Elisabeth Elliot’s book Passion and Purity is NOT a love story.
These last few weeks I’ve been reading the big books marketed to young women in the evangelical world for research for our mother-daughter book, and one of those was Passion & Purity.
I read it first when I was 16, and I really hated it. I remember reading that you couldn’t date, couldn’t kiss before marriage, couldn’t talk to a boy before he talked to you. I remember reading that you must always, always let a boy lead. And that made me feel like, if I were to date, I would have to hide who I really was. I couldn’t be myself. And didn’t God want me to be myself? (for the record, it wasn’t that I wanted to lead. I just wanted to be able to be honest and say what I felt, and it was quite clear that this would somehow be wrong and too forward of me).
(Here’s a picture of me on a Teen Missions International Trip in the Philippines, where it was assigned reading):
When I read it this time, though, I wasn’t horrified for the advice that was given to me. I was horrified for how Elisabeth Elliot had been treated–and how she allowed herself to be treated.
For the life of me, I don’t know how Elisabeth and Jim Elliot’s story became something to emulate. It was toxic from the beginning.
For those who don’t know the history, Jim Elliot was one of five missionaries killed in Ecuador in 1956. The story made international news at the time, and it became the stuff of Christian legend when Elisabeth, Jim’s widow, and another of the widows (whose name escapes me now) forgave the tribe and went back and lived there and ministered to them anyway. You may have heard the story under the name “through gates of splendor” or “end of the spear.”
Anyway, later in her life Elisabeth became a prolific writer and quite the influencer, and she wrote, in 1984, the book Passion and Purity, to help Christian girls navigate dating. As she explains it, “It is, to be blunt, a book about virginity.” So it’s all about how to stay a virgin.
But what really shocks you is when you start to understand what their “courtship” was actually like.
Elisabeth noticed Jim around Wheaton College, where they both attended. But naturally she didn’t seek him out (because she’s the woman), and she had to wait for him to notice her. He finally does, and at the end of one school year they have a long talk during which he announces that he loves her, and that if he were to marry, it would be her, but he doesn’t think he’s going to marry. He’s going to become a missionary. And so they decide it’s best to not correspond.
So here’s this young woman whose been in love with this guy forever, he finally tells her he loves her back, and then he basically “ghosts” her.
A few months later they start corresponding, and over the next little while they see each other very sporadically. Their letters are filled with, “how can we make sure we don’t love each other more than God,” and about how they have to put any possibility of a relationship on the “altar” (alluding to when Abraham sacrificed Isaac). They would obsess over any physical contact they had shared and wondered if it was too much:
The physical contact Jim referred to was my taking his arm when we walked, our sitting with shoulders tightly pressed together, and on one occasion as we sat on a park bench his suddenly stretching out on his back with his head in my lap. My fingers entwined his hair.
And yet, while they were separated for his senior year of Bible college, word got back to Elisabeth through several sources that Jim had been kissing and dating several girls. Her response?
“What more could I expect? Jim Elliot was a man. Men are sinners. That was the simple truth. He was my ideal, but I had to come to terms with the truth. He had disappointed me. Hadn’t I disappointed him many times?”
I read that and I went, “WHOOAAAA.” How, exactly, had Elisabeth disappointed him? Occasionally she had ventured to write in her letters that she was having trouble because their relationship was so uncertain, and she wished she had something to hold on to, but she knew that it was in God’s hands, and she just needed to trust.
That was about it.
And him? After not kissing her (and making a big deal about it), after refusing to give her any sign that he would actually marry her, while continuing to toy with her, he goes and kisses several other girls.
That’s big. And she glosses right over it and forgives him.
Jim Elliot spends the next few years avoiding her, while telling her that he would do differently if there was any possible way he could.
He writes letters talking about how miserable he is that they are apart and that they can’t marry, but that God hasn’t released him to it. And he never makes any effort at all to actually see her or to figure out if they could move on with their relationship.
He finally moves to Central America to start language studies, and she follows and joins the same mission. But he says he can’t marry her until she learns the language.
Even when they’re together they’re not really together. He goes down the river, inland, to minister, and he’s gone for months at a time. She desperately wants him back for Christmas, and he tells her that he’ll try. But he never comes. He just sends her letter after letter about how sad he is that he can’t be there, and she feels guilty that she is hurt by this.
He’s always sad that he’s not with her, but never sad enough to actually make her a priority.
And then, suddenly, they marry without a second thought when an opening in the mission organization comes, but only for a married couple.
The time from when he first declares his love and when they marry? Five years.
Five years of him leaving her in limbo, letters infrequent, sometimes declaring love, sometimes not, always talking about how tortured he is, never doing anything tangible to tell her that he’s important to her.
And the point that Elisabeth wants all women to learn while reading her book? That you need to put your trust in God and wait patiently, and never actually demand anything from a man.
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This leads me to a bigger point I want to make:
Just because a man serves Christ well does not mean that he would make a good husband or that he is honorable in romance.
I feel like, when Elisabeth looks back on her life with Jim, which was, after all, tragically short, she has to conclude that it was the model of what romance should look like because Jim was so good and godly in his missions. Because he was so sold out to Jesus, then whatever he did must therefore have been Jesus-filled. And therefore, if, in our flesh, we have problems with it, it must mean that we ourselves are not sold out enough for Jesus and we must reassess.
But what I have found is that men who seem “sold out for Jesus” often make the worst husbands, and are actually quite selfish and hurtful to those around them.
The guy I dated before I started dating Keith was “sold out for Jesus.” He was older than me, and he was the one that everyone in the Christian group at our university emulated, because he was so involved in outreach on multiple fronts. He led the prison ministry (the university town where we were hosted more prisons than any other place in Canada). He was preparing to self-fund a mission for a year around the world to serve with Mother Teresa, among others; he was going to medical school to become a medical missionary.
When he started dating me, he wouldn’t let me tell anybody because I was younger, and he didn’t want it to get out. He told me he cared about me, but when he left for his around the world trip, he made me no promises.
But how could I complain? After all, he loved Jesus so much.
I started dating Keith when he was gone and learned what it was like to actually be someone’s priority.
I’ve often said that if I were ever to write novels (and I’d like to one day), I would write one about what would have happened had I married him instead of Keith (and I would have married him in a heartbeat at the time if he had asked). It would not have been pretty.
A.W. Tozer was another man who was totally sold out for Jesus but completely neglected his wife.
Sarah Bessey wrote an amazing essay about how he had always put ministry before family, and left his family broken in his wake. He died fairly young, and his widow remarried. When asked about her two husbands, she said this:
“Aiden loved Jesus. Leonard loves me.”
As Sarah put it, that one observation was utterly devastating.
I have had similar thoughts about Billy Graham being on the road so much and not really knowing his own children. Does God call people to abandon their kids? To ignore their spouses? Does ministry ever justify being absent from your family?
I don’t have a good answer, because obviously there are some jobs that do need to be done. But I think Paul answered it in 1 Corinthians 7:
Paul didn’t write this to criticize married men for having divided loyalties (and he writes of women later in the same way), but rather to make an observation about the way things simply are and should be: When you’re married, you need to be concerned about your spouse. You can’t be as wholly dedicated to God as you were before.
So many “great Christian” heroes of the faith have terrible marriages because they never learned this fact.
If you are married and your interests are NOT divided then you are not doing marriage well. And as a Christian husband, you are supposed to do marriage well.
We excuse a lot of terrible behavior in our heroes of the faith, and in those we know personally who are totally “sold out for Jesus.” But what I have witnessed is that being sold out for Jesus often means that you are very, very bad at relationships.
Maybe part of the reason some are sold out for Jesus is because they have vulnerability and intimacy issues and can’t get close to anyone else. And so it’s easy and natural to be “sold out for God.” Or maybe they’re healthy people, but they simply should never have gotten married. I don’t know.
But I do hope that we start judging the health of relationships on their own merits, rather than assuming that if one person is “sold out for Jesus,” that is evidence that the relationship must, de facto, be a healthy one.
I think that’s how Elisabeth Elliot must have justified all of this to herself. Because Jim was focused on Christ, he rose above earthly relationships. I’m sure many wives and girlfriends have done similar things.
But in reading Passion & Purity, I saw a shy, lonely woman being strung along and deceived, constantly feeling like if she could just please Jesus enough, he would fix this for her. And I was very, very sad for her.
I know there are other articles written about Jim & Elisabeth Elliot’s relationship, and I know some will inevitably mention them in the comments if I don’t link to them here!
So if you want to know more, you can read:
- The Purity Hoax. Elisabeth Elliot was the evangelical sex guru because of a love story. Did it happen?
- How Elisabeth Elliot messed up my love life (behind a pay wall)
What do you think? Have you ever read Passion & Purity? What was your takeaway? Or do you know guys who are “totally sold out for Jesus” but who neglect their relationships? Or women who do the same? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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