Joining with suffering saints like Elisabeth Elliot:
A decade ago I wrote a piece called “The Fellowship of the Burning Heart”. It referred to several things. One was a group of like-minded believers assembled in 1947 by the famous Bible teacher Dr. Henrietta Mears. Known as the “Fellowship of the Burning Heart,” it was for those willing to die for ‘the Cause of Christ.’ It included Bill Bright, of Campus Crusade for Christ; Richard Halverson, Senate Chaplain; J. Edwin Orr, historian of revival; and evangelist Billy Graham.
It also refers to a phrase A.W. Tozer had used. In one of his writings, he had said this:
I am looking for the fellowship of the burning heart. I claim the Methodist and the Baptist as mine and I claim everybody that loves Jesus Christ as mine; but I am looking for the fellowship of the burning heart. Men and women of all generations and everywhere that love the savior until ‘adoration’ has become the new word and they do not have to be entertained or amused. This Christ was everything. He was their all in all… I am looking for men and women who are lost in worship, those who love God until he is the sweetheart of the soul. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/08/28/the-fellowship-of-the-burning-heart/
Here I want to speak of a similar sort of fellowship – let’s call it ‘The Fellowship of the Broken Heart’. It refers to those rather rare believers who have known suffering in very real and very deep ways. Yet it has not made them bitter but better: it has drawn them closer to Christ and to his amazing love.
The inspiration for this article came from – wait for it! – one of the new books I bought today. I refer to Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn (B&H, 2020). It is the first of a two-part biography of the great missionary, writer and speaker (1926-2015). Those who know nothing about her can see this piece for more details: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/06/16/notable-christians-elisabeth-elliot/
That Elisabeth knew all about suffering – and all about a loving Saviour who walked with her in all that suffering – is quite clear. In one article I mention some of her key books on this, and offer a number of inspiring quotes from them: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/06/30/elizabeth-elliot-on-suffering/
But what really triggered this piece involved what I just read in the moving foreword to Vaughn’s new book. It is written by Joni Eareckson Tada (1949-). She of course also knows all about suffering. She has been a quadriplegic since she was 17 – well over 50 years ago! But her incredible testimony for Christ has blessed millions of people the world over. See more on her here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/11/06/joni-eareckson-tada-on-health-healing-and-heaven/
In her brief foreword she mentions how she and Elliot were both speaking at a conference together and after her talk, Elisabeth asked to meet with her. She says:
I was lying in a hotel bed late at night, paralyzed with crumpled sheets half-covering my useless limbs. It felt strange to welcome my heroine of the faith into the room. As she approached my bed, her Bible pressed to her chest, Elisabeth Elliot’s commanding demeanor softened with a smile. I was twenty-six years old and seasoned by a decade of quadriplegia, but still, I was awestruck….
So now, to have a private audience with my role model was an incredible treasure. In that hotel room, we talked of many things, but landed on the shared satisfaction that neither of us felt all that extraordinary. We were simply followers of Christ who had plumbed the depths of His joy by tasting His afflictions. Those afflictions had cut deep gashes in our hearts through which grace and joy had poured in, stretching and filling our souls with an abundance of our Lord.
Wow. These two women had hit it off immediately. They knew each other so well, because of this common bond: they had both suffered immensely, and they both cherished the Lord’s grace and love and joy, despite all the afflictions. So that meant they could instantly share in this club: The Fellowship of the Broken Heart. How could they not?
Recently I posted the following on the social media:
A few days ago I left the oncology hospital ward.
Just now I saw again the scene where it is learned that 3 of 4 brothers died in the war, in the film Saving Private Ryan.
Tomorrow my wife goes in to get news on her own medical condition.
I also posted Psalm 56:8:”You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Many folks responded to these posts. Many knew, many could understand. Many were also familiar with tears. But not all are in such a place.
Sadly not everyone can join this club – or wants to join. Not everyone gets it. Many would be baffled by it, and have no understanding or experience of it or desire to be a part of it. Let me offer three examples of those who would likely not benefit from it or be interested in it because it would be so very alien to them
Some years ago I met a pastor I knew and I said I was available to preach at his church if he was interested. I mentioned that I had just finished a sermon on ‘Lessons on Suffering from the Book of Job’. His response was to laugh and wonder why any Christian would be interested in that. That took me by surprise. Has he never suffered? Is his congregation free of those who suffer? Hmm, he might not be cut out for the Fellowship of the Broken Heart.
Then there are those believers – often part of the health and wealth teaching – who actually believe that in the Bible there is no suffering spoken of aside from persecution. Thus if you do suffer it is due to sin in your life, or a lack of faith. We are meant to always be prosperous, always be healthy, and always be happy. These folks also would not likely be very interested in something like the Fellowship of the Broken Heart.
Related to this are those who think it is a “negative confession” to even speak of things like suffering, hardship, trials, and carrying our cross. ‘We are overcomers’ they will chirp. ‘We are always in victory, and never to be thinking negative thoughts’ they believe. They actually think that you are a sub-par Christian if you do experience – and talk about – afflictions, hardship and suffering. They too would not be interested in the Fellowship of the Broken Heart.
The truth is, those who have drunken deep from the cup of sorrows, grief, heartache and suffering find an immediate oneness with others who have experienced the same thing. It is not that they are ‘better’ than other Christians, but they have a level or degree of insight and experience and depth to them which others are not privy to – at least not yet.
I have known a bit of suffering over the years, but nothing compared to all the suffering Elisabeth and Joni have gone through. Yet I feel as one with them, and relate to them far more than so many other believers who just want a happy-clappy, problem-free and superficial walk with Jesus. I am not judging them, but I know who I would rather hang around with. I know who would bless me heaps to simply be with, or read about, or be inspired by.
Sorry, but give me one suffering saint who has been drawn into deep, deep fellowship with the Crucified Lord than a hundred who know nothing of such things. I want to be a part of the Fellowship of the Broken Heart. Call me an old melancholic if you will, but I know where I best fit in.
I love Elisabeth and I love Joni. That is why I have so many of their books. I just can’t get enough of their life and witness for the Lord. They can teach me so much, and can lead me to such deep levels of intimacy with our Lord who is known as the Suffering Servant.
Let me conclude with just one quote from each of these super saints:
“God uses suffering to purge sin from our lives, strengthen our commitment to him, force us to depend on grace, bind us together with other believers, produce discernment, foster sensitivity, discipline our minds, spend our time wisely, stretch our hope, cause us to know Christ better, make us long for truth, lead us to repentance of sin, teach us to give thanks in time of sorrow, increase faith, and strengthen character.” Joni Eareckson Tada
“To be a follower of the Crucified means, sooner or later, a personal encounter with the cross. And the cross always entails loss. The great symbol of Christianity means sacrifice and no one who calls himself a Christian can evade this stark fact.” Elisabeth Elliot
Oh, and a proper review of this biography may wait till the second half of it appears.
(Australians can find this book here: https://www.koorong.com/product/becoming-elisabeth-elliot-ellen-vaughn_9781535910934?ref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.koorong.com%2Fsearch%2Fresults%3Fw%3DBecoming%2BElisabeth%2BElliot )