Life out of Death by Elisabeth Elliot
All the passages below are taken from Elisabeth Elliot’s book “A Path Through Suffering.” It was published in 1990.
Note this bit of gorse bush. The whole year round the thorn has been hardening and sharpening. Spring comes; the thorn does not drop off and it does not soften. There it is, as uncompromising as ever, but half-way up appear two brown furry balls, mere specks at first, that break at last—straight out of last year’s thorn—into a blaze of fragrant golden glory!
The painting that accompanies Lilias Trotter’s words shows a branch bristling with thorns large and small sticking out in all directions, but the yellow flowers have found a way to unfold themselves in this impossibly hostile environment.
I walked for hours one day along the cliffs of Bournemouth, England, where the gorse grows in profusion. It was wintertime, cold and raw, with gray skies and a gray sea. The gorse bushes appeared lifeless, but invisible things were happening—thorns busily being hardened and sharpened, the specks already in their appointed places out of which were to spring the furry balls. The death of wintertime is the necessary prelude to the resurrection of springtime.
Thousands have found solace in the deep spiritual lessons to be found so unmistakably in nature’s ceaseless cycle of life and death. I say “unmistakably,” but I would not have seen them myself without the help of many with clearer vision than I. As a teenager I read Amy Carmichael’s biography of Thomas Walker of Tinnevelly. The words which were left indelibly in my mind were those of Jesus just before He went to the cross, quoted by Walker as the only plan which ensures success: “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24, AV). Each time I hear or read those words they come alive for me because Thomas Walker and Amy Carmichael both staked their lives on them, willing to be a corn of wheat, embrace what is contrary to human nature, and be “buried” in South India in order that others might find the true life. When, by my own faults and indifference, or the distractions of the world, I have drifted from this changeless principle (and imagined that I might avoid the deaths and still somehow be fruitful) the words have rung again in the ears of my soul, if it die, if it die, if it die.
Lilias Trotter too needed help from others, and drew on their insights. One of those was F.W.H. Meyers, whose poem “St. Paul” she quotes, lettering into the painting of the gorse bush his words, “setteth in pain the jewel of His joy.” She took them from this stanza:
God, who whatever frenzy of our fretting
Vexes sad life to spoil and to destroy,
Lendeth an hour for peace and for forgetting,
Setteth in pain the jewel of His joy.
We know very little of others’ sufferings. How I would love to be allowed to look deeper into the life of Meyers, for example, and know in what sort of pain the Lord had set for him the jewel of His joy. I do not know. But I am sure the spiritual insight did not come without high cost. He must have died many deaths before he was qualified to write that long and powerful poem about the apostle’s life.
So here it is—in the gorse blossoming from thorns, in the harvest of wheat from the solitary grain—the gospel, the Good News of life out of death, a gospel for every individual, every need, every hopeless and helpless situation.
“It’ll never work for mine,” someone is tempted to say. Are you sure that your problems baffle the One who since the world began has been bringing flowers from thorns? Your thorns are a different story, are they? You have been brought to a place of self-despair, nothingness. It is hard even to think of any good reason for going on. You live in most unfavorable conditions, with intractable people, you are up against impossible odds. Is this something new? The people of Israel were up against impossible odds when they found themselves between the chariots of Egypt and the Red Sea. Their God is our God. The God of Israel and the God of the gorse thorns looks down on us with love and says, “Nothing has happened to you which is not common to all. I can manage it. Trust Me.”
He wants to transform every form of human suffering into something glorious. He can redeem it. He can bring life out of death. Every event of our lives provides opportunity to learn the deepest lesson anyone can learn on earth, “My present life is not that of the old ‘I,’ but the living Christ within me” (Galatians 2:20, JBP). When our souls lie barren in a winter which seems hopeless and endless, God has not abandoned us. His work goes on. He asks our acceptance of the painful process and our trust that He will indeed give resurrection life.
How often I am troubled about something that looms ahead, wondering how I am to cope when the time comes. Why do I not bring it at once to the Lord, who stands ready with the next grace for the next thing? Why is it so easy to forget His simple word, “If you need wisdom, I’ll give it to you. If you need strength, it will be there in exact proportion to the difficulties of the day. If you need guidance, I’m your Shepherd. If you need comfort, My name is Comforter.”
Corrie Ten Boom was a woman of strong faith and a radiant face. Why? Not because she had not suffered, but because she had, and had responded to that suffering (in a concentration camp during World War II) with trust. Learning the depth of human helplessness and weakness, she turned to her “strong tower” and He was faithful to His promises.
One of the most soul-fortifying pictures I have of her in my mind is of her getting up in the morning, standing up in her solitary cell, and singing in a loud voice so that other prisoners could hear, “Stand up, stand up for Jesus!”
“Oh, I could never have survived,” we say. Well, we were not asked to. But we could have if the Lord had allowed us to be put in her position, and if we had responded as Corrie did, looking to Him for the next grace. I mean, of course, that we could have survived spiritually. The body they may kill, but so what? Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body and after that have nothing more they can do. I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell” (Luke 12:5 NEB). In other words, fear God and become fearless. Nothing in heaven or earth or hell can scare you.
The experience of weakness puts us in the position of seeking another ‘s strength. Paul the apostle had his own particular thorn, translated in one version as “a sharp physical pain.” It came as Satan’s messenger to bruise him, and he prayed three times for its removal. Suppose the gorse bush were to ask that the thorns be removed so that it might bear lovely yellow flowers? It doesn’t work that way. God said no to Paul’s plea because he was to bring forth, for the sake of the rest of us, the beautiful flower of acceptance, a gift of grace, enough for his need. But that flower was to bloom, not in spite of, but because of the thorn. Paul probably did not see the tiny “specks” which were to break out into a blaze of fragrant, golden glory. Could he know of the millions who would be cheered and comforted by his example of quiet acceptance of a painful thing which he knew God could have removed? No, he couldn’t. It was not his business to know. He was simply to accept the answer given—grace, in the measure needed.
When in pain it is hard to think of anything but pain. Amy Carmichael wrote of being so weak she could not think or pray, but she took comfort from the psalm, “Let the lifting up of my hands be as the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2, AV). She was able simply to lift them to the Lord—a gesture of acceptance, of adoration, of faith. We have our Father’s promise, linking the pain to an unimaginable glory: “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him’ (2 Timothy 2:12 NEB). [41-45]