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

January 19, 2022 Comments off

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.

Thoughts on Missionary Work, and Christ’s Return

December 16, 2021 Comments off

The two things — the only things — to which I can look forward now are the coming of Christ and my going to the Waodani.  O, if Christ would only come–but how can He until the Waodani are told of Him. — Elisabeth Elliot, from her journal

Through the years I’ve picked up on some of the history of the “modern missionary movement” that started in earnest in the 19th century — such as the 19th century activities referenced in Spurgeon’s sermons (he occasionally spoke at special Society meetings for the purpose of missions work), along with things I learned in a visit to Hawaii in the early 2000s, and occasional reading about some of the great missionaries (such as Hudson Taylor and Adoniram Judson) and a few martyrs in historical accounts.

Another part of the missionary movement, though, is from the mid-20th century.  This last summer, taking advantage of an audio-book library, I read the audio versions of Elisabeth Elliot’s first book, “Through Gates of Splendor,” followed by Steve Saint’s “End of the Spear,” and learned the details of this event, the five martyred missionaries in Ecuador back in the 1950s; and it is an interesting story, along with Steve Saint’s follow-up several decades later.  Now I am reading a third book on this topic (a hard-cover book loaned from a friend at church), Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, part 1 of a biography of Elisabeth Elliot.  This book, by Ellen Vaughn and published in 2020, tells of Betty (Howard) Elliot, from early life, through her years at Wheaton College, then through the missionary years up through 1963 — and fills in a lot of the details of the events that Steve Saint had made mention of, how the American missionary women established contact with the Waodani tribe in the years shortly after the men were killed, and the spreading of the gospel to that remote jungle tribe — along with mention of the missionary work among other native tribes in South America. 

Nearing the end, I am enjoying this book even more — so many interesting things in it, and not least because of the applicability to my own situation– what I can so well relate to in my own experience,  seeing several personality characteristics in the difficult person she worked with (Rachel Saint) and similarity to someone in my own life.  Somehow it is encouraging to read about another believer who had similar experiences of being misunderstood and accused of unbelief and heresy, and finding that there have been others before who have such strong and difficult-to-deal-with personalities.

From the middle chapters in the book, the time soon after the murder of the five missionaries, comes an interesting statement from Elisabeth Elliot’s journal at the time — as she was still dealing with the trauma and the turmoil of thoughts, and seeking the Lord’s will after what had happened (from page 165): 

I long now to go to the Waodani.  The two things — the only things — to which I can look forward now are the coming of Christ and my going to the Waodani.  O, if Christ would only come–but how can He until the Waodani are told of Him. … Or if only I could die–what a blessed release.  But I do not ask to be released.  I ask to be made Christ-like, in the inmost part of my being.

Her theology was better than that, in recognizing God’s Sovereign purposes and that He has determined the time of His Return, and God cannot be manipulated by our actions.  (Though Betty still had much to learn through suffering, and God’s providence in the years ahead.)  Yet it fits in the overall picture of world events, and an interesting point,  as another of the end times indications.  Christ’s Return is now that much sooner than it was back in the 1950s, and along the way the native tribes of Ecuador, including the Waodani tribe, did indeed hear the gospel; and quite a few have come to saving faith.  Christ did say that this gospel would be proclaimed throughout the whole world, before His return, Matthew 24:14.

The preterists’ idea that this had somehow been accomplished in the 1st century — referencing the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 1:8, that “your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world” (and yes the gospel had been spreading throughout the general Roman world, so that people generally in those parts had at least heard something about the gospel) — really falls short of the full explanation, as such a narrowing and limiting of our infinite God, who has intended something far greater and far more extensive than what was done in the 1st century alone.  

On the other hand, a dispensational idea I came across several years ago — that Matthew 24:14 does not have any reference to the missionary work of spreading the gospel around the world throughout the ages, but instead is referring to a specific event that occurs in Revelation 14:6-7 — also misses the full truth.  Revelation 14:6-7 certainly will play its part too, during the Great Tribulation; yet Christ’s statement about the gospel being proclaimed throughout the whole world surely must, and does, include all of Christian history, including the worldwide missionary work of the last 200+ years.  Further, the professing, historic Church throughout the centuries has understood Matthew 24:14 as related to the Great Commission. 

The great story of how that has been accomplished, the spread of Christendom throughout the world, in the differing ways throughout the millennia, is itself quite interesting, a lengthy tale with many different particular stories, of all the many ways that God has used individuals at different places and times to save His elect people.  The gospel message indeed has been heard by all types of people — the great, the small, the rich, the poor — from “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people.”  In medieval times it was accomplished by the conversion, at least outwardly expressed, of key leaders of the Gentile nations, after which it was understood and assumed that all of that nation would now be considered part of Christendom — Constantine with the Roman Empire, and later the conversion and civilizing of the Vikings, for instance.  The immediate effects of such efforts were to bring basic “Western civilization” to the heathen nations, to bring in the form and outward expression of serving the one true God.  Individual conversions of some of the people in those lands then followed.  The early centuries also saw the gospel reach to some groups in far east Asia, as far as India — though always as a minority there, never becoming the mainstream dominant religion there.  

The missionary work post-Reformation included the early work of John Eliot (no direct relation to the Jim Elliot of the 20th century) in 17th century Puritan New England, among the native tribes there — including his use of an “informant” who taught him their language, followed by his development of a written form of Algonquian and the first Bible printed on American soil, this one in the Algonquian language (as the first book printed, on the first printing press in the colonies).  John Eliot’s techniques were of course used later in the much larger-scale missionary work begun in the 19th century, with William Carey and later efforts, through the 20th century and the work of groups such as Wycliffe Bible Translators. 

That too is an interesting part mentioned in this biography of Elisabeth Elliot:  the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators was one of the missionaries who came to Central America in the early 20th century, with ambitious plans to print and distribute Spanish language Bibles – only to discover the great numbers of tribes there (and throughout Central and South America) that spoke many different languages, all unique, and that did not know any Spanish.  William Cameron Townsend, who founded Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1942, was among the characters in the events surrounding Betty Elliot (and the other missionaries in Ecuador) during her years there in the 1950s through early 1960s. 

This early years biography of Elisabeth Elliot touches on so many interesting aspects of the 20th century missionary work in Ecuador, in addition to the other items mentioned above.  It has been a great read, as a time for me to reflect on missions work as it relates to the season of these last days, and to appreciate and think again upon the spread of the gospel around the world, one of the great promises in God’s word that we have seen come about, in the story of Church History and to this day.  Yes, as Christ promised us, the gospel has been and is being preached throughout the world — “as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”