To be a Witness is to live the life of Sacrificial Love by Elisabeth Elliot
All the passages below are taken from Elisabeth Elliot’s book “A Path Through Suffering.” It was published in 1990.
See the flower in maturity. The calyx hands have unclasped utterly now. They have folded themselves back, past all power of closing again upon the petals, leaving the golden crown free to float away when God’s time and wind come.
OPEN HANDS SHOULD CHARACTERIZE THE SOUL’s attitude toward God—open to receive what He wants to give, open to give back what He wants to take. Acceptance of the will of God means relinquishment of our own. If our hands are full of our own plans, there isn’t room to receive His.
The outer leaves of a flower make up what is called the calyx. Like tiny hands it clasps the bud, holding tightly to the furled petals, but as the flower develops the hold is loosened, though still maintaining the power to contract. In maturity there is a complete release, a letting go, and the mini-hands are folded back, past all power of closing.
I have been reading the letters of Joan Andrews, a woman willing literally to renounce her rights and her liberty for the sake of the liberation of others—those smallest, most helpless and voiceless ones, the preborn. She serves the pro-life cause by her willingness to be treated as the unborn are treated, rejected as they are rejected. For her unbreakable passive resistance she was arrested more than one hundred twenty times, and finally sentenced to five years, most of it in solitary confinement. Her letters describe prison conditions, from the almost continuous screaming and cursing, the homosexual activity and the mental breakdowns that occur, to so small a thing as not being allowed to write a letter with a pen.
“I hate writing with a pencil. One of the inmates here who did some time at Broward said that inmates there were permitted to use pens. I can’t wait to get there. Never thought something so little would mean so much.”
In her reflections on non-cooperation, written when she entered Broward Correctional in November, 1986, she writes,
“We must see a… distinction between the idea of a stand taken as witness that rejects cooperation with a system of evil—for example the court sentencing prolifers to punish them for rescuing babies, and to discourage others from doing likewise … and the spiritual, inner attitude and demeanor of the sentenced rescuer who does thank God joyfully for the privilege to suffer in His name and endure injustice for the sake of the more grievously offended preborn. By our love and humility and gentleness this attitude of accepting injustice upon oneself for Christ will shine through to others even while we noncooperate in prison. We ‘noncooperate’ in love. In this way, for purposes of witness, of example, of purification, and thereby far from taking an easier road, we join ourselves more closely to the preborn who are abandoned by society” (You Reject Them, You Reject Me, edited by Richard Cowden Guido, Trinity Communications, Manassas, Virginia, 1988, pp. 104f).
Joan Andrews is an example to me of the cost of an utter “unclasping” of one’s own rights and privileges. The call—Will you do this one thing for Me?—comes to each of us in some form. The thing required may be severely criticized, as Joan’s stance has been.
Often the things which are taking place in the spiritual life are hidden to all but the eye of God, while the outward appearance seems nothing but unnecessary waste. The judge who imposed Joan Andrews’s sentence said, “It’s a shame Miss Andrews has chosen to waste her life in prison instead of accomplishing something.” He could not fathom her regarding it as a privilege, as the apostles also did, to suffer shame for the name of Christ. Paul even called it a happiness. Joan had not chosen to waste her life but to spend it for her Master—a very different thing, frequently misinterpreted. She unclasped her hands utterly, “past all power of closing again,” and there she sits in her cell, praying, singing, writing her letters, encouraging and ministering to other prisoners (even in solitary she was able to read the Bible to the girl in the next cell).
This is what it means to be a witness—to live the life of sacrificial love, a life which makes no sense whatsoever if this world is all there is.
We used to have a magnolia (also called a tulip) tree on our front lawn. The velvety buds would be there all winter and suddenly, one spring day, they would burst into bloom. There was not a leaf on the tree, only hundreds of lovely, tall, pink and white, tulip-shaped cups. I drank in its beauty from the window of my study, knowing that it would be very short-lived. In two or three days the green lawn would be littered with pink scraps. The tree had loosed them, taken hands off.
Why this waste?
Why this sacrifice?
Why this, when things seemed so promising?
Often there seems to be no visible reason for our having to let go. But life, our spiritual life in Christ, depends on it. The life-out-of-death cycle must proceed.
There are many voices to advocate escape from suffering through drugs, divorce, abortion, euthanasia, suicide. “How far we are,” writes a friend of mine, “from saying with St. Paul, ‘All I care for is to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection (no problem there) and to share his sufferings, in growing conformity with his death”‘ (Phil 3:10).
Eternal life means knowing God. All our life on earth is designed to facilitate that. But knowing Him must include sharing His sufferings by reproducing the pattern of His death. Instead of seeking first for escape from suffering, the soul hungry to know Christ will seek in it the means to know Him better. Our human nature would look first for someone to blame, and focus its responses on that person. The spiritual mind looks first to God, “Teach me Thy way.” The rest can wait.
We are not told that we must go out looking for suffering. It will come in God’s time, in the measure He metes out. We must hear the call (He calls His sheep by name) and we must answer, even if it means taking a solitary way, misunderstood and even scorned by others of the same flock. We will then find our chance to know Him, to reproduce the pattern as He relinquished His hold on all that was His, emptied Himself to share our lives, came to earth where even His own did not receive Him, and was finally obedient even to the point of death.
Why this waste—of His perfectly pure life?
So that through death he might break the power of him who had death at his command, that is, the devil; and might liberate those who, through fear of death, had all their lifetime been in servitude. It is not angels, mark you, that he takes to himself, but the sons of Abraham. And therefore he had to be made like these brothers of his in every way, so that he might be merciful and faithful as their high priest before God, to expiate the sins of the people. For since he himself has passed through the test of suffering, he is able to help those who are meeting their test now. (Heb 2:14-18)
Whatever today’s test may be, through accident, physical disability, our own mistakes or failures or disobedience, perhaps the hostility of others, He is able to help us meet our test. He was made like us. He had to be, in order to die. He had to die in order to break death’s power. His was a surrender, not to a fate He could not avoid, but to His Father. When we open our lives to the will of the Father, we enter into that same mystery. It is true that Jesus was put into the hands of evil men. There are times when following Him means just that, as it has in a radical and costly way for Daniel and Paul and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie Ten Boom and Betty Scott Stam and Joan Andrews and numberless others in the history of the church who have been imprisoned or killed for their faith. It is not the external circumstances themselves that enable us to reproduce the pattern of His death, but our willingness to accept the circumstances for His sake.
Relinquishment is always a part of the process of maturing. When Christian parents have done all that can be done to shape their children for God, the time comes when the hands must let go. The child, now a responsible adult, must be released. For any parent this is painful, even when the child is moving in the direction the parents prayed for. The child’s continued development, and the spiritual health of the parents as well, depend on the willingness to accept this next stage of the cycle—hands off, ready to part without a struggle, giving up authority and control, entrusting that child to God.
When, on the other hand, the child has obviously rejected what the parents have taught, the severing is painful in the extreme. All has been done that could be done and all has been done in vain. Nevertheless the time comes to let go, as it came for the father of the prodigal when he turned his wayward son over to God. He must have foreseen the direction he would take, but he prayed for him and waited every day for his return. God cared for that young man as the father could never have done, brought him to bankruptcy (another severe mercy), and returned him to his father, repentant and willing even to be a mere servant.
It is a merciful Father who strips us when we need to be stripped, as the tree needs to be stripped of its blossoms. He is not finished with us yet, whatever the loss we suffer, for as we loose our hold on visible things, the invisible become more precious—where our treasure is, there will our hearts be.
He may be asking us to sell a much-loved house, to part with material things we no longer need (someone else may need them), to retire from a position in which we feel ourselves irreplaceable, to turn over to Him fears which hold us in bondage, forms of self-improvement or recreation or social life which hinder obedience.
“Does all this seem hard?” asks Lilias Trotter, “Does any soul, young in physical or in spiritual life, shrink back and say, I would rather remain in the springtime—I do not want to reach unto the things that are before if it means all this matter of pain and dying.’
“To such comes the Master’s voice, ‘Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer’ (Rv 2:10, AV). You are right to be glad in His April days while He gives them. Every stage of the heavenly growth in us is lovely to Him; He is the God of the daisies and the lambs and the merry child hearts!” [69-75]