Sometimes God’s sovereign will seems inscrutable, especially when it involves His allowing overwhelming trial or crushing disappointment. Or when He permits the thwarting of what consecrated Christians had become thoroughly convinced was in keeping with His plan and would bring great glory to Him.
Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015), a prominent American missionary, writer and speaker, as well as one of the most influential Christian women in the second half of the twentieth century, experienced God’s imponderable sovereign will more than once in her life and ministry. To follow is an account of an early occasion when that happened to her. It has some important lessons to teach us about responding properly to God’s will in the midst of our own distressing, perplexing circumstances of life.
In 1952 Elisabeth went to Ecuador as a single missionary. There she joined three other single lady missionaries in seeking to minister to the Colorado Indians from a ministry base in San Miguel. The Colorado Indians lived nearby in the jungles of Ecuador’s western rainforest.
Elisabeth, a trained linguist, had as her primary objective there to render the Colorado language into written form. She needed to hire a Colorado Indian language “informant” who could patiently work with her in learning the vocabulary and phonetics of their native tongue. But none of the Indians she met had any interest in doing so. They were proud, independent and a bit disdainful of the white women’s presence in their world.
Elisabeth, however, was confident that God would answer her prayers and grant her success in learning the Colorado language, harnessing it into an alphabet, and teaching the Indians to read and write in their own tongue. They would then be able to read the Bible for themselves, thus facilitating their coming to saving faith in Christ and their subsequent Christian growth and service. Great glory would be brought to God.
The Lord provided an even better informant than Elisabeth could have imagined in an Ecuadorian named Don Macario. He had grown up on a hacienda with Colorado children, and was completely bilingual in Spanish and Colorado. He was a Christian and was willing to work with Betty for what she could afford to pay him.
The Colorado Indians called their own language Tsahfihki, “the language of the people.” Macario taught Elisabeth Tsahfihki vocabulary, vowel pronunciations, inflections, parts of speech and sentence structure. She created detailed notecards and charts as well as orthography (spelling) lists, using phonetic symbols that represented Tsahfihki sounds. For several months the language work progressed well.
Then suddenly, tragically Don Macario was murdered! He had been clearing brush on a piece of property when a group of men showed up, claiming the land belonged to one of them. When Macario insisted the property was his, one of the men pulled out a gun and shot him in the head several times at point-blank range.
Elisabeth heard the gunshots that ended Macario’s life. Later that same day she witnessed the autopsy that was performed to remove bullet fragments from his skull, fragments that would be used in prosecuting the perpetrator of the murder. Since Macario had no family nearby, the small Christian community in San Miguel held a wake throughout that night then buried his body the next morning.
Elisabeth wrote her parents that the day Macario was killed had been the most nightmarish day of her life. Elisabeth’s biographer Ellen Vaughn states: “She could not quite grasp the sudden horror of her friend’s death, the rank injustice of it, and what his loss meant for the Colorado translation of the Bible.”
Eventually Elisabeth was able to continue her Colorado language work in the early months of 1953 with the help of Samuel, the brother of the chief of the Colorado tribe. She completed a phonemic alphabet of Tsahfihki.
By then Elisabeth had become engaged to Jim Elliot, and anticipated their wedding and joining him in ministering to Quichua Indians in eastern Ecuador later that same year. Early in the summer she moved to a mission station at Dos Rios in the eastern jungle to study the Quichua language.
Before leaving San Miguel, Elisabeth carefully packed all her linguistic papers, notecards and charts into a suitcase, so the material would be readily available to others all in one place. Her fellow missionaries at San Miguel often consulted the materials and began to make a bit of progress in the Colorado language. In time other Christian linguists could build on Elisabeth’s initial research materials to translate the New Testament into Tsahfihki.
But some time after moving to Dos Rios, Elisabeth received a shocking letter from her former colleagues in San Miguel. It informed her that some of their luggage, including Elisabeth’s suitcase containing all her linguistic papers, charts and notes of the Colorado Indian language, had been stolen while being transported by truck. No copies had been made of any of those language materials. Everything she had done in nine months of diligent linguistic work at San Miguel was gone.
Again Elisabeth was stunned by this development and could not comprehend why God had sovereignly permitted it. And there would be other occasions in the future when she would experience stunning, tragic loss that defied comprehension and simplistic explanation.
However, in time Elisabeth reached a number of solid conclusions about such incomprehensible developments: (1) Sometimes God’s sovereign will is inscrutable and defies easy explanation. Our “why?” questions may not be satisfactorily answered for a very long time, or perhaps not ever in this life, although they doubtless will be in eternity. (2) Such situations provide Christians with the opportunity to continue trusting and obeying God even in the face of incomprehensible, painful developments and stubbornly-persistent questions about them. (3) When believers choose to respond in these commendable ways, “God gives Himself”—that is, He grants the opportunity to experience and know Him more fully in the midst of such overwhelming, perplexing circumstances.
Other positive purposes and results of these kinds of experiences are also rightly mentioned. God uses them: to forge a more Christlike character in us as His children; to deepen our dependence upon Him; to use us as a powerful positive testimony to others; sometimes to prepare us for even greater challenges to be faced in the future.
An uplifting postscript to this difficult learning episode in Elisabeth’s life and ministry is related by Ellen Vaughn. It reminds us that another important aspect of God’s inscrutable sovereign will is that sometimes He does grant the blessings His people originally sought—only in His time and ways. Ms. Vaughn writes:
“More than forty years later, Betty [Elisabeth] visited her dear old friend Doreen [one of the lady missionaries at San Miguel] and her Ecuadorian husband, Abdon. Doreen and Abdon were still faithfully working with the Colorados. Some had become dedicated believers and were part of a small church. The New Testament had been translated into the Colorado language by Bruce Moore and his wife, Joyce, translators with the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Bruce and Joyce had helped to disciple Colorado leaders within the church, including a former hostile witch doctor who decided to follow Jesus, with no small ripple effect in the rest of the community.”
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This Perspective article is gleaned from Ellen Vaughn’s outstanding biography of the first thirty-six years of Elisabeth’s life, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot (B&H Publishing, 2020). If you haven’t already done so, you may be interested in reading my October 26, 2022 blog “A Highly-Recommended Elisabeth Elliot Biography,” which provides a review of that book.
Copyright 2022 by Vance E. Christie