Fifty years ago today, missionaries Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, and Pete Fleming were killed in Ecuador while attempting to contact the Auca indians with the Gospel. They were driven by the highest ambition, and paid the highest price.
These men are considered heroes in Christian circles, especially Jim Elliot because his Christ-centered and well-written journals have been widely read. I've known about and admired Jim Elliot for a few years now. His life has challenged me in very intense ways. It's also messed me up at times.
There are a few hard things about having heroes. One is that it's very easy to envy them. While I would have always said that I wanted to be like Jim Elliot, all too often the reality was that I wanted to be as well-known as him. I wanted to make sacrifices like he did for the reasons that he did, but I wouldn't have wanted those sacrifices to go unknown. I had to start asking myself if I would be willing to be a martyr whose body was never found and whose reason for dying was never known. If I wasn't willing to die like that, then I was envying the martyrs for all the wrong reasons.
Another hard thing about heroes is that the pictures we have of them are usually glossy, framed caricatures, not worn black-and-whites with all the blemishes. Embracing this distorted perspective of men like Jim Elliot has often led me down the path of self-reliant legalism. I felt like I was so far away from who he was that I just couldn't be who God wanted me to be. I just had to step it up, be more godly, and hope that God was pleased. I started down the dangerous path of thinking that God's favor was on Christian celebrities more than on the rest of us. We peasants just had to get better or be ashamed, and all of this apart from grace. A side effect was that I began viciously judging everyone else who, along with me, didn't match up to the superheroes. Even though I didn't match up to my perceptions of these giants, either, it was all too easy to condemn others all the same. I realize now that while God has chosen to publicize Jim Elliot's life so that people like me will be challenged to a more tenacious spiritual commitment, everything I will ever be or do is still all of grace. Just like Jim Elliot. There's no such thing as a Christian celebrity. There never has been a religious superhero. We all carry our hammers and nails, and we plead for mercy. And when God gives it, it's not because we died for Christ. It's because He died for us.
On a different note, another devastating thing about heroes is that it's always easier to admire than it is to imitate. I've learned by failure that admiration without imitation is cheap and hypocritical. This is why imitation, and not admiration, is the most sincere of all compliments. And the most noble. Jesus didn't command us to daydream about how wonderful He was and buy small metal crosses in His honor. He said, "Tie that crossbeam on your shoulders and follow me. And you know where I'm going."
Lastly, I have always found it hard to know how to emulate my heroes without doing exactly what they did. I've had to realize that my life and time is different than that of the five missionaries who died fifty years ago. It's not 1956. It's 2006. I'm not Nate Saint, so I don't know how to fly a plane. I'm not Jim Elliot, so I didn't go to Wheaton. I'm David Gundersen, not Roger Youderian. For a while I almost thought that I had to go to an unreached people group because that was the most spiritual thing to do. I mean, Jim Elliot did it. And he died doing it. But I've realized that spirituality has far less to do with vocation than it does with purity of heart. Now, you'll never hear me minimize the spiritual zeal and heartbeat that it takes to go into the heart of Baghdad or the jungles of the Amazon and plant a church in the name of Jesus. But that being said, the woman of Proverbs 31 didn't do anything wild and crazy for Jesus, and her works still praised her in the gates.
If you have heroes, don't give in to the temptation to feel like any vocation or career you pursue is somehow on a lesser scale than what they did. They did what God called them to do. Go do what God has called you to do. You're called not to emulate Jim Elliot's calling but his character; not his giftedness but his godliness; not his vocation but his vision.
For now God has called me to serve Him in a dorm of seventy-five Christian guys, none of whom have spears or wear loin-cloths (at least not usually). Dying daily means something completely different than what it meant for those five sold-out missionaries fifty years ago. And that's ok. Maybe it'll mean more later. But right now, it means what it means. As long as all glory goes to Christ for each day that we live, let us be content and happy to serve Him and to be known by Him.
Meanwhile, may the heart and vision of the men who died on Palm Beach fifty years ago never cease to increase, and may we learn how to follow their example in the places where God has put us. May we be driven only by the highest ambition, and be satisfied only with paying the highest price. Every day.