Reflections on Jim Elliot

“Lord give me firmness without hardness, steadfastness without dogmatism, love without weakness.” — Jim Elliot

For the first time, I’ve read (listened to) some of Elisabeth Elliot’s books and wanted to share some brief reflections on Jim Elliot. As you probably know, he was martyred along with four colleagues in 1956 as they were attempting to reach out to an isolated people group in the jungles of Ecuador. While it is true his move to Ecuador and subsequent work there were substantial acts of faith, his life leading up to his time in the jungle was at least as remarkable in its constancy and commitment.

Many of his letters and journal writings have been preserved. (I would recommend reading “Shadow of the Almighty“, which heavily quotes Jim’s journals and letters, right after reading “Through Gates of Splendor“, which talks more broadly about the team of five men.) He was a man of great faith and I think his life of zeal for the Lord proves that, for the true follower of Jesus, there is no such thing as being “so heavenly minded you are no earthly good.” He was very thoughtful and practical in the way he lived from day to day and he truly cared about people. He was not so spiritually-focused that he was too busy to help someone build a house or wash dirty dishes when visiting someone’s home. His convictions led to a life of service to others. He also wasn’t too busy and somber to stop and admire flowers or learn a poem he felt was beautiful or particularly worthwhile.

Jim’s eternal perspective and commitment to God’s Word informed everything he did—from his school and work plans, to his relationship timing, even to using his spare time in the cafeteria line to memorize Scripture. (How much easier is it to do this now in the age of the smartphone, yet I don’t do it?) He was not upset about losing popularity points in high school due to his views of politics, morality, war, and other areas of life, which he formed based on many hours in God’s Word rather than conforming to popular opinion.

He was often frustrated by how modern American Christianity neglected to preach the Gospel and failed to model the example of the New Testament Church both in gathered worship and in personal holiness. He determined to be guided by biblical principles rather than personal impulses, such as his conviction to remain single for several years of preparation and ministry, despite his special and deep connection with Elisabeth going back to their college days. Their relationship is hard to succinctly summarize, but suffice it to say, they committed to placing God’s leading first in their lives, despite whatever that might mean for their love and friendship.

Reading about Jim Elliot has reminded me, though, that even as inspiring as his life is on many levels, missionaries are not “super Christians” (as, in my work, I can attest), and that a deep knowledge of Scripture is something that all Christians can have and should work toward. He did not have a seminary education or big-name mentors, but he was committed to regular prayer and knowing the Bible as well as he possibly could. I was convicted by this hunger for God’s Word. He also loved hymns that proclaimed truth and had dozens, if not hundreds, memorized. One journal entry notes: “​Enjoyed the truth of singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs this morning… This is as decidedly a means of grace as anything given by God to His people, but how little we use it.” That sentiment receives my hearty amen!

Ultimately, his deep longing for and knowledge of the things of God was not because he was a superhuman machine or had a photographic memory (though I do think he was a bright man), but because he applied himself to these things. He prioritized them. He was not, in fact, always riding a victorious wave of religious fervor and spiritual satisfaction. He often wrestled with doubts about God’s Will for him, lack of insights when reading the Bible, and struggles with sin and pride. He was, indeed, human! He faced the same questions and challenges we all do. And then he pressed on.

I pray that I would be focused on knowing God’s Word, not for the sake of growing in head knowledge, but for the sake of seeing God’s kingdom grow as we stand on the brink of eternity. Jim noted, “Had thoughts of eternity today. Eternity shall at once be a great eye opener and a great mouth shutter. It shall be the rectifier of all injustice—and how vast is injustice—, the confirmer of martyr’s blood, the explainer of years of labor swallowed up in meaningless ruins on earth. Lord deliver me from sweet doctrinal nothings.” A right understanding of God’s Word (as summarized in doctrine) is, of course, important, but can become lifeless “data” if it is separated from a vibrant relationship with the Lord, Himself. 

I pray that I would have the same zeal for God’s Word as this brother. May I be increasingly burdened to share the gospel with a lost and dying world. And may God’s Word, as Jim Elliot said, “dye” me in every respect as one who follows Christ.

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