Her Legacy of Faith & How it Changed my Life
By LESLIE LUDY
…That in all things He may have the preeminence.
I walked into the living room of our neighbor’s house and was enthusiastically greeted by the two little girls I had been asked to babysit for the evening. Under my arm I carried the book that I planned to read after the girls were tucked in bed for the night. At 17, I had recently discovered the amazing wealth of encouragement and spiritual inspiration captured in historical Christian biographies. So when I saw that Elisabeth Elliot had written a biography about a missionary to India named Amy Carmichael, I jumped at the chance to read it. I was only a few chapters into the book, but I had already been deeply inspired by Amy’s life. And learning that she and I shared the same birthday made her story even more significant to me personally.
As I laid the book down on the coffee table, one of the little girls studied the title — A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael. After a thoughtful moment she looked up at me and said in a confused voice, “A chance to die? What sickness did she have?”
Stifling a chuckle, I tried to explain that the book was not about Amy’s physical death but rather “death to self” as part of her devotion to Jesus Christ.
Death to self was indeed a primary theme in Amy Carmichael’s life. It started when she was a young woman living among the upper class in Belfast, Ireland in the late 1800s. One Sunday as she and her family walked home from church, an old beggar woman suddenly appeared, struggling with a heavy bundle. It was a very unusual sight in that part of Belfast; a tattered, bedraggled, dirty beggar hobbling along the well-groomed streets. Impulsively, Amy and her brothers went to the woman’s aid, lifting her burden and helping her cross the street. Yet as she noticed the surprised looks of the many respectable people who stood nearby, Amy could feel her face turning red. All she wanted was to get away from the old woman and the disapproving looks of those around her.
But just then, as they came near a fountain in the street, Amy heard a voice clearly speak. It said, “Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is” (1 Cor. 3:12–13).
Startled, Amy turned to see who had said the words. Nobody was there. Then she realized that God had been speaking to her. That afternoon, she shut herself in her bedroom to “sort out life’s priorities.” And when she emerged several hours later, she had come to a decision about her life: nothing would matter to her again except the things that were eternal.
About a year before I read Amy’s story, God had spoken a similar message to my own soul: Leslie, don’t try to fit Me into your life; build your life around Me. Like Amy, I had taken time to be alone with God one afternoon and had surrendered my life completely to Him.
Since making that decision, I had wondered exactly how to live a truly Christ-centered life. A statement in Amy Carmichael’s biography immediately captured my heart: “The preoccupations of seventeen-year-old girls — their looks, their clothes, their social life — do not change very much from generation to generation. But in every generation there seem to be a few who make other choices. Amy was one of the few.”
As I read those words, my heart beat a little faster. I knew that God was calling me to be “one of the few” as well. Like Amy, I decided that I didn’t want to build my life around shallow, temporal things, but only what would last for eternity. Over the next few weeks as I read more about Amy’s amazing life-journey, I began see a powerful example of the Christ-centered existence God was asking me to embrace.
Elisabeth Elliot said that Amy Carmichael was one of the single greatest influences in her own Christian walk. And now, more than 20 years after first picking up Amy’s biography, I can honestly say the very same thing has been true in my own life.
As a caveat, I do want to make it clear that even though Amy Carmichael is one of my spiritual heroes, I certainly do not place her on a pedestal of perfection, nor do I seek to emulate every aspect of her life. She was human and made mistakes just as the rest of us do. But she allowed God to shape and refine her even through her failures and struggles, and because of this she has been a true inspiration to me and to countless others. In short, it is not Amy herself that has changed my life, but the love and triumph of Jesus Christ shining through her life that has so greatly impacted me.
Amy’s Legacy: three invaluable qualities
In her twenties, Amy began an amazing work for poverty-stricken young women called “shawlies” in her hometown of Belfast. They bore the name “shawlies” because they were too poor to buy a hat and instead pulled their shawls over their heads as a small measure of protection against the wind and rain. Amy ministered to these young women in both spiritual and practical ways, and soon she was reaching several hundred of the shawlies each week. Through prayer and perseverance, Amy was able to build a large facility for the ministry to the girls. At the dedication ceremony for the new building, many Christians from the community were there, along with several hundred shawlies. Although Amy could have sat on the platform during the ceremony and taken credit for all she had invested into the building and the ministry, she wanted no public recognition. She chose to sit in the middle of the audience with the shawlies. Across the stage a banner was hung that said, “That in all things He may have the pre-eminence.” (See Colossians 1:18.) This was the motto of Amy’s life and ministry. She never wanted to rob from the glory of God by drawing attention to herself.
Years later, when she first arrived in India as a missionary, Amy continued to live out this principle of “taking the lowest place” instead of seeking honor and recognition for herself. Opportunities were opening for her to be a guest speaker at many Christian events around India and to be involved in ministry work that was highly regarded among her fellow missionaries. But she chose to care for helpless babies instead — work that was seen as demeaning and lowly by most other Christians at the time. Yet when she thought of Jesus — the Lord of Glory — bending His knee and washing His disciples’ feet, she knew that no work was too lowly if done out of love and obedience to Him.
Amy settled it in her heart that she could not seek the applause of men and the glory of God at the same time. In her book If, she wrote, “If the praise of [others] elates me and [their] blame depressed me … then I know nothing of Calvary love,” and “If I covet any place on earth but the dust at the foot of the Cross, then I know nothing of Calvary love.”
When Amy was 52, after she had been in India for nearly three decades and rescued hundreds of children, she learned that she had been awarded a medal by the king of England for her service of the needy children of India. The governor of Madras planned to present the medal to her on behalf of the king at a ceremony. While most people would have been thrilled to have their life’s work acknowledged in this way, Amy was mortified at the idea of receiving accolades for her Christian service. She felt she already had more than enough reward in the love of the hundreds of children who called her “Amma” (which means “mother” in the Tamil language).
At first she wanted to refuse the medal entirely, but friends convinced her to accept it as a way to acknowledge the needs of the children of India. Though she agreed to receive it, she refused to go to the awards ceremony. She hated having her picture taken or being the center of attention, and no one could persuade her to purposefully put herself in the public eye. This was not because Amy was a shy person. In fact, she had a bold personality and was a natural leader. But she desired her life to reflect the humility of Christ.
Her attitude was in keeping with Jesus’ exhortation to His disciples: “Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’” (Lk. 17:9–10). And the example of Jesus when He “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant” (Phil. 2:7).
Amy’s amazing humility flowed directly from the self-denial that she had embraced as a young woman, and continued to live out during all the years of her missionary life. She wrote, “Are we going in the way which Christ has gone, or are we only talking and praying and singing about it? What about likes and dislikes? What about choices? What about Self? Christ’s way is the way that says ‘No’ to the ‘I’ that rises up so often and in many different disguises. ‘If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself [say ‘No’ to himself], and take up his cross daily, and follow Me’ (Lk. 9:23). A ‘byway’ is any other way, any easier way, a self-pleasing way. We shall not meet Christ if we travel in a byway.”
When I compare Amy’s example of humility and self-denial with the aggressive self-promotion that is so accepted and prevalent today, I am almost awed by the contrast. Even many Christian leaders and missionaries speak and post online about their work and accomplishments in a way that draws attention to self rather than to Jesus Christ. Amy’s life has been a continual reminder to me of the humble path that Jesus walked, and that we are called to follow in His steps, living for Heaven’s applause alone.
Two: Sacrificial Love
From the time Amy first worked with the shawlies in Ireland and later in England, she did not merely tell the poor about God’s love for them; she demonstrated His love to them. Though she was a young single woman from an upper-class family, she chose to live in the slums among the shawlies so that she could truly empathize with the daily struggles they faced. She slept in a filthy, rat-infested building, wore the same clothes as the shawlies, and lived on the same meager food they ate. She knew that she couldn’t tell these destitute young women that God could give them peace and joy in the midst of their circumstances unless she was willing to prove it true in her own life.
When she arrived in India years later, she had no desire to be pampered and comfortable like so many other English people who lived there at the time. Though it caused some other missionaries to dislike her, she chose to live and work among the Indian people in a truly self-sacrificing way. Often she camped by the side of the road and traveled in a rickety bullock cart in the heat of the day. When sick children were brought to her, she nursed them round the clock — some for weeks or months at a time. She risked her life numerous times in order to save children from being captured as slaves.
Amy did not merely “run an orphanage” with the scores of children that she rescued. Rather, she cared for the children as if they were her own and called them her family. Their spiritual growth was just as important to her as their physical well-being. She personally loved them, taught them, discipled them, nursed them, and poured herself out for them night and day. In some cases, she even risked going to jail in order to legally fight for children who were in dangerous home situations because of the Hindu caste system.
Amy did not protect her own comforts. She was willing to receive wounds and be misunderstood and mistreated for the sake of Christ. She once wrote, “It is so fatally easy to forget that we are not here to enjoy life, to live pleasantly, without stabs and rending griefs that leave scars … [but] ’that I may know Him, and … the fellowship of His sufferings’ (Phil. 3:10).’”
Another way Amy embraced sacrificial love was by joyfully accepting the life of singleness to which she felt God had called her. When she first arrived onto the mission field, she began to feel lonely and longed for a husband and children. The desire continued to grow until finally she knew she needed to get alone with God and pray about it. She retreated to a cave and spent the day pouring out her heart to Him, and listening to His answer. She felt Him speak clearly to her heart that she was not to marry, but was also given the promise that as she put her trust in Him, she would never be desolate. From that point forward, she gladly embraced her call to singleness and gave herself entirely to the work in which God had called her. And true to His promise, she was never again lonely. Hundreds of Indian children called her Amma and many precious Indian women saw her as a beloved sister.
Amy’s joyful self-sacrifice stands out in stark contrast to the pleasure-seeking life so many of us accept today.
Amy’s poem Make Me Thy Fuel is a perfect enunciation of the sacrificial lifestyle she willingly embraced:
From prayer that asks that I may be
Sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fearing when I should aspire,
From faltering when I should climb higher,
From silken self, O Captain, free
Thy soldier who would follow Thee.
From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
(Not thus are spirits fortified,
Not this way went the Crucified,)
From all that dims Thy Calvary,
O Lamb of God, deliver me.
Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay
The hope no disappointments tire
The passion that will burn like fire,
Let me not sink to be a clod:
Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.
Through the years, these powerful words have challenged me to never stop short of a completely poured-out life. No sacrifice is too great for the One who gave everything for us. This was the message of Amy’s life.
Amy Carmichael’s life demonstrated incredible endurance. Where others would have walked away in defeat, Amy refused to be easy on herself or listen to the voice of self-pity no matter how difficult her circumstances became. In her book If, she wrote, “If I am soft to myself and slide comfortably into the vice of self-pity … if, though I have this ministry and have been given much mercy, I faint … if I do not by the grace of God practice fortitude, then I know nothing of Calvary love.”
Amy endured severe tests of faith, persecution from the anti-Christian culture in which she lived, and the devastating loss of many of her closest companions. But she never thought of giving up. Leonard Ravenhill once said of Amy, “She took a one-way ticket to the mission field.” When she left England for India as a young woman in delicate health, she said goodbye to friends, family, and all that was precious and familiar to her. She never returned to England. She stayed in India until her death at the age of 83.
Probably the most amazing demonstration of endurance that Amy demonstrated was during the last 20 years of her life. After spending so many years in tireless, active service on behalf of helpless children, she fell and badly injured her back. She became crippled and spent the next two decades confined to her bedroom, not able to get out of bed for more than an hour at a time. She needed round -the-clock nursing care. This was a truly devastating situation for one who was used to energetically giving all her time and energy to serve others. And though she grieved her lack of ability to serve as she used to, she would not allow this difficult circumstance to make her bitter against God or to be an excuse to grow spiritually slack. Instead, she poured herself into writing books, prayer, and encouragement for the family of women and children under her care. She wrote at least 13 spiritually-rich books during those 20 years, spent countless hours praying, and continued to disciple and teach those living at Dohnavur (her missionary compound) even from her sickbed.
During this time of confinement she wrote, “I am sure, for I have proved it true, that one long look at Calvary does something for us that nothing else can do. ‘Consider Him that endured … lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds’ (Heb. 12:3). Try it, you who are in the thick of things. Try it, and you will prove the power that is in it. If there has been defeat anywhere and you are tempted to ‘faint in your minds,’ do not be discouraged, but determine that next time attack comes you will win. ‘Consider Him that endured,’ and you will be more than a conqueror.”
I believe that Amy’s amazing endurance came from her close, intimate walk with Jesus Christ and her love and reverence for the Word of God. These are things that she vigilantly protected. My favorite quote from Amy continually reminds me what is required in order to maintain true spiritual strength:
“Comrades in this solemn fight … let us settle it as something that cannot be shaken: we are here to live holy, loving, lowly lives. We cannot do this unless we walk very, very close to our Lord Jesus. Anything that would hinder us from the closest walk that is possible to us till we see Him face to face is not for us.”
Even on the day that Amy died, she was “fighting the good fight.” Her last letter was a simple word of encouragement to one of the children under her care, communicating this truth: If you mean so much to me, how much more to Him?
. . .
Have you ever wondered whether it is really possible to follow in the steps of a spiritual hero like Amy Carmichael? It’s easy to admire people like her from a distance, all the while believing that we can never achieve that kind of spiritual victory in our own lives. And yet I find it very encouraging that we serve the same God and that we have access to the same spiritual power and grace that was available to Amy and the countless other heroes in Christian history. Our lives may not play out the same way that Amy’s did. Our stories may not be as exciting, and our writing may not be as powerful. But by the grace of God we can adopt and cultivate the key qualities that governed her life.
At the same time, we must not forget that when we follow in the footsteps of our spiritual heroes, there is a cost to this way of living. Amy summarized it beautifully when she said,
“To break with all worldly customs; to live utterly separate from the spirit of the world, so that we shall not say, ‘What is the harm of this and that?’ but simply shall have lost all relish for what is not of the Father; to live as those who truly lay all on the altar — time, strength, possessions, literally everything we are and have … this will cost us something. Are we ready for what it will cost?”
Lord, make us ready to answer that question with a resounding yes.