Disciplined to Sacrifice: Jim Elliot (1927 - 1956)
On January 2, 1956, Jim Elliot and four other Christian missionaries set out on a journey to reach the Auca Indians (today’s Huaoroni) with the gospel. They knew the risk involved, for that tribe, embedded deep in the jungle of Ecuador, had a reputation for savage brutality when confronted with strangers. Still, the men camped along the Curaray River in hopes of making contact. On January 6, they were overjoyed to begin what seemed like a friendship with three Aucas emerging from the jungle. But two days later, all five missionaries were speared to death by the very tribe they sought to evangelize.1 Though Elliot’s bravery may seem inexplicable to some, its source is not a mystery. He had cultivated the faith to die for his Lord through years of practicing the spiritual disciplines.
A minister’s son from Portland, Oregon, Elliot professed faith in Christ at age 8 and later enrolled at Wheaton College to prepare for a lifetime of Christian service. As a student, he made a habit of rising early to have uninterrupted time for prayer and Bible study. Yet in 1948, a chapel sermon by British evangelical Stephen Olford convinced him of the need to intensify his devotional exercises. He did, and God shaped his character mightily.
Elliot’s thirst for God was intense. For instance, reflecting on the previous year’s prayer and Bible study times, he wrote in 1948, “[I]f I have gotten nothing else from this year’s experience, He has given me a hunger for Himself I never experienced before.”2 On another occasion, he confessed his increased proneness to sin when not immersed in Scripture: “[W]hen I have not been wholly satiated with the water of life in the morning, the tongue is apt to move loosely in criticism of God’s children, His ways of leading, His apparent slowness to provide.”3
And he recognized the difference between meditation on Scripture and mere selfish musings.4 That is why he turned to in-depth Bible study, including making his own translations of the Greek New Testament, during pivotal periods in life. For example, he delved into God’s Word both to seek vocational direction upon college graduation5 and to decide whether to marry his future wife, Elisabeth.6
Yet intercession and meditation were not the only disciplines he practiced. Elliot’s confession was blunt and sorrowful. He wrote during college, “Much oppressed with vile thoughts these past two days. Sick in bed with too much inactivity. Ah, what a cesspool this heart is if left to bubble up its own production!”7 The discipline of silence proved invaluable as he contemplated foreign mission service, and he discovered the veiled blessing of instances when God chose not to speak immediately. “He waits for men to leave off their bawling,” he wrote, “and turn for a moment to listen to his still, small voice of Spirit.”8 At times, he also paused to visualize God’s presence in each area of his daily routine.9
No less than the private disciplines, Elliot delighted in the corporate disciplines. While serving as a home missionary in Chester, Illinois, he went four months without observing the Lord’s Supper and consequently felt a dryness in his soul, noting communion’s “powerful influence in introducing the mind to fresh truth about Christ.”10
By his own admission, Elliot’s devotional practice lapsed somewhat during the period immediately preceding his martyrdom.11 However, he had already laid a rock solid foundation. Indeed, through years of discipline in small matters, he gained strength to practice the ultimate act of discipline: regarding his own life as insignificant compared with the kingdom of God.
Jim Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot, ed. Elisabeth Elliot (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1978), 477. See also Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor, 40th anniversary ed. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1996).
Elliot, Journals of Jim Elliot, 86.
Elliot’s journals are peppered throughout with references to Elisabeth, whom he called Betty or Betts.
Elliot, Journals of Jim Elliot, 102.
Ibid., 464, 474.