Gates of Splendor
The Legacy of Jim & Elisabeth Elliot
The daughter of a martyr and a missionary reflects on God’s redemptive work.
by VALERIE ELLIOT SHEPARD
MY FATHER once uttered this prayer, “God, I pray Thee, light these idle sticks of my life and may I burn up for Thee. Consume my life, my God, for it is Thine. I seek not a long life but a full one, like You, Lord Jesus.”
And then, he was speared to death. Killed by the very Ecuadorian Indians he was seeking to reach with the good news of God’s love and mercy.
I was 10 months old when he died at age 28.
The world knows of Jim Elliot primarily through books written by my mother, Elisabeth. Through Gates of Splendor, Shadow of the Almighty, and The Savage My Kinsman reveal a redemption story only God could write. And countless people have told me how my father’s words — “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose” (a paraphrase of John 12:25) — spurred them on to missionary zeal and a lifetime of greater commitment for the kingdom.
Being his only daughter but only having known him for the first 10 months of my life, I have learned of him through others, from his letters to his family and friends, and from his journal entries. I am humbled, amazed, “tenderized,” and galvanized by his words. Galvanized to carry on his legacy, show his passion for obeying God, and honor his life by speaking and writing about him. I feel privileged to be the daughter of Jim and Elisabeth.
I see the disciplined strain of delayed gratification, the joy of truly waiting on God, and the fruit of willing obedience even when feelings shout otherwise. I pray that my parents’ lives will encourage and inspire many who also want to study the Bible for the glory of God, who want to be His soldier — ready to serve and die, if need be, so that the living God may be shown.
Philip James Elliot was a man after God’s heart. Both he and my mother were raised by godly parents and saw early the importance of reading the Bible daily and being a witness of Him.
My father was a dramatist, a speaker, a kind helper, a fervent worker, and a witness to all his high school classmates. While attending Wheaton College, he threw himself into his studies in order to receive the degree of A.U.G. (“Approved Unto God,” 2 Tim. 2:15). He did so not to fulfill a man-made curriculum, but to know the Bible and to know the great thinkers of history as a stepping stone to understanding humankind.
He hungered to know who this God is who died for us and commands us to love, serve, and be ready to die. He knew he had to be a soldier according to 2 Timothy 2:4, understanding that in obeying God, he’d grow to be more like Christ. He wanted to learn from older Christians and was amazed at his dad’s knowledge of the Word.
Reflecting on Leviticus 17:10 when he was 20, he wrote, “He who consumes blood will ever have the face of God set against him. So with me. If I would save my lifeblood, and forbear to pour it out as a sacrifice — thus opposing the example of my Lord — then must I know the flint of the face of God set against my purpose. Father, take my life, yea, my blood if Thou wilt, and consume it with Thine enveloping fire. I would not save it, for it is not mine to save. Have it, Lord, have it all. Pour out my life as an oblation for the world. Blood is only of value as it flows before Thine altar.”
During his college years (1945-49), he came to understand he might die young but exulted that his life was to be lived for God and not for himself.
My father’s passion for bringing the gospel to tribes superseded his love for my mother — Elisabeth Howard — to whom he declared his love in her senior year at Wheaton College in 1948. Although he knew she had all the qualities of a woman he would want to marry, he felt he needed to experience the strenuous and challenging life in the jungle as a single man to be sure God wanted him to marry.
To him, Elisabeth was the picture of a woman who had the inner adornment of a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Pet. 3:4). She would have argued with this — as she knew she had an argumentative nature — and said she was never the “shrinking violet” type. But being subdued by the awe of his love, she kept quiet, knowing privately that she loved him too. As she learned to wait on God the next five years, they sparked each other’s intellect and challenged each other’s growth in faith.
To me, my mother was the perfect lady — elegant, neat, quiet when she should be quiet, and lots of fun. She was a perfect storyteller and knew how to imitate many different accents. She loved to surprise me with thoughtful gifts and taught me to obey, listen, look her in the eyes, and respect her word. She never disappointed me by not following through. Order and quietness were marks of our home.
My mother gave me the letters my dad had written to her, and I am blessed with her journals from those same years. My collection also includes the weekly letters she wrote me during every trip she took and from the time I went to college through the years I raised my own family. When she stopped writing in 2003, I realized dementia had taken over her amazing brain. I am so thankful I saved all of her writings; they are such a source of joy and comfort. She always spoke truth to me for which I am so deeply grateful!
My mother’s and father’s journals and letters are nuggets of gold from the past; the themes of their writings have become the hallmarks of their lives. I want to honor my parents’ amazing legacy and bring glory to God who provided the strength to obey, the hope in His perfect will, and the endurance to wait on His timing. I can never repay my parents for what they taught me or for their modeling the true disciple’s life, but I can live for God as they prayed that I would. And thus, … their life stories of redemption live on.
VALERIE ELLIOT SHEPARD was born in Ecuador and moved to the States when she was 8 years old. She graduated from Wheaton College in 1976. Valerie and her husband, who is a church planter in Southport, North Carolina, have eight grown children.
This article originally appeared in Mature Living magazine (June 2016). For more articles like this, subscribe to Mature Living.