonderful letters of Samuel Rutherford, that Scottish preacher from the seventeenth century who seems to have been through just about every imaginable human mill and he had lost at least one child. I had his letters in my study. So I looked up one of his letters to a woman who had lost a child. This is what he wrote to her, and I quoted these words to Phil and Janet after saying to them, “I don’t know what you’re going through, but I know the One who knows.” I sent them Samuel Rutherford’s words. He had lost two daughters; I have here in my notes. This is what he said:

Grace rooteth not out the affections of a mother but putteth them on His wheel who maketh all things new, that they may be refined. He commandeth you to weep. And that Princely One took up to heaven with Him a man’s heart to be a compassionate High Priest. The cup ye drink was at the lip of sweet Jesus, and He drank of it.

And Janet wrote to me these words: “The storm of pain is calming down and the Lord is painting a new and different picture of Himself.” I saw in her experience that the very suffering itself was an irreplaceable medium. God was using that thing to speak to Janet and Phil in a way that He could not have spoken if He had not gotten their attention through the death of that little child.

Now, I don’t mean to simplify to oversimplify things as though that explains it, that God had to say something to those two people because if I know anything about godliness, I know that Phil and Janet Linton are both godly people.

That raises another painful question, doesn’t it. We often say, “Why did such and such have to happen to her. She is such a wonderful person. Why did he have to go through this? He’s such a wonderful person.” Well, again, the word is, “Trust Me.”

Back when I was a college student, I was dabbling around in poetry as I suppose most teenage girls do at some point. But I wrote some words that later on seemed to me to be almost prophetic. I wrote these words, and I really don’t remember exactly whether there was any particular reason I wrote them at the time. But something had given me a clue that there could be some loneliness ahead for me. These were the words that I wrote:

Perhaps some future day, Lord,
Thy strong hand will lead me to the place
Where I must stand utterly alone;
Alone, Oh gracious Lover, but for Thee.

I shall be satisfied if I can see Jesus only.
I do not know Thy plan for years to come.
My spirit finds in Thee its perfect home: sufficiency.
Lord, all my desire is before Thee now.
Lead on no matter where, no matter how,
I trust in Thee.

I began keeping journals back when I was about sixteen or seventeen, and so I’ve been keeping them ever since. That makes quite a few years. As I went back to re-read some of those earlier journals in preparation for these talks, I thought, Well, I’d better go back and see whether I know anything about what I’m talking about. I found a few little things in the journal. One of the things which I did feel was significant was the fact that again and again I quote hymns about the cross—hymns which were favorites at different times.

One of them that I learned in college was, “O teach me what it meaneth, that cross uplifted high, with one the man of Sorrows condemned to bleed and die.” I could go on and on with hymns that I could quote. “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” has always been a favorite of mine.

But as I came across those in my journals, I thought, What did I imagine would be the answer to the prayer I was praying in those hymns? What kind of an answer did I really expect God to give me? Did I expect some kind of a miraculous revelation, perhaps, some deep original insight into the meaning of the cross? Did I expect God to make some kind of a spiritual giant out of me so that I would have mysteries at my fingertips that other people didn’t know anything about?

Well, I haven’t the slightest idea of what I really thought. I suppose it was all very vague and mystical in my mind. I didn’t know what God would do by way of answering that prayer. But I can look back over these forty-five years or so and see that God in fact is in the process of answering those prayers.

“Teach me what it meaneth, that cross uplifted high.” What is this great symbol of the Christian faith? It’s a symbol of suffering. That is what the Christian faith is about. It deals head on with this question of suffering and no other religion of the world does that. Every other religion in some way evades the question.

Christianity has at its very heart this question of suffering. It comes—the answer to our prayers, “Teach me what it meaneth; in the cross, be my glory ever; beneath the cross of Jesus”—not in the form of a revelation or an explanation or a vision but in the form of a Person. He comes to you and me in our sorrow and He says, “Trust Me. Walk with Me.”

I have to insert in here another little grandchild story, and you’re going to have to bear with me. You know grandmothers do tell grandchild stories. But they seem so appropriate so often. In this particular case, my little four-year-old granddaughter, Christiana, had to be spanked four times, three times in one day, for the same offense. She had not come running quickly when she was called. And my daughter, as my mother treated delayed obedience as disobedience, Valerie tries to do the same thing. So Christiana was spanked three times on that particular Sunday.

So Sunday night when it was time to go to church and she was called, she came charging out to the car, tears pouring down her face, her arms full of a Bible, a notebook, a pen—four years old, mind you—on her way to church. Had to have a Bible, a notebook, a pen, her barrettes, her necklaces, her bracelets, her hair ribbons and who know what else was essential. All this stuff falling out of her arms. She was tripping over things, tears pouring down her face, and she stopped and she said, “Oh Mama, if only Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned.”

Now that child was suffering because she lives in a fallen world. And you and I live in that same fallen world. We have to look at these awful facts:

  • the fact of sin and suffering and death 
  • the fact that God created a world where those things were possible
  • the fact that He does love us—that means that He wants nothing less than our perfection and joy
  • that He gave us the freedom to choose
  • that man decided that his own idea of perfection and joy was better than God’s and believed what Satan told him 

Therefore sin and suffering entered into the world and now we’re saying, “Why doesn’t God do something about it?”

And the Christian answer is, “He did. He became the victim, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.”

As the Psalmist said in Psalm 46: “Though the earth shake and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea, God is our refuge” (v. 1 paraphrase). I speak to you as one who has desperately needed a refuge. And in that same Psalm he says, “Be still” (v. 10). And I am told it’s legitimate to translate that, “Shut up and know that I am God.” That’s the message.

Nancy: Elisabeth Elliot has been challenging us with an important question. Will we trust God even when nothing around us is making sense? Here at Revive Our Hearts we get a lot of emails from our listeners about the painful situations that so many find themselves in.

So I know that suffering is something that all of us go through to greater or lesser degrees. And if you’re not going through suffering right now, well, chances are before very long you will find yourself in some deeply difficult or painful situation. It’s an unavoidable part of life in this fallen world.

I hope that the insight that Elisabeth Elliot has shared with us has been encouraging and helpful to you. If you missed any of the program today, you can go to ReviveOurHearts.com. You can read a transcript of today’s message, or you can listen to the audio.

Maybe this message has made you think of someone else who’s going through a tough time. You know that they would benefit from hearing this program as well. Well, you can send them a link to today’s program from ReviveOurHearts.com.

Now, throughout the month of July, we’re going to focus on some practical life issues here at Revive Our Hearts. We’ll hear a series of interviews on a number of specific topics. We’ll begin Monday with Shaunti Feldhahn. Her book For Women Only has turned ten years old, and she’s going to share with us some of the things that she’s learned about relationships since first writing that book. I hope that you’ll participate in worship at your local church this weekend and then be sure to join us again on Monday for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries. 

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