Each year, several media publications name a Woman of the Year. The question, as asked by Huffington Post in 2013, is “which woman was the definitive standard bearer for females” in that year? In the past few years, candidates have included pro-abortion politician and activist Wendy Davis, transgender actor Laverne Cox, and pop star Beyoncé.
This year, however, circumstances brought to attention a candidate worthy to be called Woman of the Year: Elisabeth Elliot, Christian missionary, author, and speaker who passed away on June 15. Heartfelt tributes to her influence saturated the web, not just from Christian leaders and publications, but also from secular sources including Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal.
Certainly, her experience was far removed from mine. She is best known for going to live with the Waorani Indian tribe of Ecuador less than two years after they had speared her husband Jim Elliot to death. But her impact on me was more than inspirational. Although she belonged to another generation and I never met her, her life impacted me on a very personal level.
First, I am awed by her faith-filled patience. She met and fell in love with her future husband Jim Elliot while they were attending Wheaton College, but they waited five years after their graduation before he asked for her hand in marriage. During their engagement, which she writes about in Through Gates of Splendor and other books, they maintained their long-distance relationship through long, handwritten letters expressing their love and longing for one another. In reading those letters, I find a model of “longsuffering” faithfulness that is rarely seen in our culture today.
Second, I admire her as a woman. The way she lived out her femininity was bold but gracious, supple yet strong. She wasn’t any kind of blushing, giggling, exclaiming girlie-girl. She was the type of woman feminists would have loved to claim for themselves: courageous, undaunted, outspoken, and capable. But in all ways, she exemplified, and overtly preached, the far-from-feminist virtues called upon for a Christian woman: submissive, obedient, self-sacrificing, a good wife and mother, and a slave to Jesus.
Third, I see in her life the quiet demonstration of how to live with sorrow that is huge, crushing, and enduring. Having lived through the death of two husbands, each after just a few years of marriage and a long wait before the marriage, she experienced heart-wrenching sorrow. In her understated but honest way, she wrote, “Sooner or later many of us experience the greatest desolation of all: he’s gone. The one who made life what it was for us, who was, in fact, our life. … The death of the beloved is also the lover’s death, for it means, in a different but perhaps equally fearsome way, a going through the Valley of the Shadow.”
How she must have gone through that shadow in dark hours that were never spoken of, never seen by others. Yet, she did not respond by becoming self-righteous or self-pitying. She accepted it, as from the hand of God, who was good but beyond her understanding.
As a friend said of her, “Elisabeth believed in asking this foundational question: Is this God's will for me, right now, in this place? … Unapologetically, Elisabeth espoused such truths as: give to get, lose to find, and die to live.”
That was also how she endured the long wait for her love to be fulfilled by marriage, how she performed her role as a woman and her task as a missionary; it was the code by which she lived her life.
It is the pattern by which we Christians of every generation, whether man, woman, old, young, mainstream or evangelical, American or international, should strive to live our lives. And yet, we tremble, lest the trials come. The example of Elisabeth Elliot gives us hope because she was a simple, down-to-earth kind of person. The characteristic that distinguished her life was complete and persevering obedience, saying yes to God again and again to the point of being totally sold out to God. That is the qualification that allows us, if put to the test, to endure in a sacrificial, God-honoring life.