Elisabeth Elliot, the wife of a martyred missionary, died on Monday. This opinion piece is by Joshua Harris, an author and speaker.
When I was 16, I despised Elisabeth Elliot. In my mind she stood in the way of me being with my girlfriend — or, more specifically, me making out with my girlfriend — and I would not abide by this meddling. Of course, Elliot knew nothing of me or my girlfriend, but she had written a book on the topic of relationships called “Passion & Purity” that threatened to disrupt my happy love life.
My mother had given me a copy of “Passion & Purity” and asked me to read it. I was immediately suspicious. First, because my mother had given me the book. Giving me a book was mom’s not-so-subtle way of telling me I had a problem. The second reason I was distrustful was the subtitle: “Learning to bring your love life under Christ’s control.” I didn’t want my love life under control. And I certainly didn’t want Christ controlling it because I knew that would make it boring. So I skimmed the book to appease my mom and tossed it aside. As my mom later joked, I read all the “passion,” but skipped all the “purity.”
But after a few years of frustration with my own approach to dating (and without the pressure of my mom forcing me to read it) I picked up Elliot’s book again. This time it changed my life. I read the story of Jim and Elisabeth — two people who were passionately in love and yet chose to put Jesus first. Before their romantic longings. Before their own timetable for marriage. Before their sexual desires.
Elliot had this unsentimental, no-nonsense approach to living the Christian life that was refreshing and jarring in an “Ice-Bucket Challenge” sort of way. “The Bible says it so obey it. What are you waiting for? Why quibble and make excuses? Jesus is Lord so let him be Lord of your love life. Jesus is Lord so go tell the Aucas in Ecuador about him. Jesus is Lord so let him define how you view your gender and sexuality.”
I guess a lot of people who read her writing would consider it all very backward and old-fashioned, but when I read it I can’t shake the sense that this woman had a real relationship with a glorious God. And then chose to cut the crap and take God seriously in every part of her life. I love that about her. I need her directness. I think our whole generation of evangelicals needs her directness.
Five years after I dissed Elliot’s book, I was 21 and typing with trembling hands a letter to her to ask if she’d be willing to review the unpublished manuscript of a book I was writing called “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” (Needless to say, I’d come a long way from my views as a 16-year-old.) I rewrote my letter to her at least three times. In one discarded version I told Elliot that I doubted my book was even worth publishing since hers was so much better. And because I endlessly quoted her I suggested that I “just forget my book and work at selling yours.” I was discouraged about my book and almost ready to give up on it.
I’ll never forget the day I received a typed, postcard reply from her. It read: “Bravissimo! I applaud your forthrightness, courage, God-given conviction, and ability to articulate a message that is desperately needed.” I still have that little note taped in a journal. Her encouragement fueled me to keep writing. And helped me to sell my book to a publisher and not a few readers.
In the years that followed, my book went on to become the new go-to book for mothers to give their kids when they didn’t like the person they were dating. And I became the author that 16-year-olds silently cursed under their breath. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I will always be proud of getting an endorsement from Elliot — a woman who I consider to be a hero of the faith.
Thanks for meddling with my love life, Elisabeth Elliot.