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They Chose the Torture because of the Hope
All the passages below are taken from Elisabeth Elliot’s book “The Path of Loneliness,” first published in 1988 and reprinted in 2001.
When Jim Elliot was preparing for missionary work, he saw parallels between the demands of the life to which he believed God was calling him and life in the Yukon a century ago. For both, the prize was gold, although of greatly differing durability. He copied into his journal a part of Robert Service's poem, "The Law of the Yukon":
Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane,
Strong for the red-rage of battle, sane for I harry them sore.
Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core...
And I wait for the men who will win me---and I will not be won in a day,
And I will not be won by weaklings, subtle and suave and mild,
But by men with the hearts of Vikings and the simple faith of a child,
Desperate, strong, and resistless, unthrottled by fear or defeat,
Them will I gild with my treasure, them will I glut with my meat1
The old prospectors had to believe that the gold was there. The journey to get it would be torture, but they chose the torture because of the hope. Jim believed there was treasure better than the Yukon's gold, worth any risk, any sacrifice. I think I can picture him now, looking back from the Celestial City to the journey he had made, thinking the price, after all, didn't amount to much.
You and I are not rushing off to the Yukon to dig for gold, any more than Jim was. We are not gluttons for punishment. We are not legendary heroes or heroines. We are only ordinary folks who get out of very comfortable beds in the morning, brush our teeth with running water, put on whatever we like to wear, and eat whatever we want for breakfast. Our lives generally don't seem to call for much courage. We are so accustomed to luxury we think of traffic jams as hardship. It ruins our day if the air conditioner quits, or the waiter says they're fresh out of cherry cheesecake. Of course it is only a matter of time before the traffic jam is unsnarled; time and money can fix the air conditioner; we can order a different dessert. We expect to get things fixed---fast. When we can't, we are at a loss.
Loneliness is much worse than being stuck in a traffic jam or having to do without cheesecake. Perhaps we hardly think of its calling for courage, because we hardly think of it as real suffering, yet it fits the simplest definition I know: having what you don't want, or wanting what you don't have. Loneliness we don't want. It comes from wanting what we don't have.
Who can compare sufferings? They are unique as each sufferer is unique. "The heart knows its own bitterness" (Prov. 14:10, NEB). We respond according to our temperaments. Some cast about for solutions, stew, fret, rage, deny the facts. Some sink into an oblivion of self-recrimination or pity. Some chalk it all up to somebody else's fault. Some pray. But all of us may be tempted sometime to conclude that because God doesn't fix it He doesn't love us.
There are many things that God does not fix precisely because He loves us. Instead of extracting us from the problem, He calls us. In our sorrow or loneliness or pain He calls---"This is a necessary part of the journey. Even if it is the roughest part, it is only a part, and it will not last the whole long way. Remember where I am leading you. Remember what you will find at the end---a home and a haven and a heaven."
Courage for the rugged part comes with looking ahead---as the prospectors did in Gold Rush days. The heroes of the world's great legends let themselves in for all kinds of fearsome troubles because of the promise of a great reward---the favor of the king, a pot of gold, marriage to a princess. Because there was a shining goal, they entered in with heart and will to participate in the as-yet unseen and unknown hazards of the dreadful journey. Their heroism lay in acceptance---a wholehearted acceptance of conditions other men would avoid at all cost---and in endurance. The dark caves, tunnels, and labyrinths were not problems to be solved but hazards to be traversed, the storms and heavy seas were to be braved, the giants and monsters to be slain. All were accepted and endured in view of the prize.
It is possible both to accept and to endure loneliness without bitterness when there is a vision of glory beyond. This is a very different thing from the sigh of resignation or defeat, the hopeless abandonment to a malevolent fate which merely "sits there and takes it." In circumstances for which there is no final answer in the world, we have two choices: accept them as God's wise and loving choice for our blessing (this is called faith), or resent them as proof of His indifference, His carelessness, even His nonexistence (this is unbelief).
Finding fault with God is sharp temptation, especially when there is no one else to blame. Yielding to that temptation leads to spiritual emptiness.
"Listen to the word of the Lord," wrote the prophet Jeremiah. "What fault did your forefathers find in me, that they wandered far from me, pursuing empty phantoms and themselves becoming empty?" (Jer. 2:4-5, NEB). Who of us has not known a deep and pervading sense of hollowness, as though life has lost its content? Isn't its cause often our having found fault with God?
A few days ago I returned home from a visit with my daughter and her family. There was a sense of loneliness, the cause of which, so far as I can see now, cannot be remedied. I live on the East Coast. Valerie lives on the West. I can never invite my grandchildren over for the night. I can never have the family for
Sunday dinner---and Sunday dinners with my grandparents are among my treasured childhood memories. I can't simply pop into the house in El Toro now and then for a cup of tea. I was tempted to have a Pity Party for myself. Why should I be denied the tremendous blessing and pleasure of being near those dear little children, the people I love most in the world? God could "fix it" if He wanted to. To pursue that line of thought would have put me in the Slough of Despond.
Our loneliness cannot always be fixed, but it can always be accepted as the very will of God for now, and that turns it into something beautiful. Perhaps it is like the field wherein lies the valuable treasure. We must buy the field. It is no sun-drenched meadow embroidered with wildflowers. It is a bleak and empty place, but once we know it contains a jewel the whole picture changes. The empty scrap of forgotten land suddenly teems with possibilities. Here is something we can not only accept, but something worth selling everything to buy. In my case, "selling everything" meant giving up the self-pity and the bitter questions. I do not mean we are to go out looking for chances to be as lonely as possible. I am talking about acceptance of the inevitable. And when, through a willed act we receive this thing we did not want, then Loneliness, the name of the field nobody wants, is transformed into a place of hidden treasure.
. . . . .
The Captain of our Salvation was made perfect through the things which He suffered. I wonder what sort of child He was. I have often wished we knew something of His early years, but the Holy Spirit chose to leave them out of the record. His childhood, His adolescence, and His young manhood are all hidden from our curiosity. Was it only the three years of public life that prepared Jesus for the Cross, or were the thirty silent years just as necessary? Surely they were essential---the tears and smiles of a baby, the loneliness of His weaning, a child's bewilderment at His parents' refusals, the uncertainties and loneliness of a teenager, the unfulfilled desires of a very vigorous and passionate young man. Were they not, in a manner of speaking, a part of the field where for Him the pearl lay?
If the village house in Nazareth which they show tourists nowadays is anything like the one where the little boy Jesus lived, it was not much to speak of, by comparison with the ivory palaces He had left. He at whose word creation sprang into being was subject to the word of His mother Mary. He whose hands had made the worlds learned obedience in a dusty carpenter shop. When Joseph showed Him how to use a tool, did he hold the little hands in his and say, "Like this. Hold it this way"? The boy had to learn. He did not make tables and benches by divine fiat. He made them with tools held in human hands. He had to learn the skills, learn to be thorough, dependable, prompt, faithful. If He was ever tempted to cut corners, He did not yield to the temptation. He did nothing sloppily. He worked carefully, thoroughly, dependably, promptly, faithfully. Surely He was gracious with the customers. He grew "in favor with God and man" (Luke 2:52, NKJV). The cheerful acceptance of humble work, the small testings of any boy's home life were a part of His preparation for the great testings of His public years, a part of the road which led Him to the Cross.
The headmistress of the boarding school I attended used to say, "Don't go around with a Bible under your arm if you don't sweep under the bed." She was looking for a genuine faith, which is always a practical faith. She wanted no spiritual talk coming out of a messy room. The dust under the bed spoke louder than any pious "testimony."
"The King of Glory rewards His servants not according to the dignity of their office, but according to the love and humility with which they carry it out."2
During Jesus' three years as an itinerant rabbi He knew what it was to be weary, hungry, and homeless. The common people heard Him gladly but the religious elite could not stand Him. He was misquoted, misjudged, misrepresented, misunderstood. The Hebrew scholars were forever laying traps for Him, challenging, quarreling, quibbling. He was praised and scorned, followed and forsaken, loved and hated, listened to and rejected, crowned and crucified. He had every reason to feel lonely in the world of men, but it was thus that He "learned" and demonstrated for us the meaning of obedience---through the things that He suffered.
If all He is asking of us just now is the willingness to accept the relatively small discipline of loneliness, can we not see it as a part of His gift of allowing us to walk with Him?
To walk with Him is to walk the Way of the Cross. If the cross we are asked to take up is not presented to us in the form of martyrdom, heroic action of some kind, dragons or labyrinths or even "ministry"---at least something that looks spiritual---are we to conclude that He has waived the requirement?
He never waives the requirement.
There is a pot of gold, there is a king's reward, but it comes at the end of the journey. Yet all along the way there are countless joys if only we will taste and see that the Lord is good. Samuel Rutherford, persecuted for many years because of his obedience to the truth as he understood it, wrote letters filled with expressions of the sweetness of his trials and the loveliness of Christ. He knew the dark side of the Cross, yet could write to Hugh Mackail in 1636,
Believe me, brother, I give it to you under mine own handwrit, that whoso looketh to the white side of Christ's cross, and can take it up handsomely with faith and courage, shall find it such a burden as sails are to a ship or wings to a bird. I find that my Lord hath overgilded that black tree, and hath perfumed it, and oiled it with joy and gladness.3
Thousands upon thousands (I am one of them) have found it so. [105-112]
1. Robert Service, "The Law of the Yukon," in Collected Poems of Robert Service (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1940), 10.
2. Vann, 92.
3. The Letters of Samuel Rutherford (Chicago: Moody Press, 1951), 129
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