The Hidden Ministry of Homemaking: What I Learned from Elisabeth Elliot

Today I attacked the kind of cleaning chores that I envision other more diligent and domestically devoted women doing all the time: the tidying that requires pulling furniture away from the wall, vacuuming under beds, and applying a ferocious dust cloth to the rungs of chairs and the hidden recesses of bookcases.

Homely household routines are the background music behind everything else I do. Studying and ministry preparation are accompanied by the hum of a washer and the cadence of continual meal preparation. In the winter, a voracious wood stove requires care and feeding; in the summer, there’s a garden that needs attention.

“The ministry of tending and keeping was always part of God’s good plan for humanity.”

This steady thrum of activity is the glue that holds a home together, and one of the most startling discoveries of my life has been that it is possible to find a fulfilled and meaningful existence in the midst of mind-numbing routine. It turns out that it’s not mainly what you’re doing that makes a life. It’s why you’re doing it. And no one taught me that lesson more powerfully than Elisabeth Elliot.

Author and Housekeeper

Twenty-seven years ago, I packed up my favorite coffee mug, my personal files, and a few samples of my work and walked away from my career in human resources. Four babies in eight years, homeschooling, church ministry, and a huge vegetable garden each year left little time for deep study, but early on I dove into Elliot’s writing with zeal and found myself being mentored through her books.

I soon discovered that Elliot was quick to trace the connection between the routines of domesticity and the mysteries of spiritual practice. Although she became a sought-after public speaker, and her words reached (and still reach) literally millions via print and radio ministries, she actually claimed to enjoy housekeeping most of all, for she knew how to do it, and (unlike authoring a book) she knew what the results would be.

Her attention to detail was fostered in part by her boarding school headmistress, who pronounced, “Don’t go around with a Bible under your arm if you haven’t swept under your bed” (Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, 34). She didn’t want a lot of spiritual talk coming from someone with a dirty floor.

With her perfect diction, ironic humor, and crisp, no-nonsense delivery of gospel truth, Elliot has influenced my teaching and my parenting like no one else, but she also has hugely shaped my attitude toward domestic chores.

Blend of Grit and Grace

Although I fall far short of Elliot’s standards, I am motivated by her assertion that self-discipline — in the home or anywhere else — is a glad surrender, a “wholehearted yes to the call of God” that finds its way into a life first of all through the faithful performance of small, unseen tasks (Joyful Surrender, 16).

She helped me see housekeeping as an analogy for our spiritual life in general. Just as the swiping of crumbs off the dining room table will never be a once-and-done affair (at least at my house!), neither are the practices of spiritual formation. In tending to the health and wholeness of our souls, every day there will be “crumbs” that need brushing away, and this is a good thing, for it keeps us mindful of our creaturely dependence on God.

Elliot’s strong gospel underpinnings have helped to keep me from a purely bootstraps mentality, for she reminds me that “discipline is not my claim on Christ, but the evidence of His claim on me” (Joyful Surrender, 28). We embody self-discipline here on the ground by the miracle of grace, according to the guidelines of Scripture, and through the inspiration and enabling of the Spirit of God. What we bring to this equation is our own will as an offering to God, a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).

Elliot blended grit and grace so consistently that it is impossible to tell — and pointless to wonder — where one ends and the other begins. She spoke with the certainty of one who had stepped into obedience enough times, who had chosen the way of faith often enough, to learn the secret that the resulting joy and the deepening intimacy with God are priceless, even when the obedience feels small and unseen.

Commitment to Daily Faithfulness

In a life marked by huge upheavals and opportunities for both glory and sorrow, it is evident that Elliot became her awe-inspiring self in her commitment to daily faithfulness in the unseen places. A faith both brutally practical and unmistakably mystical carried her into a ministry of bold truth-telling, forged in a crucible of loneliness and puzzlement over the ways of God. Leaning hard into her questions, she found God to be faithful and embraced him as “both the journey and the destination” (Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, 253).

The varied seasons of her life found her analyzing unwritten languages and reducing them to writing, functioning as a single parent, ironing her husbands’ shirts, entertaining guests in her New England home, traveling worldwide as a speaker, and wrestling with technology to produce more than two dozen books. She faithfully poured out her life in service to God, convinced that it was all part of her calling. Her “ministry tasks” were never deemed to be of more consequence than her housekeeping chores.

“The God who works and has worked on our behalf invites us to join him in the Great Work.”

She knew (and has taught me to see) that the ministry of tending and keeping was always part of God’s good plan for humanity. From the outset, Adam and Eve were God’s appointed co-laborers, and, as a fellow bearer of God’s image, I imitate God when I am faithfully engaged in the work that keeps my family fed, clothed, and in the right location at the right time. Therefore, all the mundane tasks that are stuck on replay in this mothering life have meaning.

In our ordinary chores and in the act of corralling chaos into order, we image God. Organizing a cluttered closet, sanitizing a nasty high-chair tray, distributing clean and folded laundry to the four corners of the house — these are as quietly mundane as the work God does in our time to water his trees with rain or, in history, to arrange for the manna that faithfully fed a generation of Israelites (Exodus 16).

Housework and the Great Work

Mercy, justice, and sandwich-making share the same territory in the values system of heaven, for the God who works and has worked on our behalf invites us to join him in the Great Work.

Let your work be shown to your servants,
     and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
     and establish the work of our hands upon us;
     yes, establish the work of our hands! (Psalm 90:16–17)

Let the work of housekeeping continue, and may we find fulfillment in the smallest task performed with the greatest love in a life focused on gaining what we can never lose.

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