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Afraid of Commitment?

The story of two people who realized that commitment to one another is grounded in surrender to Jesus Christ.
By Elisabeth Elliot


Editor’s note: Some may consider the following story a bit extreme.  But in an age when many young adults are wary of committing to another person in marriage for a lifetime, the courtship and marriage of John and Betty Stam remind us that commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ must come first.  As the author writes, “Nothing in my early life more clearly illuminated to me exactly what that surrender means, and what it may cost, than the following story about two twen­tieth century young people who gave up their rights to them­selves, took up the cross, and followed.”   

 

A song Rod Stewart sang gives truthful expression to an attitude common to many today.

I don’t want to challenge you
marry you, or remember you
I just wanna make love to you.

That’s putting it bluntly. Love imposes obligations. Making love, in the minds of such men and women, is a form of recreation, a feeling that may last for a few minutes, even an hour. Nothing more is implied, although much more may be expected. It is a means of self-satisfaction. But to challenge? Marry? Or even remember? Ah, there’s a Catch-22: responsibility. At that they break into a cold sweat.

What shall we say of a man who, on his first approach, offered a woman something she says she could not resist: unconditional love? A man ought to be careful of his words. “Set a guard over my mouth, O lord; keep watch over the door of my lips,” was the psalmist’s prayer (Psalm 141:3).

He promised he’d never leave, always be faithful. The woman wrote to me, “We are no longer seeing each other because of his great fear of commitment. Though he says he loves me, he doesn’t feel ‘at peace’ about marrying me. He says you’re supposed to be very happy about such a decision, and instead of great joy, he only feels great fear. Therefore, for the fifth time (yes, fifth, I’m embarrassed to say) he has made an exit, though this time it was at my suggestion because he was manifesting his fear again, and I could no longer handle it.”

To commit oneself to marriage is to give oneself in trust, to put one’s life at the disposal of the other. It is, in fact, actually to forfeit rights and to consign oneself to the charge of another person. One who commits his way to the Lord also does just this. No one will do that who does not trust Him. Whom do we trust? On whose integrity, veracity, justice, or even faithful friendship can we rely? Am I worthy of another’s trust? Am I a person in whom confidence can be reposed?

Commitment entails the acceptance of responsibility. It imposes a task and a trust. It is a promise to do something, a pledge to pursue a certain course. To love is to make a commitment. Merely to make love while refusing commitment is a purely selfish act, irresponsible, and finally destructive.

It is not only men who fear commitment. A missionary woman became engaged to a national in the country where she served. She broke the engagement, went home on furlough, met another man who was on his way to mission work; they became engaged. When he told her he was going to a different country she broke the engagement and wrote to ask me if I thought it would be best to go back to the first man. What could I say?

The source of true commitment

For the Christian, an understanding of commitment must come first of all in surrender to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Nothing in my early life more clearly illuminated to me exactly what that surrender means, and what it may cost, than the following story about two twentieth century young people who gave up their rights to themselves, took up the cross, and followed.

John Stam was born early in the twentieth century in Paterson, New Jersey. His father, Peter Stam, came from Holland and established a building business but was known in jails, hospitals, almshouses, and the poorest sections of the city for his kind “servant heart.” His six sons and three daughters were brought up in a strong Christian home where Bibles were placed on the table three times daily and a chapter was read, each one taking a turn, before the food was served.

John was seated at his desk in business school one day in 1922 when he handed over his life to the Lord. From that moment he knew he did not belong to himself but was forever to be at the service of his Master, Christ. His interest in making money waned. Things that lasted for eternity were all that mattered.

Elisabeth Alden Scott (directly descended from John and Priscilla Alden of the Mayflower) was born in the United States but brought up in China where her parents were missionaries. Her little sister described Betty, as she was always called, as tender and thoughtful. A lady who had had her as a student teacher when Betty was at Wilson College wrote to me:

She impressed me the most, and is the only one I remember. She wore her hair then in braids, neatly around her head. She had about two white blouses that she wore with a dark skirt. Her manner was gentle, calm, with a quiet voice.

A strange attraction

It was at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago that John Stam noticed in this girl something he had never found before, something that strangely attracted him. But his primary concerns were his studies and his weekend travels to preach in a church two hundred miles away. His feelings for this lovely woman were held so firmly in check that fellow students saw nothing.

Betty had assumed she would return to China as a missionary, but at Moody the continent of Africa came before her, especially the sufferings of lepers. Could she be willing to relinquish all that China meant and consecrate her life to service elsewhere? Her attention had been drawn also to the tall figure of John Stam, whose call to China was clear. The pull in that direction must have been powerful. “My Testimony” is the title she gives to lines that reveal not only her quite human and natural fear but also the gentle reassurance she received when she took that fear to her Lord.

And shall I fear
That there is anything that men hold dear
Thou would’st deprive me of,
And nothing give in place?

That is not so—
For I can see Thy face
And hear Thee now:

“My child, I died for thee.
And if the gift of love and life
You took from Me,
Shall I one precious thing withhold—
One beautiful and bright,
One pure and precious thing withhold?
My child, it cannot be.”

Was it to be Africa or China? Marriage or singleness? The testings had to go deeper, as they must for all who set their faces as flint to follow the One who was crucified.

During her second year at Moody she sent another poem to her father. “This poem,” she wrote, “expresses the distress of soul and fear of mind that were mine before I surrendered my all—even inmost motives, so far as I know—to God’s control. The fourth stanza is His gracious acceptance of my unworthy self; the last tells of the joy, satisfaction, and peace of assured guidance that Christ my Savior gives me, now that He is Lord of my life.”

Stand Still and See  

I’m standing, Lord: There is a mist that blinds my sight.
Steep, jagged rocks, front, left and right,
Lower, dim, gigantic, in the night.
Where is the way?

I’m standing, Lord:
The black rock hems me in behind,
Above my head a moaning wind
Chills and oppresses heart and mind.
I am afraid!

I’m standing, Lord:
The rock is hard beneath my feet; I nearly slipped, Lord, on the sleet.
So weary, Lord! and where a seat?
Still must I stand?

He answered me, and on His face
A look ineffable of grace,
Of perfect, understanding love,
Which all my murmuring did remove.

I’m standing, Lord:
Since Thou hast spoken, Lord, I see
Thou hast beset—these rocks are Thee!
And since Thy love encloses me,
I stand and sing.

A distracting challenge

When the call to China had at last been confirmed, Betty Scott was among those who met weekly in the home of Dr. and Mrs. Isaac Page, who were with the China Inland Mission (founded by Hudson Taylor).

Also in the group was John Stam. Never had John preferred one girl above another. He had kept entirely free in heart and outward relations, expecting not only to go to China unmarried but to remain so for at least five years, since he hoped to engage in pioneering evangelistic work.

But now he faced a new challenge—that earnest and, to him, distracting member of the prayer group. The startling truth: He loved her. Now what?

We are not told what was said between them, only that, according to their biographer, “Betty, with her pure, sweet nature, did not hide from him that his love might be returned.” She had found in this young man spiritual fellowship, a common missionary vision, a deep unity of heart in the things that mattered most.

The way, however, was not as clear as it might seem. Betty was to graduate a year before John. She had applied to the China Inland Mission and would sail in a few months. John had not yet been accepted by the C.I.M. He could not ask Betty to commit herself to an engagement when his way might not open to follow her to China. And what of the life of an itinerant evangelist? Was it compatible with marriage? Could he ask Betty to wait indefinitely?

Betty pressed forward with her plans, leaving the rest quietly in God’s hands. She was to sail in the fall of 1931, and on her way west she had a day in Chicago. She and John had hours of talk and prayer down by the lake. It was Monday, so together they attended the C.I.M. prayer meeting at the Pages’ that evening. They were to part, perhaps for a very long time. With no formal commitment such a parting was hard. But their watchword was “God first,” and nothing was to supersede that loyalty.

John wrote to his father: “Betty knows that in all fairness and love to her, I cannot ask her to enter into an engagement with years to wait. But we can have a real understanding, keeping the interests of the Lord’s work always first.

“The C.I.M. has appealed for men, single men, to itinerate in sections where it would be almost impossible to take a woman, until more settled work has been commenced. ... Sometime ago I promised the Lord that, if fitted for this forward movement, I would gladly go into it, so now I cannot back down without sufficient reason, merely upon personal considerations. If, after we are out a year or two, we find that the Lord’s work would be advanced by our marriage, we need not wait longer.

“From the way I have written, you and Mother might think that I was talking about a cartload of lumber, instead of something that has dug down very deep into our hearts. Betty and I have prayed much about this, and I am sure that, if our sacrifice is unnecessary, the Lord will not let us miss out on any of His blessings. Our hearts are set to do His will. ... But this is true, isn’t it, our wishes must not come first? The progress of the Lord’s work is the chief consideration. So there are times when we just have to stop and think hard.”

In God’s hands

In July 1932, all barriers passed, John sailed, third class on the Empress of Japan, for China. He had written to Betty, asking the long-delayed question, hoping for her reply before sailing. It had not come. Doubts tormented him. He was so sure of his love for her—was she not sure of hers for him? Had he honestly desired nothing but the will of God? Was he willing to face life without this loved woman?

Betty had been designated to northern Anhwei but for various reasons had been delayed. Her parents were returning from furlough and asked her to meet them in Shanghai. While there she had to have a tonsillectomy, which kept her at the coast for several weeks. The timing of events was, as always, in God’s hands. The Empress of Japan was rapidly nearing China, with John and his party on board.

The rest need hardly be told. What it meant to John to find that Betty was actually in Shanghai may be imagined. Their joy could not be contained. Nothing now prevented an engagement announcement, and everyone at headquarters seemed to share their happiness.

Irrevocable commitment

It was a long year that passed after John and Betty said good-bye in Shanghai. When they met again, it was the eve of their wedding.

“When the morning of October 25, 1933, dawned,” Betty’s mother wrote, “we were all filled with thankfulness that God had so wonderfully answered our prayers about the weather— a perfect day, not a cloud in the sky.

“The bride, on the arm of her father, wore a simple gown of white silk crepe. ... On her lips was a sweet, happy smile, while she kept her eyes steadily on the face of the bridegroom. And he, waiting at the altar, had eyes for her alone.”

The Stams’ baby, Helen Priscilla, was born on September 11, 1934. In December John and Betty were captured by Chinese Communists, marched half-naked through the village streets, and beheaded. The baby was discovered thirty hours later by Mr. Lo, a pastor. She was lying on the bed, safe and warm in her zippered sleeping bag, apparently none the worse for her long fast. In the bag were an extra nightgown, some diapers, and two five-dollar bills, just enough to provide for the little rescue party, which included young mothers who fed the baby along the way.

Betty Scott Stam’s prayer of irrevocable commitment and consecration, written many years earlier, acquired powerfully striking significance in view of the manner of their death:

Lord, I give up all my own plans and purposes, all my own desires and hopes, and accept Thy will for my life. I give myself, my life, my all, utterly to Thee to be Thine forever. Fill me and seal me with Thy Holy Spirit. Use me as Thou wilt, send me where Thou wilt, work out Thy whole will in my life at any cost, now and forever.

John and Betty Stam, long before they met, had individually made a lifetime decision to follow Christ. Remember her prayer: “I give myself, my life, my all, utterly to Thee to be Thine forever.” Remember the moment at his desk when he handed over his life. Both were now the property of Someone Else.

Their loyalty to Christ was non-negotiable. With the psalmist, each could say, “My heart is steadfast; O God, my heart is steadfast” (Psalm 57:7). A steadfast heart is fixed, fastened, stable. Discovering their love for each other, they made no headlong rush for fulfillment but placed it wholly at God’s disposal. He would always come first in their hearts. A steadfast heart is not prone to fickleness.

The lives of those who are not yet sure of their God are governed by fear, which is the antithesis of faith. The specters of loneliness, rejection, deprivation, unfulfillment, the future, and, in the long run, of death, haunt such lives. “Perhaps God will not be nice to me. He has it in for me. I will always be miserable. If I try to trust God He will let me down. Better to trust a man or a woman, take the risk of fickleness—things might, after all, work out as I want them to.”

Adapted from Quest for Love by Elisabeth Elliot. Used by permission of Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright © 1996. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.

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