On Elisabeth Elliot and the Hidden Realities of our Mentors

“I want to be like Elisabeth Elliot,” I told my mother. I had just graduated from college and was contemplating my next steps. I picked Elliot because she was the only example I knew of a woman speaking publicly in my faith circles.

“Really?” Mom’s eyebrow raised. “Then you need a story to tell like hers. Do you want to go as a missionary to an unchartered area, lose your husband to the spear of a tribesman, raise a daughter alone, labor in a village to share the gospel as a single mom? Then finally get married again, only to lose that husband to cancer and experience widowhood a second time?”

Had mom known then what I have only recently learned (spoiler alert), she could have added, “Do you want to marry yet a third time to a controlling and angry man and stay in a difficult marriage for thirty-eight years?”

My young naive soul merely thought of speaking on a stage sharing the Word of God. I heard Elliot both at the Urbana Student Missions Conference and at a local church conference. I read her books. I listened to her radio program. I considered her a mentor. I wanted to be like her.

So I enthusiastically read reviews on two new biographies published in 2023. Then alarmed, I investigated the authorized biography. Being Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn (B&H Books) describes (very gently in the last chapter only) how Elliot suffered in her third marriage. Vaughn reveals enough of Elliot’s husband’s manipulation to indicate abuse as defined in the “power and control wheel” my husband references in counseling sessions.

I am sad to learn she endured so much. Losing two husbands, parenting alone, speaking publicly as a woman in the 70’s and 80’s was trial enough. But to add psychological, emotional, and verbal mistreatment on top of this!

I am frustrated that she was unable to be transparent and vulnerable. I’m disappointed that she thought she had to remain in her suffering and did not find a way out.

I am torn. While I know that she modeled a life of self-sacrifice and commitment in difficult circumstances, I also feel she missed an opportunity to offer freedom to women in similar situations by showing with her own life that biblical submission never includes abuse.

But my counselor husband tells me to stop speculating so instead I will focus on me. What can I take away from learning the reality about someone I looked to as an example?

I acknowledge that I will never know the whole truth about the private lives of my mentors. I don’t know what they experience behind closed doors as well as the nuances of their circumstances, the complexities of their choices, or the pain they endure. As such I must offer compassion, grace, and tenderness.

I resolve to not glorify human mentors, speakers, pastors, or writers. For ultimately they will fail me (as I will you). Elliot herself didn’t relish being the expert and instead pointed her readers to Scripture. So I will remember that God alone deserves my total admiration and only he can answer my questions and needs.

I will choose flesh and blood mentors in my community that I personally know rather than famous voices that I cannot interact with apart from their public persona. “Keeping it local” allows me to have face-to-face conversations and evaluate how their life matches their words. It also means I cannot discard them easily when they challenge me.

As a writer and speaker myself, I guard against a double standard. I must not point a finger at Elliot if I am not willing to be transparent too. Instead, I will attempt to face my struggles and ask God to help me discern what I might share publicly and what should remain private.

Lastly, I practice gratitude. I am grateful that Elliot paved the way for me to teach, speak, and write. I thank God that many of her words helped my faith to grow. I appreciate that this reality about Elliot has been exposed because it forces us to examine the messages sent to women through traditional teachings on marriage. And I feel blessed that God, in spite of my youthful desire to be like Elisabeth Elliot, is writing a unique story for me. A story I endeavor to steward well.

If you are in a situation that involves abuse, please seek help from professionals. I recommend any resources by Leslie Vernick.

For more on Elliot, see Elisabeth Elliot, Flawed Queen of Purity Culture, and her Disturbing Third Marriage and Elisabeth Elliot: A Life by Lucy S. R. Austen (Crossway).

Eva has been teaching and mentoring women for over thirty-five years. Her experience as a missionary kid in Papua New Guinea, cross-cultural worker in Indonesia, women’s ministry director, and Bible College adjunct professor adds a global dimension to her study of Scripture and the stories she tells. Through her blog, Pondered Treasures, and her book, Favored Blessed Pierced: A Fresh Look at Mary of Nazareth, Eva invites readers to slow down, reflect, and practically apply God’s word to life. Currently she and her husband live in Richardson, Texas and promote the well-being of global workers in a church planting mission agency. A graduate of Baylor University, she also has a Master of Christian Education from Columbia International University in Columbia, S.C. Crafting (specifically macramé) and spending time with her two sons and a daughter-in-law rejuvenates her soul.

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