Being Elisabeth Elliot: Certainty

Ellen VaughnBy Ellen Vaughn8 Minutes

Excerpt taken from Being Elisabeth Elliott by Ellen Vaughn


Chapter 1


“The Christian realizes that his true identity is a mystery known only to God, … and that any attempt at this stage on the road of discipleship to define himself is bound to be blasphemous and destructive of that mysterious work of God forming Christ in him by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
—Elisabeth Elliott

“I feel perfectly certain that I shall never marry again,” Elisabeth Elliott declared early in 1956.

It had been nine days since her muscular young husband and his four fellow missionaries had been speared to death by members of a remote tribal people in the Amazon jungle.

“No doubt all new widows make that statement,” Elisabeth continued. “But I feel sure in my heart.”¹

But “perfect certainties,” even among the most disciplined and celebrated of God’s saints, sometimes shift in the face of His surprises.

After Jim and his colleagues died, Elisabeth remained in Ecuador for seven more years. Improbably, she trekked deep into the jungle with her tiny daughter and a colleague and lived among the Waodani² people who had killed her husband and friends. Many of the Waodani embraced a new way of living. News reports called her a “missionary hero,” a brave widow carrying the gospel to those who had never heard it.

But this brave widow struggled. A lot. Painful personality conflicts with her fellow missionary compelled her to leave the Waodani. She worked among the Quichua people for a time, living in the house that her late husband had built in a mission station called Shandia. Her days advanced like a series of photos on a screen.

But in mid-1963, the setting of those images changed. The green eastern jungle of Ecuador became the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Little Valerie Elliott no longer frolicked naked in the river with her Waodani friends; now she wore plaid jumpers and rode a yellow school bus to elementary school each day. The grass hut in the jungle, and the mildewing wooden home that Jim built in Shandia, gave way to the house that Elisabeth designed, a streamlined structure with an enormous picture window overlooking Mount Lafayette. The days of translating the New Testament into Quichua or lounging in a woven hammock with Waodani women—puzzling over their indecipherable language and swatting flies—became a life of hunching over a typewriter, swatting interruptions and struggling to get English words on a page for a publisher’s deadline. The missionary who had written a few books now purposed to be a “serious” writer who used to be a missionary. It was hard work.

There was no more chicha drunk by the campfire from a common, hollowed gourd among the tribal people. Now Elisabeth’s tribe was the laconic New England laborer who cleared her field and dug her well, the wool-clad neighbor who taught her to ski, and the erudite crowd at New York cocktail parties, sipping gimlets. The small jungle campfire, with its background chatter of equatorial birds, became a crackling blaze in her own stone fireplace, the acres of woods beyond her window cloaked in a silent shroud of snow. Rather than running through the jungle at night, the lay midwife called to attend crisis births, now Elisabeth flew on Boeing jets toward speaking engagements at conventions and seminars, a sought-after public figure.

Eventually, the loneliness of a passionate woman who dreamed in the jungle of her lost lover Jim became the surprise of a new love that swept her right off her feet. Her earlier “certainty” about remarriage melted. A middle-aged Elisabeth Elliott, the financially independent writer and speaker, now shivered to the touch of Addison Leitch, the university professor, theologian, and writer with whom she had fallen desperately in love. They married on the first day of January 1969.

But the story, like Elisabeth’s married life with Jim Elliot, would not end on that happy note.

The death of a loved one can come fast or slow. The sudden loss is devastating, a free fall through space where the mind cannot catch up with the physical reality of the death. With the gradual loss, perhaps the mind has time to “get used” to the idea of the loved one’s departure before it occurs. The problem is, we never become accustomed to death’s cruel theft of the one we love, whether it is a sudden robbery, so to speak, or a long, embezzlement.

Once stunned by the joy of new love, now she was widowed again. Another death. But her widowhood would not define her, particularly since she would marry a third time in 1979. Her life rolled on, decade by decade, until her own death in 2015.

Her earlier years, related in Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, traced the transition of a young woman who dealt in “certainties” to the older woman who dealt, far too often, in the realm of uncertainties and the unknown. Now, being Elisabeth Elliott increasingly meant understanding how much she did not understand. She was certain of very few things—the good and holy character of God, His redeeming love, and merciful faithfulness. She sought her reference point beyond her own experiences, always pondering what she called the “impenetrable mystery” of the interplay between God’s will and human choices.

It is that strange mystery which shaped the next portion of her startling life story.

¹ Not wanting to clutter the text, I have not footnoted Elisabeth Elliot’s many journal entries in this book. I’ve also routinely made small grammatical adjustments in those entries, such as spelling out some of her abbreviations, to make a smoother reading experience. In addition, to avoid confusion, I’ve called my subject “Elisabeth” throughout this volume, though family and close friends called her “Betty.” She preferred the more formal “Elisabeth” in public, and often used it in private from 1969 on, since that is how Addison Leitch referred to her.
² As in Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, I’ve chosen to call the tribe “Waodani” throughout this book, both in my own writing and in my quotes of others’ words from the time period when slur “Auca” was routinely—and innocently—used by many.

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