Today in 1956, five missionaries to the Auca indians in Ecuador were killed. Their deaths brought a sudden end to the project they called “Operation Auca,” but the tragedy became a defining moment in the history of evangelical missions. Hundreds of young people were inspired to take up missionary work, thousands were moved to deeper commitment to Christ, and millions of dollars in resources were mobilized. And the work with the Aucas went on, too.
In the headline, I name only Jim Elliot, the most famous of the group. While the other four men on the team (Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian) were all important to the work and have all received commemoration and attention (they all have Wikipedia pages, if that’s a good index of status in 2009), Elliot has somehow stood out from the group. Why? It may be that Elliot had that certain something as part of his personality, a charisma or magnetism or star power. But I think there’s another reason: Jim Elliot and his widow Elisabeth were unusually articulate. They had words on the tips of their tongues and were able to give a compelling account of why they were doing what they were doing.
Start with Jim Elliot’s most famous statement, written in his journal in 1949: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
It explained, in advance, how Elliot had thought through the relative value of the most important things in life. The sentence sprang from Bible study (Luke 16:9), was honed by personal meditation, and aimed at obedience. It’s one small example of how Elliot had words ready to explain his actions.
And that one saying is not all; his diaries are filled with passages which would do just as well to sum up his service:
One treasure, a single eye, and a sole master. (1948)
God, I pray Thee, light these idle sticks of my life and may I burn for Thee. Consume my life, my God, for it is Thine. I seek not a long life, but a full one, like you, Lord Jesus. (1948)
Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be aflame. But flame is often short-lived. Canst thou bear this, my soul? Short life? In me there dwells the spirit of the Great Short-Lived, whose zeal for God’s house consumed Him. ‘Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.’ (1948)
As your life is in His hands, so are the days of your life. But don’t let the sands of time get into the eye of your vision to reach those who sit in darkness. They simply must hear. (1948)
I must not think it strange if God takes in youth those whom I would have kept on earth till they were older. God is peopling Eternity, and I must not restrict Him to old men and women. (1950)
The will of God is always a bigger thing than we bargain for. (1952)
Jim Elliot knew what he was about, and knew how to explain it. That’s what sets him apart as a martyr: He testified so well. Remember that the greek word martyr originally meant “somebody who testifies.” What caused its meaning to change into “somebody who dies for a cause?” The word took on that new meaning when the early church, under persecution, brought forth a large number of people who were so good at standing for what they believed in that their message became clear to the whole ancient world: they testified themselves to death; they witnessed mortally; they underwent death by testimony, and their testimony was heard.
One last reason for Jim Elliot’s special prominence over the years since his death: Elisabeth Elliot, his widow, had the same gift of communication. In fact, she seems to have had vastly more of it than Jim did. The year of the team’s martyrdom, Elisabeth wrote Through Gates of Splendor, the massively influential account of the mission. It is an impassioned and exceptional book. A book written under such remarkable circumstances, by somebody personally involved in the events, would be worth reading even if it had little literary merit. You could justify it by saying that in the absence of a real author, it is still worth having the story told by somebody who is not quite up to the task. But Through Gates of Splendor is genuinely well written. In it, Elisabeth Elliot succeeds in speaking for the whole mission team and setting before the whole listening world the inner reasons for what they did. And two years later, Elliot brought out Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot, which is even better. Note that it covers his life and also his testament: what he did and what he said. In Shadow, Elisabeth quotes directly from Jim’s journals as much as possible, but her own voice is strong and clear throughout it.
In the Epilogue of Shadow of the Almighty, Elisabeth Elliot culls from Jim’s journals some of the quotations I printed above. She notes that after Jim’s death these sentences were all “fraught with new meaning,” and that “to them I can add nothing.” But of course she did add something. She added hundreds of pages that were necessary if the inner meaning of the team’s sacrifice was ever going to be spoken clearly and understood by many.