Lessons from the Life of Elisabeth Elliot

1 December 2022

6.7 MINS

We have so much to learn from the amazing life of Elisabeth Elliot, particularly regarding obedience and suffering.

I recently revisited a 2020 volume by Ellen Vaughn. It is the authorised biography of Elisabeth Elliot. With all the bad news coming out of so many places around the world, including here in Victoria, I knew that re-immersing myself in the life of this great saint would do my soul some good, lift my spirits, give me some hope, and perhaps provide a few answers to nagging questions I had.

I trust all my readers know of her and her husband Jim, both missionaries in Ecuador in the 1950s. If not, you can check out an earlier article of mine on this remarkable woman of God.

Let me offer a very brief timeline, and then look at some lessons gleaned from her life, and from the book I just mentioned.

  • 1926 Born in Brussels
  • 1927 Family moves to Philadelphia
  • 1940s Attends Wheaton College
  • 1952 Both Jim and Elisabeth — a few months apart — set sail for Ecuador for missionary work
  • 1953 They marry
  • 1955 Valerie is born
  • 1956 Jim and four others are speared to death by the tribesmen they were trying to reach
  • 1958 She moves in with the Waodani people who had killed her husband
  • 1960 Many of them accept Christ
  • 1963 She returns to America
  • 1969 Marries Addison Leitch (who passes away in 1973)
  • 1977 Marries Lars Gren (who was diagnosed with dementia in 2016)
  • 2015 Passes away after a decade suffering from dementia

Becoming Elisabeth Elliott bookThe book in question is Becoming Elisabeth Elliot (B&H). It tells her story up until the time she left Ecuador and returned to America in 1963. Those who know a fair bit about her, and have read some of her books, will already know something about the four lessons I reflect on here — lessons that all believers need to learn and master.


Perhaps one of the most important issues that Elisabeth always stressed — and fully lived — was that of obedience. That for her was the highest calling she had: to obey her Lord no matter what. Such obedience will be a costly obedience. It was for our Lord and it will be for his disciples. Says Vaughn:

Ever since Betty arrived in Ecuador, she had walked the path God set out for her, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the summit, then finding there were more and more peaks to climb. … She realized that on a subconscious level, perhaps she had thought what obedience to Christ would mean following Him to some destination — like a thatched hut in the jungle — and then staying there. Perhaps she’d assumed that obedience in ministry meant following Jesus to an endpoint where one would stay put, and all would flourish. Now she realized, yet again, that a life of obedience never really comes in for a landing, so to speak. “He leads us right on, right through, right up to the threshold of Heaven. He does not say to us, ever, ‘Here it is.’ He says only, ‘Here am I. Fear not’.”

Now Betty didn’t think of her life as a series of “summits” to be climbed all the way to heaven, a steady “triumphal” path toward victory, as it was sometimes presented in Christian circles. She thought more about Jesus than the particular outcomes or accomplishments He might have for her. It was all about walking with Jesus … and in a mystical way, He was both the journey and the destination. (pp. 252-253)

And again:

In her own encounter with the cross, Betty determinedly sought the path of obedience, regardless of how she felt. … Betty knew that it was ‘always hard to look at things spiritually, especially when they look a mess.’ One could easily fall into one of two extremes analyzing the work among the Waodani. One is cheery triumphalism, which shines up the story… The other is to focus solely on human flaws, magnify any weaknesses, and bitterly discredit the entire work as a failure. The hard road is to see both the good and bad, know that God works in all kinds of ways through all kinds of people, and praise Him that he is sovereign over it all. (p. 273)


Of course, if obedience was one of the major themes exemplified in her life and constantly written about in her books, so too is that of suffering. Indeed, the two are closely tied together. Our Lord, who fully obeyed the Father, is known as the suffering servant. And he promised his followers that suffering would be their lot as well. And Elisabeth knew all about suffering — probably far more than most of us will. Writes Vaughn:

She often called herself a pessimist, saying it was a gift that ran in her family. I prefer to call her a realist. Life is hard. It’s a lie to project that God’s will on this earth is for us to be safe, pain-free, and prosperous. Ask any hardy Christian suffering persecution at the hands of hostile governments or majority-religion extremists today. God keeps our souls safe, secure for eternity. He may give riches in this world, yes, to some. But to all His children who hide in Him, He gives security and riches to the soul.

Suffering in this world somehow refines our character and marvels in the next world; the one that lasts forever, the one with joys beyond human conception. And suffering is one of God’s sanctifying tools. God is not a cosmic plumber who shows up to make things run smoothly for us. When He doesn’t fix broken situations in our lives, it’s usually because He is fixing us through them…

Many of the mature Elisabeth Elliot’s later books would organically return to this theme. Those who know her writings well can’t imagine her life and body of work without this trademark theme of suffering. In an increasingly pain-averse North American culture, Betty and a few others, like Joni Eareckson Tada, served as the authoritative voices on the topic for the second half of the twentieth century (and beyond). 271

See here for more on this vital topic, and for some more great quotes by Elisabeth.

Not the outcome you would expect

This goes along with the lesson on suffering, but it is something we all must take to heart. No matter how faithful and true we are to our Lord, that does NOT mean everything will turn out peachy. Despite the nonsense proclaimed by the name it and claim it teachers and the health and wealth gospellers, the Christian life does not work that way.

All the great saints of God have suffered in so many ways. People like John the Baptist could be fully in the will of God, yet still end up having his head lopped off. People like Paul could be as close to God as one could get, yet his life was a never-ending series of hardships, trials and suffering.

As the timeline above makes clear, two of Betty’s husbands died after only a short period of marriage. One would think that if one gives up everything to serve the Lord in some overseas missionary calling, at least one could do it with one’s beloved husband, especially with a young daughter in tow. But that was not to be the case. Writes Vaughn:

Elisabeth Elliot said it best in her classic response to those who would ask “why” in order to make sense of the tragedy…

“For us widows the question as to why the men who had trusted God to be both shield and defender should be allowed to be speared to death was not one that could easily or smoothly be answered in 1956, nor yet silenced [later]… I believe with all my heart that God’s story has a happy ending…. But not yet, not necessarily yet. It takes faith to hold on to that in the face of the great burden of experience, which seems to prove otherwise. What God means by happiness and goodness is a far higher thing than we can conceive….” (p. 260)

And worse yet (although not the topic of this book), we know that at the end of her life, Elisabeth went through the horrible process of dementia for a decade or more. Imagine that: so faithfully and sacrificially serving the Lord for all those decades, yet ending up going through all that further suffering. God guarantees us nothing for our obedience — at least in terms of comfort, convenience and ease. But he does promise to be with us during these very dark times.

Wounded relationships

There is little question that often the greatest source of our trials and hardships comes in the form of relationships — especially involving people that we love, live with or work with, but who are so very hard to get along with. Broken or strained relationships are always difficult, especially given the calls for love and unity found so often in the New Testament.

But sadly, these goods do not always occur. Sometimes even the most godly people have to suffer through quite difficult relationship issues. Several chapters of this book are spent on the very trying times she had with Rachel Saint, the sister of martyred missionary Nate Saint.

For some years they both worked on mastering the Waodani language, to eventually get it down in writing, to see a Bible one day produced in their native tongue. But the two were very different in so many key ways, and the relationship was nearly always strained. Elisabeth finally came to see that they would have to go their own ways, so she returned to the US while Rachel stayed behind.

If you are like me, you will know that one of the hardest things about Christian ministry is dealing with others — and especially dealing with other Christians. Sometimes you try your best to work with others, and sometimes the relationship succeeds. But sometimes it will not, and one has to simply move on. All this can be so very painful and difficult, but it is the lot of all of us. Remember, Jesus knew all about betrayal, rejection and conflict, even with those who were closest to him.

These then are four — of many — important lessons we can glean from the life of this amazing Christ-follower. And many thanks to Ellen Vaughn for penning this important volume and highlighting some of these truths.


Originally published at CultureWatch.

We need your help. The continued existence of the Daily Declaration depends on the generosity of readers like you. Donate now. The Daily Declaration is committed to keeping our site free of advertising so we can stay independent and continue to stand for the truth.

Fake news and censorship make the work of the Canberra Declaration and our Christian news site the Daily Declaration more important than ever. Take a stand for family, faith, freedom, life, and truth. Support us as we shine a light in the darkness. Donate now.

Leave A Comment

Recent Articles:

Use your voice today to protect

Faith · Family · Freedom · Life



The Daily Declaration is an Australian Christian news site dedicated to providing a voice for Christian values in the public square. Our vision is to see the revitalisation of our Judeo-Christian values for the common good. We are non-profit, independent, crowdfunded, and provide Christian news for a growing audience across Australia, Asia, and the South Pacific. The opinions of our contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of The Daily Declaration. Read More.