My Roommate, Jim Elliot

Jim Elliot yearbook photo

In 1956, Jim Elliot was martyred in the jungles of Ecuador alongside four other missionaries. Almost a decade earlier, he was my roommate in college.

“Glory, brother! What’s your verse for today?” The powerful voice of Jim Elliot would ring out in greeting when he saw a friend across the campus of Wheaton College. His idea was to challenge the friend to respond with what God had given to him in his personal devotions earlier that morning. Jim assumed that others should start each day with God, just as he himself did.

This was not a very popular tactic of Jim’s, and some students began to resent it. In fact, many students did not want to eat breakfast with him in the college dining hall as they feared being challenged by him to share their morning devotions. He was known at that time as “holier than thou,” and unfortunately there was a modicum of truth in that charge.

Jim was so totally committed to the Lord and to walking with him in his personal life that he considered any deviation would be wrong for him. Thus, to go to a football game or a class party or have a date with a girl would all be a useless waste of time. That time should be spent in study of the word of God or in prayer.

Jim and I lived together in the dormitory at Wheaton College which would later bear his name—Elliot Hall. We were upperclassmen and served as RA’s, since this dorm at that time was exclusively for freshmen. I was dating Phyllis, who later became my wife. When I would return to the dorm after a date, I often found him sitting there reading his Bible or praying. He would look at me out of the corner of his eye suspiciously and say, “Have you been out with Phyllis again?” When I would acknowledge that this was true, he would turn away with a shake of his head implying that once again I was wasting my time.

One of his firm convictions (at least he thought it was firm!) was that celibacy was God’s highest calling in life. It was better to be unfettered with a wife and family and therefore to be free to serve the Lord with total abandonment. He made the rest of us feel like second class Christians if we were “wasting our time” with girls.

However, he had a major problem with this conviction when he fell in love with my sister, Elisabeth. He did not know how to handle this, as he had made such a major point out of pushing celibacy as the highest calling from God. It took him five years of a rocky courtship to finally break loose of his own fetters and marry Elisabeth in Ecuador.

The Renaissance

During our junior year in college, Jim went through what he himself termed a “Renaissance.” He began to realize the truth of 1 Timothy 6:17: “God…gives us richly all things to enjoy.” He woke up to the fact that there was a lot of life given freely to us by God that he was not enjoying. He saw that his restricted “holier than thou” attitude was cheating him, as well as his friends, out of a lot of fun.Jim Elliot at Wheaton College

So the pendulum swung to the other extreme, and Jim began to pull out all the stops and enjoy life to the fullest. He once wrote in his journal, “Wherever you are, be all there. Live life to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.”

Jim practiced that in his own life. If it was time to study the Bible and pray, he did it “to the hilt” and knew the Bible better than any person his age I ever met. When it was time to study, he studied “to the hilt” and graduated as a Greek major summa cum laude. If it was time to have fun, let’s have all the fun we can.

Jim was blessed with a strong body and fine build. Feeling called of God to pioneer missionary work, he decided that he must develop his body to its fullest potential to be prepared for the rigors of life in the jungle. He chose wrestling as the best sport to do this. He had not wrestled in high school, so he had no background in the sport. However, because he threw himself into it with all the vigor possible, he made the college varsity wrestling team his freshman year.

I shall never forget his first college match. In those days there was only one college/university division. So Wheaton College had to compete often with schools of the Big Ten or similar size. In my college days we wrestled against Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern, Notre Dame, and others.

In our first match of the freshman year we met the University of Illinois. Jim had the misfortune of meeting the national champion in his weight class. Since Jim had never wrestled before, he was somewhat baffled. The champion put every wrestling hold he could think of on Jim but could not turn him onto his back and pin him. We discovered that Jim was double jointed! No matter what hold the champion tried, it didn’t work on Jim, as his limbs would simply bend beyond all belief but would not turn him. From that day on we called him The Rubber Man.

His enthusiasm for wrestling grew immensely after his Renaissance. He began to enjoy the sport with great zest and consequently became a true champion. He won medals in tournaments, as he “lived to the hilt” in his chosen sport.

The Campus Clown

After the Renaissance, Jim threw himself with great gusto into class parties and similar gatherings and soon became the class clown. He would quote by memory hilarious poetry by Robert Service such as “The Cremation of Sam Magee” to the endless delight of his classmates, who always egged him on in such times.

One of his close friends was Ed McCully, our senior class president. Ed became interested in a young lady in Pontiac, Michigan, named Mary Lou, who later became his wife. They arranged for her to come to Chicago to spend some time together. They planned to rendezvous in a subway station in the evening. In those days (about 1950) it was not especially dangerous for a young lady to be alone at night in a subway station. So Mary Lou arrived alone and sat down on a bench. The station was deserted.

Ed and Jim had come into the station but purposely remained out of site. Mary Lou had never met Jim, so didn’t know him at all. Jim came out of the shadows and sat down on the bench with Mary Lou. He looked over at her and said in a seductive voice, “How ya doin’ tonight?”

Mary Lou, of course, was petrified alone on the bench with this stranger at night. Jim edged over closer to her and added in the same seductive voice, “What are ya doing tonight?” Mary Lou was more frozen than ever.

Before she called the police, Ed came out from behind a pillar and she realized that the whole thing was a joke. That was typical of Jim and Ed when they got together.

Enthusiasm for Missions

As a campus leader, Jim was president of the Student Foreign Missions Fellowship, a campus organization related to InterVarsity and what would come to be known as Urbana whose aim was to challenge and recruit students for foreign missions commitment. Jim led a great prayer effort in this group.

He made a large chart divided up into 15 minute periods around the clock covering the 24 hours of the day. He asked students to sign up in one 15 minute period, thus promising to spend that period of time praying for the Wheaton College campus and asking God to raise up the men and women of his choice to send them out to the mission field. This chart was filled up, and students prayed day and night around the clock, asking God to work on behalf of missions.

One tangible result of that prayer effort is that in the 150-year history of Wheaton College, more students from the classes of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s went to the mission field than at any other period.

Jim actively recruited others for missionary work. Ed McCully was one of his targets. Ed was a big, handsome athlete—a football and track star. Ed also won the national collegiate oratory championship in a tournament in California. He planned to be a lawyer and would have been a very impressive courtroom figure with his handsome looks and powerful speech.

I recall one day when we were coming into the locker room of the gymnasium after a workout. Jim saw Ed, who had just recently won the national oratory championship. Jim grabbed him by the neck and said,

Hey, McCully! You won the national championship, didn’t you? Great stuff, McCully. You have a lot of talent, don’t you? You know who gave you that talent, don’t you? So what are you going to do with it—spend your life making money for yourself? You have no business doing that. You should be a missionary, and I’m praying that God will make you one!

Ed laughed off Jim’s exhortation. After graduation he went to Marquette Law School in Milwaukee. But after one year he felt convicted by God that what Jim had said was true. He left law school and went to Ecuador with him.

In January, 1956, he was one of the five men martyred by the Waodani Indians with Jim.

Jim’s parents were wonderful godly people; his father was a Plymouth Brethren Bible teacher. They loved Jim and wanted the best for him. They saw that he had amazing talents in broad areas of life. He was a brilliant scholar; a top athlete; and had a great sense of humor, an appreciation of good music, art, and philosophy. They felt that he would be wasting his talents by going to a remote primitive tribe in the jungles who would not appreciate all these abilities. So they began to pressure Jim to consider staying in the United States where he could challenge many more young people to go to the mission field.

Their attitude bothered Jim as he had great love and respect for his parents and wanted their support in his endeavors. He used to share this concern with me, and we prayed together about it. Finally he wrote to his parents the following in a letter.

I do not wonder that you are saddened at the word of my going to South America….Grieve not, then, if your sons seems to desert you, but rejoice, rather, seeing the will of God done gladly. Remember how the Psalmist described children? He said that they were as an heritage from the Lord, and that every man should be happy who had his quiver full of them. And what is a quiver full of but arrows? And what are arrows for but to shoot? So with the strong arm of prayer, draw the bowstring back and let the arrows fly—all of them straight at the Enemy’s hosts.

Jim’s parents got the point and they prayed him out to Ecuador.

Jim's Journals

During our junior year in college, when Jim and I were living together in the dorm, he began to keep a journal. He wanted to record what he was learning from God and keeping a record of his own spiritual growth. These journals are goldmines today of the spiritual journey of a young college student.

Jim seemed to have almost a premonition that his life would be short, a theme that showed up in his journals. (He died at the age of 28.) Here are a few entries. From January 1948, as a junior in college:

God, I pray, light these idle sticks of my life and may I burn up for Thee. Consume my life, my God, for it is Thine. I seek not a long life but a full one like Yours, Lord Jesus.

October 27, 1949:

Was much encouraged to think of a life of godliness in the light of an early death.

March 25, 1951:

When it comes time to die, make sure that all you have to do is die.

December 22, 1951:

Only I know that my own life is full. It is time to die, for I have had all a young man can have – at least this young man can have.

Undoubtedly the most famous quote from Jim’s journals, which has been repeated hundreds of times in publications and elsewhere is:

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.

Jim gladly gave his life in the effort to take the gospel to the Waodani Indians. He has gained what he can never lose—eternal life and a glittering crown of faithfulness. The impact of his life and death goes on today around the world.

In my ministry for these past 50+ years, I have traveled extensively around the world in mission work. When people find out my relationship to Jim Elliot (he was my best friend, best man in my wedding, and my brother-in-law), I am amazed at how many tell me that it was the story of his life and death that God used to call them into mission work or ministry of other types. This has been repeated to me countless times. I thank God for having known intimately a man of this caliber whom God has used so mightily.

Images from Wheaton College (IL) Special Collections, used by permission.

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