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Last month, I had a conversation with Michael Kelley about his book, Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. Michael tells the story of Bert Elliot, brother to missionary Jim, as an example of what faithfulness over a lifetime looks like. For those of us who are not “meteors streaking across the sky,” it serves as a reminder of how we can be a steady light for the gospel no matter where God has placed us.

Jim Elliot, the Missionary

The story of Jim Elliot has been told and retold with good reason: It’s an amazing account of unswerving courage and faithfulness to the gospel. He was a standout both academically and athletically during his days as a student and was presented with opportunity after opportunity to go and do most anything he wanted to be.

But as his education continued, Jim became convinced of God’s will and purpose for His life—to push back the darkness in the world by preaching the gospel where it had never been preached before. So he began his preparations to spend the rest of his life sharing the gospel with the previously unreached people of Ecuador known as the Auca.

Elliot, along with four other missionaries, began making contact with the indigenous people through a loud- speaker and a basket to lower gifts from their airplane. After several friendly encounters, they made plans to visit the people they thought they had befriended.

But on January 8, 1956, the missionaries were attacked and killed by a group of ten warriors from the people they were trying to share the gospel with. Elliot’s body was found downstream in the river, along with those of the other men. His life purpose and vision was immortalized by his journal entry for October 28, 1949, which expressed 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.”

It’s an amazing story that sent ripples through the Christian and non-Christian world. Life magazine published a ten-page article about the missionaries. Jim’s wife, Elizabeth, not only published two books about her husband but continued the work among the very people who had killed her husband. Thousands upon thousands of people were not deterred by the danger but instead committed themselves to the work of the gospel overseas. Few events in modern history have been used more powerfully by God to send people out into the world for the sake of the gospel.

Perhaps you have heard the story; you may have even read the books or seen the movie. I have; in fact, the quote above is written on my wall.

Have You Heard of Jim’s Brother, Bert?

Jim Elliot’s story is a familiar one, but have you heard of Bert? I had not. But by God’s grace, I have now, thanks to a message given by Randy Alcorn fifty years after the men died on the beach in Ecuador. Bert is Jim Elliot’s older brother. He’s the one who isn’t famous.

He was a student at Multnomah Bible College in 1949, and he and his young wife were invited by a missionary to come to Peru and join the work there. Other than an occasional furlough, there they have stayed. Now in their eighties, they are still there.

According to Alcorn, if you Google Bert, you find less than seventy entries. But over the years, Bert and Colleen have planted more than 170 churches. And when asked to reflect on his brother, Jim, Bert’s response is stirring: “My brother Jim and I took different paths. He was a great meteor, streaking through the sky.”

Bert was not. He did not go streaking through the sky. Nobody lined up with their telescopes to watch his life. Instead, as Alcorn puts it, he was the faint star in the distance that faithfully rises night after night, always there. Always faithful. Always doing the same, boring thing.

Streaking Meteors and Faithful Stars

In the kingdom of God, there is a great need for streaking meteors, but most of us won’t be that. We will instead be faint stars—husbands and fathers, wives and mothers. We will be accountants and teachers, business people, and students. We will go through life, day after day, doing very much the same thing tomorrow that we did today.

The important thing for us to remember is that we are needed. There is a great need for people willing to chase the little donkeys of life, not because it’s exciting but because they believe in the constant presence and purpose of God. There is a great need for people willing to stand in the midst of the boring, convinced that there is no such thing as ordinary when you follow an extraordinary God.

Rise and stand. Then tomorrow, do it again.

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44 thoughts on “Jim Elliot’s Brother, Bert: The Hero You Don’t Know”

  1. Joe Carr says:

    Great and needful article…thank you for the reminder to be faithful even when no one else notices. Grateful for the meteors, but just as grateful for the stars that are there every night to lead the way!

  2. The whole family were lights for God. Fred, their dad was in full-time ministry (and one of my mentors). Their mother Clara was a wonderful Godly woman (a mentor to my wife). Jim & Bert’s brother Bob was very active in ministry and preaching. Their sister Jane was married to a professor at Wheaton College. All were powerful lights for our Savior.
    ~ Blogger Bob

  3. Charla says:

    Great Story! Thank you so much for posting….

  4. Terry Gbison says:

    Thank you for posting this. Faithfulness is so underrated yet so needed.

  5. I LOVED THIS. Thank you. I follow Elisabeth Elliot and read her devotional (online) every day. But I had never read anything about Bert and Colleen. Precious.

  6. Jeff says:

    Thanks for this great post. I first heard the story of Bert Elliot listening to a CD of Randy Alcorn speaking at a Desiring God conference. It is a wonderful story. By the way, outside of sacred Scripture, Jim Elliot’s 10/28/49 journal entry may be the most well-known and influential quote in evangelical circles in the 20th century.

  7. I wept when I read this. Thank you.

  8. Steve Twinem says:

    I appreciate the article on Bert and Colleen’s faithfulness in ministry over the 60 plus years of service in Peru. In a day when many are losing their way trying to focus on being “innovative,” they showed a faithfulness in their relationship with the Lord, His Word and a genuine love for people. This simple testimony has show the sufficiency of a holy life and left a deep and lasting impact on people here. Right up to the end of their lives they had everyone from church leaders to drug addicts coming to their door to seek their counsel and then minister to them. Even in Bert’s final days he never would have described his life as boring. In some of his musings he would just exclaim, “what a life” and then considering the present, even as his condition deteriorated, he would say, “I am so happy.” Bert passed away February 17th and Colleen March 30th of 2012.

  9. Paul K. Lim says:

    I was utterly inspired by Jim’s faithfulness and by Bert’s faithfulness. The difference between the two is not that one was faithful and the other wasn’t. They were both incredibly, staggeringly faithful. Moreover, the difference between the two is not that one led an unusual life and the other led an ordinary (“boring”) life. The difference is that one amazing story is well known whereas the other amazing story is not well know. Let us not make the fallacious (and soul-harming) conclusion that Bert’s so-called boring life is equivalent to our typical American lives–only adding that they’re virtuous (and, thus, equivalent to Bert’s) since they, likewise, do not result in fame. Bert’s life was not well known, but that is not the same as boring or ordinary. Few of us can even imagine the hardships of moving to and living in Peru 50 years ago from America (“letting all goods and kindred go”) to an utterly unfamiliar culture and life…and to do it with your family. Then to continue on for 50 years. By any measure, this is not an ordinary life; it’s not what typical American evangelicals do. It would be wrong and unhelpful to use Bert’s life to lower the bar and endorse our unwillingness to heed God’s call to live extraordinary lives. For most of us, we’re where we’re at by default (in a spiritual sense), not by intention. Bert didn’t wake up one day in Peru by default. He was not a passive character in this drama. I hope that Bert’s incredible, unusual, active, God-glorifying, risk-taking, soul-satisfying, intentional life will inspire us to the extraordinary.

    1. Brian Metzer says:

      Amen Paul K. Lim.

  10. Brian Metzer says:

    Amen Paul K. Kim.

  11. Lewis Huffstutler says:

    Trevin, your own grandfather, Nevin Wax, was a great mentor to me also. I am sure he would probably fit into the class of a far distant star but he was, and still is, steady. I am glad you told me about Jim’s brother. I never knew of him even though I do vacation Bible schools at various churches and often portray Jim Elliott. Thank you for this well written article. Please tell your family I said hello.

  12. This was much appreciated. Indeed, an extraordinary God can make anyone’s life, however mundane, immensely productive and meaningful. In fact, once such a routine life is seen by its owner as God would see it, I do not think it would ever seem mundane again…it certainly does not to God! There is no greater joy and fulfillment than getting up and going to bed each day knowing that you have pursued being who God created you to be as best you can, however non-meteoric your life seems.

  13. Jennifer Martin says:

    You call that life boring? They planted over 170 churches … lived a life fully in God’s power and you call it boring??? Well, you go and plant over 170 churches first and then come back and write an article about it. Then let us be the judge if that kind of life is boring.

  14. Bert and Colleen Elliot were great friends and colleagues of ours in Peru. Last year after Bert went to be with the Lord I wrote a post about him. We were able to have lunch together with his wife when she was visiting the states, just two weeks before she had a fall that fractured her skull and from which she died.

  15. laura d says:

    Great post. My grandparents were missionaries in Peru in the 1950s-1960s. I know they knew (or knew of?) Bert and Colleen. Maybe you also knew them, Sharon Fleming? (Last name Chamlee)

  16. Barry D. Van Wagner says:

    Thank you for this article. It is important to tell the story of our missionary heroes who do not gain attention. Both brothers deserve a lot of credit for letting Jesus use their lives in entirety, one by death and one by living. May we all be faithful whether we gain attention or not. Just do what the Holy Spirit leads you to do to fulfill the Father’s commission. May our Lord Jesus Christ receive glory through the actions of both brothers. Both have planted the seed of their lives and bore fruit.

  17. John Tolbert says:

    What a wonderful and encouraging article. Just what I needed!

  18. Joe Rosales says:

    Amén, Paul K. Lim

  19. Laura D. We were in Peru 1984-92 when we moved to Colombia. We stayed close friends with the Elliots and were able to visit them two times back in Peru and they visited us once in Colombia. I’m sorry, I don’t know your grandparents.

  20. Sunny says:

    Thank you for writing this piece. I’m very encouraged. I’m like Bert…definitely not a meteor streaking through the sky, but grateful to be a handmaiden of the Lord Almighty.

    I’d rather spend my entire life washing the dirty feet of saints than spend all eternity without Christ.

  21. Deborah Cobb says:

    I had the honor of meeting this precious saint and his dear wife when I flew to Peru to visit with my daughter who was staying with them a few years ago. It was and always will be one of the highlights of my life. Their testimony was amazing and their humility brought me to tears many times throughout the week. One can only imagine what life on earth would be like if there were more Mr. Berts and Ms. Colleens; an amazing couple!

  22. Eva Gingerich says:

    I had never heard of Jim’s brother Bert & wife Colleen! I have enjoyed so much learning from the testimony of Jim & Elizabeth & being challenged in my own life to reach out to the lost & unloved. I would so enjoy to read a book of Bert’s family & their story of sharing & planting in Peru!! I’m sure it was anything far from boring!! Our family was in Cambodia only 3 short years & loved it even though it had some difficult times too! You come to love & care for those people with a passion!…because of JESUS!

  23. Pam Pruett says:

    What a blessing. God using people in different ways. The key is to be faithful and he will bring forth the fruit.

  24. Burke Crohn says:

    Dr. Bob Jones Sr. used to refer to people like Bert as “back hall lights”. They are not the gleaming chandelier in the front parlor but rather the back hall light that keeps you from breaking your neck in the dark.

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  26. Meg Ishikwa says:

    Trevin, thank you again for posting articles such as this one on Bert Elliot. Right now in Okinawa, there are quite a few of us “over 50 years old types” who now faithfully peruse the TGC. Ironically, many of us find what you write extremely helpful. While in college in the 1970’s, God used the writings of Elisabeth Elliot, mostly about her husband Jim, to challenge me and my friends to “go” as many “new doors” were being opened all over the world. Her book “The Shadow of the Almighty” was almost a type of handbook for my life. But now, over 35 years later, I see just how the lives of faithful servants such as Bert and his wife will be “great in the kingdom of heaven.” As I told you at the conference in Nashville, humility is so very Christlike – something it seems like Bert walks in as well as you. Thank you.

  27. patricia says:

    Bert and Colleen were amazing people and God’s faithful servants. We had the privilege of knowing them because we, too, served as missionaries in Peru. Their lives were a testimony to the saving grace of God, and their dedication was seen by their sacrifical giving of their time and energies to proclaiming the Gospel, discipling, mentoring, and establishing Peruvians in the Word.

  28. JW says:

    Nice article … new information for me, thanks. “Auca” is an old pejorative word use by outsiders, they call themselves “Waodani.” Blessings!

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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