By: Mrs. Liesl Cressman
This morning, I wanted to talk to you about perseverance, but I wanted to do it through the story of two of my favorite heroes of the faith, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. And throughout my talk, I am going to be referencing one of Elizabeth’s books, Discipline. Now, I know we have a tendency to tense up when we hear the word discipline because our culture has given us a very narrow definition of discipline. Discipline for you might only mean the consequences you face when you mess up either here or at home. But, I hope that after Mr. Smith’s talks, you realize that discipline encompasses much more than just punishments. Disciplines, broadly defined, are the patterns of behavior in which we live our lives. They are the rhythms that we instill to get us to a certain goal. For example, you might have the discipline of getting up early to exercise because you know you will be too tired after school to do it then. Or you may have the discipline of reading the Bible and praying. You can have a discipline of eating well, of fasting, of silence, of service, these are all examples of good disciplines, and I will mention later how these disciplines help us when persevering through trials.
Jim and Elisabeth Elliot lived lives of love, discipline, and constant devotion to God. Contemporaries of Billy Graham, they lived during a time when evangelical Christianity was making its debut on the American stage. Troubled by the idea that people around the world died without ever hearing about God, Jim Elliot felt an intense call to the mission field. He went to Wheaton College to study Bible, where he met Elisabeth, and then spent the next three years in Ecuador, preparing and waiting for the opportunity to minister to the people he so desperately wanted to reach. Jim had been trying to reach an Indian tribe called the Aucas, known as savages by the surrounding tribes. All missionaries who had tried to reach them before had been killed.
After much preparation on January 2, 1956, Jim finally got his chance. However, it was only five days later that he would become a martyr of the Christian faith. Jim and three fellow missionaries made attempts at contact with the Acuas by flying over their land in a plane and lowering down gifts to the tribe in a small bucket. This was a good way to engage with the people without any immediate threat of harm. After a few days of doing this, the tribe began to reciprocate by leaving gifts in the bucket for the men. Once this initial contact was made, the men decided it was time to meet the tribe face to face. Their first encounter with the Aucas was very positive. Some members from the tribe came to the beach where the missionaries had camped out and talked with them for the better part of the day. The missionaries even took one of the young Indian men up in their plane because he seemed so fascinated with a model airplane that they had brought with them. However, the next day would not prove so profitable. Through some form of miscommunication, the Aucas tribe perceived the missionaries to be a threat and decided to kill them. That morning when Jim and the other missionaries went out to the beach to meet the Aucas, they were greeted with an army of spears. Jim’s first reaction was to reach for the gun that he had been carrying, but then he remembered that he had vowed never to kill anyone who had not heard the word of God. He then, instead of using force, left his gun and faced his killer with the love of God.
However, the story continues. I think the most impressive part of this whole story was Elisabeth’s reaction to the tragedy. Speaking for her fellow women whose men had also been killed in this attack, she said, “The prayers of us widows themselves are for the Aucas. We look forward to the day when these savages will join us in Christian praise.” Elisabeth was able to look at her husband’s killers through the eyes of God. Less than two years later, Elisabeth returned to minister to that very same tribe that had killed her husband and reached them with the love of the Gospel.
However, none of this would have been possible if it had not been for the Elliots’ humble willingness to live a life of discipline before God. From the beginning of their relationship, both Jim and Elisabeth knew that their primary calling was to serve God, and that they would have to make certain sacrifices on His behalf. There is one story that Elisabeth told about her husband that I thought was particularly telling of his dedication to God. When they were both in college, it was the custom at the end of the year to have friends sign their yearbook with their name and some sort of sweet message. Elisabeth had a particular admiration for Jim, so she gave him her yearbook to sign, hoping that he would say something about how his feelings toward her. However, all he wrote next to his name was a verse reference, 2 Timothy 2:4, “A soldier on active service will not let himself be involved in civilian affairs; be wholly at his commanding officer’s disposal.” For Elisabeth, the message rang loud and clear. Whatever his feelings toward her might be, Jim was on a mission from his commanding officer and could not be distracted from that. After college, Jim went straight to Ecuador where he began preparations to meet the Aucas. While he did eventually confess his feelings to her, Jim told Elisabeth that he needed to experience the strenuous life of a missionary as a single man first to be sure that God wanted him to marry. They spent the next year, he in Ecuador and she in Canada, seeing where the Lord was leading them and keeping up correspondence via letters.
This shows an incredible amount of discipline. Deciding to set aside your own preferences and follow where God has called you goes against everything in our selfish human natures. And yet, it is what every Christian must do. While Jim and Elisabeth did ultimately get married almost a year later, their marriage was based on a mutual commitment to God because they had practiced setting aside their own desires and following after God first. Practiced, every-day discipline in the smaller things allowed them to much bigger trials later head on. It is this type of practiced self-restraint and discipline that allows you to abandon your gun as you look in the eyes of your killer or to return and minister to those who killed your husband.
So what does this have to do with you? Maybe you never plan on being a missionary to an unreached people group in a third world country. Why would discipline be important for you? The reality is that trials will come, and the one who has been practicing patience and self denial regularly in his life is the one who will be able to bravely face those trials. And let me be clear, these are not the “trials” that you bring upon yourselves by poor decisions. Having to pull an all-nighter because you waited until 10:00pm the night before the paper was due to start working on it is no great trial of the faith. That’s the consequence of your foolishness. But I’m sure a dose of discipline can keep you from being in those situations in the first place as well.
All that aside, all Christians are called to discipline, to discipleship. It’s not an option that is reserved for only the truly saintly among us. It is required by all. Elisabeth addressed this trend in Christianity to divorce discipleship from Christianity. “This pattern of thinking has its powerful effect on Christians as well, so that we have come to imagine that discipleship is somehow an ‘extra.’ We suppose that we can be Christian, going to church, saying our prayers, singing those sweet songs about loving and feeling and sharing and praising, without taking our share of hardship. Those who wish to make a special bid for sainthood, we tell ourselves, might try discipline (‘it has its place’) as though it were an odd or fanatical lifestyle, not the thing for most of us. It is as though we might be Christian without being disciples.” But, ladies and gentlemen, hear me, we cannot be Christians without being disciples. God has called us to a life of discipleship, of discipline.
Many scriptures point to the importance of discipline. Galatians 6:7-9 says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” James also attests to the importance of discipline. In chapter one verse twelve, he says, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” And finally, one of the more iconic passages from Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, “Do you not know that in a race all runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” All of these writers understood the truth that we will not be fully devoted to God and at his disposal if we are constantly distracted by all our whims and desires. True discipleship requires denying ourselves so that Christ might live within us.
So how do we go about this life of discipline? What are some practical ways that we can incorporate discipline in our lives? I’m glad you asked. Elisabeth had many things to say on the subject of discipline in her book of the same title. I highly encourage you to pick it up. She has a no-nonsense way of applying scripture and not giving us nearly as much leeway as we often think we deserve. She has many helpful tools and advice that will truly help you as you seek a path of disciplined discipleship and will go much deeper than I can in my time here.
Three areas I would like to focus on, though, are the disciplines of the body, time, and feelings. I know talking about the body is hard because it’s a very personal thing and we probably all have things about our bodies that we would love to change. Real maturity is knowing what things we cannot change, leaving those in God’s hands, and working on the things that we can change. If y’all hadn’t noticed, I’m short. I am 5’2” of western European pasty goodness with a secret heart of a Latina that likes to come out occasionally when Selena starts playing. But as much as I might want to be have the 5’11” body that the doctors predicted I would have when I was born, that is never going to happen. So, I have to acknowledge that it is not what I would prefer, give it over to God, and then see what I can do with this pint sized body that He has given me.
Our bodies are gifts, and we should treat them as such by fueling them appropriately and making sure that they are in good enough shape to do the work that God has called us to do. So, eat well and exercise. Be comfortable with the idea of denying yourself the treats that you may want or even eating at all. It’s OK to be hungry. We don’t have to eat all the time. I’m by no means saying that you should starve yourself, but those feelings of discomfort are times can be times of growth that will prepare you when you have real challenges in your lives. Learn to use those times to talk with God and ask for help that He would satisfy you even in your hunger. Elizabeth told the story of a woman who was overweight who came to Elisabeth seeking advice about how to overcome her love of food. The woman said that she kept praying to God that He would take away her hunger, but that the had not happened. Elizabeth counseled this woman that the Spirit would not make her less hungry, but that God was trying to grow her through her hunger. Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, we have a tendency to over spiritualize things or to assume that it will take a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit for things to happen that really are up to us to decide. We can make the choice to treat our bodies well and to put in systems that will help us do that. Trust me, the Holy Spirit is not going to come down out of heaven and slap that tenth two-bite brownie from HEB out of your hands. You have to make the choice to use self-restraint and push through those feelings of discomfort in order to treat your body well for God’s service.
Second, there is the discipline of time. I challenge you to document for a week what you spend every hour doing every day. It can be quite revealing. Five minutes checking the phone can easily turn into thirty. One episode on netflix can quickly become an all night marathon. We are a people that always claims to be busy, but do we actually know what we’re busy with? Time is a precious gift, and I fear that we far too often squander it on things with very little eternal value. Disciplining your time means giving it over completely to God. A big step toward this is making time to be in His word and in prayer, as well as serving the church and those in need. So often I hear people say that they wish that they had time to do devotions, but that they are just too busy. This is a misunderstanding of what is means to discipline the time that we have been given. If God is truly ultimate in our lives, then he should be the primary appointment on our calendars. I used to think that I too did not have enough time to do devotions until one day I had an undeniable break in my schedule with almost nothing to do and came to the conclusion that I had plenty of time, I just didn’t want to do devotions. It seemed too hard, too unnatural, too uncomfortable. But disciplining our time according to God’s ways means following his plan. He has given us all the time that we need to get the things done that he has called us to. We are the ones who need to surrender by making time for those things, getting up a little earlier and pushing through the tiredness to spend some time with God, choosing to not pick up our phone at every break so that we can be open for an unexpected conversations that might come our way, being willing to say no to certain commitments and engagements because we know they will take away our time from God and the things that He has called us to do. Being able to prioritize our time to do what really serves the Lord, I think, is one of the biggest markers of a mature Christian.
Finally, I want to address the discipline of feelings. Feelings can be oh so deceptive. They are so natural and can feel like the truest thing we know, and yet they are not always in tune with reality. Even Christians can make the mistake of thinking that if something is God’s will for us we will feeling good about it, or on the flip side, that if we feel good about it, it must be God’s will for us. Let me tell you, God’s will does not always make us feel good, and yet it is the right thing to do. Elisabeth recounts a conversation she had with her friend Katherine Morgan, the wife of one of the other missionaries who had been killed alongside Jim. She said, “When one thinks and uses the arm of faith to back one’s thinking then the works of faith are produced. I agree with you that feelings are untrustworthy. Human thinking is also untrustworthy, but faith which wins our thoughts heavenward is productive… I think you and I had this experience. Our feelings were conducive to doubt as to the reasons why our husbands were taken, but we knew inside we had to do as the Lord had commanded. In my estimation there was no particular virtune in what we did. We had received our orders, and we had to stick by them and carry our feelings in our pockets. Many times my feelings would have led me to throw in the sponge. I ‘felt’ the people were unresponsive and dull of hearing and the effort was fruitless. I ‘felt’ everything but the desire to stay here and work. Nevertheless God’s plan has to be carried out. This is a hard lesson to learn, and it often takes a lifetime. But one must have the conviction that God has spoken and then one must get busy and carry out the command.” Feelings are fickle things. This is not to say that having feelings is wrong. They are a important part of what it means to be human. But the fact that feelings are untrustworthy means that we must always submit them to the will of God and evaluate them through the lens of scripture to see if they are true. It is oh so uncomfortable to deny our feelings when they run so deep, but discipleship often requires us to feel uncomfortable, to put our feelings on the back burner, and to follow God’s command.
Jim Elliot was known for saying, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Ladies and gentlemen, are you willing to do that? Are you willing to give up the momentary comforts of this world in order to prepare for the trials that are ahead and deepen your relationship with your Savior? Are you willing to choose a life of disciplined discipleship to answer the call of our God? It is my prayer that you do. I’ll close with a benediction from 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”