One of my memories as a very young child--perhaps around the age of seven or eight--is of taking morning walks with my grandpa when we would visit my grandparents during the summer. At that age, I was obsessed with anything that had to do with the Second World War. Planes and tanks and battles and soldiers fascinated me. My grandpa had served with Patton’s army, and I would pester him for stories about the war. Of these he shared very few on our walks, but he did tell lots of stories about Jim Elliot, a friend of his from college days after the war. As we walked down the streets of their subdivision on muggy Kansas summer mornings, he told me about how Jim was a wrestler and had never been pinned. I had just gotten into wrestling, and had done very little except get pinned, so naturally I found this very impressive. He also told me about how Jim tried, with three other men, to reach the Huaorani tribe of the Amazon basin in Ecuador, and how all four of them were martyred in their attempt to name Christ where he had not before been named.
Years later I was assigned to read Shadow of the Almighty, Jim Elliot’s biography written by his wife, in one of my high school classes. A much dog-eared copy of it became my constant companion through the rest of high school, along with a copy of his journals that he kept, with varying regularity, from 1948 until his death in 1956. More than anyone else in those early years, Jim taught me to read the scriptures and to pray with fervency to the God who reveals himself in them. In God’s kindness he became a doctor for my soul, diagnosing the problems of my heart and operating with the keen instruments of the divine Word. I learned from him that “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose,” and to hold my opinions with humility, since “Heaven will be a great eye-opener and a great mouth-shutter.” I learned to pray such prayers to God as this, “O Lord, I seek not a long life, but a fruitful one,” and I learned the great necessity of seeking strength and wisdom and sweetness from God’s Word each day.
As I’ve written before, in college I encountered Augustine, and in his Confessions and other writings he, too, became a doctor for my soul. He taught me the beauty of the Psalms and the wickedness of seeking “beauty, sublimity, and truth” in anything apart from God himself. He invited me in his sermons to feast at the Lord’s Table and delight in the company of the saints. His conversion warmed my heart anew for the glory of the gospel and his polemical writings taught me how to argue resolutely in defense of truth. He became my gateway drug to various other pastors and theologians in church history, and for the last five years I have reveled in exploring up and down the centuries to find dead men to disciple me in the way of Christ.
This week I returned to that first doctor of my soul, Jim Elliot. The stories from his wrestling days no longer interest me as much (though I do still wince when he talks about the discomfort of getting cauliflower ear). I have been reminded as I re-read an old copy of Shadow of the Almighty--the copy that belonged to my grandpa--that we never really move beyond the basics. I am no more spiritual for reading Augustine, that great doctor of the church, than I am for reading Elliot, that humble brother of Plymouth Brethren stock who died a martyr’s death in the Amazon. Both are only helpful insofar as they help me see the scriptures and the God of the scriptures clearly, as they point me (and compel me, if need be) to the cross of Christ.
I do not wish to overstate the role these brothers have played in my life--surely not to exclude the powerful working of the Spirit himself in the Word, nor the regular ministry of living brothers and sisters, my pastors, and the local church. But the path of my spiritual formation, under God’s guiding hand, has been shaped heavily by these two saints who have completed their course and joined the church at rest, the great cloud of witnesses who behold their redeemer face to face. My encouragement to my readers, then, is this: find a dead brother or a dead sister or two to be a doctor for your soul. Follow their pen as they study the scriptures. Soak in their prayers. Be encouraged by their manner of life and their completion of the race set out before them, and hope in their God, who delivered them in life from every evil, and lifted them up to sit in the heavenly places with Christ, who is their head and yours.