This year I had to write one book review on a Christian book and I chose to read “Shadow of the Almighty“, the biography of Jim Elliot. I had heard about this book before but it was the first time I read it. It is one of the few books that have deeply impacted me and shaped my faith, I though I would share the book review with you.
The Shadow of the Almighty, The Life and Testament of Jim Elliott, Elisabeth Elliot. Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1958
Biography of Jim Elliot: account of his journey of faith and martyrdom with four other missionaries at the hands of the Auca Indians. His wife, Elisabeth, makes full use of his diary and letters sent to his family to give the reader the story of his commitment to God that led to his death at the age of 28, slain by the men he had come to win for Christ.
The book it divided in four parts: His early years, his university years, his working years and his years in Ecuador on the mission field.
The book begins with a prologue describing Jim and the other missionaries’ last moment on the beach where they died.
In the first part of the book, Elisabeth narrates Jim’s life from the testimonies of his school’s friends. From very young, Jim was a committed Christian, one of his friends comments about Jim’s eagerness to pray at all times: “I often thought if we had a guardian angel, he was kept on his toes and didn’t get much sleep either.” (p29)
In part II, we follow Jim at at University though his own writing in his diary. Jim admits that he put his study of the Bible before his studies and writes: “I seek the degree A.U.G., ‘approved unto God.” We also read from his letters that he advised his fifteen year-old sister to make “a bold start” at the beginning of the school year; to boldly talk about her faith to her school friends, as the easiest way rather than trying halfway through without much credibility.
During the summer, after his first year, he spends time in Mexico working with missionaries and begins to understand the work he would later surrender to :”Missionaries are very human folks, just doing what they are asked, Simply a bunch of nobodies trying to exalt Somebody.” (p46) While at university and busy with all kinds of studies and involvements, he spent considerable amount of time in the Word and sets his standards for himself the highest possible: “Don’t follow the example of those you left in the world, not those you find in the church. Rather, the law of God, found in His Word, shall be my standard, and as I see it, there are few examples of this sort of living anywhere.” (p53) In these days Jim prayed a lot concerning the mission field and the souls without access to the gospel and seeing his fellow Christian friends dismissing the call to mission, Jim expresses frustration in his diary: ”Our young men are going into the professional fields because they don’t ‘feel called’ to the mission field. We don’t need a call, we need a kick in the pants. We must be thinking in terms of ‘going out’ , and stop weeping because ‘they won’t come in’. Who wants to step into an igloo? The tombs themselves are not colder than the churches. May God send us forth!” (p53) His time at university was a time of complete surrender to the will of His master: “Open my hand to receive the nail of Calvary, as Christ was opened- that I, releasing all, might be released, unleashed from all that binds me now.” (p59) Jim’s eagerness to preach Christ was consuming him more and more: “I only hope that He will let me preach to those who have never heard that name Jesus. What else is worthwhile in this life?” (p60) He didn’t know then that his prayer would be answered many years later, in Ecuador where he wrote: “I have had to make a cross of two logs, and lie down on it to show the Indians what it means to crucify a man.” (p237)
In the third part of the book, Jim finished university and worked various jobs at home, waiting to hear from God where to go and when. During his time at home and with too much time to waste, Jim learns to be rather than to do: “Analysed afresh and repudiated my base desire to do something for God in the sight of men, rather than to be something, regardless of whether results were to be seen.” (p127) Finally, after many years working in America, and preaching and teaching in the churches there and after many years searching the will of God and having considered both India and South America, Jim is off to Ecuador.
At first he struggles with language learning and feels frustrated to meet so many lost souls and being unable to communicate clearly to them. Elisabeth joins him on the mission field, working elsewhere in Ecuador. They had met at University and kept in contact through letters all these years, both contended by the single life but open to God’s will. It is while in Ecuador that Jim make the decision to marry Elizabeth. After having been friends for five years and working as missionaries in the same country, he proposes to her and after three weeks get married. They live their first four months of marriage in a tent before settling in a small house in a village that they build. There his time is absorbed with house building, teaching children, preaching and evangelising in the nearby areas as well as teaching the mature Indian Christians of their village to teach and preach themselves. In 1955, Elisabeth gives birth to their daughter in Ecuador, Valerie. Jim confesses to his brother in a letter that they suffered at times from spiritual discouragement : “We need no funds here, really, nor more workers. What we need is spiritual power and vigor in the soul.” (p215) But teaching the Indians to preach becomes a fruitful ministry and Jim stops teaching and preaching himself, apart once a week to the whole congregation. In this village Jim works with another missionary couple, that he met at University and joined Ecuador around the same time as he. His friend had discovered a tribe completely unreached a few miles by plane from where they stayed and together with two other missionaries they start praying for the door to open for them to go there and evangelise the tribe. They send gifts by aeroplane and communicate friendly words through speakers and it seems like the path is opening for them to reach this completely unreached people group, Jim’s strongest desire since he was first called. The four of them finally go, leaving their wives behind, and there find their death. They land on the beach near the tribe’s encampment and wait for the indigenous they had relentlessly prayed for to come and welcome them, but hiding in the forest, they spear them.
The most interesting part of the book, I found, was to see the evolution of Jim’s faith, from being consumed with zeal for God, and living out the life he had prayed for in Ecuador. Jim was surely a gifted writer, and it was beautiful to read certain pages of his diary, describing so eloquently his love for God. It was also challenging to read of his high standards for his faith and his total surrender to God’s will. It was instructive to read of all the lessons he learned along the way, his ups and downs and the catastrophic situations he faced. To read everything in Jim’s own work in his diary and letters magnifies the story, for we can read of his heart for the lost and his surrender to the Harvest-Master’s will, as he puts it.