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Why Elisabeth Elliot Changed Her Beliefs about Finding God’s Will

By Koa Sinag

Why Elisabeth Elliot Changed Her Beliefs about Finding God’s Will

Seeking God’s Will

Of the many books Elisabeth Elliot wrote, her best-known is surely her first, Through Gates of Splendor. The 1957 multibiography is first and foremost a narrative of how five families came together to plan a missionary approach to a little-known people group in rural Ecuador, and how the plan ended in the deaths of five of the missionaries, including Elliot’s husband Jim. But the book is also an exposition of the then-twenty-nine-year-old Elliot’s beliefs about the will of God.

The first mention of God’s guidance appears just a page into the book, and his clear leading is described again less than a page from the end. In between, God’s will is characterized as covering both the big picture (“Christ said, ‘Go ye’; their answer was ‘Lord, send me.’”1) and the individual details (“He asked God specifically to show him his next move.”2) We see God’s will discovered through prayer, Bible reading, circumstances, and the impressions of the inner self.

Seeking and obeying the will of God had been a constant emphasis throughout Elliot’s life. She had grown up in a world saturated in the Keswick Holiness tradition, with its stress on giving the whole person, inside and out, to God. She took this teaching seriously, responding to an altar call for salvation at age ten and another at twelve to make clear her commitment to God’s will for her life. Her letters home from boarding school and college reflect this focus; they are liberally sprinkled with requests for prayer that God’s will for her time at school be fulfilled, that she can have the strength to attain all that God has for her, that she be preserved from mistaking God’s guidance and stepping out of his plan for her life.

The fear of missing God’s direction caused Elliot much grief. A letter to her mother written not long after her college graduation shows her understanding of God’s will in greater detail:

More than anything else in the world I fear myself. I can trust God to be unchangingly faithful—I could trust Him to keep me and guide me if I could honestly say I desire nothing save His own, complete will. But how do I know that that is all I desire? How can I know a heart that is deceitful above all things and DESPERATELY WICKED? God judges those who are disobedient. We must suffer. Oh, suppose I should, by allowing feeling to overcome faith, miss His direction? Why must I struggle thro’ a maze of thought and feeling which spring from myself and my own soul, in order to reach Him? These are the thoughts that continually recur.3

She saw God’s care as dependent on her perfect obedience, and obedience as including not only her actions and her will but every aspect of her life right down to her natural inclinations. Human free will involved only the choice to obey or disobey God’s direction, and God’s will was so minutely specific that even an earnest seeker could miss the narrow path of obedience.

Through Gates of Splendor echoes these beliefs in its confident assertion that the missionaries had not missed the path. The book emphasizes repeatedly that the missionaries had been wholehearted in seeking God’s guidance. No conflicting feelings had clouded their understanding of his direction; they had clearly and correctly understood God’s will, and had enthusiastically and unhesitatingly obeyed. Elliot makes the arresting assertion that, as the five men set out on what would be their last journey, “God’s leading was unmistakable.”4 And because of the book’s wide audience and enduring appeal, this view of the will of God is probably the one for which she is best known.

Theological Evolution

But Elisabeth Elliot did not stay for the rest of her life in the same theological place where she was in her twenties. Fifteen years after Through Gates of Splendor she was living in Massachusetts and working as a writer. Her 1973 book A Slow and Certain Light: Some Thoughts on the Guidance of God was another exposition of her beliefs about the will of God, this time a direct meditation on what God’s guidance really is.

Elliot had left Ecuador with a changing understanding of God’s will. In college she believed she had discerned a call to work in Bible translation; for eleven years she had worked in three distinct languages, and there seemed to be nothing to show for it. It had seemed that God called her to marriage; after two years of marriage her husband had been killed. Her call to missions had been the first call she discerned; gradually she had become unable to see a role for herself on the mission field and had changed careers. Circumstances had forced her to look long and hard at her beliefs about God’s guidance.

A Slow and Certain Light shows that Elliot still believed that God cares about and is involved in both the big picture and details, that God does give direction to people, that God’s will must be obeyed. But her whole emphasis in seeking God’s guidance had changed.

The book acknowledges that, like the college-age Elliot desperate to discern God’s will, human beings tend to want to correctly identify the will of God in order to perfectly obey it. “Our own goal is to know the right way. We don’t like to make mistakes.”5 But there is no longer the sense that this is the correct goal or that God’s goal is the same. Rather, it suggests, God’s guidance is intended first and foremost to help us come to know God. “He is everything we are asking for,” it says, echoing Thomas Cranmer’s translation of Psalm 71:4 from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, “Thou, O Lord God, art the thing that I long for.”

Elliot’s understanding of her own heart had changed as well. In another passage that echoes that earlier letter, the book explains: “For a long time I took the view that whatever I might want to do could not possibly be what God wanted me to do. That seemed unarguable. I am a sinner, my desires are sinful, ‘there is no health in us,’ and that’s that.” But over time, “a better understanding of Scripture” had helped her see that because she was made in the image of God she might also, as “a very simple and natural thing,” have good desires.7

And, perhaps most importantly, Elliot’s view of God seems to have changed. She had seen him as a stern judge, waiting to penalize anyone who failed to understand his direction. Instead, A Slow and Certain Light describes him as a guide “who has been there before and knows the way,” who can be trusted not to let us wander off and get lost.8 It characterizes him as a good shepherd, “the God who carries lambs in his arms.”9

In looking at the events of her life, Elliot might have concluded that she had been badly mistaken about God’s leading at various points along the way, or even that there was no leading to be had. Instead, over the years she decided that there was more mystery involved in the relationship between God and people than she had previously understood—and that the mystery was bearable because of the character and the presence of God.

Notes:

  1. Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 121.
  2. Ibid., 68.
  3. Elisabeth Elliot, letter to mother, October 19, 1948, papers of Elisabeth Howard Elliot, collection 278, box 3, folder 9, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College, IL. Quoted in Elisabeth Elliot: A Life.
  4. Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor, 175.
  5. Elisabeth Elliot, A Slow and Certain Light: Some Thoughts on the Guidance of God, (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1973), 57.
  6. Ibid., 58. It is verse 4 in the Coverdale translation, used in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and verse 5 in most other English translations.
  7. Ibid., 99.
  8. Ibid., 20.
  9. Ibid., 114.

Lucy S. R. Austen is the author of Elisabeth Elliot: A Life.



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Author: Lucy S. R. Austen

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