“Her sufferings were her shield.”
I didn’t start this post as a tribute to Elisabeth Elliot, but it seems appropriate since she finished her race and entered Heaven’s gates this week. She knew how to suffer well, and though Tim Keller wasn’t referring to Elisabeth when he wrote this, it certainly fits.
Actually, in his book on prayer, Keller makes this remarkable statement while paraphrasing lines Augustine penned when writing to a Christian widow who survived, not only the death of her husband, but the sacking of Rome in AD 410. Augustine described the sufferings this dear saint experienced as both a defense and a door. A defense from the illusions of self-sufficiency and heart-hardening blindness and a door to a rich, passionate conversation with the only One capable of sustaining her peace in the midst of circumstances that would otherwise cripple her. Her own “gates of splendor,” yes?
We work awfully hard to maintain the illusion of self-sufficiency, don’t we? We fill our days with activity, our yards with security fences, and our bank accounts with savings hoping they’re enough to shelter us from suffering when it comes. But, it inevitably comes. What if one of the purposes of suffering is to shatter the illusion because that is truly in our best interest? What if recognizing our need is a kind blessing of our merciful God? John Murray wrote,
“We might be tempted to ask whether God can build character without suffering. That is a hypothetical question. He has not chosen to do so.”
(excerpt from Behind a Frowning Providence)
Can I learn to see them this way, the things that have felt so dreadfully painful in my life? Amy Carmichael understood and observed: “How very small anything that we are allowed to endure seems beside that Cross.” That doesn’t mean they don’t hurt. But it does mean that no suffering is wasted that enlarges our understanding of the cross of Christ.
It strikes me that, like the suffering of the Roman widow or that of Elisabeth Elliot, the cross is both a defense and a door as well. A defense from the devastating consequences of our sin. And a door opening to a relationship we could never qualify for, earn, or otherwise deserve based on our own actions. His sufferings were MY shield, protecting me from the Father’s wrath and inviting me into the Family. Oh, Jesus … thank You. Gates of splendor, indeed.
I had the privilege of hearing Elisabeth Elliot speak about suffering several times over a period of many years. She often quoted this poem entitled “The Thorn” by an anonymous author:
I stood a mendicant of God before His royal throne
And begged Him for one priceless gift which I could call my own.
I took the gift from out His hand but as I would depart,
I cried, “But Lord – this is a thorn, and it has pierced my heart!”
“This is a strange, a hurtful gift which Thou hast given me.”
He said, “My child, I give good gifts, and gave My best to thee.”
I took it home, and though at first the cruel thorn hurt sore,
As long years passed I learned at last to love it more and more.
I learned He never gives a thorn without this added grace:
He takes the thorn to pin aside the veil which hides His face.
I learned so much from Elisabeth. Her theology, forged in the furnace of intense pain, shaped me through her words written and spoken as well as the years I was privileged to know her as a friend and mentor. One thing she knew was how to suffer well. There’s nothing easy about suffering, and it’s not something any of us pursue. We don’t have to; it comes on its own. But we do have a choice in how we respond to it. Will we let it do its self-sufficiency shattering work or cling doggedly to our illusions?
Elisabeth often opened or closed her radio program by saying, “You are loved with an everlasting love. And underneath are the everlasting arms.” It was her deep assurance of being loved well that surely under-girded her no-nonsense, “do the next thing” approach to life. She could just as easily have said, like Paul, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” She was not one to waste her thorns.
Though a shy person by nature, Elisabeth was remarkably candid in sharing the things she learned as God allowed suffering to strip her, repeatedly, of any illusions of self-sufficiency and transform spiritual blindness into a clear vision of what it looks like to simply trust and obey. She allowed sanctification to have its way with her and, in turn, left landmarks and signposts for the rest of us as she pursued the One who loved her first.
I’ll be the first to admit to hating what feels like suffering in my life. I’ve questioned, cried, begged, screamed, and lashed out for understanding through the years. But, in the process, something miraculous has happened. When the thrashing and resisting slows, the comforting and the entering in begins. Comfort from my blood-bought defense and entering in through the door swung wide by the Sacrifice. And given the choice between suffering in order to know Him and walking an easy path without Him, I choose to know Him. Hands down and eyes to heaven. Knowing Him is worth any price. I believe this was the truth Elisabeth lived and died by.
It makes me want to pray, “Lord, make my suffering both defense and door. Use the veil-pinning thorn-gifts to expose Your face. And let me fall, daily, out from under the illusion of my sinful self-sufficiency and into Your loving, everlasting arms. Help me trust and obey like my role model, my sister in Christ, my friend … until it’s my turn to come Home.”