Do you ever struggle to make sense of your circumstances? Many times, I’ve looked at what’s happening in my life and asked, “What on earth are you doing, God?” Some things begin to make sense in retrospect as I look back on what’s happened. Other circumstances still have question marks next to them. There are many things that I’m looking forward to God explaining in heaven, one day. In the meantime, others can help us navigate the murkier days. Last month, I listened to a preacher named Sandy Wilson at a conference in Huntsville. He shared the story of Elisabeth’s Elliot’s first year of missionary service.
After six months studying Spanish in Quito, Ecuador, Elisabeth was posted in a village among the Colorado Indians. There were many tests in her rural life. Macario, however, was an answer to prayer. He spoke both Spanish and the native language fluently and was a huge help to Elisabeth in helping her to learn the Colorado language and begin putting it into written form. One day, Macario was suddenly murdered and it tested Elisabeth’s faith like nothing had ever before. She found strength to submit to circumstances she couldn’t explain and would later write, “Faith’s most severe tests come not when we see nothing, but when we see a stunning array of evidence that seems to prove our faith vain.”
Having grieved and been tested by Macario’s death, she continued her work on the Colorado language, finally completing a written alphabet with pronunciation and some basic words and phrases. She trained the other missionary women who served with her so that they could, in turn, teach the Colorado people. As this work was beginning to take shape, she was transferred to begin learning another tribal language. Shortly after she arrived in her new location, she learned that the work that she had dedicated the last ten months of her life to completing had been stolen. The alphabet with all of her notes, charts and files was all gone! Again, she couldn’t help but question what God was doing. She later reflected, “And so it often is. 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.” She would also write, “our little troubles may actually be the vehicles to bring us to God.” God seemed to be using tragedy in her life to teach her deep lessons about trust, sufficiency and the realities of human suffering. Little did she know then how important these lessons would later prove.
Jim Elliot eventually proposed to Elisabeth. She had known him during language school and had maintained limited contact despite being separated in different postings. While she had been formulating the written structure of the Colorado language, Jim had been building missionary homes and buildings for his first year. One day, Jim radioed Elisabeth with the news that a flood had hit and the homes and buildings that he had constructed over that year had all been washed away. Again, she questioned God. Hadn’t they been faithful? Weren’t they giving their all to God? She wrote, “All the Scriptural metaphors about the death of the seed that falls into the ground, about losing one’s life, about becoming the least in the kingdom, about the world’s passing away—all these go on to something unspeakably better and more glorious. Loss and death are only the preludes to gain and life. It was a temptation to foreshorten the promises, to look for some prompt fulfillment of the loss-gain principle….” And then, “Of one thing I am perfectly sure: God's story never ends with 'ashes.’”
I spend a lot of my time trying to avoid suffering, but when I look back, most of my growth and the most important lessons I’ve learned have come in the midst of painful circumstances. I don’t know if you’re struggling to make sense of your circumstances today, but I pray that you’ll join me in remembering that:
- “Faith, prayer, and obedience … are not offered in exchange for immunity and exemption from the world’s woes.”
- “Our little troubles may actually be the vehicles to bring us to God.”
- “Loss and death are only the preludes to gain and life.”
- “God’s story never ends with ashes.”
In awe of Him,
Quotes are all from Elisabeth Elliot’s book, “These Strange Ashes.”