They Laid Love on the Altar

My Mother’s Letters to Jim Elliot

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I have long listened to Dr. John Piper, but it wasn’t until recently that I found myself laughing aloud as he said something like this: “You don’t have to read all of my books. Just read one of them because they all say the same thing: ‘Live for God’s glory!’”

I immediately recalled a similar conversation with my mother, known by everyone else as Elisabeth Elliot, whom I was apologizing to for not having read every one of her books. She said, “They all say the same thing, Val, so it’s not necessary for you to read them all. Besides, you don’t have time!”

I was busy with my brood of eight, and she knew how my time was consumed. A few years later, she gave me a package of letters from my father, Jim Elliot, to her from 1948–1953, and said, “You don’t have to read them now, but someday you’ll have the time when the children are gone.”

An Unexpected Discovery

My delight in reading them started in 2011, after my last child left for college. Then, about ten months after my mother died in 2015, I found what I was truly not expecting. I discovered, tucked away in the attic, what I was sure were lost: my mother’s letters to my father. These letters had traveled with him throughout his time in Ecuador, and yet there they were, beautifully preserved.

Within these letters, the commitment of my parents is clear. They were focused on finding God’s will for their lives, pursuing it through prayer and devotion to the Scriptures. Both thought they were to be single missionaries and were completely content to find all their love and security in God alone. Their hearts brimmed with devotion to God and obedience to his command to go and preach the gospel to all nations.

After meeting in the foreign mission society at Wheaton College, my parents found each other to be a distraction from the Greek they were studying. As their attraction began to blossom, they were made to deal with this “expulsive power of a new attraction (or affection)” about which Thomas Chalmers wrote. This new attraction was a deep and turbulent heart issue interfering with their studies. As they pondered their own love for him and for each other, they thought their feelings had to die, and should be sublimated to the authority of their Lord.

Yet their letters began and continued from September 1948 to 1952, and through part of 1953, when both were in Ecuador, serving on opposite sides of the country. Over the following five years, my parents saw each other just five times, but they wrote beautifully (and sometimes turbulently) every two weeks to each other, always praying for the other, seeking to completely give him or her up to God.

Love, a Devoted Thing

In the Old Testament, a “devoted thing” (Leviticus 27:28) meant something given up as a sacrifice, and this is exactly what Jim Elliot and Betty Howard did with each other. They were devoted to God first, and his glory, so their letters reflected their primary purpose. Verses that spoke to them about trusting and waiting were frequently studied and meditated upon, as well as written about.

One particular letter from my father to my mother says this:

You are his particular treasure, Betty, something he paid for at a terrific cost to his own person. . . . He is bound to display you to principalities and powers as a trophy of his searching. . . . Meanwhile he keeps you for himself, hidden away, forming you in secret ways that you don’t understand. Much the same as I keep your letters . . . so he keeps the pious for himself.

Here’s a quote from my mother’s diary as she ponders what had happened between them.

These have not been days of barrenness. But they are utterly inexpressible. God has taken me apart, wholly unto himself. He has let me see his face. No word can be written of it. I stand silent, and wondering. O blessed Lord “that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee.”

And then in closing this entry she wrote, “keep him thus, too, Lord Jesus.”

On Bended Knee

Waiting, trusting, praying, and waiting again. How deep our prayer life grows, when we take God at his word, and meditate on words like these of Isaiah:

From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. (Isaiah 64:4–5)

And another of my favorites is Isaiah 30:15, 18:

“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling. . . . Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.

My parents’ devotion to him played out in separate places as they wrote and begged God to send them to the mission field, and to show them clearly what they were to do with their love. Were they to lay it on the altar? Were they to wait?

Five years passed before my father knew whether he was to marry my mother. After a time full of discipline, agony, and tears, both preparing to be missionaries and serving among two different people groups, a catastrophe hit my father, and he realized his need for a wife. He asked her to marry him.

We Have Waited for Him

They chose Isaiah 25:9 KJV as their answer from him:

Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

I want others to hear the love story I found in their letters, a story of my mother and father dying to self in order to bow to the authority of their Father — asking, seeking, knocking, and trusting God and his timing. I pray their unusual love, for the Lord and each other, will inspire and shape many.

What is godly devotion? It is the dying of self in order for the authority of a Person (God) to be followed and obeyed. Whatever (and whomever) God has called you to, be devoted first and foremost to him, and he will reveal himself to you while you seek and wait on him.

was only ten months old in January, 1956, when her father, Jim Elliot, was killed. She then spent her childhood, through age 8, in Ecuador alongside her mother. A graduate of Wheaton College, Valerie and her husband, Walt, are the parents of eight. She is also the author of a children’s book, Pilipinto’s Happiness, containing memories of her Amazon upbringing.