A couple of weeks ago I had the great privilege to meet a New York Times best-selling author. While I was in Washington, D.C., for a board meeting, Ellen Vaughn met my friend Susan Yates and I for lunch, bringing with her the journal Elisabeth Elliot kept for the too-few years of her marriage to Jim.
The journal was small, black and thin. Holding it in my hands and reading some of the entries felt almost holy. I didn’t know of this woman who would mark my life when she recorded these entries. Neither did the world. But when her marriage ended as a spear sliced its way into and through her young missionary husband’s heart, her life as a celebrity Christian began.
I first encountered Elisabeth Elliot during my college years, not knowing she would become my mentor about 15 years later.
At the start of my sophomore year a friend invited me to a Bible study. I’d never heard of the concept but I was intrigued. The next night found Pam and me in a group of about 25 other students, men and women, where I discovered to my surprise that I was not a Christian. Eagerly I took the small booklet given to me, returned to my room, read every word and prayed to invite Jesus into my life, to give myself to His leading and Lordship.
My declared major in college was history, but I now had a minor: Christianity. Over the next three years I attended Bible studies, group meetings, and conferences, eventually becoming a leader in our campus ministry. Those years became known as the Jesus Movement; it was a time of spiritual revival on many campuses and in churches across our country.
At one of those early conferences I first heard Elisabeth Elliot speak. Voraciously I took notes. I was in awe of her story but mostly I was drawn to her life, her example, her strength of faith. There were lots of other students and staff ahead of me in this faith journey, but none of the stature of Elisabeth. Here was a woman of faith I could emulate. I was zealous for Christ. I wanted a strong faith like hers. I wanted to be a strong woman like her.
She gave me a vision for my new born-again faith. Elisabeth was the kind of Christian woman I aspired to become.
I began to read her books, and whenever I heard her speak I listened with rapt attention.
After four short years of knowing Jesus as Savior I became the wife of my best friend from college, Dennis. And then the babies began to arrive. In my early parenting years I often felt lost and very alone as my exciting, visionary husband traveled frequently to change the world while all I did was change diapers. I remembered those exciting college days when he and I were equally involved. But now conferences and Bible studies disappeared from my life for a season of years … replaced by books and a subscription to a printed newsletter which came to my mailbox somewhat regularly. Its creator and author was Elisabeth Elliot.
Today I remember vividly the days her four-page folded newsletter arrived in our mailbox. It was as if a treasured gift arrived (I still have all of them in a fat 3-inch binder). I carried each installment home down our long hilly driveway, strategizing when I could steal away to read. Alone. My soul was always thirsty—panting to drink in the refreshment of her biblical teaching.
Elisabeth was my mentor from afar during these years. She kept me grounded, reminding me that this season was a gift, that He knows what He’s doing. “God is with you,” I heard her say to my heart; He was guiding me, and my faith still mattered in that hidden season of my life.
In my kids’ teen years I devoured other books she wrote. Let Me Be a Woman and Passion and Purity became textbooks for Dennis and me as we sought to do our best to guide, protect, and help our kids keep their sexual purity for marriage.
As a child of the late 60’s and the budding sexual revolution, and having watched its unrelenting march with the damage it brought even then, I wanted to do all I could to protect our teens’ innocence and purity. Hearing in the last few years that millennials are pushing back against our generation of parents for imposing a “purity culture” on them has been puzzling to me. Purity is a character quality of God and we are to be holy as He is holy. I would do it all over again. We have an enemy whose sole objective is to divide, destroy, and kill.
After knowing Elisabeth from her writing and speaking, I finally met her in person during this season of my kids’ teen years. She came to Little Rock to be interviewed on FamilyLife Today and she also came to our Weekend to Remember speaker retreats to speak to our group and answer questions in small sessions.
For 25 years I’d admired her and was challenged by her courage to go to the jungles of Ecuador, her courage to continue after her husband Jim’s death, her courage to speak about her suffering and what God taught her, and her courage to just keep going day after day, year after year.
Unsurprisingly Elisabeth was a normal woman with struggles and challenges faced by all. As in her writing so in the flesh, her ongoing surrender to the sovereignty of God, her resolve to obey Christ no matter what, is what meant the most to me.
In one interview Dennis asked her, “Do you ever struggle with submission in this season of life?” She replied without hesitation, “With every fiber of my being.” Once again she was mentoring me.
And she laughed and enjoyed the light-hearted banter my husband created in their interviews. He is rarely intimidated by anyone—he recognizes we are all broken people—and so he teased her, encouraged her laughter and made her comfortable sharing honestly about her present life.
Unlike many who have taken offense by Elisabeth’s seemingly sharp replies, I loved her bluntness, her black and white straightforward answers. She was not of this generation which fears offending anyone. It was clear where she stood. And I have a feeling Paul and the other apostles might come across equally strong if we could hear their voices speaking today.
Last summer I read her new book, Suffering Is Never for Nothing, published after her death in 2015. And once again Elisabeth spoke to my heart and soul. I could almost hear her voice on every page. Even from heaven she is mentoring me.
Hebrews 12:1-2 tells us, “Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which clings so closely and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus …” Elisabeth has joined this throng of faith heroes and yet her words still live with us to encourage us to faith and endurance.
And now my new friend Ellen Vaughn’s biography, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, will introduce many more of you to this remarkable woman. In this book full of quotes from her journals and stories of her ongoing sufferings, Christian women today can find in her life a friend, an inspiration, a vision for the kind of faith God calls us to as His children.
Another woman admired greatly and also quoted by Elisabeth, Lilias Trotter, wrote, “Should Jesus tarry our works will follow us.” And so the work of this woman, my mentor from afar, still lives to point us to Jesus.
I highly recommend it for your summer reading.
May you ask God what you can learn from her example. I think she’d love to mentor you too.