The (Extra)Ordinary Life of Jim Elliot

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Jim Elliot famously remarked, “Forgive me for being so ordinary while claiming to know so extraordinary a God.”

Jim became a follower of Jesus at a young age. The way he pursued the call of a disciple of Christ proved his ardent desire to honor his Heavenly Father. His journals during his junior and senior at Wheaton College prove that he did live an ordinary college student’s life. But a man like Jim Elliot seems a little more than ordinary.

He wouldn’t, however, have wanted you to think he was anything other than ordinary. He took exams, attended school missions trips, maneuvered through peer relationships, dated a girl in college and faced all the strains and joys of young love, spent late nights with friends while facing the pressure of impending academic responsibility, and even competed on the wrestling team at Wheaton. Young Jim on the outside looked no different from his fellows in terms of activities and appearances.

Jim also would not want you to think too highly of him. In his journals, he confesses “thoughtlessness and careless neglect of prayer and Bible study,”[1] self-exaltation, lost concentration due to idols in his heart, jealousy, dissatisfaction with Christ, bitterness, and lust. Jim shares his own imperfection but with refreshing honesty.

Jim was indeed an ordinary man. But he sought to intimately know and fervently seek his extraordinary God. It was through fully embracing, loving, obeying his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that Jim’s ordinary life became something extraordinary.

Jim Elliot’s Missionary Calling

In terms of Jim’s missionary ministry, Jim’s declaration in the privacy of his own reflections during his time in Ecuador fittingly sums up his core beliefs. He said, “I know that God is in the generation of the righteous and guides their steps aright. Beyond his counsel and will, there is no going. I am there now and want nothing more.”[2]

Jim wanting nothing more than to fully embrace the life God gave him. Jim believed in the power of God’s Word and he trusted God to lead him through his Word. He lived out the truth that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV). This man was marked by his love for God’s Word. He saturated himself in it. In fact, you can read his reflections from the time he spent studying the Bible in those college journals. 

Jim didn’t just love God in isolation. Jim aimed to bring people to know Jesus Christ. Throughout his daily life, Jim flowed with a passion to be used by God to bring other people to know God. His senior year of college Jim prayed,

Father, make me a ‘crisis man.’ Bring those I contact to decision. Let me not be a milepost on a single road. Make of me a fork, so that men must turn one way or another on facing Christ in me.[3]

As Jim sought the Lord over time, he was burdened with the specific desire to bring the good news about Jesus to unreached people in Ecuador. Only a year later from this first prayer, Jim prayed, “Lord, send me to Ecuador.”[4]

Jim Elliot and Ecuador

As Jim moved to Ecuador and began mission work. He got to serve with his beloved wife Elizabeth, and their aim together remained the same.

Jim had a special regard for the Waodani people (called Auca at the time) to whom he would minister. God laid these people on the hearts of Jim and his four friends, Nate, Ed, Pete, and Roger. These five began “Operation Auca.” Jim expressed his desire for these people to his wife one day close to the day of his death, saying, I’m ready to die for the salvation of the Aucas.”[5]

Prayer drove the ministry of these men and their wives as it drove their lives as young men and college students. The prayer of “Guide us, O Lord”[6] often accompanied their work.

Jim’s responsibilities stretched from helping doctor those in need, remaining faithful to read God’s Word and pray, keeping up his relationship with Elizabeth, and running about the land preaching and ministering to the youth. Two to three years of similar preparatory ministry methods followed, post-marriage to Elizabeth, such as late nights drawing mapsstudying the language, making countless flights from their airstrip over the land in search of people and in order to familiarize himself with the mission field, with his four brothers in ministry.[7]

“Operation Auca”

In order to reach the Waodani people with the message about Jesus, Jim theorized that he needed to become familiar with Ecuador and form positive relationships with the tribe. Before he could speak the gospel to these people, they had to trust the missionaries and know that they came on friendly terms. Once Jim and his four friends had lived in Ecuador for a time, they decided that they ought to live among the Waodani people and set up camp in a way that expressed that they were “neighbors.”[8]

Jim, Pete, Nate, Ed, and Roger began “Operation Auca” patiently by dropping gifts to the Waodani people in order to communicate their friendship and good intentions. They dropped shirts, machetes, food, and trinkets. They were surprised to eventually receive similar gifts.[9]

Jim’s diary ends, December 31, 1955, two days before he and his four friends erected a temporary lodging at “Palm Beach,” a spot they believed would be the door to the harvest the Lord had prepared for them among the Waodani people.[10] Seven days later, they met three Waodani men peaceably and even gave one of these neighbors a ride in their airplane.[11]

Only nine days from the last entry of Jim’s diary, he met his Lord Jesus at the end of a Waodani spear.[12] The Waodani people turned on their missionary neighbors and killed Jim and his three friends on the beach. And in extraordinary love, Jim and his friends did not try to defend themselves, for they knew they were ready to meet their God, though these people, not knowing Christ, were not.

It would seem that an act of human sinfulness cut short the life and ministry of this saint and his friends. However, their death opened the door for their wives only three years later to live among the Waodani people and introduce them to Jesus.[13] It was through the death and faithfulness of those men that the Lord worked salvation for the Waodani people. 

Jim Elliot’s Faithful Life and Faithful Lord

Listen to Jesus words in John 12:24, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (NIV).

The burial of these faithful servants was the like planting of the master Gardener. This Gardener’s intention was to see a great blossom of salvation spring up on the plains in Ecuador. Had these men not connected with those three Waodani people on the beach in 1956, the door to friendship and later Christian fellowship with the Waodani tribe may never have come about. These men did not see the fruit of their labors and obedience on this side of heaven. But they were faithful unto death (Revelation 2:10). Jim and his friends understood Jesus’ love for them (John 3:16) and wanted these people to know the love of Jesus so much so that they were willing to die for it.

We may reflect with Jim’s wife Elizabeth: 

Was it the thrill of adventure that drew our husbands on? No. Their letters and journals make it abundantly clear that these men did not go out as some men go out to shoot a lion or climb a mountain. Their compulsion was from a different source. Each had made a personal transaction with God, recognizing that he belonged to God, first of all by creation, and second by redemption through the death of his Son, Jesus Christ. This double claim on his life settled once and for all the question of allegiance . . . this meant simply that Christ was to be obeyed, and more than that, that he would provide the power to obey . . . the question of personal safety was wholly irrelevant.[14]

Jim’s life seems extraordinary, to be sure. But he wouldn’t have thought of himself that way. To him, his life was ordinary—faithfulness to Jesus, even if that meant death, was natural to anyone who knew just how much Jesus had done for them (1 John 4:19).

. . .


[1] Jim Elliot and Elizabeth Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot (Fleming H. Revell, 1978), 23.

[2] Elliot and Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot, 427.

[3] Elliot and Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot, 83.

[4] Elliot and Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot, 299.

[5] Elizabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (Tyndale House, 1956), 173.

[6] Elliot and Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot, 471.

[7] Elliot and Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot, 471.

[8] Elliot and Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot, 183.

[9] Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor, 164.

[10] Elliot and Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot, 477.

[11] Elliot and Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot, 477.

[12] Elliot and Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot, 477.

[13] Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor, 258.

[14] Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor, 175.

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