Lots of people are familiar with the account of Elisabeth Elliot losing her husband Jim to the spears of Auca Indians. What many have not heard is Elisabeth’s story of loss before she ever married Jim, while she worked among the Colorado Indians in San Miguel, Ecuador.
The Colorados had an unwritten language, and Elisabeth (her last name Howard at the time) lived among them in order to learn and write down their language so that the Scriptures could be translated into Colorado. Until this point, the Colorados didn’t have a single page of the Bible in their own language.
Elisabeth labored for nearly a year in San Miguel. Learning an unwritten language, listening for patterns and sounds and structure in speech, creating an alphabet, and documenting the process was extremely tedious, not to mention that it all took place without the assistance of computers or even a Colorado language dictionary.
During this time, Elisabeth’s Indian informant, Don Macario, who worked to help her understand and accurately record the Colorado language, was shot and killed in the jungle. No one ever learned who his murderer was. His death was a blow not only to Elisabeth but also to the language work, which proved much more difficult without him.
As Elisabeth continued the language project alone, she corresponded with Jim Elliot, who was serving among the Quechua Indians in Shandia, Ecuador.
Jim had worked with a small team at the Shandia mission station to repair three old buildings, build two new ones, and amass 500 hand-planed boards for more building projects. Shortly after these accomplishments were completed, a flood wiped out the entire mission station and all their work. Nothing remained.
Around the same time, after nine long months of work in her jungle home, Elisabeth completed her own task of writing down the Colorado language. The project was finally ready for its Bible translation phase.
Elisabeth packed all the handwritten notebooks, charts, and documents from her language work into a suitcase and gave it to a fellow missionary who would begin the Bible translation. However, the suitcase was stolen from the missionary, and, without any backup files, the entirety of Elisabeth’s work was gone. Nine months of intense ministry labor had been lost in a moment.
Elisabeth wrote, “All the questions as to the validity of my calling, or, much more fundamental, God’s interest in the Colorados’ salvation, in any missionary work—Bible translation or any other kind—all these questions came again to the fore… I was dumbfounded to realize that all that work was down the drain. I was also furious at whoever stole that suitcase and undoubtedly discarded that priceless paper.”
But later she also wrote this:
“This grief, this sorrow, this total loss that empties my hands and breaks my heart, I may, if I will, accept, and by accepting it, I find in my hands something to offer. And so I give it back to Him, who in mysterious exchange gives Himself to me.”
“To be a follower of the Crucified means, sooner or later, a personal encounter with the cross. And the cross always entails loss. The great symbol of Christianity means sacrifice, and no one who calls himself a Christian can evade this stark fact.”
Elisabeth Elliot taught me how to respond to loss in life and ministry. I have learned from her that difficulty, when entrusted to me, is not mine to do with as I want. I am not to handle a trial as if I own it. I belong to God, and therefore my struggles belong to Him as well.
I can trust that He sees, knows, and understands the trial. He will waste nothing. Even if I never see the outcome, He is working sorrow for my good, for the expansion of His kingdom, and for His magnificent glory. Suffering and loss are never meaningless in His hands.
I learned (and am still learning) not to be surprised by suffering and setbacks in ministry. If the cross is truly the great symbol of Christianity, I should expect to encounter loss, especially in ministry. It’s God’s pattern to bring forth life.
If Jesus took the cross and used it to minister to us in the greatest life-giving act, I can anticipate that sorrow and seeming setbacks will occur in my ministry to bring life to others too, likely in ways greater than I imagined.
We may never see how each trial is redeemed; we may never look back in this life and say, “Now I see why that had to happen.” But that’s alright, because we live by faith, not by what is seen.
Elisabeth also wrote: “There is certain reticence to infer that our little troubles may actually be vehicles to bring us to God. Most of us simply grin and bear them, knowing they are the lot of all human beings, and our memories being marvelously selective, we simply cancel them out, none the better for the lessons we might have learned.”
Instead of trying to “grin and bear” my troubles, I’ve learned to offer up my losses to Jesus and ask, “What’s Your perspective on this? I know what I think of it, but Your thoughts and ways are different than mine. So could you give me Your perspective on this situation? Because I want it to be my perspective too.”
He shows me His thoughts as I pray and read the Word and dialogue about my losses with other believers who are saturated in His Word and in His Spirit.
Then I begin to ask Jesus, “What are You wanting to teach me through this struggle?” He doesn’t always show us how exactly He is redeeming our situations (He may never), but He will most definitely show us Himself.
If I can see and know Him better through a trial, then that alone is worth the suffering. (Remember Paul: “I have suffered the loss of all things … that I might know Christ.”)
A question I have been intentional not to ask is “Why?” This question got Job and his friends nowhere, nor did God ever answer it. He simply revealed Himself. He does the same for us and asks us to trust Him. Is that enough for us?
We will always walk through challenges and setbacks in ministry—the loss of a team member, rejection by those we serve, discouragement, lack of resources, lost work, spiritual attack, results of bad decisions (whether others’ or our own), physical limitations, ruined hopes, and, as in the Elliots’ case, murder and flooding and theft.
There’s no question that we’re in a spiritual battle requiring no less than the blood of God to empower us to overcome the forces in our way. There’s no question that we must live by faith, since we will never have all the answers to the tough things that we don’t understand.
But remember this: because of the cross, the tough things never have the last word for the child of God.
Here is where it gets exciting—you and I live in the reality of Easter morning, where fear is nailed to a tree and dead men walk out of tombs and jail cells become sanctuaries of worship and regeneration and where getting shipwrecked and snakebitten on an island creates a catalyst for missional movements that display the glory and graciousness and goodness and greatness of God in a way that no picture-perfect, Instagram-post type of life could.
Jesus Christ is working all your pain, all your suffering, and all your loss for your good and for a glory that will far outweigh the heaviness of every sacrifice you have ever made or will ever make.
This is what Jesus does, and He does it well.
What about us? What are we to do in response to suffering and setback in ministry? Elisabeth sums it up quite simply:
“Faith, prayer, and obedience are our requirements. We are not offered in exchange immunity and exemption from the world’s woes. What we are offered has to do with another world altogether.”
*Quotes by Elisabeth Elliot in this post are drawn from her book entitled: These Strange Ashes.