Realism About Believers, Past and Present

We need to be careful in our assessments of others:

We Christians can be a funny lot – we can so easily run to unhealthy and unbiblical extremes. While there is a place for ‘extremes’ in one sense, eg., being an extreme lover of God and neighbour, in many areas we need to seek the biblical balance. When it comes to Christians thinking, talking and writing about other Christians, there can be at least two unhelpful extremes:

-The armchair critics (especially the heresy hunters) will go after just about everyone else because they do not line up 100% with their theological checklists. Thus they end up being a club of 3 or 4, with everyone else declared to be anathema. They help no one here, and they bear false witness.

-The ‘let’s never criticise anyone or anything’ crowd will only look at the good and pretend there is no bad in others. We get this so often with Christian biographies. They become hagiographies, with only the great bits highlighted while all the less than ideal stuff is airbrushed out. They help no one here, and they bear false witness.

We must avoid both unbiblical extremes. We must tell the truth about one another. Sure, a good rule of thumb would be something like this: we should think the better of others while being more critical of self. That tends to be the opposite of how most of us operate: we tend to look down on others all the time, over-blowing their weaknesses and sins, while having an overly-rosy assessment of ourselves.

I raise these matters because I recently looked at three new biographies of Elisabeth Elliot. As I said in those articles, many believers know all about her and her first husband Jim. They likely know much less about her second and third husbands, and the relationship she had with them. Those recent articles are here:

The 1200 pages from those 3 books (one a two-part authorised biography of her) revealed some things that some Christians may not have known. My main takeaway from these three volumes was how I still think Elisabeth was such an absolutely incredible woman of God, and how she stood strong in her faith despite so much adversity and hardship thrown her way.

Image of Being Elisabeth Elliot: The Authorized Biography: Elisabeth’s Later Years
Being Elisabeth Elliot: The Authorized Biography: Elisabeth’s Later Years by Vaughn, Ellen (Author), Eareckson Tada, Joni (Foreword) Amazon logo

With all that in mind I recently posted the following on the social media:

Imagine you are a young devout Christian woman, about to head off to a Christian college, and praying about how you can best serve the Lord. If you knew in advance that these 4 things (among others) would happen to you over the next 7 decades, would you still resolutely say ‘Yes Lord – I seek to do thy will!’?


-You will meet and fall in love with a wonderful man, marry and go overseas as missionaries – but in a few short years he would be speared to death by those he was seeking to reach.

-Thirteen years later you will meet and fall in love with a wonderful man – but in a few short years you will watch him die after a slow, painful battle with cancer.

-Four years later you will marry a third time, but the husband will be quite controlling, critical, demanding and easily flies into fits of rage. Yet you will stay with him for 38 years.

-For the final decade of your life you will suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia.


This of course was the life of Elisabeth Elliot. A few obvious morals of the story can be mentioned:


-It is a good thing we are not told everything ahead of time about our ongoing walk with God.

-Being a Christian means trusting God fully, even when it seems like there is no reason to do so.

-People will fail us, but God never will.

-One day we will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.

That got a lot of responses. Some folks said they did not know about some of these things. A few even seemed to get quite upset, as if I was attacking her or her last husband. One fellow even recklessly claimed I was just spreading evil “rumours”! Never mind all this was drawn from her careful and well-researched biographers.

Indeed, for this angry fellow at least, it was clear he had not even bothered to read the articles from which this was based, nor had he read the biographies. I am not impressed with such folks. The Bible says such people are fools, as in Proverbs 18:13 (NLT): “Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish.” Sadly I find this happens far too often.

But most folks were not this bad, but they did have legitimate questions which were well worth asking. A number of folks wondered about why she married her third husband if he seemed to be rather problematic in various areas – and some wondered if he was even a Christian. Fair questions.

One gal for example put it this way: “I am puzzled by something. Surely Elisabeth prayed about marrying Lars and felt the Lord gave her the ‘go-ahead’ to marry him. I just wonder why he turned out to be such a ‘not nice’ person.” I replied to her as follows:

Most Christians do pray first about their marriage partner, and seek a sense of God’s leading. But we live in a fallen world with fallen people, so there are no guarantees to perfection in this life. So things can and do go wrong, be it losing your spouse to martyrdom early on, losing your spouse to cancer early on, or dealing with a difficult spouse. Indeed, also dealing with difficult fellow missionaries on the field, and having to eventually go in separate directions can also happen, as she also went through!

So yes, many questions arise here, both in terms of the decisions that we make, and in terms of the things God allows us to go through. Life is messy and there are often no easy answers. And to repeat, both I and the biographers do point out that her last husband and longest marriage was a mixed bag, with various good qualities, but some other not so good ones. So we are not attacking him, simply seeking to offer an honest account of her later years.

We are seeking to avoid hagiographies here in other words. Sadly it has long been the case that far too many biographies of Christians have been hagiographies, with all the good stuff highlighted while the not so good stuff is conveniently ignored or played down.

But the truth is, there are no perfect saints, and we all are a mix of flesh and spirit. No one reading about God’s great people in the Bible will ever get hagiographies – they will get the whole picture, warts and all. We should do the same as we discuss Christians of more recent times.

And that is the case with Elisabeth – she was a human being with feet of clay, just like all of us. She was such an amazing and inspirational woman used by God, but she also had her downsides. We all do. We all make mistakes, we all do things from mixed motives, and we all are a mix of spirit and flesh, etc.

I already quoted from Vaughn in my most recent article about the dangers of hagiography. She repeated her concerns in a recent interview. Here is part of it:

Vaughn said something else that interested her while writing the second volume of Elliot’s biography was the concept of “Evangelical heroes” and society’s tendency to place them on a pedestal. 


Vaughn said that members of Elliot’s family provided her with access to her journals. Reading the journals transformed how she viewed Elliot. No longer viewing her merely as a “caricature,” but seeing the “heart, soul, brain and spirit” of a celebrated woman during the journeys God led her through when she was alive. 


“And that’s what I found fascinating, that there is a tendency, I think, on the one hand, to set up these heroes and typecast them,” the author said. “‘Oh, she was so brave; she was so obedient to God no matter what.’ And I think many people felt like, ‘I could never be like her’.”…


“I think when one gets inside the writings of someone’s journals, you come to love the person in their brokenness,” she continued. “You come to see the heroism in day-to-day obedience, not in dramatic, big stuff.”

In sum, the main thing I got from what I read in these new biographies was what a remarkable woman she was and how much she endured for Christ and the Kingdom. I am sure I would not have responded as she had done to all that she went through.

I suspect that most Christians, if they had they gone through what Elisabeth did in her first decade or two of Christian service would assume that they had done their duty, they had paid the price, and they had run the race, and would then think that God owed them – big time.

I know I would think that way: ‘OK God – I gave up everything for you. I sacrificed so much. Now, how about a nice stable loving marriage partner, a nice home, a nice quiet life, joy, peace and happiness for the rest of my life? Is that too much to ask?’

Many of us would have that mindset. We sure would not expect even MORE hardcore trials and afflictions and suffering.

Thank God for Elisabeth Elliot.

[1591 words]

4 Replies to “Realism About Believers, Past and Present”

  1. Thank you for that, Bill. I must admit, I was deeply concerned to read about the emotional abuse that Elizabeth experienced from Lars in the final years of her life. Frankly, although I’m a faithful Catholic and my own years with my late husband were filled with warmth, love and mutual nurturance, in my time as a nurse I heard about emotional abuse from both wives and husbands in toxic relationships. At times, it got so bad that the affected partner contemplated suicide. If that is happening, obviously our Lord and Saviour does not want the afflicted man or woman to commit that act of mortal sin and deep and abiding human tragedy. It is better to end such a relationship if that is happening, because if the abusive partner is behaving in that ungodly a manner, the afflicted man or woman has no obligation to stay. The sanctity of life comes first. Our God is a god of mercy, compassion and justice and He does not wish any of us to take our own lives. It may be difficult for either of us to comprehend, given that my beloved Ernest and your beautiful and wise Averil were such wonderful godgiven soulmates for each of us, but sometimes, it does happen to the less fortunate.

  2. The group I find most frustrating are those who insist on being identified as Christian, but are militant in their views that those who fail to support the trans agenda, homosexuality, the correct political candidates, abortion etc, and those who are pro-life (‘pro-forced birth’), anti-child abuse & mutilation (anti-trans), pro-Trump (‘pro-insurrection’) etc, are violent dangerous bigots who cannot be Christian.

    In effect they’ve taken the ‘sheep skin’ of Christianity to cover the wolf of anti-God values, and insist that those who fail to follow their religion aren’t following Jesus. It’s cult-like in some ways, and yet it seems very common. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of visiting the wrong forums and I’m getting a statistically imbalanced impression, or perhaps it’s that we are in the last days and so many are Christian in Name Only, wanting to follow a Jesus in their own image, rather than following a life in Jesus’ image?

  3. Yes, it is easy to such a belief to creep in that because we’ve done this or that “big thing” or endured such and such for Him, that the Lord owes us, when in truth we deserve not one iota of His grace. It is easy to start thinking that our “goodness” deserves something from Him, when it is only He that is Good.

    And if we’re being honest, I suspect that most of life’s calamities comes from our own decisions. When I look back over my life, I see so many examples of poor decisions which seemed to be the right ones at the time, which brought some sort of trouble upon myself. People who consistently make good decisions all their life are certainly admirable – of course some of that may be because they do not venture far or try to achieve much.

  4. I think somewhere along the line the idiom thou shall not speak ill of the dead entered into the culture and then into the Christian culture.

    Unfortunately this has also lead to not speaking ill of some who are living which is why we end up with people have spectacular falls from grace because no one could say anything back when the sin that caused the fall was in it’s s infancy and could have been handled easily (nipping it in the bud). Nowadays it’s somewhat understandable, though not right, given how people gossip & how some sins seem to be treated as so bad you aren’t even given a chance to repent or to work to try to bring you to repentance. Some sins are so bad just being ACCUSED is enough even for a number of Christians. With that type of atmosphere one can understand a person’s reluctance to speak of the sins or the past sins. The church has always had thing it believed were so bad the it had to be God’s instrument of punishment for people not God’s instrument of grace through bringing the gospel. The early Catholic Church believed this regarding the Jews. Over the past few centuries many Christians believe this regarding practicers of homosexuality. In between I’m sure the church persecuted others in the name of being God righteous instrument of judgment.

    We shouldn’t sugarcoat the lives of people. As a monarch of England said “paint my picture warts and and all” because he didn’t want to hide his flaws we too shouldn’t hide ours. But also we must be more forgiving and understanding to people with ANY flaw. People won’t open up to you about their problems if you’re going to burn them at the stake for having them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *