In 1958, less than three years after her husband had been killed in an attempt to preach the gospel in the rainforest of Ecuador, Elisabeth Elliot went to live with the Huaorani people (whom her husband was attempting to reach) with her three-year-old daughter.
In 1968 she published a short book of reflections on her couple of years with the Huaorani entitled The Liberty of Obedience. I read through this fascinating book again when I was studying for our recent series on finding the will of God for our lives.
Over the next week I’m going to post a series of thoughts on the Christian life from the book. Her time with the Huaorani (whom she refers to as the Aucas)gave her a unique perspective, especially as it bears on the Christian life we’re all called to live, which was hammered out as a 20-something American among people from a very different context.
To start, here’s a few excerpts from her preface:
Many people, in their late twenties and early thirties, discover that life is getting more and more complicated.
For me it was getting simpler and simpler.
I was living with Indians in the forest of Ecuador, and was trying very hard to get down to the root of things because it seemed to me that that was where Indians lived. This process had of course its own complications for me–‘simple’ cooking over a ‘simple’ wood fire can sometimes be more difficult than fancy cooking on an electric stove–but in matters of importance the direction of my thinking was toward the bare or simple truth. I was for some years almost wholly out of touch with all that had been familiar, and I had therefore a chance to look at it from a long way off, to question and compare.
The tribe that gave me the best chance to do this had been called ‘savage.’ They were the Aucas, who by reputation were also ‘primitive,’ godless,’ ‘Stone Age’ people. They themselves gave me excellent reason to question the accuracy of these terms. They were wonderful people–generous and kind from the very first night of our arrival; capable and intelligent when you saw them in their jungle environment (where white men looked anything but capable and intelligent); amenable (almost touchingly so) to any suggestion from us; eagerly interested in all that we did or said; a people who shared lavishly all they had and were, a people who laughed uproariously most of the time when they were together, and who worked hard when they were apart (for they did their hunting and planting usually alone).
I found them easy to love.
It was these very qualities that nettled me. They simply did not fit my idea of savagery. What, then, did civilization mean? Was it merely an efficient method of complicating things?”…
Of changes among these people which could be directly attributed to the power of the Word of Christ I could not honestly say that I knew very much. It seemed to me that this must be a hidden matter of the heart which God alone could rightly assess. I wondered, of course, what sort of visible change I might look for if the Word were being spoken (as, in the last analysis, it can only be spoken) by the Spirit of God. Jesus had said that men can be known by their fruits. I knew the fruits commonly expected by those who had never tried what I was doing. But I could not be satisfied that the changes I was seeing were true fruits. Oddly enough, they were too ‘simple.’
Then I began to ask if I were making things complicated.
My confusion drove me to the admission that I had not as many answers as I had thought. God kept back some of the ones I wanted, and had other things to say to me. I listened. I studied the Bible, prayed, and thought…Why was I here? To ‘serve the Lord,’ of course. But what a reply! What an awesome task I had assumed. How was I to do it? What did it mean?”…
I saw the Indians live in a harmony which far surpassed anything I had seen among those who call themselves Christians. I found that even their killing had at least as valid reasons as the wars in which my people engaged. ‘By their fruits…’
Could I really offer them a better way? Jesus said, ‘I am the Way.’ He, therefore, was the one responsible to show what it was for them. I was merely His representative, and I had better be very sure I knew what He did actually say about the questions of conduct and service, for it was to Him above all others that I must give account.
In an attempt to find out, and to sort out my own convictions and give clear expression to them, I studied the New Testament and especially the Epistles of Paul. What I found seemed to me to be important not only for me in that unusual place, but for Christians everywhere, so I wrote for The Sunday School Times the series of brief articles which is reprinted here. In the six years since I left that particular thatched house, I have been questioned and sometimes challenged on these matters. Each time my answer has been along the lines written during those days in Tewaenon.
But it was my husband who first taught me to question and examine, and then to act on what one believes. He first showed me what liberty in Christ means. Perhaps now, many years after his death, I am beginning to grasp things he understood. He glimpsed, I think, something of the largeness of God’s heart and wanted to show it to others.