Three Top Books on Elisabeth Elliot

You really should read these books:

My title might be a tad misleading. First of all, this great champion of God has penned various autobiographical works about herself and her equally famous husband Jim. And the three books I feature here are actually penned by just two authors, as one writer has done a two-volume biography on her. The three books (two of them brand new) are these:

Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn (B&H, 2020)

Being Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn (B&H, 2023)

Elisabeth Elliot: A Life by Lucy Austen (Crossway, 2023)

All three books are must reads for those who cannot get enough of this great saint of God. Of interest, the volume by Austen is 600 pages, while the two volumes by Vaughn total 600 pages. The later two-volume set is the authorised biography of Elliot. Also of interest, even though the first Vaughn volume appeared three years before Austen’s, it barely gets a mention in her book.

I have previously written about and quoted from the first Vaughn volume. You will find that here:

So here I will concentrate more on her second volume, and the new Austen work. And I must say that this article will be somewhat personal in nature, in large measure because of my wife’s recent loss with her battle with cancer. The great insights and wisdom that Elliot had on matters of suffering are as good as any, and I have received plenty of help from her over the years.

Let me start by saying that when I got the Austen volume the first thing I did was read the closing chapters. Most Christians know much about Elisabeth and Jim, at least their early years: their time at Wheaton College in Illinois, and their missionary work in Ecuador which started in early 1952.

And we know so much about how Jim and the other four young missionary men were killed by the Auca Indians early in 1956. Those who are not so familiar with the story can find an overview here:

But Elisabeth went on to marry two more times, with her second husband losing a lengthy battle with cancer, and her third husband at times being much too critical, domineering and harsh with her. And for her final 15 years or so Elisabeth went through even more suffering and hardship, this time battling Alzheimer’s and dementia.

It is always so amazing for me to think that in addition to losing Jim while they were so young, much of the rest of her life was characterised by so much pain, suffering, loss and grief. And yet she managed to be an inspiration for millions worldwide, with nearly a half century of so many superb books and articles, along with a busy and influential speaking and teaching ministry.

I had read a number of her books, and seen her speak at the Urbana missionary conference in 1976. When I was a student, my wife and others would sit in some Bible studies at her home in Massachusetts. She was such a busy worker for the Lord who kept hammering key themes such as obedience, the place of suffering, discernment, learning to fear God, and so on.

I mentioned some difficulties she had in her third marriage. Lars Gren too often lost his temper with her, and she had to weigh up what biblical teachings on submission meant. Says Austen: “As time went on, Elliot was clearly suffering the effects of this destructive behaviour.” She continues:

She worked hard to keep her pain to herself. . . . As she had throughout her life, Elliot turned for comfort to the character of God. In a 1989 series of talks called “Suffering Is Not for Nothing,” she says that although nothing explains away or solves the “tremendous mystery” of suffering, “God is God. God is a three-personed God. He loves us. We are not adrift in chaos. To me that is the most fortifying, the most stabilizing, the most peace-giving thing that I know about anything in the universe. Every time that things have seemingly fallen apart in my life, I have gone back to those things that do not change. Nothing in the universe can ever change those facts.”

Image of Elisabeth Elliot: A Life
Elisabeth Elliot: A Life by S. R. Austen, Lucy (Author) Amazon logo

And she notes something I had been saying to friends as well: one can be lonely while not being alone. Her 1988 book Loneliness discusses this. Says Austen:

It was a series of essays musing on the universal human experience of loneliness…. Solitude and loneliness were not the same thing, she noted, and one could be lonely even in a crowd. But whatever the cause, she wrote, “the answer to our loneliness is love – not our finding someone to love us, but our surrendering to the God who has always loved us with an everlasting love.”


“Singles always imagine that married people are not lonely,” Elliot said in a speech given around this time, “but I can testify that there are different kinds of loneliness.” It was the closest she came to sharing the difficulties in her own marriage with her readers and listeners.

Having just got the second volume by Vaughn, I did the same thing as I had done with the Austen book: I looked first at some of those chapters dealing with her later years. I did this in good part because I, like most admirers of Elisabeth, was quite familiar with her earlier years – her incredible, inspiring and spiritually dynamic years.

But not as many have been aware of her later years, especially the darker, more discouraging and more depressing years. Yes, she was after all merely human. We tend to look upon her as a larger than life saint, and hagiographies seem appropriate. But she was a mere mortal, and some of her choices and commitments may well have been mistaken – including her choice of marriage partners.

As to her third husband, he was certainly a mixed bag for Elisabeth. While Jim and Addison each were married to her for just 3-4 years, Lars was married to her for 38 years. Yet in her second volume only a relatively few pages are spent discussing him and their marriage in any great detail.

Vaughn says she had to wrestle with what she would write on this, avoiding both a sugar-coating and a hammering. If the marriage to Addison was her happiest one, her marriage to Lars was her most difficult. They married on December 21, 1977. Vaughn says this: “Within nine days, she told her closest friends and family members that she had made the biggest mistake of her life.”

But for various reasons – her strong need for security and protection, her understanding of biblical gender roles and the place of submission, the value she put on redemptive suffering, etc. – she endured. There were good moments, but perhaps more bad moments. He was controlling, domineering, angry, and verbally abusive. It was not a great love story, says Vaughn.

As to her dementia, very little is said in the book about it. But we see both of these issues tied together in these words:

When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the late 1990s, Lars prohibited the use of what he called “the A word” and kept her on the speaking circuit. She was tired and did not want to travel any more. But she had to submit to her husband. She complied.


Gradually she came to the point where she could no longer remember the lyrics of her often-quoted hymns, or the date that Jim Elliot was killed, or she would lose her place in the notes she was now dependent on. Lars kept booking her for events, even as there were whispers in the audience and people wondered if Elisabeth was ill. Always meticulous about her dress, she now appeared on platforms looking disheveled, her blazer misbuttoned. On at least one occasion, Lars had Elisabeth sit in a chair on the stage, mute beside a large tape recorder that played one of her messages given back in the day when she was strong and well.


Her family and closest friends were worried that Elisabeth’s once-strong spirit had been crushed. She needed rest. She expressed fear and confusion. The family staged an intervention, removing Elisabeth, who had agreed, to an undisclosed location outside the United States. They pleaded with Lars. But over time, Elisabeth herself begged to go back to Lars. “He is my husband,” she said. “He is my head.”


Gradually Elisabeth Elliot, brilliant linguist, lost language itself. She spoke in gibberish, then, bit by bit, retreated into silence. Much of her private voice was lost as well, as Lars burned most of her journals from the years of their marriage, a choice he now regrets, as he actually gave his life to Jesus in 2019. Lars and a cadre of faithful young female caregivers met Elisabeth’s daily needs as her health declined.

Not a very flattering picture of Lars, and a quite sad and tragic picture of what she endured in her final years. And for both Vaughn and myself, this takes on added meaning: Vaughn lost her husband to cancer as she was completing this second volume, and I lost my wife to cancer just quite recently.

But I have learned as much about suffering from Elisabeth Elliot as from anyone. Warts and all, she was one of God’s choice saints and millions of people the world over have been so greatly blessed, challenged and discipled by her life and by her words.

As these three volumes make clear, she – like us all – was a mixed bag. These books give us a much fuller picture of her. Still, many believers want to only concentrate on the positive and ignore the negative. However, as Vaughn says:

This aversion to human complexity is exactly the type of thinking in Christian circles that vastly frustrated Elisabeth Elliot. She would have been the first to encourage me to speak the truth, however gnarly it might be. Except Elisabeth would not have said “gnarly.”


Elisabeth was quick to admonish her audiences not to put any Christian leader on a pedestal. “Pedestals are for statues,” she would say. Elisabeth was not a marble effigy, but a flesh-and-blood woman with strengths and weaknesses, like us all. In the season after Addison’s death, she was not yet the woman she would become in her later years of teaching, writing, and the often-painful crucible of her relationship with Lars. That pain, in fact, may well have led to her deepest season of growth and productivity as a follower of Christ.


Again, we cannot typecast the marriage. There were many seasons of sweetness, laughter, and love. There were also many instances when her husband’s rage, control, verbal abuse, and abrupt departures broke Elisabeth’s heart….


Elisabeth had chosen a relationship that certainly enhanced her own suffering. Perhaps she felt it kept her in a constant posture of offering herself on the Lord’s altar, or it was a thorn in her side to keep her humble….


We can’t paint Elisabeth’s story with lovely pastels and blurred edges, pretty and placid. It is through the sharp edges and cracks in the veneer that God’s grace, no matter what, shines through.

I thank God for Elisabeth Elliot. She suffered much. She loved much. And she glorified God much.

And I am thankful for these three books by Vaughn and Austen.

[1897 words]

2 Replies to “Three Top Books on Elisabeth Elliot”

  1. Thanks for this Bill. I am glad that you’re educating people in this.

    I think that too few people know about or understand how important Elizabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint, the sister of Nate Saint, were in reaching the Huarani people which essentially opened up the Ecuadorian highlands to the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Their menfolk gave their lives for it, and these remarkable women lived to continue it through. All four are an inspiration to my daughter Abigail who carries on their legacy, and is active in reaching the Saraguro people in the Ecuadorian highlands.

    However, I haven’t read these books yet, and though I have read some of her sermons, will appreciate learning more about her later life and the suffering that she experienced, as this is just as important as the more adventurous aspects of he life.

  2. Thanks Bill.
    My late father, Ron Sharp, often shared stories from the pulpit of Jim Elliot & co, Elisabeth Elliot and Amy Carmichael. When Elisabeth Elliot toured Australia in the late eighties (I think) in part promoting her book on Amy Carmichael, I was thrilled to learn she would actually be speaking at my then church in Wollongong, Figtree Anglican Church. It felt special knowing my Dad and she shared a common hero of the faith.
    I must get hold of these more recent works on Elisabeth Elliot.

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