January 8, 1956 is a day that should also “go down in infamy,” just like December 7, 1941. Headlines all over the entire English speaking Western World screamed the tragedy of five young American missionaries brutally murdered by the spears of a primitive Indian tribe deep within the Amazon jungle of Ecuador.
That’s the worldly perspective.
I read Jim Elliot’s story to my nine-year-old son over Christmas break. I’m not entirely sure how much he has learned from our “Christian Heroes: Then and Now,” by Janet and Geoff Benge (1999, YWAM), written at about a fifth-grade level. My son is a third-grader and an advanced reader, and I know he is engaged in the material because he’s constantly fielding questions as I read. But this incredible story brought me to my knees and changed my thinking on missions, sacrifice and whole-heartedly serving the Lord.
Jim was one of five young missionaries, including Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully, all living in various villages within the Oriente region of Eastern Ecuador. He first ministered to the Quichua Indians, a friendly tribe. But Jim was much more interested in the Auca tribe, who were farther removed from modern western civilization and promptly killed any foreigners who dared to trespass into their territory. They were fierce, few in number, and young, since they were taught to kill in defense and fear, so not many were past age 30. From the moment Jim learned of them when he was in a missionary school in Oklahoma, he prayed for the opportunity to minister to them.
God is faithful in answering prayer.
Half the Benges’ book is devoted to the meticulous and detailed year-long planning that the five missionaries called “Operation Auca” in their efforts to reach out to them. Even though I knew the ending, I still had to choke back tears when I got to the part where the Curaray River turned red with the blood of Jim Elliot and his co-workers. Was it all for nothing?
Far from it.
Their sacrifice was just the beginning of the story God was writing about unconditional, redeeming love. Elisabeth Elliot , who went on to become a national speaker and author, chose forgiveness. In fact, she and other widows remained in the area and continued to minister to the Aucas. This response transformed the lives of this tribe forever, who were expecting revenge and retaliation. Steve Saint did an interview about his father’s involvement with “Operation Auca” 60 years later and testified to how his father’s sacrifice changed him and the Aucas forever. The son of the Indian who killed Nate became friends with Steve, and it made the hearts of the Aucas open to the Gospel, which was exactly what Jim had so fervently prayed for. “Forgiven people learn to forgive others,” Steve Saint said.
What the world calls “tragedy,” believers call “miraculous.”
This story blew my mind as profoundly as Corrie Ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place,” and I wrestled with it for days. Was Jim’s desire to reach the Auca Indians with the Gospel message so all-consuming that he lost sight of the fact that he had a young family to care for? Valerie, his daughter, was only 10 months old. In fact, Pete and Nate also left their young children fatherless.
Another part of this story is in “Devotedly,” a collection of love letters, compiled by Valerie as adult, exchanged between Jim and Elisabeth while they were separated during different missionary assignments and trying to discern whether it was God’s will for them to marry. Obviously it was, but twenty- two months is a disappointingly short time to be married to the love of your life.
Then I realized that I had the wrong perspective. I had to shake off the hopeless romantic in me and view the event like Elisabeth did. She and the other widows could see the bigger picture. “Operation Auca” was as much a part of Elisabeth and the other wives’ efforts as the men, and Elisabeth documents this in vivid detail in her book, “Through the Gates of Splendor.” The last thing she ever wanted was pity.
Obedience to the will of God remains more important than, yes, even family. Jim and the others were willing to do to whatever it took, including sacrificing themselves, to get the Gospel message to the Aucas. He is best known for this truth he came up that he wrote in his journal:
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
We are not all called to go dashing out to the Ecuadorian jungle. Or Africa. Or China. Like Jim Elliot, my mother prayed for months about overseas mission work as a nurse while she studied at the Lutheran Bible Institute in Minnesota in the mid 1960s. What was God’s response to her? He sent a handsome gentleman her way from a small town in southern Minnesota who put a ring on her finger in 1967. Overseas mission work was not God’s plan for my mom’s life. The mission field he gave her instead was the Des Moines suburbs, and her people became me, my sister and our dad, her neighbors and friends. That was just as important.
we don’t necessarily need to cross an ocean to share Christ’s love; sometimes we just need to cross our street.
Exactly how committed are each one of us to sharing the Gospel and love of Christ with whomever God places in our sphere of influence? Who are “our people” to whom God expects us to share his love? How extensively do you and I pray about this?
I know I don’t do it enough.
If Jim Elliot was consumed with the desire to share the Gospel with the most hostile, violent population in the Southern Hemisphere, and give his life for them, why do we hesitate to start spiritual conversations with our neighbors or co-workers? Are we afraid of offending someone? And so what if offense occurs? Our duty is obedience. Planting seeds. We are not responsible for the end result. That’s God’s job.
Christians in America aren’t being martyred for their faith like they are in Africa, India or other Muslim dominated countries. What’s the fiercest enemy that we are up against in the quiet, middle-class suburbs of the Midwest where our lawns are perfectly manicured and our kids ride their bikes in the streets?
Sixty-seven years later, during the month of January, we will honor the sacrifice that Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Nate Saint, Ed McCully and Roger Youderian made to reach an “unreachable” population in a remote corner of the world and change their lives. While the world and even the other local Indian tribes saw the Aucas as “the enemy,” God saw this tribe and loved them. In the same way, God sees you and me. We all matter. More miracles will happen if we can step out of our comfort zones in obedience to love people who don’t yet know Christ, whether it’s at the grocery store, fitness center, library, your workplace, or better yet, the church.
What is one step that you can take today to share God’s love with someone?
Dear Heavenly Father,
Open our eyes to the lonely and lost people all around us. Give us boldness and courage to reach out with kindness or a friendly smile. Help us become more aware of the needs of the people we see everyday in our work place, in our church or just across the street. Let us not remain in fear or apathy but become so overwhelmed by the prompting of the Holy Spirit that we cannot wait to start important conversations with our neighbors, family members, or the tired-looking girl who is ringing up our groceries. Amen.