The life of Jim Elliot is one of the most encouraging, compelling stories of modern Christianity. For many, he serves as the quintessential example of being on mission in the world. In college he wrote the phrase, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose,” which has provided countless Christians with just the right expression to encapsulate their mission as redeemed humanity in the Kingdom of God. Too often it is used only in terms of missions, but it really belongs plastered on Sunday School room walls and on the Christian truck driver’s dashboard. Living life for the joy of God and the good of the world was the narrow aim of Jim Elliot, and if the Christian world caught onto his fervor, who knows how the world would change. Elisabeth Elliot harvested the material for this book out of his journals. She begins by recounting his early life herself, then lets him take over once his journals pick up the story, which is around his college-years. The book covers the period of seven years from when he is in college to when he sets out with his friends on the final trek to find the Auca Indians of Ecuador. This book tells us his inner thoughts, recording not just the events of his life but how he thought about them too. As such, his journals are filled with passionate, dogmatic statements which are often immature and short-sighted. In this book we get the raw, unedited Jim Elliot. But over the course of the book, the reader sees him grow into a more mature and stable Christian, with a more holistic worldview.
This youthful exuberance is a defining attribute of Jim, a man who went around singing all the time (50). He was aman of extremes. For example, he wrote, “Prayed a strange prayer today. I covenanted with the Father that He would do either of two things: either glorify Himself to the utmost in me or slay me” (73). This sort of pious rhetoric is common to Jim’s journals, so much so that this dualistic cry for excellence or nothing is common. He says, “Oh that God would make us dangerous!” (79). Speaking about the church near the school, he says, “We lack the intensity of feeling deeply, that sense of inevitable must which Christ possessed, the zeal for God’s house that consumed Him” (87). After college his white-hot passion didn’t subside, but it did begin to find expression in natural means of ministry.
While Jim was in preparation for ministry, the fire burned brightest, pent up by the limitations of classes, schoolwork, and education. Of academic knowledge he said, “The acquisition of academic knowledge (the ‘pride of life’) is a wearing process and I wonder now if it is all worth while” (40). He got so sick of the pious ivory towers of academia that he said, “Education is dangerous, and, personally, I am beginning to question its value in a Christian’s life” (41). After battling this dichotomy between intellect of and affection for Christ, Jim changed the way he read his Bible. After throwing out his old, marked-up Bible, he bought a new version that he intended to keep without markings. Elisabeth comments, “This practice, he felt, helped to keep him seeking new truth and allowed the Spirit of God, rather than a red pencil, to emphasize the particular words that he needed” (51). Anyone who has spent time studying the Bible at University can identity and empathize with Jim’s angst and reaction.
Another area of life his youthful exuberance overflowed was in dating. Elisabeth recounts, “He believed Christ to be utterly sufficient for the entire fulfillment of the personality, and was ready to trust Him literally for this” (48). He couldn’t reconcile the “desire of the flesh” with the desire for Christ. His desire to be married is obvious in all his writings, but in his youth he maintained that marriage was not beneficial, especially for “one who would follow the Pauline pattern in a tropical-forest situation” (136-137). Jim looked to OT stories for affirmation, yearning for some truth that he was doing the right thing in staying single, even using the story of Uriah’s coming home from battle and not sleeping with his wife as proof-text (174).
The Will of God
Jim was constantly striving for excellence in all that he did, trying his best to realize his calling in life. One of the most prevalent issues in his journal is the will of God. Every decision he made, he made within the framework of prayer and discerning, whether it be the will of God or not. He sought the will of God in his life, his mission, his vocation, his principles, his singleness, his marriage, and his relationships. He showed an incredible amount of faith in his deference to God in all things—sometimes to a fault. One of the most blatant examples of his misunderstanding of the will of God is in his putting off of marriage. He used OT stories as patterns for God’s will, as if God’s will for King David in 1,000 BC is the same as his will for Jim Elliot now. He told God he would remain single so long as it is better to teach indians as a single man (173).
His view of spirituality also went hand-in-hand with his view of God’s will. He yearned for God as if He could be experienced in full-color, in the present, every day. He found great spiritual lessons, even in the mundane events of life. He enjoyed, and craved, the freshness of the Word of God, and when he began reading the Bible in Spanish, in preparation for mission-work, he said, “Since I have taken to pure Spanish reading of the Scriptures I that I have forfeited some of the freshness I once enjoyed from the Word” (172).
As Jim matured, he grew out of the youthful exuberance and into a resolved determination for what he considered was God’s will. After graduation he served in America, starting a radio program, preaching to youth, and waiting and planning for his "true" mission. While at college he learned some Hebrew and Greek, which helped him translate the Bible into the native language while in Ecuador. His great passion became the teaching of people the Word of God, as expressed here: “None know the Scriptures well because of the devilish schemes of the clergy to keep them from thinking for themselves” (137). He wanted God’s truth in everyone’s hands, whether American or South American, but he especially loved the South Americans because he viewed them as purer beings, untainted by the rejection of truth. He saw Americans as the epitome of hardened hearts since they had access to the truth and yet didn’t care about it, twisting it to meet their own ends (119, 140, etc).
Jim’s life can serve as a testimony to all of what it looks like to dedicate one’s life to God. But I found in my reading lessons deeper than what I expected. He loved God. No doubt. But he also had some interesting theories and theologies. Given his education experience and the era in which he lived, he was par for the course, but for those of us on the outside, we can look in and learn from his misconceptions and mistakes. While many examples abound (it is his private journal after all), here are a few themes that jumped out at me.
All the following issues somehow relate back to this one: mysticism. Jim suffered from a lopsided “existential methodology” as Francis Schaeffer called it, not long after Jim died. His form of religion was hampered by a misunderstanding of spirituality, a misunderstanding which is commonly referred to as mysticism. In his early life this took form in his comparing life and the world to piety as if nothing could measure up. Nothing had value if it didn’t directly relate to his individual relationship with God, or other people’s individual relationships with God. Everything that fell outside of that obvious connection he blasted as being meaningless, useless, and just sheer distraction from the real work of life. I’d shudder to think of his explanation of the doctrine of vocation as Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness, Dorothy Sayers, and company have given us. In this pious cycle, he saw only extreme missions as worthy of his salvation from eternal hell. He realized the debt he owed God and he turned to the most extravagant use of his life: sacrificial death. The theme throughout his entire journals is one of death for God and for His gospel—never for life in an overlooked, humble situation of ministry.
The Will of God
The first theme we can look at is the will of God. Jim completely misunderstood the will of God. He—unwittingly—treated God as a genie, separate from time and space, cause-and- effect in the universe, and in typical spiritualistic fervor, relied more on signs from God than wisdom from men, as if the two were worlds apart. He saw God’s direction in his life as equal to the pillar of cloud that directed Israel in the Old Testament (134). This error in handling the Word of God is what is at the root of it all. Jim wasn’t out to misunderstand God or replace him or mystify his world, he was just plain ignorant in these ares. This was the very ignorance Francis Schaeffer was born into and sought to put an end to with his life’s work of knowledge about God and His world. There are two great examples of his misunderstanding the will of God.
The first example is his singleness. Jim committed himself to God, wholly, following the “Pauline pattern” of singleness, which we mentioned above. But his story with Elisabeth begins when he was twenty years old. They were out walking and they had an epiphany “Now we faced the simple truth—we loved each other” (56). Immediately after she recounts, “Jim told me that he had committed me to God, much as Abraham had done his son, Isaac” (57). The rest of their relationship is defined by a “let go and let God” mentality, since they had surrendered control of their relationship to God. But they misunderstood God’s way of communication. Soon after, Elisabeth writes, “Our love for one another had grown but as to God’s purpose in it, there was no further sign,” (66) to which Jim quotes Isaiah, “We wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness,” a phrase about ancient Israel in exile.
Even though they waited on God to give them some sort of sign, they remained emotionally very close for the next seven years of interminable waiting. All the while Jim reasoned away why he shouldn’t be married, seemingly in a desperate attempt to balance himself out, as if his innate desire for marriage were evil. He alludes to this, this quasi-war within himself, against himself, here, when he was twenty-three: “We influence each other too easily and out natural compatibility would override the Lord’s leading if we’re not careful” (136). Jim based all of his discernment of the will of God on spiritual signs, and yet, typical of this dualistic worldview, he uses reason to discern other things—sometimes even God’s will in his marriage! He reads W. E. Vine, who “believes that a man should go with another man until effective contact is made in the society” (137). So it becomes clear throughout the book that Jim is torn between what he knows within himself (his own passions and human convictions), what other people tell him (and his use of logic to verify their argument), and then his submission to God (which defies logic and reason, and uses the out-of-context OT as proof-text for decisions which seem illogical). “I am now aware that my reasons for not being engaged are hidden in the counsels of God’s Spirit. I simply know it is not for now—that knowledge is inward, God-given, and to be obeyed at whatever cost” (174) (emphasis mine). He appeals to faith as the reason for this non-reason way of knowing things about God and about the world around him. Jim and Elisabeth put off their marriage for seven long, painful years. he says, “So we go on, waiting and willing to do the Will of Him who sent us, and working away at the language, wondering sometimes at his ways” (178). This wonder is what defined their lives.
Eventually—finally!—they were married, but only because Jim couldn’t take it any more. Before he engages her, he writes to his parents, “I think I have the will of God in this” (198). He received no firm sign from God, as he’s expected; he just got lonely enough and desperate enough to bring her down into the jungle. He finally looked around him, weighed the facts, and made a decision based on those facts, and then said he had “a deep sense that it is God- directed” (174) (emphasis mine). When looking back on the long wait they maintained for marriage, Jim said, “It had been a ‘long lesson’ indeed...” (212), as if the delay were God’s will to grow them. He then quotes Scripture about God’s blessing his people.
While it is not my place to judge Jim Elliot and his decisions in life, I merely look on with a post-Schaeffer view, wielding the truth of God about the way things are, about His will, and about the right interpretation and use of Scripture, and wonder. No doubt God taught him and Elisabeth through this trying time, but it is amazing how God works in and through our own presuppositions and errors to bring about his will.
The second example is his calling to the mission field. It’s almost as if Jim got his mind fixed upon the extreme calling of the Lord to go and make disciples, (the Aucas from day one because they were the hardest to reach), and turned away from any other calling exterior that one. Jim’s parents tried to persuade him to stay in America and continue his ministry with the young people, which was flourishing rapidly (ref). His gift for teaching was apparent, and those around him urged him to continue on in that work (131). Jim saw these as temptations against his faith, saying, “So pray that my faith be strengthened against opposing powers” (130). He took on the identity of Christ, as the sacrificial servant, and in a prayer recorded in his journal, said, “Father, if Thou wilt let me go to South America to labor with the and to die, I pray that Thou will let me go soon. Nevertheless, not my will” (72). This type of death-wish rhetoric was common to Jim.
He was impelled by an inner calling that was oblivious to anything but itself. He thought that was a product of divine unction, as if he had no choice in the matter, but when he began to doubt, he would turn to reason and come up with another reason why he should go. One example of that is when he was invited back to Portland where he had had great success in ministry, but he said, “I still maintain the there is too much collectivism of spiritual truth in Portland. There are sufficient numbers of believers to turn the whole city to God if they would wants turn to Christ and confess they're shameful neglect of his work. It is now time for a demonstration of God's power– And that is expensive in terms of the sacrificial living, travailing prayer, and renouncing of private enjoyments...” (140). His call into the mission field was a sort of ascetic reaching for greatness, the classic youthful yearning for meaning and values in the extreme paths of life.
In his desperate attempt to identify, to objectively realize the will of God in his life, he reduced the will of God down to three principles: (1) God wants you to build a ministry, (2) never let an organization tie you down and hinder the move of God, and, (3) Regardless of finances, always choose spiritual over secular work (126).
The third example is his turning down regular work, and regular ministry, because of— what he called—the will of God, but which was probably really just the conglomerations of his presuppositions. When he was asked to take over the Tower news paper at school, he turned it down, despite parents’ advice, because, “...I found peace in believing that it was not the Lord’s will that I take it. Yet I cannot set down reasons for the decision, save this, that the Lord showed the Psalmist the path of life, evidently by his simply lingering in His presence. Psalm 16:11. I waited on Him and somehow the answer came—I trust it was of the Spirit” (41) (emphasis mine).
Here again we see a man totally committed to God—but committed to a God who doesn’t work in and through regular people, regular logic, regular means. Jim’s fixation on the Auca Indians is what God used to bring them the Gospel, to bring them eternal salvation, and for that, no price is too high, even death. But, if we were to look at all the signs against Jim’s going, objectively discerning the wisdom of it, I doubt we would go. God used Jim’s disdain for american Christianity, his youthful vigor and pursuit of glory, and his misunderstanding of the will of God in order to reach a people who may have gone years and years unreached without him. If we see Jim’s errors in light of the whole they pale, but I contend that the only pale because of the sovereign power of God to make good out of bad, and that his life is not one to follow.
The second theme is, Spirituality. Everything was a spiritual lesson to Jim, such that the ordinary things of life became spiritual lessons God was intent to teach him. After accidentally wrecking a friend’s car he wrote, “I felt sick... but it was plainly an accident, and I know that God has lessons in it. Good to know Psalm 121 in these days—‘Thy keeper... neither slumbers nor sleeps’” (135). He also saw the pursuit of the Christian walk as identical to the pursuit of emotional experiences with God, talking regularly about the way he felt with God: close (83), etc. When comparing his daily activities in life to his spiritual walk, he found the former to interrupt the latter (92). He found academics to be the foolish “pride of life” (40); Bible reading to be spiritual rather than cognitive (as if the two were diametrically opposed) (51), football to be a joke (“The shouting seems a useless process—far better to be shouting God’s praises” ), war and politics to be anti-Christian (33, 50), vocation as nothing compared to the real work of the Christian walk (he legitimized his bad grades by his time spent in the Bible) (43), and so on.
He fundamentally misunderstood the way God relates to His world, the way the Christian religion interfaces with the reality of life. It is amazing how his development as a Christian is so typical of his era and his worldview. All young men of 20th-century America who aspired to the ministry seem to go through the same growth curve. Their narrative arcs are almost identical. The fact that his was cut off, midstream, is tragic beyond words. Even David Brainerd’s journals record similar expressions of mysticism and youthful exuberance—as do my own!—and since he loved to read Brainerd (105, 108), his views are justified considering his heroes and his worldview. What is known to be true is that the relationship between the Church and their Savior is a “mystic sweet communion,” something the mystics of the early-middle ages understood very deeply. But, since this isn’t a paper on mysticism, I will leave the reader with only the facts about the life of Jim Elliot, entrusting the burden of proof to men greater equipped, men like Francis Schaeffer, who help us understand what we can know and what we can’t know, and how those two relate.
The life of Jim Elliot continues to inspire me to think deeper, dream bigger, and, most of all, to dwell on the truth of the Gospel longer. Jim saw the Lord Jesus Christ, though faith in His Word, and the vision he got was so strong he literally gave his life for the mission of God in the world, so that some few Indians could come to know Jesus and have life eternal as well. I marvel at his love, his passion, and his vision, and I thank God for men like him who remind the rest of us how intensely real the Gospel and God’s mission in the world really is.