There’s No Coming to Life without Pain: An Interview with Elisabeth Elliot

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Flannery O’Connor once responded to an interviewer’s question about why her short stories left such a bad taste in the mouth with, “Well, you weren’t supposed to eat them.” Her wry sense of confidence in herself and her craft was undoubtedly due to her utter confidence that God was in total control of her life and writing habit.

In her words, both written and spoken, Elisabeth Elliot exudes this same quiet confidence. Hers is a Lord whom she has learned is nothing less than trustworthy. Ask her to sum up what God has taught her and she says simply, “Trust me.”

Elisabeth Elliot is the author of several best-sellers, including Passion and Purity and Shadow of the Almighty, which recount her experiences when she and her husband Jim Elliot served as missionaries to the Quichua Indians of Ecuador. She recently filmed, on behalf of Ligonier Ministries, a new teaching series, “Suffering is Not for Nothing.”

Tabletalk: In her 1977 graduation address at Wheaton College, Madeleine L’Engle ended with this quote from Jung: “There’s no coming to life without pain.” What do you think of that?

Elisabeth Elliot: It’s true.

TT: Perhaps a more challenging question is one based on the Christian mystics. They wrote about the dark night of the soul as if it were a more normal passage in a Christian’s life. Many Christians believe that suffering is a direct result of sin.

EE: The book of Job clearly refutes the notion that suffering is the direct result of your own sin. It is the direct result of original sin—there’s no question about that. There wouldn’t be suffering, there wouldn’t be death, there wouldn’t be sin, if it hadn’t been for Adam and Eve’s disobedience.

According to my reading of Christian mystics, the dark night of the soul is really a much more rare and high-powered experience than most of us have. The average person’s feelings of darkness, depression, despair and discouragement are not, I think, what the mystics meant about that dark night of the soul. The Christian mystics really felt dereliction. They felt that they experienced something like what Jesus felt when he said, “Why has God forsaken me?” I wouldn’t dignify any of my experiences by calling them the dark night of the soul.

TT: Why do some Christians suffer more than others? Is it because they have a stronger will that must be broken?

EE: I don’t think that we could possibly jump to that conclusion. In the first place it is a mystery how God apportions suffering. Most of us would agree that the most holy people we know seem to be required to go through more and more deep waters.

From a psychological standpoint I would think that people who are highly sensitive and have more vivid imaginations suffer more than others. I remember lying awake at night imagining the things that would happen to my second husband after we learned of his cancer. These thoughts were in themselves a point of suffering. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Take no thought for tomorrow.” He was not saying it’s wrong to plan. He was saying, “Do not assume the burdens of tomorrow.” But that is a continual temptation for some of us whose imaginations work overtime.

TT: You have said that, “The deepest things I have learned in my life have come through suffering.” Whatare some of those deep things?

EE: The profound and simple truth that God is God. When my husband Jim died, the Spirit of God brought to my mind the words: “I am the Lord!” Things which sound like platitudes become vital, living and powerful when you have to learn them in the bottom of the barrel, in dark tunnels. The lesson: “I am the Lord” ought to be one that we learn without going through deep waters, but apparently there isn’t any other way.

TT: Why does God choose suffering to mold us?

EE: To give a complete answer to that is impossible because we are up against a mystery. But He has given us at least 18 scripture verses, and I have them listed in my notebook, that explain some of the whys. For example Romans 8:28 gives us a pattern; verse 29 gives the reason. 1 Peter 4:12 and 13 are favorites of mine.

We live in a fallen world and therefore where there is wrong then Christians must suffer wrong, like everybody else. You can’t get to tomorrow morning without going through tonight. The child cannot be born without going through the straight and narrow gate which is the birth passage and the mother can’t give life to the child without suffering. It is the rule of the universe—this continual cycle of living and dying.

We can see this rhythm most dramatically in nature. The apple seed produces the tree which then produces leaves. When the leaves fall off there’s death, then in the spring there’s life. But those beautiful blossoms have to fall to the ground—to die—or no fruit will be produced. The fruit has to rot in order for the seed to be released which must fall to the ground to make the tree. Then the cycle begins all over again.

I have often tried to imagine what kind of a world it would have been without that cycle of suffering and death. Was there a sense in which death was a part of God’s original design, or is it the result of a fall? We can’t even imagine life without death.

TT: That’s a very intriguing thought. What about those Christians who must deal with a great deal of pain? How can they prevent themselves from seeing God as an ogre?

EE: Look at the cross. That is the crucial point; that is the crux. If you could see God hanging on a cross as victim and lamb, then you could not possibly believe that he’s an ogre. What image could he have chosen that would be less threatening, more meek, more helpless than a lamb that looked as if it had been sacrificed?

TT: When you address groups on the topic of suffering, you tell them to give Christ their “place of need.” What is your place of need?

EE: Most recently it was doing this video, “Suffering Is Not For Nothing” for Ligonier! Most of the days of our lives are quite ordinary days. Not many big things come up—we get into traffic jams or somebody says something snotty—little picky things which to me are reminders that God will not allow us to settle down here. What He wants is to draw and move us always toward heaven. There’s nothing perfect here.

My brother, Tom, is the champion pessimist in our family, although we’re all pretty good at it. His wife, Lovelace, told me once that when one of the children spills milk, to her it is only spilled milk. To Tom it raises all the cosmic questions in the universe.

TT: You have said that Christianity is the only religion that deals with suffering.

EE: I picked that up from C.S. Lewis and others. Buddhism and Hinduism both have an idea of nirvana—a sort of oblivion to reality and desire. You won’t suffer because you will get rid of all your feelings and you will desire nothing. And when you desire nothing, then you can’t suffer.

Christianity deals head-on with suffering because Christ Himself suffered. This symbol of our faith is a symbol of suffering.

When someone tells me a story about someone’s horrible suffering and asks what to do, I can only say what I say all the time. God is there. He has a loving purpose. He will turn it into joy if you offer it to Him.

Of course I have not experienced many kinds of suffering. I haven’t been abused by my husband. I am not blind. But the same God who meets me in my dark valleys and deep waters is the God who meets other people in their dark valleys and deep waters. He has been there. Accept suffering, thank God for it and then offer it up to Him.

TT: What about those of us who have different temperaments or more vivid imaginations? Perhaps you just have a stronger inner reservoir for hope.

EE: It can’t be a question of temperaments. Like my brother, Tom, I’m a champion pessimist.

Tom says, “I’m the kind of guy who dials, ‘Dial-A-Prayer’ and they hang up on me.” I’m like that.

TT: You don’t come across as a pessimist, however.

EE: Well, I really believe what I say. And God is mercifully helping me to see things from His viewpoint. I do know that it works, but God has to teach it to me over and over again.

When my husband, Lars, and I left the television studio after we recorded my lectures, he told me some things I had done wrong. I was just devastated by that. He’s the one person in the world that I want to encourage me. My instant, normal, human reaction is to say, “You get up there and do it!” I didn’t say it, but I did think it! God always puts His finger on that sore place in my life, that place of need. I can’t get up there and pop off to somebody else and say, “Offer your feelings to God,” and then go home in a seething stew of resentment about my husband and not offer that to God. He says to me, “OK, you dish that out to those people—how about doing it yourself right now?” I couldn’t get to sleep until 2 o’clock the following morning. My only reservoir of strength is Christ. I must continually come to Him for help.

People sometimes ask me, “How did you get rid of your feelings?” I tell them I didn’t get rid of them. I offer them to God, and I have to offer them again, and again, and again.

One of Satan’s master tricks is to say, “You big fake, you hypocrite. You didn’t mean that. You’re just nothing but a hollow mockery.” And I say, “God knows I did mean it. Get behind me, Satan.” But I’m still a sinner, I’m still subject to feelings.

I tried to be stern with myself after my first husband, Jim, was killed. I made myself get rid of all his clothes. Then six weeks later I found a pair of his shoes in the closet. There was the shape of his feet just as plain as anything, and I was in a state of total self pity again. So again I had to offer up those emotions to God. I think every grieving person goes through this kind of thing, these little reminders. I open a book and here’s his handwriting, just one little word on the page. I think about his hand once being on that page. I do my best to let people know I’ve been there and that I am there.

TT: Who are the Christians that you admire?

EE: My father. He was a great model. My mother, too. Amy Carmichael—the missionary—is certainly one of my primary role models. I have had five or six spiritual mothers. These women set visual examples of the shape of godly womanliness.

TT: How important is a sense of humor in the midst of suffering?

EE: It’s very important. If we could ever realize the dimensions of the gap between where we are and where we want to be—God’s standard of perfection and where we are now—we couldn’t help but see ourselves as comic figures. We’re laughable.

The Christian ought to be the person with the sharpest sense of humor because we have congruity in our world and life view. You cannot discern incongruity if there is no congruity. If it’s all chaos and chance there is really no basis for humor at all. This must have been in the backs of the minds of those who designed the cathedrals in Europe with all these weird looking faces looking down and laughing.

TT: How do you respond to this quote from theologian, H.A. Williams, in his book, Tensions: “If our beliefs are cut and dried it means that we have anesthetized ourselves against nine-tenths of reality. A faith which is life-giving and effective, a robust faith, has to be prepared to take doubt on board.”

EE: Doubt has to be embraced by faith. I love what George McDonald says, “The man that feareth, Lord, to doubt, in that fear, doubteth thee.” I think there is a place for an honest “why?” which is very different from the challenge of unbelief. The challenge that was thrown at Jesus—“Come down from the cross”—was the challenge of unbelief. The person who is truly seeking to know God and to understand His ways can legitimately ask why as the psalmist did and as Job did. God never chided them for that. In fact God said that Job had spoken the truth and his friends had not. Job said some awful things, look at Chapter 16!

TT: What are some awful things that you said to God?

EE: I don’t really have the guts to do that. I was raised to believe that you had to be very careful about what you said. But I am aware that God knows my thoughts before I think them, so I might as well say them.

TT: Is God’s love sufficient?

EE: It is sufficient. It’s not all I want, it’s not all I think I need, but it is enough. But there’s no sense in imagining that God’s love takes the place of every kind of earthly comfort. If the air conditioning goes off, the love of God is not going to air condition us.

I lived in a house in Ecuador with no walls, and I didn’t particularly like that. I’m a person of great reserve and privacy, and I like solitude. I had Indians in my house all the time hanging over my shoulder, going through my stuff. “What’s this? What’s that? Where did you get it? What’s it made of? Why don’t you give it to me, you’ve got two of these?” I had two changes of clothes. One on and one that I had just washed. I would just get tired of having company all the time. But I can look back and remember what the Lord asked the disciples, “When I sent you forth, lacked ye anything?” And they said, “Nothing.” God’s love is sufficient. We can’t expect Him to satisfy everything we think we need. It is in heaven where we will be truly satisfied.

TT: What advice do you have for those of us who have to watch somebody suffer?

EE: Much of what I have said in these Ligonier seminars I tried to say to my second husband when he got cancer. He was a great theologian and he had written a book on suffering—his last book written before we found out that he had cancer, entitled This Cup. It’s really one of the best things I’ve seen on the subject outside of Lewis’s, The Problem of Pain. In the last months of his life I would occasionally read to him from that book and he would just look at me and say, “Did I write that? I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

TT: Why did he say that?

EE: Because he had never suffered to the degree he was experiencing then. He had not suffered much physically, though he had gone through some horrible emotional traumas. When the cancer struck he would be in such pain that he screamed. He went from 225 pounds down to 125 in ten months. It was a devastating experience.

Throughout the ten months of watching him disintegrate I prayed for physical healing which I knew would have to be a miracle, and if that wasn’t possible I prayed that the Lord would give him peace. I really believe that God can give His peace no matter what the situation. And as far as I could tell God never gave him that peace until the last week of his life.

I can remember trying to dish out to him all these things which I was in the process of learning myself. The night before he died I stood at the end of his bed and just implored him to let go of his burdens. When I finished, he didn’t say a word at first. He just looked at me. Then all he said was, “Well, that was quite a sermon.”

I want to give people this gospel, yet some have ears to hear and some haven’t. When Jesus preached some believed, some mocked, some didn’t believe. There are certainly times when silence is the only thing you can do. Often all I can say to a person in terrible pain is: I don’t know what you are going through, but I know the One who knows.

TT: You often refer to suffering as a gift.

EE: I know that sounds preposterous. It has taken me years to begin to comprehend this truth, which I believe is scriptural. Jesus spoke of the cup the Father gave Him. Paul said to the Philippians “It is given to you not only to believe but also to suffer.” I began to see my own widowhood as a gift in this sense: there was nothing I could do to change it. Only God could change it. If He didn’t, obviously He meant for me to receive it, accept it. And as I did that, I found peace. I found that I could glorify Him in the context of widowhood, and—much more—it was because of my losing my husband that God gave me the gift of Himself, of the knowledge of who He was, in a way I could not otherwise have experienced.

We might compare it to Daniel’s time in the lion’s den. Surely he learned some priceless things about his God there. Shadrach and his friends would not have known what they knew about God without the fiery furnace. Isn’t the den a gift, then? Couldn’t we say the furnace experience was really a gift of mercy and love?

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