By Jaime Sherman
Think of the most loving person you have ever known. How did she demonstrate love?
When I read this question in the “God Most Loving” chapter of In His Image this week (p. 42), I immediately thought of a woman who poured out unconditional love and goodness upon the very people who had brutally speared her husband to death deep within the rain forests of Amazonian Ecuador in 1956.
I have only ever “known” Elisabeth Elliot within the pages of the books she authored during her lifetime, including Through Gates of Splendor (1957) and The Savage, My Kinsman (1961), but she has been a hero of the faith for me since my teenage years.
Jim Elliot along with Nate Saint, Peter Fleming, Ed McCulley, and Roger Youderian had been praying and preparing to make contact with the never-before-reached Auca tribe with plans of sharing the love of Jesus. After their death, Elisabeth chose to move forward in their long-held dream, believing it was God’s call upon her life.
LIFE Magazine photojournalist Cornell Capa flew to Ecuador three times to document the search for the five men and the story of the widows’ continuing ministry. He wrote in the forward to Elisabeth’s 1961 memoir: “No thoughts of revenge crossed their minds; on the contrary, they felt with an increased sense of urgency the need to bring the message of love and redemption to the Aucas.”
Capa continued, “I left Shandia (on my last trip) a bit shaken and kept on hearing Betty’s parting words: ‘It gives me a much more personal desire to reach them. The fact that Jesus Christ died for all makes me interested in the salvation of all, but the fact that Jim loved and died for the Aucas intensifies my love for them.’”
After a year spent learning the Auca tongue from three women who had left the tribe, Elisabeth gave up her teaching post at a missionary school in a more developed part of the country to live with the tribe for the next two years. She took along her young daughter Valerie and Rachel Saint, the sister of one of the martyrs, to further study the Auca language and share the gospel, something she called a “privilege.”
Elisabeth chose to form her will to the way of Jesus, to agape those who others considered dangerous enemies. Elisabeth didn’t love the Aucas because she needed something from them. She didn’t love them because she expected something in return. And she didn’t love them because they were worthy of her love. No, she showed them agape because “while she was still a sinner” marked for eternal separation from God, Jesus chose to go to the cross, sacrificing His life to make her right with God (Romans 5:8). He chose to agape her. She couldn’t purchase, barter, or trade for this kind of love, for it was simply grace, a gift of undeserved favor, lavished upon her when she placed her trust in Jesus.
Elisabeth remembered how loved she was by an everlasting love and how safe she was underneath the everlasting arms (Psalm 36:7). Yes, Elisabeth’s agape, “even in its finest moments (could) only whisper of the pure and holy love of God,” (Wilkin, p. 32), but God used her to demonstrate His love and goodness to a people previously unreached with the testimony of life eternal.
I’ve thought a lot this week about how because Elisabeth didn’t question God’s love and goodness, she could trust Him to guide her journey into the jungle to live with her husband’s murderers. Because she made a habit throughout her life of spending time in the Lord’s presence, of basking in His character, of obeying Him, she had already learned to walk as He did before suffering entered her story. She, too, could pray for and love her enemies. She could live with the most feared tribe in South America. And she could lay her life down for the hope of even one person hearing the good news.
We are not all called to the remotest spots to minister to the most dangerous people, but we are called today to love and to spread goodness to the people in our paths, including during this time of great uncertainty and fear.
As many of us read from Psalm 86 this week, our God is good and abounding in steadfast love (vs. 5), and so we pray: Teach us your way, O LORD, that we may walk in your truth. Unite our hearts — concentrate all their affections — to fear your name. When insolent men — or political unrest, economic uncertainties, and a virus — rise up against us, You are merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Grant us your strength. We are your servants.