The Gift of God in Exchange for Ashes

Sit on a wooden bench (behind a goat) for a day long bus ride through the Andes.  When the bus stops, the only way forward in 1952 is to rent a horse for an excursion over steep mountain trails with muddy puddles up to your knees. You’ll know you’ve reached the village of San Miguel de los Colorados because the large clearing before you is ringed by a number of small houses–and because your fellow missionaries open their doors in greeting.

This was the inauspicious beginning to Elisabeth Elliot’s famous missionary career. Those who have read Shadow of the Almighty or seen the Life Magazine accounts of her husband’s brutal death at the hands of an unreached people group know that Elliot became a sought after public speaker and her words reached literally millions via print and radio ministries. With her perfect diction, ironic humor,  and crisp, no-nonsense delivery of gospel truth, she set the course for my following life and has influenced my teaching and my parenting like no one else, and yet her on-ramp to ministry was beset by disappointment and confusion and was characterized by nothing that would point to a future of success or influence.

These Strange Ashes was originally published in 1979, and when I read it during my early mothering years, it quickly became my favorite of Elisabeth Elliot’s books, partly because of its realistic portrayal of the mundane (and sometimes simply boring!) nature of ministry life, and partly because of the titular reference to a poem in which Amy Carmichael writes about the experience of personal suffering that seems to come to nothing:

“But these strange ashes, Lord, this nothingness,
This baffling sense of loss?”

I hear in the anguished question a howl that expresses a broken heart and empty hands, but Elisabeth is quick to point out  the “mysterious exchange” by which we offer this emptiness to God and receive back from Him the gift of Himself. Following the death of John Chau and in a season in which many believers seem to be disappointed that salvation has not arrived on Air Force One, Revell has re-released Elisabeth’s deeply personal account of her first year as a missionary under a new title, Made for the Journey: One Missionary’s First Year in the Jungles of Ecuador with a foreword by Kay Warren. In a world in which Twitter and YouTube can bestow celebrity status upon anyone, it becomes a holy experience to read about “calling” in the sense that God “calls people who believe in Him to [go to] others who do not.” This “going” may be beset by what looks for all the world like “downward mobility” and, in Elisabeth’s case, entailed a good bit of what she referred to as “jungle housekeeping,” the making of a safe and livable dwelling in the midst of amoeba infested waters, plain and monotonous food choices, and often deep loneliness.

Taken from journal accounts and her own memory of her young adult self, Elliot comes across as restless and uncertain. Her evangelical roots have led her to expect that her “calling and election being sure,” she should expect resounding success in the jungle– success being defined as a written language for the people, a Bible translation in their brown hands, and a line up of converts to be trained and discipled. What she found instead was a self-sufficient people group, hidden from white culture and content to stay that way, who may have been living in “bondage, sorrow, and night,” but were not interested, “not in the least, in our definition of liberation.”

Confronted with four stunning set backs to her ministry in the jungles of Ecuador, it began to appear to Elisabeth that God had failed her. Given the opportunity to prove Himself strong before the Colorados, He chose to work in quiet and incomprehensible ways that looked, to Elisabeth’s young eyes, like the silence of betrayal. Those who struggle with the mysterious ways of God or who have experienced the anger and disappointment of feeling as if God is not to be trusted will find a surprising voice of comfort and collegiality in Elisabeth Elliot’s long, slow wait:  waiting for help from the nationals with reducing their language to print, waiting for the local population to trust the missionary presence, waiting for a commitment from her fiance, Jim Elliot, that would allow them to marry and minister together.

When God does not “cooperate” with our vision of success or yield to our will for Him, the believer is left to yield her own will to a story arc that may eventually untangle itself in the passing of years–or it may not. In characteristic Elisabeth Elliot fashion, the veteran missionary looks back with clear eyes on her youthful disappointment and derives bracing counsel for us in our days of uncertainty.

Whether or not God chooses to reveal His plans to us, “faith, prayer, and obedience are our requirements.  We are not offered in exchange immunity and exemption from the world’s woes. What we are offered has to do with another world altogether.” Our assignment, then, becomes a fierce cooperation with God that brings our hearts into alignment with His to the point that this other world becomes more valuable to us than the one we can see with our own eyes.

Many thanks to Revell for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

Thankful for joy that “lights the way like some great star,”

michele signature[1]

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for nearly 30 years, and together they have four sons, two daughters-in-love, two grandchildren, and one lazy St. Bernard. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

52 thoughts on “The Gift of God in Exchange for Ashes”

  1. Oh, Michele…another addition to my TBR list! This book seemed to be one that influenced you quite a bit over the years. It’s worth reading for that reason alone. The part of your review where you wrote about offering God your empty self spoke to me. We do need to empty ourselves of our “self” before we can be filled with God. I need to remind myself that God cannot shine His light through me if I am already filled with “me”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Because we’re at a similar phase of life, I think we are beginning to get a glimpse of the fact that all the things we thought we had going for us (and maybe the secret notion that God was pretty lucky to have us on His team) are starting to look a little less amazing.
      It’s a great gift that God can make beauty from ashes. My great failing is that I may not always offer the ashes up for transformation.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “But these strange ashes, Lord, this nothingness,
    This baffling sense of loss?” Oh my word, Michele, this is the land I’m living in today. Thank you for this post. Stopping by from Tune In Thursday.


    1. The words of Amy Carmichael never fail to set me on fire. She’s one more blessing I received from the pen of Elisabeth Elliot.
      Trusting along with you, Elizabeth, that you will find the gift of God as you ponder the ashes of this particular day.


    1. Especially this one! I could sit down and read this book any day of the week and it would have new things to say to me. I can’t even count how many times I read These Strange Ashes (the original book).


  3. “We are not offered in exchange immunity and exemption from the world’s woes. What we are offered has to do with another world altogether.” Oh how I LOVE that! Isn’t that the truth! Definitely one to put on my list!


  4. Wow. Isn’t it amazing that a message so timeless is suddenly so very, very timely? Thank you for sharing this, Michele; I hadn’t heard about this re-release. Your beautifully written review makes me want to read this!


  5. I just read another review of this book, but they didn’t say (maybe they didn’t know) that this was a new title for These Strange Ashes. So I was wondering if maybe this came from her newsletters and such. Thanks for clearing that confusion up for me. I also have considered Elisabeth my “mentor from afar,” having first discovered her when I was in college in the late 70s. As you said, I don’t know of anyone else who has had the influence on me that she has had. I read These Strange Ashes years ago, but it’s probably time for a reread. I’ve always appreciated her no-nonsense approach, her firm foundation on Scripture, and her quiet insistence that one can be in God’s perfect will even when the circumstances would scream otherwise.


    1. Elisabeth’s story is so refreshing, and I know missionaries have to concentrate on the positive in their letters home, but her experience in Ecuador in no way points to the “success” or impact she would later experience. Even so, I have a feeling that the Elisabeth Elliot we both learned from in our younger days would have been a very different person without the setbacks and disappointments.


  6. I thank you for this review. Elisabeth was an amazing woman, and to here of her youthful and uncertain days is a comfort. We’ve all been there. I haven’t read that story and I’m impressed that it is being reprinted.


    1. I was impressed by how transparent Elisabeth was in sharing her formative experiences of wondering about the purposes of God behind what she was seeing with her eyes. We forget that even the “greats” had a learning curve.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh you know how much my heart has been shaped by the writing of Elisabeth Elliot and Amy Carmichael! I just re-read “These Strange Ashes” this past summer, and was so blessed. What a gift to have it re-released again. Thank you introducing her to another generation here. I have always felt that you share some of her style, Michele! Blessings to you this New Year as you continue to share the words God gives you.


  8. Love this —–> When God does not “cooperate” with our vision of success or yield to our will for Him, the believer is left to yield her own will to a story arc that may eventually untangle itself in the passing of years–or it may not.

    This makes me think of the phrase “I want what I want when I want it.” It’s too easy to forget about the obedience and cooperation piece that God asks of us. I know I fall into this trap at times.


  9. Sometimes we just wait, and maybe that’s the strength building of a christian. As I read, I may check this out for my son who is starting a path to becoming a Pastor (maybe). I say that maybe with a smile because there has been so many twists and turns in his life, but God now has him on this path. I do swear that you should write a book if you have not already as you write so easily to read, and seems you do have a font of good material that you could lean on familywise and religion. Enjoy visiting as always. 🙂


  10. Oh wow! I can really relate to Elisabeth’s experience, Michele. From my pastor’s wife perspective, ministry often comes with years and years of waiting on God. I’ll have to check this book out! I’ve always heard great things about Elisabeth’s life and influence, but have never read her story–though I saw the movie “End of the Spear” about her husband’s life and death. Have you seen it? It was in theaters years ago. Anyway, thank you for sharing this inspirational post! I’ll be pinning!


  11. I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Elliot, but I haven’t read this one. I think it’s another for my reading list AND for my series on Legacy Builders. I just finished and wrote about Susie Spurgeon. Another awesome woman of faith.


  12. This sounds like a great book! It’s easy to become discouraged when God doesn’t cooperate with our vision of how we think it “should” be. We can learn so much from others’ experiences.


  13. This sounds like a heartfelt read. I really know nothing about Elliot, but she sounds remarkable, even if part of that is in her ordinary. I pray that I can lead a remarkable life in the ordinary places.


  14. I have been intrigued by Elizabeth Elliot for quite some time, especially in attempting to wrap my head around the unmatched bravery she must have possessed and her deep sense of purpose. This long, slow wait is something most of us can identify with, and I for one pull great comfort and encouragement from her living faith and courage.


    1. I have a tendency to idolize my “heroes of the faith” to the point where I forget they are human and have feet of clay. It encourages me to know that she struggled with all the same things I struggle with.


  15. “When God does not “cooperate” with our vision of success or yield to our will for Him, the believer is left to yield her own will to a story arc that may eventually untangle itself in the passing of years–or it may not. ” – WOW this is powerful, Michele! I LOVE this author and grew up learning from her at home, which I have my mom to thank for. Revvel, thank you for this book. Woot!


    1. When Elisabeth Elliot had to retire from her radio program, I mourned. Her voice of wisdom and her solid writing was so foundational to my understanding of the following life that I still sometimes hear her voice inside my head.
      Thanks for reading, Meg!


  16. Thanks for this wonderful review, Michele. And I’ve never read, “These Strange Ashes.”

    Love the following lines here,

    Whether or not God chooses to reveal His plans to us, “faith, prayer, and obedience are our requirements. We are not offered in exchange immunity and exemption from the world’s woes.”

    While that’s a hard pill to swallow and not understood by unbelievers and some believers, it’s founded in truth of God’s Word.


    1. Yeah, we really do want God to cooperate with us instead of the other way around. This has been a real growth point for me, Karen, and it’s good to know that you are also engaged in the struggle to trust God even when He acts in ways that seem inscrutable to us.


  17. Elisabeth Elliott sounds like an incredible and inspiring woman whose determination helped her through life’s struggles and in turn she helped others. Thanks for linking up with #globalblogging


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