What if you had a flash of foreknowledge and suddenly realized there was a future “Amy Carmichael” sucking her thumb in your church? You would probably burst with pride, pat her teacher on the back, and enthusiastically congratulate the parents. After all, who doesn’t want a Christian heroine in their junior Sunday school?
Men and women of extraordinary heroism feature prominently in our Christian Halls of Fame. We hold them up as role models, healthy alternatives to the pop singers and athletes our teenagers tend to emulate. But if we’re honest, there are more than a couple of problems with this approach. That is why I think Iain Murray’s new biography, Amy Carmichael: Beauty for Ashes, is a healthy alternative to the normal Christian hero-worship titles.
Though the prolific church historian and biographer doesn’t strip Carmichael of any of her attributes, Murray does introduce us to a woman of faith, foibles, and failings. With an expert pen Murray allows her voice to speak clearly through her poetry and her passion—while at the same time dealing with her difficult personality.
Difficult personality? Really? But she was a missionary! It’s true. Murray graciously but accurately introduces us to the real Carmichael: child rescuer, Scripture stalwart, and awkward colleague. Indeed, if she were a member in your congregation, you might find her more than a bit challenging.
Carmichael wasn’t an easy person to disagree with. Her tendency to use Scripture out of context to back up her personal assumptions frustrated others who worked alongside her. And her forceful personality often meant such assumptions went unchallenged.
However, even though she was mistaken at times about how Scripture applied to a particular question or situation, Carmichael always took God’s Word seriously. She believed deeply in its power and authority.
Today the church faces a serious neglect of Scripture. There are Christians in leadership positions throughout the Western world who don’t believe the basic tenets of the Christian faith, and who certainly don’t believe the Bible is error-free. Beauty for Ashes presents a woman who tackled that problem head on. I’ve now been introduced to Amy Carmichael the theologian. Among the orphans, bandy-carts, and verandas of Dohnavur, India, she refused to allow compromise and recognized that the main hindrance to God’s work might be “found in us.” And when she witnessed this “hindrance” in the personal lives and ministries of others, it moved her to make difficult and unpopular decisions—perhaps the kind of decisions some of us need to make in our churches today.
Don’t be under any misconceptions or delusions: if Amy Carmichael were on any of your church committees, she’d be the one asking the tough questions and pointing out where the teaching is slipping. She’d be the one who might get her photo in the newspaper, and possibly a police record.
The good news is you don’t need to wait for the little child in Sunday school to grow up. You likely already have an Amy Carmichael in the pew. How about that awkward senior citizen who makes you blush in shame when you see her energy? You’ve got an Amy Carmichael. She ran around the mission in Dohnavur at such speed the children nicknamed her “The Hare.” Is there someone in your congregation who takes on the dirty jobs, not the noticeable ones? You’ve got an Amy Carmichael. She cut “the toenails of a thousand children” with a greater hope in view—to “adore his beauty and his holiness.” Do you know someone with a flair for saying the right words and also the wrong ones? You’ve got an Amy Carmichael—she rubbed people the wrong way but also touched souls with her life.
So yes, Carmichael should be a role model. Buy this book for yourself and give it to your teenagers. We should all follow her example and learn from her mistakes.
I’ll close with the words of this indomitable but imperfect woman of faith. (Discovering examples of her poetry was one of the joys of reading Beauty for Ashes.)
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.
While we hope to see Amy Carmichaels in our churches in the future, and face the challenges of having them today, we should aim to emulate her aspiration—to recognize her failings and to follow her Savior.