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Jeannie Elliff: God taught me to live ‘out of control’

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The most important lesson daily life teaches Christians can be summed up in five words, as Jeannie Elliff sees it:

You are not in control.

Elliff, wife and ministry partner of new IMB President Tom Elliff, has learned that lesson many times over the years, sometimes painfully. She’s still learning it. But she’s also learned the corollary: God is in control — and He is faithful.

It’s a lesson she plans to put to good use in the coming years as she supports her husband in the mammoth task of mobilizing Southern Baptist global missions efforts.

“I’ve always been a person who wants to control things,” she admits. “My temptation is, ‘Oh, you can handle this. You can do it on your own.'”

Every time she tries, however, God shows her otherwise.

“We’ve had quite a few adventures in our life,” Elliff says with a wry grin. Some might call those “adventures” disasters, but each experience has taught her to depend on herself less and God more.

In 1999 the Elliffs’ Oklahoma home burned to the ground. Three months later, a monster tornado blew away the condo where they were living, taking their remaining possessions with it.

“These things happen in life, the fires and tornadoes and tsunamis, so you might as well get used to it,” she advises. “We’ve got to understand God’s sovereignty in all of it.

“I guess [losing everything] several times has made me realize it’s no big deal. It’s all going to burn up anyway. Every woman has to come to a submission to that truth. If you know God and know His Word, you will understand that the things of this world are not to cling to.”

Giving possessions up to God is one thing, but what about children?

Many missionaries struggle with that question — before and during their time on the field. As a new IMB missionary, Elliff faced it one day in 1982 in Zimbabwe when she and her four children were in a terrifying auto crash.

“When the accident happened, the van rolled several times,” she remembers. “Three of the children were thrown out. Amy and I were left in the van. We got out and I saw Jon and Sarah beside the road. They were fine, but I could not find Beth. I looked all around and couldn’t find her. Then I saw that the tires were off the van. I looked under it and there she was.

“I was just devastated. I didn’t know if she was alive or dead. She was lying on her side. I remember saying, ‘God, she’s Yours. She’s not my child, she’s Your child.’ Then I noticed her little chest move. She was breathing. Some men who had seen the accident ran across the field and lifted the car, and I pulled her out.”

Weeks of hospitalization and multiple surgeries followed as Beth was treated for extensive burns. Ultimately, the Elliffs resigned as missionaries to get their teenage daughter the care she needed. Tom Elliff went on to lead several key churches, including First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, Okla., where he was pastor from 1985-2005. He was twice elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

But she has never forgotten what God taught her that awful day in Zimbabwe.

“That was a huge lesson for me,” Elliff reflects. “The Lord said, ‘You’re not in charge, Jeannie.’ Another thing I learned was I have to give my children to God. I cannot cling to them. That’s a mother’s desire, but when we give them to the Lord they’re in much better hands.”

She has learned that lesson anew with the passing years. Two of her children became missionaries. At one time, 11 of the Elliffs’ 25 grandchildren lived overseas. In recent years, two bouts with cancer reminded her yet again to rely on God’s grace rather than her own resources. She’s healthy now but is thankful for the reminder.

“God used the cancer to humble me,” she says.

An entire wall of the Elliffs’ walk-in bedroom closet is covered with the photos and prayer cards of IMB missionaries. When things get hectic, she likes to go into the closet, close the door, sit down and pray. Her primary prayer for missionaries: That they will seek to know God first, and do great things as a result (see John 17:3 and Daniel 11:32).

How can others pray for her in her new role? She asks for health, strength and plenty of energy to encourage missionaries and to support her husband in his demanding job as IMB leader.

“I can’t do it,” she readily admits. “It’s got to be God working through me.”

Sounds like she’s learned the lessons He’s been teaching her for a lifetime.
Erich Bridges is an International Mission Board global correspondent.

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  • Erich Bridges