My Life with Elisabeth Elliot, a Mentor Worth Following

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.

 

You can listen to interviews with Elisabeth Elliot here.

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8 thoughts on “My Life with Elisabeth Elliot, a Mentor Worth Following”

  1. I encountered the story of Jim and Elisabeth through the play “Through the Gates of Splendor” at Tennessee Temple University in the 1970’s ! I continued somewhat to follow her , what an influence she had on my Christian journey ! She still does ! Thank you for sharing Barbara!

  2. Hi Barbara, I became a believer in Jesus when I was 17 but went to Urbana 73 in Southern Illinois while in college. I had met this guy at Leadership training at YoungLife camp and we were corresponding. He was so different from me and I asked Elizabeth about him when she lead a small group I happened to land in. She said very directly that I should take into consideration that I would be able to adjust to him because if we married that would be what God would call me to do. That guy and I married 46.5 years ago and she was right! We are so different but have made a good team. Lots of negotiating along the way however. I have read many of her books and appreciate her straight forward answers. A friend of mine, Margaret Ashmore knew both Elizabeth and her husband who is really quite funny. I am now leading two Elijah studies by Priscilla Shirer and he is a good example hearing from God and standing for what is right. Thank you for sharing this and I look forward to reading Ellen’s book.

  3. Sharon R Harris

    Elizabeth Elliot was also my distant mentor. I learned so much from her while raising our 6 children especially on how to stay focus. To remember that this was God’s work I was doing, and to just “do the next thing”. I am presently reading ‘Becoming Elizabeth Elliott ‘ Thank you for sharing !

  4. My husband was a student at Gordon Conwell in MA. her husband taught there & I had the pleasure of attending a Bible.Study taught by her. Little did I realize at the time what an honor.that was. The years were 1973-1975
    After graduating my husband pastored 2 churches 20 years each. Sandy Engel
    Jacksonville, FL

  5. Ah! This brings tears to my eyes. It’s as though you were writing about me. I too was ‘mentored from afar’ by Elizabeth Elliot in those quiet years of changing diapers. And by you, Barbara, as those teens grew up, thank you! You and Dennis, and the family life conference have been the mentors that God called to teach us His ways. Each year, or every other year we would go to the conference, and come away strengthened to walk in Oneness with God and each other, to course correct where we had drifted with the culture. Just the other day I found one of the love letters from my beloved who generally signs cards with the two letters in his name. :) I can’t tell you how beautiful, heartfelt, romantic, deeply spiritual and a treasure his love letters are to me. I keep them in a treasure box to remind myself when tempted not to think on things that are true. I would not know the depth of the love in his heart without those conferences, they are treasures you have given us. I pray God blesses and refreshes you as you have so many. To me you are like the big sister I never had, always sharing the secrets I need to hear to walk this path God has called us to as Christian women, wives, and mothers. Like you, I too discovered that I was not a Christian in college. What a blessed journey, though strange as you mentioned, that our young people don’t understand our desire to help them know the holiness and purity without which no one shall see God. Keep it up sister, God has a plan whether we see or understand it now, so we must keep lighting the path for others. Lord bless and keep you, and fill you with His Peace and Presence.

  6. JOYCE E HOWLETT

    I’m curious if we could listen in some way to that recording of Dennis interviewing Elisabeth Elliot.

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