Elisabeth Elliot is best known for being a widowed-missionary, speaker, adjunct professor, and author of over twenty books. She is least known for her one and only novel, No Graven Image.
It’s a book about twenty-five-year-old Margaret, a linguist who gives up family, money, and marriage to be a missionary in South America. She works for years with a primitive tribe that has no written language. Her hope is to write down the dialect and then translate the Bible into their tongue.
Margaret finds one man who knows that tribal language plus Spanish. He is the only man in the world who can help her with her missionary project. But near the end of the book, she accidentally kills him with bad penicillin. The tribe turns against her and they throw all her work into the river. Years of research, notes, and translations literally go down the drain.
Her entire life is a huge disappointment. And that is the end of the story.
The Christian Response
Elisabeth Elliot published the book in 1966, and she immediately received angry letters from Christians all over the world. The president of her seminary even told her he had pulled strings to ensure that her book was excluded from any Christian prominent book-of-the-year list.
The hate mail, book reviews, and even her seminary boss all said the same thing:
There is no way God would ever let a dedicated servant experience such suffering, disappointment, or ministry failure.
Eliot’s response was to point out that these critics obviously didn’t know the life of Job—since that is precisely what happens to Job—but the readers also obviously didn’t know Elisabeth’s own life, since her book was less of a fictional-novel and more of a creative-autobiography.
Eliot herself lost her first husband when he was brutally killed by the South American tribe they were trying to evangelize; she lost her second husband in her mid-forties; and she died after a “ten year battle with the disease which robbed her of her greatest gift,” her mind.
When I read her book, especially when Margaret’s translator-friend is killed and her lifework is ruined, I was struck with the same thoughts as the hate mail Eliot received: How could she write such a seemingly pointless book on suffering? What was she saying about God?
Well, What Was She Saying About God?
When Eliot names her book, No Graven Image, she deliberately associates our Christian service with the possibility of the idolatry prohibited in the second commandment: Thou shalt make no graven image. And the nature of idols is always to enslave us. On the second to last page of the novel, Eliot has her protagonist reflect:
Now in the clear light of day I see that God, if He was merely my accomplice, He had betrayed me. If, on the other hand, He was God, He had freed me.
In other words, if God is big enough for us to be angry with when he doesn’t do as we ask, then he is also big enough to have reasons that we can’t understand. If he is just our helper, then our anger is justified. If he is really God—that is the True Lord of All—then I can finally take my hands off the reigns of my life (and the life of others).
Because even my desire to do good can be an enslaving idol from which I need freedom.
I don’t know how Elisabeth Eliot discovered this truth, but she discovered it as a young woman when her husband was killed by the very people he was trying to help. At that time she wrote:
God is God. If He is God, He is worthy of my worship and my service. I will find rest nowhere but in His will, and that will is infinitely, immeasurably, unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what He is up to.