Dethroning My Missionary Hero

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.”

Little-h heroes


In a university class I’m teaching, I started the semester by having the students answer some questions about themselves: What scares you? (spiders, heights, and death were popular—or unpopular, as it were.) What is your hometown, or where else have you lived? (See how I phrased that one in case we had some TCKs in the group?) Who is your hero and why?

In answer to that last question, a few said Jesus—with a couple adding, “Because he’s, uh, Jesus.” Some chose a famous athlete or a figure from history. But for most, their heroes aren’t well-known. They’re personal heroes: my father, because he works three jobs to support our family; my grandma, because she raised my sisters and me by herself; my teacher, because she never gave up on me.

Last year, Amy Peterson wrote a wonderful article for Christianity Today entitled “Farewell to the Missionary Hero.” In it she talks about how missionary biographies of the past have portrayed missionaries as larger-than-life “saints,” often moving from one glorious adventure to another. She contrasts that with the approach of many missionaries today who are more willing to present the hardships and mundane routines of missionary life, as well as their own shortcomings. Peterson even mentions A Life Overseas and some of the authors here as examples of this new openness and honesty.

As I reread Peterson’s article, I am even more a fan, and I’m glad that she has extended the conversation outside the missionary community. So it might surprise you to hear me say that I actually don’t think we should say “farewell to the missionary hero.” I’m not arguing against her premise. No, mine is only a semantic concern. I just want to take that word hero and look at it from a different direction.

Maybe someone has called you a hero. If they did, you probably replied with something similar to what you’ve heard others say—”I’m no hero. I just did my job,” “I only did what needed to be done,” or “Those people, they’re the real heroes.”

Not long ago, a friend of mine told me that my wife and I are his heroes. Why? Because of when we sold our house and moved our family of six to another country. I can’t remember my exact response to my friend, but it was something profound like “Oh, come on.” Doesn’t he remember that we didn’t stay overseas? Hasn’t he heard how hard it was for us? Doesn’t he know that we didn’t leave behind a vibrant, growing church? Doesn’t he read Christianity Today?

But I’m pretty sure that’s not the kind of hero he was talking about. In fact, most of us, when we use the word, aren’t thinking about that kind of hero. Not a demigod, which is what the Greek word originally meant. Not a folk hero—the stuff of legend—which Peterson refers to in her article. Not a superhero, with the ability to fly (or at least walk on water). Not “Heroes of the Faith,” as in Hebrews 11. Not big-H Heroes.

Sure, we still have big-H Heroes. But they’re rare, and the extreme audacity and effects of their actions are what make them so uncommon. It’s the little-h heroes that touch us most day to day. They’re the unlikely heroes, the everyday heroes, the ordinary heroes.

When most people say, “You’re my hero,” they mean, “I admire you for what you’ve done.” They’re talking to someone whom they’ve seen tackle a difficulty instead of turning away from it. That difficulty might be a burning building or a war zone . . . or something much less dramatic, but difficult nonetheless.

Few of my little-h heroes will have books written about them. They are families who are still serving faithfully overseas, long after we left. They are relief workers confronting humanitarian crises abroad. They are couples who make the heartbreaking decision to return home, because of the needs of their young child or an aging parent. They are the single missionary who hangs on in a dangerous country with little visible results, as well as the one who goes back and takes a job where she lives out her belief that God loves her for who she is, not for what she does. It is the twelve-year-old who bravely joins a local school without knowing how to speak the language. They are the national believers who choose Jesus in spite of persecution. They are the woman turned down by the mission agency who tirelessly prays for missionaries instead, and the elderly gentleman who scrimps and saves so that he can write a small support check each month. They are the parents who let their children go without letting go of them. They are the cross-cultural workers who honestly share their struggles regardless of the consequences.

I could go on, and I think you could, too.

Those are some of my heroes—and that’s just from the sphere of missions. As I’ve gotten older, I see more and more ordinary heroes in all walks of life, regular people who have earned my respect because of the decisions they’ve made. They are butchers and bakers and fulltime homemakers. They are underemployed and unemployed. The are young and old. They are neighbors and uncles. They are people who advance for good in the face of adversity; people who, when unable to advance, resolutely hold their ground; and people who, if they simply must retreat, do so with dignity.

Little-h heroes will not be public figures or gain much broad attention. They won’t be the subject of award-winning documentaries or blockbuster movies (or even their own Wikipedia pages). They simply do what needs to be done, especially when others can’t or won’t do it. They say the real heroes are “those people,” over there, and that’s true. But the real heroes are here, too, wherever “here” is. They populate our passport countries as well as the ones in which we serve. They are all around us and among us. May it always be so.

Your list of heroes probably won’t match mine. Certainly the names won’t be the same. That’s to be expected, if for no other reason than because my list will change and grow as I continue to change and grow. But that’s the beautiful thing about little-h heroes. They are imperfect people who resonate with us individually and personally at particular times in our lives.

That’s why I can be someone else’s hero. And that’s why you can be a hero, too—even a missionary hero.

[photo: “Solitude,” by G.S. Matthews, used under a Creative Commons license]