During my first year on the mission field — twenty years ago now — I read Elisabeth Elliot’s only novel, No Graven Image. I immediately regretted it.
Elisabeth Elliot was my hero. Her books about her first husband’s life and martyrdom significantly influenced my decision to become a missionary. Her emphasis on steadfast obedience, no matter the cost, inspired me to do hard things for God.
But her novel absolutely mystified me. It’s the fictional story of a young missionary — Margaret — in South America, working to translate the Bible for a remote tribe. An Indian family befriends her and the father, Pedro, becomes her closest ally in her translation work. I don’t remember much about the story except for how it ends: Pedro dies — and it’s Margaret’s fault.
As a 24-year-old idealistic Elisabeth Elliot fan, this was incomprehensible to me. Why on earth would Elisabeth write such a thing? It felt depressing and cynical and almost anti-missionary. Sure, Elisabeth’s own husband had died on the mission field — I knew bad things could happen — but he was a martyr, a hero. And his death inspired a whole generation of new missionaries. That story had a happy ending….right? So why write a novel about missionary failure, where the ending is actually worse than the beginning? God wouldn’t let that happen in real life….right?
I ignored the story. It didn’t match my perception of Elisabeth, missions, or God. My brain didn’t have a category to fit it into, and I consciously made a decision to forget about it.
And then, 20 years of missionary life happened. Yes, I saw many victories, but an equal number of tragedies. The local pastor who abused his adult daughter. The American missionary with six kids who had an affair with a local woman. Families who left the country because of irreconcilable conflict with teammates. Students we poured into for years, only to have them lose their faith on a full-ride scholarship to Harvard.
Many times, the world swung crazily around me, shifting perceptions of God and myself. Why did I come here? Am I doing any good? Is this really what God wants me to do? At times I paced the room, raging against injustice or abuse perpetrated by people of God, accusing myself of not doing more to stop it. God, we obeyed you when we came here; why are you not fixing this? Changing this? Why did you let this happen?
Recently I read the biography written by Ellen Vaughn, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. Vaughn filled in my manufactured picture of Elisabeth’s life: not just a hero, a fearless missionary, a martyr’s wife, but a woman who wrestled deeply with obeying God. Yes, she followed Him into the jungle (with her toddler!) to live with the tribe who murdered her husband, but she also cried herself to sleep from grief. She struggled with resentment and selfishness when she shared her home with another missionary family. And conflict with a colleague eventually took her off the mission field entirely.
As I read this biography, my memory plucked No Graven Image out of a dusty corner of my mind. Vaughn writes, “By the end of her time in Ecuador, Betty had puzzled over what the word missionary even meant.” And I realized that I should have paid more attention to the lesson Elisabeth was trying to teach me in her story of Margaret and Pedro: God is God; I am not. We don’t often get happy endings; my job is simply to obey. Her novel was far more insightful than I gave it credit for. I had to learn the hard way.
Vaughn quotes Elisabeth: “Faith’s most severe tests come not when we see nothing, but when we see a stunning array of evidence that seems to prove our faith vain. If God were God, if He were omnipotent, if He had cared, would this have happened? Is this that I face now the ratification of my calling, the reward of obedience? One turns in disbelief again from the circumstances and looks into the abyss. But in the abyss there is only blackness, no glimmer of light, no answering echo… It was a long time before I came to the realization that it is in our acceptance of what is given that God gives Himself. Even the Son of God had to learn obedience by the things that He suffered. . . . And His reward was desolation, crucifixion.”
My hero had stared into the abyss more than I realized. And her understanding of God came from the abyss, not in spite of it. Vaughn explains that Elisabeth learned that “God’s sovereign will was a mystery that could not be mastered, an experience that could not be classified, a wonder that had no end. It wove together strands of life, death, grace, pain, joy, humility, and awe.”
I came away from Elisabeth’s biography with a far more imperfect, cracked, patched up image of her than I had twenty years ago. But that’s true of how I see myself and missions too, for that matter. Knowing that she fought through grief and doubt and failure into a more beautiful understanding of the goodness and sovereignty of God gives me hope. If Elisabeth could get there, I can too.
Ellen Vaughn writes, “The only problem to be solved, really, is that of obedience. As Betty noted, futility—that spirit-numbing sense of despair—does not come from the thing itself, but from the demand to know ‘why.’… For Betty, the question is ‘what?’ As in, Lord, show me what You want me to do. And I’ll do it. And in that acceptance—’I’ll obey, whatever it is’—there is peace.”