Elisabeth Elliott

Realism About Believers, Past and Present: On Elisabeth Elliott

26 September 2023

6.1 MINS

We need to be careful in our assessments of others.

We Christians can be a funny lot – we can so easily run to unhealthy and unbiblical extremes. While there is a place for ‘extremes’ in one sense, e.g., being an extreme lover of God and neighbour, in many areas, we need to seek the biblical balance. When it comes to Christians thinking, talking and writing about other Christians, there can be at least two unhelpful extremes:

  • The armchair critics (especially the heresy hunters) will go after just about everyone else because they do not line up 100% with their theological checklists. Thus, they end up being a club of 3 or 4, with everyone else declared to be anathema. They help no one here, and they bear false witness.
  • The ‘let’s never criticise anyone or anything’ crowd will only look at the good and pretend there is no bad in others. We get this so often with Christian biographies. They become hagiographies, with only the great bits highlighted while all the less-than-ideal stuff is airbrushed out. They help no one here, and they bear false witness.

We must avoid both unbiblical extremes. We must tell the truth about one another. Sure, a good rule of thumb would be something like this: we should think the better of others while being more critical of self. That tends to be the opposite of how most of us operate: we tend to look down on others all the time, over-blowing their weaknesses and sins, while having an overly-rosy assessment of ourselves.

Indomitable Woman

I raise these matters because I recently looked at three new biographies of Elisabeth Elliot. As I said in those articles, many believers know all about her and her first husband Jim. They likely know much less about her second and third husbands, and the relationship she had with them. Elisabeth Elliott

The 1200 pages from those three books (one a two-part authorised biography of her) revealed some things that some Christians may not have known. My main takeaway from these three volumes was how I still think Elisabeth was such an absolutely incredible woman of God, and how she stood strong in her faith despite so much adversity and hardship thrown her way.

With all that in mind, I recently posted the following on social media:

Imagine you are a young devout Christian woman, about to head off to a Christian college, and praying about how you can best serve the Lord. If you knew in advance that these 4 things (among others) would happen to you over the next 7 decades, would you still resolutely say ‘Yes Lord – I seek to do Thy will!’?

  • You will meet and fall in love with a wonderful man, marry and go overseas as missionaries – but in a few short years, he would be speared to death by those he was seeking to reach.
  • Thirteen years later, you will meet and fall in love with a wonderful man – but in a few short years, you will watch him die after a slow, painful battle with cancer.
  • Four years later you will marry a third time, but the husband will be quite controlling, critical, demanding and easily flies into fits of rage. Yet you will stay with him for 38 years.
  • For the final decade of your life, you will suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia.

This of course was the life of Elisabeth Elliot. A few obvious morals of the story can be mentioned:

  • It is a good thing we are not told everything ahead of time about our ongoing walk with God.
  • Being a Christian means trusting God fully, even when it seems like there is no reason to do so.
  • People will fail us, but God never will.
  • One day we will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.

That got a lot of responses. Some folks said they did not know about some of these things. A few even seemed to get quite upset, as if I was attacking her or her last husband. One fellow even recklessly claimed I was just spreading evil “rumours”! Never mind that all this was drawn from her careful and well-researched biographers.

Indeed, for this angry fellow at least, it was clear he had not even bothered to read the articles from which this was based, nor had he read the biographies. I am not impressed with such folks. The Bible says such people are fools, as in Proverbs 18:13 (NLT): “Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish.” Sadly, I find this happens far too often.

Mixed Bag

But most folks were not this bad, but they did have legitimate questions which were well worth asking. A number of folks wondered about why she married her third husband if he seemed to be rather problematic in various areas – and some wondered if he was even a Christian. Fair questions.

One gal, for example, put it this way: “I am puzzled by something. Surely, Elisabeth prayed about marrying Lars and felt the Lord gave her the ‘go-ahead’ to marry him. I just wonder why he turned out to be such a ‘not nice’ person.” I replied to her as follows:

Most Christians do pray first about their marriage partner, and seek a sense of God’s leading. But we live in a fallen world with fallen people, so there are no guarantees to perfection in this life. So things can and do go wrong, be it losing your spouse to martyrdom early on, losing your spouse to cancer early on, or dealing with a difficult spouse. Indeed, also dealing with difficult fellow missionaries on the field, and having to eventually go in separate directions can also happen, as she also went through!

So yes, many questions arise here, both in terms of the decisions that we make, and in terms of the things God allows us to go through. Life is messy, and there are often no easy answers. And to repeat, the biographers and I do point out that her last husband and longest marriage was a mixed bag, with various good qualities, but some other not-so-good ones. So we are not attacking him, simply seeking to offer an honest account of her later years.

We are seeking to avoid hagiographies here, in other words. Sadly, it has long been the case that far too many biographies of Christians have been hagiographies, with all the good stuff highlighted while the not-so-good stuff is conveniently ignored or played down.

But the truth is, there are no perfect saints, and we all are a mix of flesh and spirit. No one reading about God’s great people in the Bible will ever get hagiographies – they will get the whole picture, warts and all. We should do the same as we discuss Christians of more recent times.

And that is the case with Elisabeth – she was a human being with feet of clay, just like all of us. She was such an amazing and inspirational woman used by God, but she also had her downsides. We all do. We all make mistakes, we all do things from mixed motives, and we all are a mix of spirit and flesh, etc.

Heroic Faith

I already quoted Vaughn in my most recent article about the dangers of hagiography. She repeated her concerns in a recent interview. Here is part of it:

Vaughn said something else that interested her while writing the second volume of Elliot’s biography was the concept of “Evangelical heroes” and society’s tendency to place them on a pedestal.

Vaughn said that members of Elliot’s family provided her with access to her journals. Reading the journals transformed how she viewed Elliot. No longer viewing her merely as a “caricature,” but seeing the “heart, soul, brain and spirit” of a celebrated woman during the journeys God led her through when she was alive.

“And that’s what I found fascinating, that there is a tendency, I think, on the one hand, to set up these heroes and typecast them,” the author said. “‘Oh, she was so brave; she was so obedient to God no matter what.’ And I think many people felt like, ‘I could never be like her’.” …

“I think when one gets inside the writings of someone’s journals, you come to love the person in their brokenness,” she continued. “You come to see the heroism in day-to-day obedience, not in dramatic, big stuff.”

In sum, the main thing I got from what I read in these new biographies was what a remarkable woman she was and how much she endured for Christ and the Kingdom. I am sure I would not have responded as she had done to all that she went through.

I suspect that most Christians, if they had gone through what Elisabeth did in her first decade or two of Christian service, would assume that they had done their duty, they had paid the price, and they had run the race, and would then think that God owed them – big time.

I know I would think that way: ‘OK, God – I gave up everything for You. I sacrificed so much. Now, how about a nice stable loving marriage partner, a nice home, a nice quiet life, joy, peace and happiness for the rest of my life? Is that too much to ask?’

Many of us would have that mindset. We sure would not expect even MORE hardcore trials and afflictions and suffering.

Thank God for Elisabeth Elliot.


Originally published at CultureWatch. Photo: Museum of the Bible

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  1. Peter Pearce 26 September 2023 at 1:45 pm - Reply


    Firstly, I’d like to extend my heartfelt empathy, having recently learned about the loss of your wife. It must have been exceptionally challenging to pen this piece amidst your personal tribulations. We often forget that writers, like yourself, are also human, facing the same trials and tribulations as the rest of us.

    Your take on armchair critics resonated with me. Admittedly, I have been one myself on occasions, sitting comfortably behind a screen, spewing opinions without the full context or understanding of the matters at hand. It’s disheartening to witness how comment sections, particularly in this digital age, are rampant with quick judgments and misinformed perspectives.

    While I wasn’t acquainted with Elisabeth Elliot’s life until your article, I’m reminded of other biographies that resonate with your observations about the human tendency to either sanctify or vilify individuals. Life, as you rightly put it, is messy. We all possess shades of grey, a blend of strengths and vulnerabilities.

    Bill, your articles over the years haven’t just been informative; they’ve been transformative for me. They have continually nudged me towards introspection, challenging me to strive for better, not just as a believer but as a human being. Your recent portrayal of Elisabeth Elliot’s life, with all its highs and lows, stands testament to that impact.

  2. Gail Petherick 27 September 2023 at 12:53 am - Reply

    Thank you Bill for sharing the challenge, and asking us to see that ‘heroes of the faith’ are still human, though they have God’s Spirit in them. I have always admired Elisabeth’s life as a missionary, and felt deep empathy for her. Going back work to the Amazon jungle was heroic. She has been a role model of dedication by giving her life to the Lord’s service and to the tribal people, knowing her husband being killed there.
    I didn’t know of her illness in later life and am sorry she suffered in the last phase of her life yet I know she was true to the Lord all the way through as I heard some of her teachings in podcasts.
    For me there are two reflections.
    One that she endured aspects of a hard marriage in her final marriage- yet also suffered in quite different ways in her first two marriages, which would have taught her to endure suffering and loss and to hold fast on to her faith.
    Secondly, sometimes we think a person deserves not to suffer and they have already seen enough of that side of life, yet for reasons known unto God there is sometimes/often some suffering around the corner which humanly we think is unfair but in the end we surrender all to God and trust Him as we/they may go through more suffering. I believe there will be great rewards for those who have been refined by fire and whose faith has come forth as gold.
    As you said Bill, it’s just as well we don’t know these things all in advance as we would be daunted.
    Thank you again for sharing details of such a fascinating life.
    (I too, am sorry you have been through suffering and loss of late and am sorry, but also grateful you are still writing and sharing such wisdom in your articles and biographies )

  3. Bill Muehlenberg 27 September 2023 at 10:31 am - Reply

    Many thanks indeed Peter and Gail.

  4. Cecily Mac Alpine 27 September 2023 at 12:15 pm - Reply

    From your description of Elisabeth’s third husband he seemed to have features on the spectrum of autism. Such men can be very charming before the marriage. It’s only afterwards that the dark side is revealed. I believe the Lord warned her beforehand. I believe it was like Paul going to Rome for the last time. The Lord told him he did not have to go because it would be such a hard road, but he chose to go and the Lord was with him. Elisabeth also chose to go and the Lord was with her. She was the only one who would be able to get through to this difficult man for the Lord, and her reward will be very great. Thank you Bill.

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