Missionary Jim Elliot arrived in Ecuador in February 1952, with the purpose of evangelising Ecuador's Auca Indians. Towards the end of 1955, he and four other missionaries made contact from their aeroplane with the Huaorani Indians using a loudspeaker and a basket to pass down gifts. After several months, the men decided to build a base a short distance from the Indian village, along the Curaray River. There they were approached one time by a small group of Indians and even gave an aeroplane ride to one curious man whom they called "George". Encouraged by these friendly encounters, they began plans to visit the village, without knowing that George had lied to the others about the missionaries' intentions. Their plans were preempted by the arrival of a larger group of 10 Huaorani warriors, who killed Elliot and his four companions in a sudden and brutal attack on January 8, 1956. Elliot's mutilated body was found downstream, along with those of the other men. His journal entry for October 28, 1949, contains his now famous quotation, expressing his belief that missions work was more important than his life.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose”.
Thirty years almost to the day after this tragic incident happened, I was sitting in a tidy, modern apartment in New York. I looked around at the odd collection of pastors and leaders who had gathered for their monthly get-together; supporting one another and praying for each other’s needs and challenges. Here I was – in the place I’d often dreamed of visiting – New York. The past few days had been a whirlwind; frenzied packing, getting ready to fly off to the USA and making sure my wife, Linda, and our three kids would be OK without me for a few weeks. Next was an eight-hour flight spent wondering if I’d done everything I needed to do before I set off on my six-week journey of a lifetime. New York, California and Colorado – staying with people I’d never met before and visiting churches I’d only observed from a distance. This was 1986 – during the season when the ministry of John Wimber and Vineyard Ministries had really begun to make a significant impact on the United Kingdom. Here I was; a fairly inexperienced young pastor whose Church had offered him a sabbatical before he left for his next ministry assignment in Cambridge.
Now, as I looked around the tiny apartment in New York, I had the distinct impression that Jesus had something very important to say to me. The meeting had finished and people were milling around and ‘visiting’ with each other, some deep in conversation, some praying fervently for another with a comforting hand on the shoulder. My eye landed on a distinguished-looking gentleman in the corner; silver-white hair and beard, clerical collar and a broad smile. After a few words of introduction and genuine interest from him - who I was and why I was there - he leaned close to me and asked if I would like some advice from an old guy who’d been round the block a few times. As always, I was ready to glean something from someone who was further ahead in the race than I was, and so my answer was obviously affirmative. His advice was this, “You’ve got to give it away to keep it! If you hold on to it, you’ll lose it; if you give it away, you get to keep it.” Somewhat confused, I asked him what ‘it’ was. He spoke clearly and said, “Anything – in fact, everything!”
That exchange started me on a journey of discovery that revolutionised my life and ministry. As I untangled this riddle over the next few months and years I began to realise that there is a crucial truth in this principle that we avoid at our peril. The interaction I had with the Episcopal pastor all those years ago opened up a whole treasure house of understanding of God’s ways. As I looked at my life I realised that I had already given up so much – but that wasn’t the point. The ‘it’ in the phrase, “You’ve got to give it away to keep it.” covered the whole of my life. That’s why we all need to count the cost and realise that following Jesus means leaving everything behind and moving forward with him without looking back and considering what I’ve left behind.