“I think the devil has made it his business to monopolize on three elements: noise, hurry, crowds. If he can keep us hearing radios, gossip, conversation, or even sermons, he is happy. But he will not allow quietness.”
Jim Elliot wrote this in a letter to his family in 1948 when television was still in an experimental phase and the idea of people carrying hand-held computers in their pockets was the stuff of science fiction.
Although he didn’t face the same kinds of daily assaults on personal peace that we do, Elliot was keenly aware of threats to the quiet he knew he needed. He was attempting to discern where God was calling him to serve as a missionary and he wanted to be able to hear the still, small voice that would direct him.
Elliot’s journals and letters – excerpted in Shadow of the Almighty, the biography his widow, Elisabeth, wrote – tell how he refrained from most social activities during his years at a Christian college that he might keep focused on prayer, study, and reading. His writings are filled with references to both the Bible and literature and they reveal the mind of someone who could drink deeply of the riches of this world but who was centered on his goal and willing to limit his life to essentials that he might reach it. For instance, although he was drawn to Elisabeth, a fellow student, and confessed his love for her before her graduation, he made clear that his work among primitive peoples might require him to remain single. Indeed, it was several years before he discerned that God was giving him the go-ahead to marry her.
During these days when coronavirus restrictions and other circumstances have altered and limited our lives markedly from just a year ago, Jim Elliot’s full and purposeful life stands out as a template for what is truly essential.
Amid the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, there was much talk of how people were returning to fundamentals. As we spent more time at home, parents were supposedly growing closer to their children and families were recognizing the benefits of scaled-back schedules. People seemingly were looking at their lives with an eye to what mattered most, sorting through activities, possessions, and relationships to determine what was really essential.
As the first weeks of restrictions have stretched into a year, however, those noble aims have faded. Many of us are simply weary of the new routine that has been imposed on us and are longing for what used to be. Some have tried to snatch a little of what remains by booking a vacation or undertaking a remodeling project. Other hopeful souls are soldiering on toward the day when they anticipate things returning to “normal.” Yet, that day looms farther and farther away as we are warned of new strains of the virus and told that even with vaccinations, masking will be required well into 2022. Whatever peace we might have experienced during those first days of sheltering in has, for many, evaporated into irritation.
Meanwhile, we are spending more time than ever on devices and screens where we chat with each other, attend classes, shop, work, and access entertainment. In this state of constant connection and stimulation, we are trying to make sense of what has happened, not through quiet reflection, but by plunging into the technology that did not go into lockdown and continues to swirl about us as we click on the latest links that shout “Read” and “Watch.”
It is no surprise then that many of us are on edge, annoyed, and even angry, whether interacting on social media or navigating the aisles of a store. Into all of this, I have heard the voice of Jim Elliot, who died when he was just 28, speaking quietly but firmly as he responded to the challenges of the culture in which he lived.
I suspect that if Elliot were around today he would be engaging in his own form of social distancing, detaching from many of the things we have come to consider essential. He would be the friend who wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, who still carried a flip phone — if he had a cell phone at all — and drove an old car. What mattered to him was his mission and what it was going to take to get there. Anything not essential to that purpose was superfluous.
Even so, Elliot was far from dull. His journals reveal a life imbued with delight, particularly when he observed the natural world around him, and he was known for being something of a prankster. It is almost as if by letting go of nonessentials, he was able to enjoy the essentials more profoundly.
Ultimately, his laser focus on the mission field took him to the jungles of Ecuador, where he labored for nearly four years before he and four companions, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCully, were killed by seven of the very men they had hoped to reach with the message of their faith. It was a death for which Elliot was prepared – for the Auca/Waodani tribe was known to have killed interlopers – but it was a price he was willing to pay. Well before he died, he wrote, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Elliot’s life speaks loudly in this day when we are suffering the loss of what used to be and struggling to live without it. We can’t know for certain how Jim Elliot would have responded to similar circumstances. But because he was practiced at living with essentials, I think he might have minimized the kinds of losses we are experiencing and forged ahead with the work he believed he was called to do. First, though, he would have made space in his days for quiet.
In the letter to his family excerpted above, Elliot continued, “Satan is quite aware of the power of silence. The voice of God, though persistent, is soft . . . Let us resist the devil in this by avoiding noise as much as we can, purposefully seeking to spend time alone, facing ourselves in the Word.”
More than ever, with all that has happened in the last year, this is a time to be quiet, to consider what has happened to us individually and corporately, and how we will use what freedom we still have to live. St. Teresa of Avila once said,
“ . . . We sometimes refuse what the Lord gives us, even though the gift might be the best one possible.” In that vein, it may be that this season, though not something any of us desired, is just what is needed for such a time as this.
Photos of book cover and Jim Eliot and Pete Fleming used with permission of the Elisabeth Elliot Foundation, where more information about the life and legacy of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot can be found.