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Suffering and Joy: Thoughts on Corrie Ten Boom and Elisabeth Elliot

January 19, 2022 Leave a comment

From my recent reading, a common theme is suffering, and hope, brought out in different ways.  I’ve re-read in audio format, Corrie Ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place,” which I last read nearly 30 years;  this time I noticed more in the story than when I first read it — in part due to my own knowledge and experience gained through the years since.  Some of the content is of course a difficult topic, the descriptions of concentration camp life and suffering of so many during those years.  It also ties in with what I’ve also recently read from and about Elisabeth Elliot, including a new book recently published (2019) from the content in a series of lectures she did in 1989.  “Suffering is Never For Nothing,” is now in book format, published in 2019.  The full video series, six lectures plus a Q&A, are available at Ligonier here at no charge.

Suffering, and suffering experienced by Christians, is one of those age-old topics, as old as the book of Job, and one that many find it helpful and indeed necessary to study, to help them understand their own personal experience.  Here I think of Charles Spurgeon, who took a great interest in studying the subject of suffering, in his early ministry years –because he was experiencing a lot of suffering.  Another helpful series, mentioned in a previous blog post a few years ago, is Dr. Mark Talbot’s Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals series, “When the Stars Disappear: Trusting God When We Suffer.”

One particular point, explicitly brought out in Elisabeth Elliot’s biography is a “hard truth,” the recognition that sometimes the prayer for physical safety is not answered — and we’re not just talking about elderly people close to death from natural causes.  John Elliot and the other four missionaries were brutally murdered.  Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsie suffered greatly in the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany, and Betsie died there.    Elisabeth Elliot in her talks provided several other examples from people she knew, some more recently as well as the martyrdom of John and Betty Stam in the 1930s.  She had met Betty Stam at her dinner table, among the many missionary guests in her home as a young child.  As Elisabeth Elliot said in this series years later:

I tell you this because maybe it’ll help you to see that I’ve been forced, from the circumstances in my own life, to try to get down to the very bedrock of faith.  The things that are unshakable.  God is my refuge.  Was He Jim’s refuge?  Was He his fortress?  On the night before those five men were killed by the Waodani, went into the Waodani territory, they sang, ‘We rest on thee, our Shield and our Defender.’  What does your faith do with the irony of those words?

The chapters/lectures in Elliot’s series include the topics of Gratitude, Offering (the sacrifice of thanksgiving, giving oneself as a sacrifice; reference Romans 12:1), Obedience, and Transfiguration; in this last one, she really brings out another great truth, the theology of the cross, referencing scripture and our natural world (the seed must be put into the ground first) about the paradox that life comes out of death.  Joy comes out of suffering, and great joy comes from great suffering.  Here, Elliot specifically mentioned Corrie Ten Boom as another example.  Jeannette Clift George, the actress who had played the role of Corrie Ten Boom in the movie version of The Hiding Place, had been asked what characteristic of Ten Boom had most impressed her; the actress’s answer was, Corrie Ten Boom’s joy.

As others have noted, Elisabeth Elliot tended towards stoicism and suppression of emotions in her response to suffering – though maturing over the years.  Each person of course is different, in how long it takes them to learn the hard truths and lessons about life.  Joni Eareckson Tada, in her introduction to Elliot’s book, observed that even after 9 years of being a quadriplegic (when she met Elisabeth Elliot, both of them speaking at a conference) she still had a more mechanical and technical understanding about suffering.  It took Joni a few more years of quadriplegia and chronic pain “to help me see there was more–much more–to suffering than learning its theological background and benefits.”

1 Thessalonians 5:18 — “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” — is another scripture I recalled while reading both of these books.  One event that Corrie Ten Boom described, during their time in the concentration camp, was the presence of fleas in their barracks.  Her sister Betsie referenced 1 Thess. 5:18 and insisted that they directly thank God for everything they were dealing with — including the fleas. Corrie protested that particular part; she could not find it in herself to thank God  for the fleas.  (Some time later, she learned that the reason their guards left them alone, and so they could have Bible studies in their barracks, was because of the fleas.)  But the text says to give thanks in all circumstances — not necessarily for the specific bad things.  Elisabeth Elliot points out that she did not thank God for the cancer (her second husband) or for the murder (first husband), and she didn’t need to thank God for those.  “But I do need to thank God that in the midst of that very situation the world was still in His hands.  The One who keeps all those galaxies wheeling in space is the very hand that holds me.  The hands that were wounded on the cross are the same hands that hold the seven stars.”

Corrie Ten Boom’s experience included observing God’s wonders in Providence, and seeing God’s hand in every event that occurred in their daily prison ordeal, along with a few supernatural, miraculous events.  On the day that Holland was conquered by the Nazis (May 1940), Corrie experienced a vision — like a dream, but while she was awake during the middle of the day; and the vision occurred a second time a few weeks or months later —  a scene of her and several family members, specific people in her family, all gathered up into a wagon and being taken away to a place she knew they did not want to go.  When the event occurred a few years later, she also recalled that vision, now comprehending its meaning.

Amazing providences also occurred, God’s answers to her prayers, in how she was able to hold on to the two most important items she had — her Bible and a bottle of vitamins/iron (necessary for her sister’s health) — and keep them with her at the Ravensbruck camp.  Such was a seeming impossibility, humanly speaking, in the circumstances.  Yet God arranged for a few distractions, and it happened more than once, that the woman ahead of her was thoroughly searched, and the woman behind her, but she was told to hurry up and move along.  That Bible became their lifeline, their solace and comfort: for herself, Betsie, and several other women as they were even able to hold Bible studies (yes, with the fleas as well).  Then came the supernatural provision in the small bottle of vitamins, that continued to pour out a drop at a time, day after day, for her sister Betsie and many other women — well past the time when she knew it should have been empty.  Betsie reminded her of the woman with the flour and the oil that never ran out (where Elijah stayed).  As Corrie noted, it was one thing to believe God did such things thousands of years ago — another to see it now.  Then a new supply of vitamins came in, smuggled in from a friend in another barracks.  That very day, her original bottle dried up, nothing more in it.

Through the stories of these Christians who have gone before, it is amazing to see how God really does work in each situation and provides what is needed, His daily grace, even in extreme situations, and even when those events do not end up well, humanly speaking:  Corrie’s sister dying in the camp, Elisabeth Elliot’s husband and four other men savagely killed.  But the Lord always keeps us safe in the Beloved — our spirits, our souls, are safe in His hands, regardless of what happens.  We are always with Him, and He is always with us:  as described in the hymn “Sovereign Ruler of the Skies” — “Thee at all times will I bless, having thee I all possess.”  and “I and mine are all thy own.”  As Elisabeth Elliot related, we don’t always understand why, but we learn to trust God and His great love for us, and enjoy His presence.  In closing, a few more words from “Suffering is Never for Nothing”:

God’s presence did not change the fact of my widowhood.  Jim’s absence thrust me, forced me, hurried me to God, my hope and only refuge. … And this is the part that brings me immeasurable comfort: The universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and enter upon the liberty and splendor of the children of God.  … God, through my own troubles and sufferings, has not given me explanations.  But He has met me as a person, as an individual, and that’s what we need.  Who of us in the worst pit that we’ve ever been in needs anything as much as we need company?   … If your prayers don’t get answered the way you thought they were supposed to be, what happens to your faith?  The world says God doesn’t love you.  The Scriptures tell me something very different.