Called to Act by Elisabeth Elliot
All the passages below are taken from Elisabeth Elliot’s book “Secure in the Everlasting Arms,” published in 2002.
Among the treasures in a box of old family papers, I found a series of letters from a great-aunt who was serving as a hostess in a rest house in Virginia during World War I. She was a lady not used to working for a living, but her husband had dropped dead one day at the bank where he worked, and she had to find a way to support herself. She had opened her home to soldiers and sailors, many of whom were terribly homesick, some of them just back from the front with permanent disabilities. The wives and mothers of men who had been killed sometimes arrived at the door in the middle of the night, having just received the sorrowful news. My great-aunt Alice Sparhawk took care of them all.
Her letters to her brother “Chigsie” (Charles Gallaudet Trumbull) ate full of cheerfulness and compassion. She was busy helping others every minute of the day and often late into the night. As I read her vivid and often humorous accounts of the daily routine, I remember the background of suffering against which she wrote—her own suffering (she could hardly bear to think of returning to the cheerful home where she and her husband, Jack, had lived) and that of so many others. But doing everyday duties for the sake of others saved her.
People who have themselves experienced both grief and fear know how alike those two things are. They know the restlessness and loss of appetite, the inability to concentrate, the inner silent wail that cannot be muffled, the feeling of being in a great lonely wilderness. Grief and fear are equally disabling, distracting, and destructive.
One may cry out in prayer and hear no answer. The heavens are brass. One may search Scripture in vain for some word of release and hope. There are many such words, but how frequently they seem only to mock us, and a voice whispers: “That’s not meant for you. You’re taking it out of context!” and no comforting word seems to reach us.
Faith, we know perfectly well, is what we need. We’ve simply got to exercise faith. But how to do that? How do we exercise anything at such a time?
“Pull yourself together!” With what?
“Cheer up!” How?
“Think positively!” But that is a neater trick than we are up to at the moment. We are paralyzed. Fear grips us tightly; grief disables us entirely. We have no heart.
At such a time I have been wonderfully calmed and strengthened by doing some simple duty. Nothing valiant or meritorious or spiritual at all—just something that needed to be done, like a bed to be freshly made or a kitchen floor to be scrubbed, one of those things that will never be noticed if you do it but will most certainly be noticed if you don’t! Sometimes it takes everything you have to tackle the job, but it is surprising how strength comes.
Ezekiel was a man who witnessed many strange things and prophesied great cataclysms and splendors. He tells us little about himself, but in the twenty-fourth chapter of his book there is a powerful parenthesis: “The word of the Lord came to me: `Son of man, with one blow, I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes. Yet do not lament or weep or shed any tears. Groan quietly; do not mourn for the dead. Keep your turban fastened and your sandals on your feet; do not cover the lower part of your face or eat the customary food of mourners.’ So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. The next morning I did as I had been commanded” (Ezekiel 24:16-18).
Ponder those heart-rending words: “The next morning I did as I had been commanded”! God asked more of Ezekiel than any human being would dare to ask, but He knew His man. He was asking him to “put on a front,” to act normally, not as a mourner, but to put on turban and shoes and eat his usual food. What extraordinary requirements to make of a man who has just lost the delight of his eyes! But Ezekiel had had plenty of practice in obedience and it was not his habit to bridle.
It sounds simple. But it is not easy. It was heroic, certainly. There are other incidents in the Bible where the doing of very ordinary things helped people out of deep trouble. When Paul was sailing as a prisoner to Italy and was about to be wrecked in the Adriatic Sea, everyone on board was terror-stricken. Sailors were trying to escape, the soldiers and centurion and captain were all sure they were doomed, and no one paid attention to Paul’s assurances of faith in God. But when he suggested that they eat, and actually took bread himself and gave thanks for it, “they all were encouraged and ate some food…and when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea.”
Terror had disabled and disoriented them. In their panic they thought only of desperate measures which might have saved a few. But where Paul’s faith had had no effect on them, his common sense—“Let’s eat”—restored them to their senses. Then they were able to see clearly what the next thing was to be done.
Emmi Bonhoeffer writes in The Auschwitz Trials, “From the very moment one feels called to act is born the strength to bear whatever horror one will feel or see. In some inexplicable way, terror loses its overwhelming power when it becomes a task that must be faced.”
Thomas Carlyle said, “Doubt of any sort cannot be removed except by action.” There is wonderful therapy in taking oneself by the scruff of the neck, getting up, and doing something. While you are doing, time passes quickly. Time itself will in some measure heal, and “light arises in the darkness”—slowly, it seems, but certainly.
I myself have been hauled out of the Slough of Despond by following the advice of the simple Saxon legend inscribed in an old English parsonage: “Doe the nexte thynge.”
Many a questioning, many a fear,
Many a doubt hath its quieting here.
Moment by moment, let down from heaven,
Time, opportunity, guidance are given.
Fear not tomorrows, child of the King—
Trust them with Jesus. Do the next thing! [49-52]