Jim Elliot, Psalm 91, and Deadly Pestilence
- 2020 May 11
I’ve been thinking a lot about Psalm 91 lately.
Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
Psalm 91:3-7 NIV
At this moment, as I write this, I have friends who are quarantining for covid-19-like symptoms. Friends of friends who have been hospitalized. Friends of friends of friends who have died. I suspect that by the time this gets published, the disease will have drawn closer still.
And it’s comforting, as reports of death and disease encroach, to read the Psalmist’s words. Safe from the deadly pestilence… you will not fear… it will not come near you… Like rubbing a lucky pebble tucked away in my pocket, my mind returns again and again to these promises. If only, I pray. If only it doesn’t come near me or the ones I love. Just please, God, keep me and everyone I love safe and alive. Just like you promised in Psalm 91.
The problem, of course, is that this is not exactly how God’s promises work.
To suggest that God delivers his people from all suffering, all the time, if only we pray hard enough and just because we’d like to think the Bible says he will, is to buy into the “Health and Wealth” gospel. As promoted by scores of well-known contemporary preachers, it’s the misguided belief that illness and poverty are signs of God’s punishment; health and riches, signs of divine blessing. The Health and Wealth gospel reads Psalm 91 and says, see, it says right here, I’m not going to get sick from coronavirus. So let’s go ahead with our thousand-member service this Sunday.
The truth is far more complicated. Yes, God sometimes heals from physical illness, and yes, God sometimes protects from temporal calamity, but we need look no farther than Jesus himself to see that God’s most beloved children are often called to walk the way of most suffering.
And that reminds me of Jim Elliot.
I first became aware of Jim Elliot when I was a student at Wheaton College, where there was a dormitory named after him. As all Wheaton students learn, one evening in the remote jungles of Ecuador in 1956, twenty-eight-year-old Elliot and his four friends gathered to sing a hymn based on the words of Psalm 91. The next morning, they flew into territory held by the Huaoroni tribe, intending to befriend and evangelize its people. But when they stepped out of the plane, the tribespeople met them with a volley of spears. All five missionaries died.
So much for not fearing the arrow that flies by day. But when Jim’s widow Elisabeth wrote and spoke about the incident years later, she frequently emphasized her continued trust in the words of Psalm 91. In an undated message given to a group of women and later posted on Youtube, Elliot explains, “The safety and protection that God promises to those who love him is of a wholly different nature than the merely physical.” Psalm 91 describes physical dangers—the fowler’s snare, the deadly pestilence, the arrow, the plague—but the ultimate salvation God offers is spiritual and eternal. “With long life will I satisfy them,” the last line of Psalm 91 reads. It’s a promise that Jim Elliot is, even now, enjoying.
As a college student, after I read one of Elisabeth Elliot’s books, I wrote “Jim Elliot’s Psalm” above Psalm 91 in my Bible. The reminder that the young martyr loved these words has served, over the past couple of decades, as both an encouragement and a corrective. Whenever I feel afraid of some fearful situation, I remember that Jim Elliot had the courage to enter that jungle because he believed in the promises of Psalm 91. And whenever I am tempted to feel overconfident, sure that God will arrange my own preferred version of the future, I look at Psalm 91 and remember that Jim Elliot loved these words, and he died, anyway.
I don’t think it’s helpful when Christians gloss suffering with a glib you’ll-be-happier-in-heaven. Jesus knew he could raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, and still, he wept. The suffering we are experiencing right now is real. The deaths from coronavirus are tragic. The fallout from a hobbled economy may well be devastating. Our fears are valid. We can hold onto the hope of heaven and still fully grieve the precariousness of the situation in which we have recently found ourselves.
And that’s why my favorite verse of Psalm 91, lately, is verse 15. I will be with them in trouble. I know where I will spend eternity. I have no idea what will happen to me and my loved ones between now and then. But God will be with us. That, we can count on.
Sarah L Sanderson is a writer, speaker, pastor’s wife, and mom of four. Find more of her work—including updates on the memoir she is currently writing about abuse, mental illness, faith, and her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother—on www.sarahlsanderson.com, or follow her on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.