This is part of a talk I presented to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s ladies’ retreat in Pleasanton, California on October 3, 2009:
Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of women. One of the complaints I have heard most often from younger women is that there are not any older women to encourage them or mentor them. On the other hand, the older women are frustrated that the younger women do not want their help or advice. What a conundrum!
There is a real problem with older women missing in action in the church. Life is so busy and stressful, it’s hard to make time for yet another project — counseling, discipling, and mentoring needy women! Besides, we older ladies have so far to go in our own walk with God, what do we have to offer to anybody else?
If there are older women in the church willing and able to offer help to their younger sisters in Christ, the younger women are often waiting for a spiritual heroine existing only in their own imaginations, to give them perfect solutions to their struggles.
Looking back I can see that God sent me spiritual mothers at crucial times in my life, but I often felt alone as I forged my way through hard times as a young wife and mother. To my shame, I pridefully neglected the opportunity to accept help from women who might have been willing to pray for me or give me godly advice, because I expected them to be perfect before I would confide in them or listen to their counsel. Thankfully, God has shown me that godly women come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they are even from theological backgrounds that don’t jive with my exacting standards! I have received some of my best advice about marriage from Christian friends who are divorced, some of the most wise counsel about problems with my ten children has been from women who have much smaller families, and I have been encouraged by single lady friends who have reminded me to trust God in all circumstances.
At times when I didn’t have personal spiritual support — or when I didn’t realize that it was available if I only had eyes to see — our merciful God gave me help from mature Christian women I had never met but who became dear to me through their godly guidance. How many of you have friends you have never met? Because of my website I have corresponded with many kindred spirits who have become special friends, but whom I have not seen face to face. But some of my most precious mentors have been women who lived and died long before I was born, women I have been blessed to know through their writings and biographies about their lives.
In his book Love or Die, Alexander Strauch speaks about the central place LOVE ought to have in the life of a believer. This is not a mushy feeling of warmth oozing out toward others, but godly love as a practical and sacrificial act of service, pouring ourselves out as we serve God by loving others. This love has hands and feet, it prefers others above ourselves, and it does not come naturally but must be learned and practiced. One way he recommends we cultivate this kind of love is by reading Christian biographies and imitating those who have modeled that love in their lives. Then we need to make sure we model that same kind of love in our own lives so that others may be encouraged by our example, as well!
In the preface of More Love to Thee: The Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss, Elisabeth Elliot has written:
The reading of Christian biographies has had an immeasurable influence in my own life and spiritual growth. To be able to study a life from beginning to end and see the hand of God guiding, correcting, and sustaining one who trusts Him has encouraged me to believe that true discipleship is possible not only for the great figures of the Bible, for us ordinary folks as well.
Today I want to introduce you to some women whose examples have most encouraged me in my Christian life. I am very ordinary, but I want to be like these amazing women. They are models of godly love and their lives show us how we can better love God and better love others. The golden thread that runs through each of their lives is that the way to the crown is through the cross. These women had a realistic and healthy “theology of suffering,” something which is woefully missing in the church today. If you visit a Christian bookstore, you will find many books preaching a false gospel of self-esteem and personal prosperity. These vain philosophies, if followed, inevitably lead to the shipwreck of faith when the inevitable storms come and catch people unprepared to trust God in their troubles as well as their joys. Ideas have consequences, and if you have the idea that your purpose in this life is to please yourself rather than please God, then the consequence will be misery. Puritan Thomas Boston reminds us of this in his book The Crook in the Lot,
God has, by an eternal decree, immovable as mountains of brass appointed the whole of every one’s lot, the crooked part of it, as well as the straight. By the same eternal decree, by which the high and low parts of the earth, the mountains and the valleys, were appointed, are the heights and the depths, the prosperity and adversity, in the lot of the inhabitants of there determined; and they are brought about, in time, in a perfect agreeableness there.
I own a lot of books (approximately 12,000 of them), so I am often asked to recommend things to read. Reading tastes are so subjective — what appeals to me may not be so enchanting to someone else. But when I’ve been asked what book has had the greatest impact on my life, I never hesitate to recommend a book which I have read several times, usually at the most difficult times in my life. It has always encouraged me toward greater trust in God and in His sovereign will for my life. It is called Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Payson Prentiss, one of my literary mentors and the first woman I want to discuss today.
Stepping Heavenward is a novel written in the form of a woman’s diary, begun when she was a selfish girl of sixteen and culminating with the end of her life. It chronicles her change from willfulness to willing service for God, as she travels a path of great suffering, finding even greater joy as she grows more dependent upon God. Though fiction, this powerful novel mirrors some of the spiritual journey of its author.
Elizabeth Payson was born in Portland, Maine, on October 26, 1818, the fifth of eight children. It was the year Jane Austen’s books Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were posthumously published as Jane had died the year before. Feminist Mary Shelley wrote the horror novel Frankenstein that same year. The western world was on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, and travel was quickly changing as the steam locomotive was invented just four years before Elizabeth appeared on the scene. She was born into a time of many changes, but her roots ran deep into the stock of her Puritan ancestors. She came from a long line of godly people, and her father was a well-known New England pastor, Edward Payson. That Puritan blood meant a strong religious heritage, but the Paysons also inherited the Puritan tendency toward a little too much morbid introspection, something that was both a bane and blessing in Elizabeth’s life.
Elizabeth was very close to her father, and when he died when she was only nine years old, she experienced the first of many hard providences that marked her entire life. Her family was forced to live in genteel poverty, and her older sister helped make ends meet by starting a girls’ school in their home. Elizabeth moved to Richmond, Virginia to teach at a girls’ school there, while she also managed to obtain a top-rate classical education through her own studies. Her love for learning opened opportunities for her as a writer and allowed her to be involved in the theological and literary circles of her day. Her gifts were not as a source of pride, but she used them to convey spiritual truths to as many people as possible.
Elizabeth’s strengths were, as she believed, countered by many weaknesses. She said, “I believe that God arranges our various burdens and fits them to our backs, and that He sets off a loss against a gain, so that while some seem more favored than others, the mere aspect deceives.” In other words, don’t judge a book by its cover…that person you envy has problems, too. This was especially true about Elizabeth. From childhood she was physically feeble and prone to many illnesses. She appeared at ease with others, but all her life she had a sense of inadequacy, shyness, and inferiority. One friend described her this way: “Her whole being was so impressionable that things pleasant and things painful stamped themselves upon it as with the point of a diamond.” She became easily fatigued, and the young Elizabeth sometimes mistook this physical weakness for spiritual inadequacy. In her early 20s she had a breakdown, descending into a deep depression for a time. She was overwhelmed with a sense of her own sin and fearful of the rejection of her Savior. She later wrote, “So great was my agony that I can only wonder at the goodness of Him who held my life in His hand, and would not permit me in the height of my despair to throw myself away.”
Praise God He did not allow her to descend too deeply into this valley. She would face many more dark times before her life ended, but God began to reveal His goodness to her in the midst of those trials, and she began to reflect the light of Christ to others who needed encouragement. To one suffering friend she wrote: “I know all about those depressed moods, when it costs one as much to smile, or to give a pleasant answer, as it would at other times to make a world.” Those words of understanding are often all the consolation we can give to someone who has just experienced great grief. “When a sufferer is on the rack he cares little for what is said to him, though he may feel grateful for sympathy,” she wrote another time about a friend whose husband had just died. Because of the lessons God taught her in the furnace of affliction, she became a comforter to many, many suffering people.
Elizabeth’s early spiritual crisis partly stemmed from an idea that was old in her day, and that continues to rear its ugly head today, with devastating consequences for the church. In the 1800s there was a group of intellectuals, children of the Enlightenment of the previous century, who called themselves Transcendentalists. They were led by literary luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the Alcotts (yes, that includes Louisa May, writer of Little Women). The transcendentalists were an offshoot of a persistent heresy known as Unitarianism, which was pervading the once-Puritan stronghold of New England. In the book The Church in History, B.K. Kuiper describes Unitarianism this way:
(It) placed reason above faith, an outgrowth of the spirit of modern science and philosophy. The modernists do not believe in the supernatural. They do not believe in miracles. Consequently they do not believe in the virgin birth and the deity of Christ. They do not believe in a special revelation from God and in an infallibly inspired Bible. They consider the Bible to be not a revelation of God but a record of man.
This was a man-centered, utopian perfectionism cloaked in spiritual and even Christian language. Elizabeth was never tempted to follow the Unitarian path, but the humanistic thinking behind that popular heresy placed subtle theological land mines in even orthodox Christian circles. It caused a shift in emphasis from the work of Christ to the work of man. Many Christians were attracted to a teaching of the day called “Perfectionism.” This was the belief that a person could attain sinless perfection in this life if he only had enough faith. Some folks claiming to be Christians said they had reached the state where they never sinned at all! Elizabeth’s Puritan forebears may have focused a little too much on their sin and not enough on Christ’s victory over sin, sometimes becoming morbidly introspective and depressed… but this was an even graver error: claiming man’s ability to save himself through his own efforts rather than depending on the grace of God for the ongoing process of sanctification in the believer’s life. Elizabeth struggled with a tendency to sway too far into despair over her sin. The idea that there was possibly a way to be sinless in this life was very tempting to her. But as she matured in her faith she finally rejected the promises of perfectionism. She developed a healthy understanding that only focusing on God’s sovereign will would lead to victory over sin, and she knew the process of sanctification would not be complete till she saw Him face to face. Later she was able to say, “Sometimes when the exceeding ‘sinfulness of sin’ becomes painfully apparent, there is nothing else for a soul to do but to lie in the dust before God, without a word of excuse, and that feeling of abasement in His sight is worth more than all the pleasures in the world.”
While still working as a teacher, Elizabeth wrote to a friend, “I suppose I shall be in love sometime or other, but that’s nothing to do with me now nor I with it. I’ve got my hands full to take care of my naughty little self.” She must have had some success with that because God changed her tune four years later. In April 1845, when she was 26, Elizabeth married George Lewis Prentiss, and the Congregational pastor’s daughter became a Presbyterian pastor’s wife. As a new bride she idealistically wrote: “I doubt we could fail to be contented anywhere if we had each other to love and care for.” They moved to the whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts and later to a parish in New York City, where she quickly became known for her tenderhearted sympathy and care for anyone in trouble. She took her responsibilities as a pastor’s wife seriously, showing hospitality and kindness to the people in her church.
Elizabeth always loved babies and children, and she was a devoted mother, but when her first child was born, she found, as many of us do, that the sacrifices of motherhood can be very demanding. She confided to a friend after her first child, a daughter, was born: “I find the care of her very wearing and have cried ever so many times from fatigue and anxiety, but now I am getting a little better and she pays me for all I do.”
Large families were common in that day, but it was also common to lose half of your children to illnesses such as typhus, diphtheria, tuberculosis, cholera, and scarlet fever. Elizabeth expressed a wish to have ten children, but she said God gave her six and took two of those to heaven. Those two children were Eddy, her oldest son and second child, and a baby daughter named Bessie, who was born a few months after Eddy’s death. Eddy had been a difficult baby, very colicky, and he had several illnesses before the one which took his life at four years old. During one of his illnesses, Elizabeth said, “He is not mine, he is God’s — every night I used to thank Him for sparing him to me one day longer; thus truly enjoying him one day at a time.” Baby Bessie was born three months after Eddy’s death, and she was frail from her mother’s weakened state due to the grief over her little boy’s death. Elizabeth was so ill after Bessie’s birth, she could not personally care for her baby, who died after a short but painful illness. This double-grief haunted her for years even as she was able to say, “God never makes a mistake.” Perhaps realizing the fragility of life was why Elizabeth, as her health permitted, was a devoted mother to her other four children, playing with them as well as disciplining them firmly, so that one friends said of her, “I have never seen such exact obedience required and given — or a more idolized mother. ‘Mamma’s’ word was indeed Law, but — O, happy combination! it was a Gospel!” In one note Elizabeth mentioned that “after dinner I want to play with the children and make this day mean something to them besides pies.” This combination of playful love and firm discipline was a living picture to her family of God’s loving chastisement and merciful kindness.
It becomes obvious, studying Elizabeth Prentiss’s life from beginning to end as Elisabeth Elliot says, that God was making her more fit for heaven through those troubles and joys He sovereignly brought into her life. There are no accidents with God. She cried over lost sleep with her first baby, but she later suffered chronic insomnia which lasted for over 25 years. As the years and the illness and the weariness continued, her relationship with Christ matured. She was not just passively resigned to her lot, but she enthusiastically and thankfully accepted whatever God’s will was for her. She knew He was not capricious, but that He had a purpose for her life. This not only gave her much comfort but made her able to comfort others with the comfort whereby she was comforted. She was a prolific letter writer, sweetly drawing her friends back to the throne of grace as she encouraged them in their own trials. To one suffering friend she wrote:
It is hard now to suffer, but after all, the light affliction is nothing, and the weight of glory is everything. You may not fully realise this or any other truth, in your enfeebled state, but truth remains the same whether we appreciate it or not; and so does Christ…don’t you see that in afflicting you He means to prove to you that He loves you, and that you love Him? Don’t you remember that it is His Son — not His enemy — that He scourgeth?
Because of her own great trials, those words rang true to their hearers. She had a gift of being able to sympathize with the sufferer as well as exhort them to a closer walk with God. On the one hand she could lament that “a weak body hinders prayer and praise when the heart would sing, if it were not in fetters that cramp and exhaust it,” then exclaim, “it matters very little in what paths we are walking since we find Him in every one… How ashamed we shall be when we get to heaven, of our talk about our trials here!”
Counseling, letter writing, and hospitality were all ways Elizabeth poured out her strength in serving God by serving others. She was sought out by the most common parishioner as well as well-known teachers and preachers of the day, for her kind and simple wisdom. Her daughter said of her mother, “Papa says our house ought to have a sign put out, ‘souls cured here’ because so many people come to tell their troubles.” She was a frequent attendant at death-beds, claiming to be more at home in the house of mourning than the house of feasting because, as she said, “All my long, long years of suffering and sorrow make sorrow-stricken homes homelike, and I can not but feel, because I know it from experience, that Christ loves to be in such homes.”
But the reason we are even speaking about Elizabeth Prentiss today is because of the ministry she had that continues to bless people over 150 years later: her published writing, particularly her most-loved book, Stepping Heavenward. She wrote over 20 books, including some popular religious literature for children. She wrote not as a career but as a ministry which stemmed from her calling at home as a helpmeet to her husband. Though none of her work was ever critically acclaimed, she had many grateful readers whose lives were changed by the stories she wrote. Her goal was never to receive praise for herself, but to direct praise to the One Who deserves all our praise. Responding to a well-known architect who wrote a fan letter for one of her books she said, “I long ago chose to cast in my lot with the people of God, and so be off the line of human notice or applause, and that I was glad I had been enabled to do it, since literary ambition is unbecoming a Christian woman.” Those words may sound strange to our modern ears, but they remind us to consider the special callings and ministries that God has given us as women, that can have much greater impact on the world than the more glamorous and visible careers the world encourages us to pursue.
Although we consider her an author and hymn-writer, Elizabeth Prentiss would have considered herself a wife and mother who happened to write. Her writing was done at home, often in the midst of a busy family scene, even while children sat in her lap. A friend describes how she went about her writing: “When once she had fixed upon a subject her pen almost flew over the paper. Scarcely ever did she hesitate for a thought or for the right words to express it. Her manuscript rarely showed an erasure or any change whatever… Her pen seemed to be a veritable part of herself; and the instant it began to move, her face glowed with eager and pleasurable feeling.” About the writing of Stepping Heavenward, Elizabeth said, “Every word of that book was a prayer, and seemed to come of itself. I never knew how it was written, for my heart and hands were full of something else.” So was her lap, filled with a little boy named Francis, the son of a friend she was helping, a child who was very sick and who died a few months after she finished the book.
Much of her life was characterized by suffering, but I do not want to leave the impression that Elizabeth Prentiss was a dour woman who morosely endured her life to the bitter end. Not at all! She was full of humor and loved to play games with her children and their friends. She was particularly fond of the word games which required composing clever rhymes on the spot because she was so good at that. She often wrote silly little anecdotes in her many letters to her friends. To one friend she wrote: “One of the deacons of our church — a very old man — prays for me once a week at meeting, especially that my husband and I may be ‘mutual comforts and enjoyments of each other,’ which makes us laugh a little in our sleeves even while we say Amen in our hearts.” She was concerned that some people equated piety with a somber spirit, saying: “So many fancy religion and a long face synonymous. How stupid it is! I wonder they don’t object to the sun for shining.”
She knew that there was a time for mourning and a time for dancing, but she also knew that every day was a gift from God and she longed to love Him MORE. MORE was her favorite word because she was greedy for the love of Christ. That was what gave her strength in her struggles. That was what gave her a heart to serve others who suffered. That was what inspired her to write letters and books and hymns of praise which blessed so many people. That was what made her a loving wife and mother. That was what motivated her every moment. More love to Christ. She once wrote:
I have asked Him, a thousand times, to make me smaller and smaller, and crowd the self out of me by taking up all the room Himself. There is so much of that work yet to be done, that I wonder He ventures to make so many lines fall to me in pleasant places, and that I have such a goodly heritage.
As she grew closer to God, Elizabeth grew more aware of the weight of her sin. That seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? Our human wisdom tells us that as we grow in our faith our sin ought to be less apparent. Well, it’s true that we ought to walk less in the flesh and more in the Spirit as we progress on our spiritual journey, but as we desire God’s holiness we begin to notice how far we have to go to attain it. Even small sins become repugnant, things which we once may have excused and overlooked. The quibble Elizabeth had with the Perfectionists, advocates of a so-called “Higher Life” doctrine, was that they did not take sin seriously enough. With her exasperation showing she told a friend, “I took for my Bible reading this afternoon, the subject of confession of sin, and should really like to know what perfectionists would say to the passages of Scripture relating to it. However, I know they would explain them away or throw them under the table, as they do all the Bible.” Today we see a similar disdain for acknowledging sin by preachers who sweep sin “under the table.” We do have victory over sin, but our victory is because of what God has done for us by sending His Son to die in our place. The sin that sent Jesus to the cross cannot just be swept under the table.
On August 12, 1878, Elizabeth Prentiss received her dearest wish and went to be with her Savior. There were many mourners at her funeral, where the pastor said, “Through the long years in which her mortal remains shall be quietly resting beneath this sod, the work of her tongue and pen shall be reproducing itself in new forms of power, of faith, and of patience.” He then admonished his hearers to aspire to what she aspired: “Her victory over death is the victory of love to Christ; and that same victory may be yours through the same Christ in whose name she conquered. Shall we not pray that His love may be shed abroad in all our hearts in richer measure? And can we better frame that prayer than in those lines which she wrote out of her own heart? Let us then sing…
MORE LOVE TO THEE, O CHRIST!