This week (January 8) marks the 60th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youdarian, missionaries to a remote tribe in Equador. I’ve been thinking and reading about these men, their families, and their sacrifice this week, wondering what it all means in our world today, a world that looks very different from the world of 1956.
Certainly mission work is done very differently today, perhaps as a result of this martyrdom. Nevertheless, the work of these men and the sacrifices of their families cannot be discounted. In fact, two years after their deaths, the wife of Jim Elliot, Elisabeth, along with Nate Saint’s sister, returned to Equador to live among the Auca people—the very people who had killed their husband, father, and brother. Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint loved these people, and today, many Aucas now follow Christ.
This week I read a moving account of some of their life and ministry among the Aucas in a talk given by Elisabeth Elliot in 1983. (You can read it yourself here and her.) In this same talk, Elisabeth encourages college students to really think about their lives and to decide ahead of time what their lives will stand for. Will it be Christ? Or something else?
Lately I’ve been thinking about our identity in Christ. What does this mean? What should it mean? What difference does it make in my life? Because the day may be coming when I will have to decide where my identity truly lies.
For Jim Elliot, identity with Christ meant everything. It meant delaying marriage until he knew God was calling him to it. It meant loving a people enough to give up a comfortable life in order to bring them the Good News of Jesus Christ. And, ultimately, it meant obedience to the call of God that would bring him to his death at the age of 29.
Was Jim Elliot a fool? Some might say he was. But the Aucas who now know Christ might have a different answer. And the thousands, if not millions, who have been since affected by his and Elisabeth’s story might also answer differently.
Jim Elliot laid everything on the line for the cause of Jesus Christ.
Did he go to Equador to identify with the Auca people? That wasn’t his purpose. Did he change his clothes and wear their ceremonial headgear as a sign of solidarity with them? No. Did he take on an Auca identity? No. Because he knew that doing so would be like saying, “You’re O.K. the way you are. You just need a little Jesus band-aid to make your life better.”
Jim Elliot knew that a Jesus band-aid would not solve the salvation problem of a people. He knew that a complete life transformation would be necessary, so he stepped in to show them that a full life with Jesus was what they needed. What we all need.
Some might ask whether these missionaries truly cared about these people or whether they were simply trying to gain conversion notches in their belts. I’d say that anyone who would be willing to sacrifice life and family in order to share Jesus with them must absolutely have love in his heart toward these people. History shows that not only did the five men enjoy a banquet with the tribe when they arrived, but also that Jim Elliot had a gun in his pocket on the day he was speared to death. He didn’t use it because all five of these men had decided ahead of time that they would not kill another person, even if their own lives were in danger.
Jim Elliot knew his purpose and he knew his identity.
When the apostle Paul encountered Christ on the Damascus road—a road on which he was travelling so that he could find and persecute Christians—his whole life changed and he was never the same after that. Scripture tells us that Paul was a completely different person, both in thought and in demeanor, after he met Jesus. He no longer persecuted anyone—he loved. He said, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Throughout his letters Paul tells his readers that an identity with Christ means that everything is different. Our way doesn’t matter anymore—only Christ’s way matters. Our rights don’t matter either—we give up our rights to follow Christ. Our dignity doesn’t count for anything—as Paul said, it’s all dung (or garbage) compared to knowing Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8).
Paul makes it clear that our identity is gone, vanished, when we take up the cause of Christ. And Jesus is worth it. Just ask Elisabeth Elliot, now rejoicing in heaven with her savior.
You’re probably wondering why I’m wrestling with all this. Why am I writing such a long post on a topic on which most Christians would agree with me?
Here’s why. And here’s what has been rolling around in my head for the past couple of months—an Instagram post that said this: “The day a Muslim is required to register as a Muslim in this country is the day I register as a Muslim.” Now I’m not going to argue the politics of this statement; what struck me about this statement was something not political at all.
What struck me about this statement was how quickly and how flippantly this person was willing to cast aside their identity as a Christian (they do claim to be a Christian) and to identify with another religion entirely.
You see, to me (and I’d say to Jim Elliot and to the apostle Paul as well), being a Christian means identifying with Jesus and all that goes along with it. It means being willing to accept ridicule, suffering, even death, if that’s what God calls me to. It means changing my way of thinking as well as my way of living. And it’s not something I can easily cast aside.
Because what I have been thinking about is is it worth it? Is Jesus really worth it? Is the sacrifice that Jesus made when he left his heavenly home, came to earth, lived among sinful people, and died a martyr’s death—is all of that worth it to me?
He is worth it.
But when I see flippant statements of people willing to identify so cavalierly with something other than Christ, I feel an unease in my soul. Like it’s an affront to all that the gospel stands for and an affront to the suffering of Christ on the cross. Jesus didn’t call us to identify with others to make them feel better about their choices. In fact, Jesus didn’t care much about the choices of others. He cared about the truth and he spoke it with boldness.
Yes, He loved and we are called to love. For sure.
We are also called to speak truth, and the truth is that there is no other way to live apart from Christ. The truth is that if we have identified with Christ, we cannot put our identity elsewhere. The truth is that we lessen the meaning of the cross when we put a Jesus band-aid on another person’s religion.
Christ is everything.
May I live it boldly.
May I proclaim it with my life.
May I love others well because of it.