Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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Dannah Gresh: Elisabeth Elliot knew serving Jesus meant putting it all on the line. Here’s Ellen Vaughn.

Ellen Vaughn: The missionary life was, in fact, what Amy Carmichael had called it, “A chance to die. Going forth to deliver the good news in a hostile culture can cost one his or her life.”

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, co-author of You Can Trust God to Write Your Story, for September 17, 2020. I’m Dannah Gresh.

We all want to please God and give our lives to Him, but can we say we want to do that even if it means actually, literally, giving our lives? As we’ll hear today, that’s something Jim and Elisabeth Elliot had decided long before the Waodoni’s spears entered the picture.

If you’re a mom with a little one close by, you need to know that some of today’s program might be disturbing to young children. You may want to distract your kids somewhere else or listen later. You can do that on the Revive Our Hearts app or at ReviveOurHearts.com.

Now, here’s Nancy continuing her conversation with bestselling author, Ellen Vaughn.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Many of our listeners are very familiar with the story of Elisabeth Elliot, a woman who lived from 1926 to 2015, when the Lord took her home. You grew up under her teaching, her ministry, her radio ministry, Gateway To Joy. You’ve read her books. You’ve heard her speak.

So many women have told us, “Elisabeth Elliot was a mentor to me. She was the spiritual mother I never had. She talked sense and was no fluff and was just direct, but so helpful.” Many women who are part of the Revive Our Hearts family were deeply impacted by the life and the work of Elisabeth Elliot. For some of you, she’s new.

For you, Elisabeth Elliot may be a less familiar name, and maybe you didn’t grow up in that environment where she was talked about, or you didn’t hear her program. And that’s okay, because we’re making up for lost time this week by introducing you to the life and work of Elisabeth Elliot, particularly focusing on the early years.

Our guest all this week is Ellen Vaughn, who is the biographer of the official, newly released, authorized, biography called Becoming Elisabeth Elliot.

Now, it’s called “Becoming” because . . .

Ellen: It’s about her becoming Elisabeth Elliot. I think all of us, in our stories, our growing up years and our developmental years and the challenges and the blessings and the horrors and the messes, all the parts of our story as we are becoming the person that God has meant us to be. And so, as you just said, a lot of us are familiar with the twice-widowed, middle-aged Elisabeth Elliot, who was a speaker and a writer on the evangelical circuit.

But I found while investigating the journals of the unpublished private life of the younger Elisabeth Elliot that:

  • I could really relate to this young woman of faith.
  • It was a very dramatic story, mostly unfolding in the Ecuadorian rainforest, and in a time of great joy and great loss and great drama for the young Elisabeth.

Nancy: And, of course, that young Elisabeth never expected that we would be reading her books and telling her story. She was just being obedient to what God put in front of her. She didn’t think of herself as extraordinary. She didn’t think of herself as iconic or somebody that people would follow in droves. She wasn’t looking for popularity or success or a big ministry.

She really went to Ecuador, and eventually along with Jim Elliot, to lay down their lives—they didn’t know they would do it literally—for the sake of the gospel. They went to a really obscure people group where they were never going to get much in the way of large results or things that would be great to write home about. But they believed in the power of the gospel and the love of Christ for the world, and they wanted this indigenous people group to know about Christ.

They weren’t being heroic. They didn’t think of themselves as martyrs. They were just taking the next step of what God called them to. I love that, because there was no building a ministry in this or making a show or performing. It was, I want to say simple, but I don’t mean easy. It was a next-foot-in-front-of-the-other obedience to the call of God.

Ellen: Oh my goodness, right! Part of what was intriguing to me is sort of a bit of wondering “what if.” What if Jim Elliot had lived? There’s a part in this story, as I tell it in the book, where Elisabeth and Jim are living among the Quichuan Indians.

They have a ministry where Jim is grooming indigenous leaders within the church and the community of believers there. He’s training up young men to take on the leadership of their own ministry.

They have a little girl, Valerie, who is a wonderful toddler. They are hoping for more children. They’ve picked out names for the next child.

It’s a moment in time, as I was writing, that felt quite lovely. There’s a place where Elisabeth Elliot is writing in her journal, and they’re living in the house that Jim has built in the jungle, and working with the Quichuans, and she says, “Oh Lord, I wonder what the years ahead will hold. Hopefully more children and more ministry. Oh Lord, what will it be?”

There’s that sense of this young woman looking ahead, basically, to what she hopes will be a long life of raising a whole generation of strapping, young Elliot children and doing ministry right in the jungle among the Quichuans.

Nancy: But the story she had in mind, or could have envisioned for herself, was different than the story that God was writing.

Ellen: Correct. Jim and his colleagues, which there were four other missionaries who are known and associated in this story: Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, and Jim Elliot. It wasn’t like Jim Elliot and four other nameless colleagues. There were five of these guys, incredible followers of Jesus, married to strong, sacrificing, Christ-following wives, and nine children between them all.

So they were a group of missionaries in that area of the jungle at the time. They had become aware of a group, an indigenous people group, which we now call today the Waodani. The Waodani were extremely violent, extremely homicidal. They killed each other with impunity. They killed any outsiders with their nine-foot spears. They were a Stone-Age tribe, and they were really in the process of exterminating themselves as a people group.

Jim and Ed and Pete and the others all really had a sense of calling from God to reach this tribal group with the gospel. “There’s another way to live besides this dark reign of death in your lives of killing each other off.”

They began to express overtures of friendship to the tribal group. They live in an isolated part of the jungle. Nate Saint rigged up a way to use an airplane to drop gifts in. There was work that was done in beginning to learn the very difficult language. The men would use megaphones and shout from the low-flying airplane, “We come in peace,” basically.

They began to look, “Is there a way Lord that You could give us an inroad to this people group? Is there a way that we can love them and bring the gospel, a different way to live for free to these people?”

In the book I describe the long and pretty responsible journey they took of trying to establish contact.

Nancy: Yes. They weren’t just reckless.

Ellen: They didn’t drop in first thing. They built, what seemed to be, an opening where the Waodani were then reciprocating. They cleared an area of the jungle so the people in the plane could see their settlement better. The Waodani actually attached in the bucket that had dropped from the plane gifts back up—a monkey, a parrot, some pottery—all kinds of things. These seemed like gestures, certainly, of friendship and openness.

As the missionaries were coming to the end of the year, 1955, they had an unforgettable, what would turn out to be a last Christmas together. Nate Saint wrote in his own journal,

As we’re having a high old time this Christmas, I cannot help but think of the generations of those who have gone to their nameless graves without the knowledge of Christ.

All of the men were burdened, as the burden that only the Holy Spirit can give. All of the wives were totally in solidarity. Elisabeth wanted to go in. She kept arguing—she was a great arguer. She had been on the debate team in college, and she argued that she and Jim’s little baby Valerie and Jim should be the ones to go in, that probably the Waodani would not attack a family group. And very uncharacteristically, that was an argument she lost.

So right at the beginning of the new year, in January of 1956, the men had prepared to come to a clearing in the jungle where Nate Saint could land his little yellow airplane. They built a treehouse thirty-five feet off the ground and kind of set up a camp there where they could wait and make contact with the Waodani. The stage was set with the prayer in everyone’s heart that the Waodani could be contacted and hear the gospel expressed both in deed and eventually through word, through learning their language.

Nancy: Describe for us the last time that Elisabeth and the other wives saw their husbands before the event that was so marked in the history of the Church.

Ellen: Well, I’ll speak just for Elisabeth, and certainly, for her, she had a sense that she might not see Jim again. Again, the reputation of the Waodani was well known. They killed all outsiders. They had seemed more friendly, but who knows what would happen.

We talked a few days ago about Elisabeth’s early years. I think Elisabeth was prepared in some ways for what might well happen to her husband by the environment she grew up in. She grew up in a home where they constantly hosted visiting missionaries from around the world.

One of those visitors, when Elisabeth was a little girl, was a young woman named Betty Scott. Betty Scott sat at the family dinner table. She was getting ready to go to the mission field where she would marry her beloved, John Stam. They were going to work together in China. So Betty Scott-Stam went off to China.

When Elisabeth was a little bit older, the news came back that Betty and John Stam had both been arrested by the Communists, who were in a period of great political volatility in China at the time. They had been marched with their hands tied behind their backs through the village, stripped of their clothing. At one point as they were being marched along, a shopkeeper, who had come to know Jesus because of the Stams, rushed out and begged with the Communist authorities to spare the missionaries’ lives, and he was cast aside.

Elisabeth Elliot from a past recording: Betty had to watch as John Stam had his head chopped off. And then Betty was forced to put her neck on the chopping block, and her head also was chopped off.

I can remember the Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper that my father brought home telling the story of John and Betty Stam. And far from dissuading me from wanting to be a missionary, I thought, What a wonderful way to go—just get your head chopped off. Well, the Lord didn’t allow me to have that happen—so far. (laughter) But they were among the many, many missionaries who came through our home.

It was when I was eight that my father brought home this newspaper with these horrifying stories about them. But I remember very vividly when I came across a prayer when I was twelve years old, the prayer that Betty had written when she was eighteen. It says,

Lord, I give up all my own plans and purposes, all my own desires and hopes, and accept Thy will for my life. I give myself, my life, my all, utterly to Thee to be Thine forever. Fill me and seal me with Thy Holy Spirit. Use me as Thou wilt. Send me where Thou wilt. And work out Thy whole will in my life at any cost now and forever. Amen.

Ellen: As that news came back to the missionary and Christian communities in the States, they mourned that awful loss. As Elisabeth Elliot grew a little older, she really internalized that the missionary life was in fact what Amy Carmichael had called, “A chance to die.” Now, that sounds pretty gruesome, sounds pretty awful. But sometimes there is that sense that, “Yes, going forth to deliver the good news in a hostile culture can cost one his or her life.”

Nancy: Well, isn’t that part of the gospel?

Ellen: I believe it is. I believe it’s part of the early Church.

Nancy: It’s the way of Christ. He laid down His life so that we could become children of God. And the servant is not greater than his master. He suffered for us. It is through, oftentimes, the willingness of God’s people to lay down their lives for the sake of Christ that the Church has been planted and has grown around the world. It’s that principle that Elisabeth Elliot understood, that death brings life.

What did Jesus say? You hold on to your life, you’re going to lose it, but you lay down your life, and God is going to be glorified, and you’re going to get your life back.

It’s a way of thinking that is uncommon in our modern-day Christianity in this part of the world.

Ellen: That’s true.

Nancy: For our other parts of the world that fully understands that a call to follow Christ is a call to come and die. And she understood that.

Ellen: Yes. And that formed the young woman, who would become Elisabeth Elliot, that formed her thinking from early on.

And so, to bring it forward, as Jim Elliot left that January day to go to the Waodani people with the good news of the gospel, Elisabeth wrote in her journal, “I wonder how I would feel to be a widow?” That wasn’t far from her thinking.

Nancy: Yes.

Ellen: And yet it was the type of thinking that had characterized her all the days of her life. Certainly, as you just said, this kind of Christianity, of mission service, of obedience to Christ being a chance to die, as Amy Carmichael said, that is counter-cultural in the United States and in North America. Our Christianity is often so comfortable.

And it’s a radical way to live, but it is the radical nature of the early Church, of what Jesus taught His disciples.

Nancy: It was normal for them. It’s become radical for us.

Ellen: Yes. And so you have a Jim Elliot who famously said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose.” That was the attitude that Jim Elliot and his great colleagues all took as they went to the Waodani.

Nancy: So we know, looking back now, that that day in January was the last day that Jim and Elisabeth Elliot would see each other this side of heaven. How did Elisabeth come to learn the news that his life had been taken along with the other missionaries?

Ellen: Well, this is where it was so precious, if I can use that word, to have her journal and to see her knowledge of what was going on unfold in real time. I’d encourage readers to read the book as the story unfolds—there’s too much to tell right here.

But Jim and the other missionaries had a very friendly meeting initially with a couple of Waodani people—two women and one man—who came and visited the campsite. There was a lot of cross-cultural confusion but very friendly interaction. So that happened on Friday, January 6, 1956. And those reports came back from the men’s camp, “Great! We had friendly contact. All is going great. Keep praying.”

And so then, on that Saturday, the next day, no contact.

The next day, on Sunday, Nate Saint circles above the clearing, looking in jungle, and he sees a group of tribal people approaching their campsite. He radios back to his wife, Marge Saint, a wonderful character who I get to talk about more in the book, and lets her know that, “They’re on the way. Pray for us. Today is the day.”

That was the last radio contact.

And what happened when those Waodani warriors came upon the missionaries that day? We have a good sense of what occurred because of the Waodani who were present telling many years later of what unfolded. They came heavily armed. They attacked the missionaries with an ambush. The missionaries had guns, and they had purposed to only fire warning shots into the air, that they would not harm the Waodani if they were attacked, but they would try to scare them off.

So some of the Waodani warriors who participated in the killings, years later came to know Jesus. They have told us over the years how the whole event, the sad event, the tragedy came down, how it transpired.

The missionaries certainly did not try to retaliate in any way, (that was clear to the Waodani), and lost their lives in the river that day. They were all speared savagely to death.

The wives, including Elisabeth, of course, back at home had no idea what had happened. Elisabeth herself had no sense that anything had gone wrong until the next morning. She had a radio transmission from Marge Saint, “Nothing has been heard from the fellows.”

One of the fellow pilots had taken off and circled above the jungle where the men had gone, and he saw the little yellow airplane with all of its coverings stripped off. It had been attacked, savagely. They knew that something horrible had happened.

What happened then was basically a large search party of United States military, Ecuadorian military, missionaries, Quichuan believers went to go and, hopefully, find any of the men who may have escaped the attack. Sadly, after days of trekking, they found five bodies. The men were buried on the beach, where they had died, in a very hasty funeral service.

And the missionaries who found their brothers who had been so savagely killed, their stories, too . . . I was astonished at just the faith of all of these people in these times and included some of their thoughts in the book’s account of what happened.

Nancy: Well, I’m sure in Elisabeth’s journals you get some sense of what she was thinking, now, unexpectedly, suddenly a widow with a little toddler girl. Take us behind the scenes of what she was walking through at that time.

Ellen: So, as those who have been through trauma know, in the midst of the trauma there’s almost a protection, adrenaline, whatever. In her journal as it was unfolding, “They found one body. Maybe the others have escaped. They found two bodies.”

And then, as the bodies are discovered, and then, by remnants of clothing, theyare identified, one by one each of the wives knew that her husband had been killed.

For Elisabeth, there was a lot of just this scribbling down of Scripture, Scripture, Scripture. She was in shock. She was strong. She did not weep. She was just waiting for more information. And then there are prayers interspersed with the Scripture, “Lord, help me to be father and mother to Val. I’m alone now.”

And yet, in those early weeks after the killings, I think that the shock of it all had somewhat protected her from what came in later—and that was the raw, restless, anxious, horrific grief, the pain of losing her beloved, the missing of him physically. Elisabeth Elliot, to many, seemed rather cerebral, but her journals are just pulsing with the passion of their relationship and her missing of her beloved, that part of her that she did not reveal as much to the outside world.

Nancy: Ellen, as Elisabeth was walking through this journey, there was, certainly, much more to come. We’ll talk more about that as we continue in this series. But I love the fact that she was turning to the same thing that sustains all of us in times of loss. (Hers was maybe made more famous than most of ours will be.) But she was turning to the Scripture. She was turning to the character of God. She was counseling her heart according to truth.

And this is the Elisabeth Elliot we knew and loved. She didn’t always do it perfectly, but in that moment, she knew she couldn’t rely on her own reasoning, her own understanding of why this had come about. That would have been an exercise in futility. But she knew that God was faithful, that His Word was true, and that’s where she turned.

In fact, Robert and I had the great privilege of attending both of Elisabeth Elliot’s memorial services—one in the Boston area where she and Lars Gren lived their final years, and the other in the Wheaton area where she had gone to school and had so many relationships there.

The marker at Elisabeth Elliot’s grave reflects what it was that she was believing back those decades earlier when she lost her first husband at the tip of a spear. It’s from Isaiah chapter 43, verse 2,

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Humanly speaking, it seems like maybe that verse wasn’t true. It seemed that those men who had served the Lord with all their hearts, their lives had been snuffed out. It’s not the way, again, we would have written the script. It’s not the way Elisabeth would have written the script.

But she trusted that in God’s great economy and His great redemptive story that He is writing with that ink of mercy and faithfulness and goodness and love, that, in the final analysis, their lives were not snuffed out. They had gone to their eternal reward, their eternal home, far sooner than she had hoped or expected. But she knew that on this path now where she would have these floods and these overwhelming waters, that they would not overwhelm her, and she banked on that.

Elisabeth from a past recording: What kind of God do we serve? He was a God who delivered Daniel from the lion’s jaws, walked with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the midst of the fiery furnace. He was the God who could open bars of iron and gates of brass and released from prison Paul and Silas and Peter.

But He was also the God who allowed John the Baptist to have his head chopped off. The God who was silent when they stoned His faithful witness, Stephen, to death. And the God who restrained Himself when they nailed His own Son to a cross.

I had to believe that everything that happened fit into a pattern for good. And the words that came to me when I received the radio message that my husband was missing were from Isaiah 43, verse 2: “When thou passeth through the waters, I will be with thee.”

Nancy: She banked on the faithfulness of God even at times when, perhaps, after those early days, when her emotions could have been screaming, “You’re going under! You’re going to drown!”

Here she was now, a young widow with this little girl, in the Ecuadorian jungle. But she knew that God who called her was faithful, and He would be faithful to her—and He was throughout her entire life, as He has been through your life, as He has been through mine, and as He will be through yours as you listen to the telling of this story.

You know, it comes across as remarkable faith and remarkable confidence in God, but if you know who God is, as He reveals Himself in His Word, this ought to be ordinary. This ought to be normal. It’s not so remarkable. What’s remarkable was that we should trust ourselves or our own emotions or be overwhelmed by these circumstances. But God says, “No. I will be with you.”

Ellen: This is basic Christianity going back to its roots.

Nancy: Yes.

Well, you’ll want to get a copy of this book, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. Ellen, I just love the way you have kind of helped us relive stories that actually happened. And these early parts of Elisabeth’s years before most of us were born, we’ve read about them in some of Elisabeth’s books, but you have made them come alive for a new generation that perhaps never read any of Elisabeth Elliot’s books.

We want to make this book available, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, to any of our listeners who make a donation to the work of Revive Our Hearts, which is really just helping women to develop that ordinary Christianity walk with God. You may never be famous for it, you probably won’t be, but there’s a reward to come. God will be with you through those fiery places, those deep waters, as He was with Elisabeth and those young widows when their husbands were speared to death.

When you make a donation to Revive Our Hearts of $30 or more, whatever God puts on your heart, we’ll invest that in sharing this good news of Christ with women around the world. And as our way of saying “thank you” to you, we’ll send you a copy of this newly released book—just released in this past week, the authorized biography of Elisabeth Elliot written by Ellen Vaughn.

To make your donation you can contact us at our website, ReviveOurHearts.com, or you can call us at 1–800–569–5959.

Thank you so much for your donation, your prayer support, your financial support to help this ministry—now in its twentieth year—continue sharing the amazing grace and faithfulness of God who never ever fails.

There’s so much more to Elisabeth Elliot’s story that I know you’ll want to hear from Ellen Vaughn, so I hope you’ll join us when we continue this conversation on the next Revive Our Hearts.

Challenging you to serve Jesus, even if it costs you your life. 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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