Book Reviews

Book Review: Faithful Women & Their Extraordinary God

As I look through my overflowing bookshelves, I see few names repeated as frequently as John Piper’s. I was first introduced to Piper’s writings in a college class taught by Mark Spansel. (At the time, I worked for his Administrative Assistant, who joked that the class should have been titled “My Love Affair with John Piper and Jonathan Edwards.” Very true….However, the class retained it’s original title – Dynamics of Spiritual Life.) One of the required textbooks for this class was Future Grace. This book had a significant impact on my life that semester, and beyond! The binding is broken at several chapters, as I read, and reread, those portions over and over! Since then few authors have impacted my thinking like John Piper. So, when I discovered that his wife had also written a few books, I was more than a little interested. I received Noel Piper’s latest book, Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God,as a “just because” present from my sweet husband a few months ago, but have just now had the opportunity to begin (and finish) reading it.


I love biographies! (Christian biographies specifically.) It is always such an encouragement to me to see how the Lord can use ordinary people in some extraordinary ways. I always come away feeling so inspired, and determined to work harder in my relationship with the Lord. In the introductory pages, Piper says:

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.
Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
(Hebrews 13:7-8)
That’s why I read biography. To remember people who’ve led the way on the path with God, to consider their lives, and to imitate their faith. Because we have the same God, and he is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
This book traces the lives of five women, from different times and places: Sarah Edwards, Lilias Trotter, Gladys Aylward, Esther Ahn Kim, and Helen Roseveare. These are all names that I had heard before, but with the exception of Gladys Aylward, I did not know much about their lives.
Sarah Edwards: Faithful in the Mundane
Sarah Edwards was the wife of Jonathan Edwards, and the mother to 11 children in colonial America. Being a wife and mother does not conjure up images of glamour and greatness. In today’s society a woman who is “just” a wife and mother is sometimes seen as taking the easy way out – she doesn’t have a career, therefore she must be lazy, or unintelligent. However, Sarah Edwards could never be accused of this. She used her position as a wife to support her husband. She felt that “she could best serve God and her generation, to be the means …of promoting his usefulness and happiness.” This was a woman who tried to create a home that was a refuge for her husband, a place where he would be free to think and study without distraction. This must have required amazing organizational skill as she was responsible for many household tasks – hauling water, bringing in firewood, preparing and cooking meals (both for the family and many visitors), making the family’s clothing (as well as the material from which it was made), tending a garden, doing laundry, to name a few – that we take for granted today. But, she made her household
“the abode of order and neatness, of peace and comfort, of harmony and love, to all its inmates, and of kindness and hospitality to the friend, the visitant and the stranger.”
Along with running a household, and playing hostess to many visitors, Sarah was the mother of eleven children. She and Jonathan desired to raise godly children. Sarah’s mothering style was described by Samuel Hopkins, a visitor in the Edwards’ home, this way:  
“knew how to make [her children] regard and obey her cheerfully, without loud angry words, much less heavy blows….Her system of discipline was begun at a very early age and it was her rule to resist the first, as well as every subsequent exhibition of temper or disobedience in the child…wisely reflecting that until a child will obey his parents he can never be brought to obey God.”

Sarah’s most important role in life was that of a child of God. She loved her Lord, and was, described by Jonathan to be “of a wonderful sweetness, calmness, and universal benevolence of mind.” She “made it her rule to speak well of all, so far as she could with truth and justice to herself and others.” She desired to raise godly children, and she and Jonathan held them with a “holy looseness” in an age where death was always very near.

They were all too aware of the nearness of physical death. But the death of the body was not what called forth prayers for and pleas to their children. The imminence of physical death made them fear not the removal of life, but the absence of life eternal. 

I can only echo Piper’s sentiment at the end of this chapter: “This is a perspective I want to have toward the ones I love.”
Lilias Trotter: Faithful in Weakness
Lilias Trotter was a missionary to the Muslim people of North Africa in the late 1800’s. As God prepared her for the ministry that He had called her to, she was forced to make choices that would have direct implications in her personal life. She chose to work among the low-class of Victorian society. She cut herself off from friendships, and potential marriage partners. She chose to remain single. A young single woman with a weak heart, who had been turned down by a mission organization, left for her mission field (Algeria), not knowing one word of Arabic, only 9 months after hearing God’s call. While most missions organizations today would say that she did not have nearly enough preparation to begin working in such a difficult area,

“But actually she had undergone thirty-four years of preparation. God doesn’t waste anything, and her whole life so far had prepared her to do missions in ways that wouldn’t have been thought of by missions training programs available to her.” 

She learned the language by living among the people. She felt a burden for the difficult to reach Muslim women, and sought ways to connect with them. Because she was single, she was free to interact with the women in a way that men in that culture were not. It wasn’t until the last years of her life that her health became a real issue and forced her to return home to England. But, she became a prayer warrior for the ministry that was so close to her heart.
“She realized that prayer is not necessarily strengthened by being physically present in the place one is praying about. On the contrary, perhaps one prays more intently far away.”
This was especially true in the life of Lilias Trotter. She originally sensed the call to the mission field because of the lives of 2 friends. She saw in these two women a passion for the unsaved. As a result, she saw in them fellowship with the Lord that she did not have. The joy she saw in their lives inspired her to ask the Lord to give her the same kind of passion for the unreached people that she saw in them. Although these 2 women never left for the mission field themselves, they had an incredible impact on the people of Algeria because of their prayers.
I want to have this kind of prayer life! I want to be fervently praying for those that I know who are actively involved in ministry – whether that means those on foreign mission fields, those working in various roles in the church her in the States, or those starting a ministry here in Santa Clarita. I want the joy that comes from being in fellowship with my Lord to be a tangible part of my daily life.
Gladys Aylward: Faithful in Humility
Gladys Aylward was born into a working-class family in England in the early 1900’s. She became a parlor maid after dropping out of school at fourteen. However, after reading a magazine article about China, she felt God’s call to minister there. She was a simple, straightforward person, who did not attempt to change who she was to impress people or make friends. She was a hard worker. After being turned down by the training college of the China Inland Mission, she decided that she would have to get to China on her own. She worked extra jobs in order to save money for the train fare from England to China, and was able to pay for her ticket within a year. She left England without thought of returning. If she was called to China, she planned to die there. She wrote:

“How great was the sacrifice my parents were making in allowing their daughter to go off alone to a place thousands of miles away, knowing full well that in all probability they would never see her again. How much I have to thank them for that they did not try to hold me back.” 

Of course most Christian parents pray that their children would come to know Christ as their Savior, and would go on to live a life that would honor Him. But, do we really think about the implications of that prayer? As I read Gladys’ story, and saw the trials she had to endure – the physical suffering, war, loneliness – I began to ask myself if I could do as her parents had done. Could I let my daughter go off alone, to a foreign place thousands of miles away, knowing that I may never see her again? Never is a scary word. If I knew this to be the case, would I let her go, or would I hold on?
Gladys Aylward, by all outward indications probably should not have become a missionary. She was poor, relatively uneducated, and without the support of a mission board – a weak thing in the eyes of man. But, God chose to use her. Piper reminds us as she ends this chapter that

missionaries aren’t the only ones who may lean too heavily on their own skill, persistence, and charisma. Any of us might depend so much on our skills, diligence, and seniority that we forget Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:31-33, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Whether He provides for us through our hard work or through the gifts of missions supporters, we have nothing without Him. 

Esther Ahn Kim: Faithful in Suffering
Ei Sook Ahn (who later changed her name to Esther) was born in Korea, early in the Japanese occupation. She was the firstborn, but a frail girl was not the ideal child for a traditional Korean family in those days, so her father succumbed to the pressure to have a son, and heir, and took many concubines. Although this chapter is intended to be about Ei Sook’s life, it is her mother who stood out to me. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, it became common practice to require all Korean citizens to bow at a shrine consisting of a picture of the emperor of Japan alongside a an image of the Japanese sun goddess. Ei Sook’s mother had accepted Christ as her Savior when she was a child, and began pointing her daughter to the one true God at an early age, amidst a culture that was steeped in idolatry. Her daily godly influence had a great impact on Ei Sook. She did not try to shield her frail daughter from suffering, but instead tried to prepare her for it.
Ei Sook was a teacher at a Christian school for girls when the mandate came that they must go to the local shrine to bow. As a teacher she was looked upon as a leader, and expected to be an example. However, as a Christian, she said

“I was saved by Jesus. I could bow only before God, the Father of my Savior.” 

She knew that doing what was right before God did not guarantee her safety. In fact, as she made the decision not to bow before the idol, she understood that she was deciding to die. She was called into the office of a Japanese official, but was able to escape when he was called away. She and her mother left town, and lived in an isolated house, intent on preparing for the suffering that was ahead. She memorized hymns, and over 100 chapters of Scripture. As she hid from the Japanese, she saw everything as part of her preparation for what lay ahead. During this time, she also felt God calling her to go to the Japanese with His message of hope. Her mother confirmed this, as she could see how God had planned this for her from the time she was a young child. She eventually left Korea for Japan, and was arrested and imprisoned there.
While in prison, Ei Sook drew strength from the many Scriptures she had memorized in preparation for this time. She also had the opportunity to share the love of Christ with her fellow prisoners. Growing up in the church, and AWANA, Scripture memorization was a big part of my life. I often heard scenarios like Ei Sook’s shared as challenges at camps, and youth events as a way of motivating us to memorize Scripture. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to commit so many passages to memory as a child, and have seen how these same verses have come back to encourage, or convict, me at various times in my life. However, I have gotten out of practice, and have neglected to discipline myself to memorize Scripture over the past few months. Reading this story of Ei Sook’s life, and her intentional preparation for what she knew was coming has convicted me of my lack of discipline in this area. I should not need the push of impending death and persecution to do something that we, as Christians, are commanded to do!
Helen Roseveare: Faithful in Loss
Helen Roseveare was born in England in 1925. She first felt the call to the foreign mission field as a child in Sunday School, as she cut out pictures of Indian children for her Missionary Prayer Book. But, Christ, and church was not the first priority in Helen’s family. They focused on academics, and pressured Helen to perform. Piper says that as a child, “Helen was already plagued by the very doubts, insecurity, and pride that would be the core of most of her recurring spiritual struggles as an adult.” But, through it all she became conscious of her need for a Savior.
Helen left for college to study medicine, and met several young women whose joy and peace in the Lord was quite evident. She began attending Bible studies with them, and studied the Bible passionately on her own as well. Her friends believed that she was a Christian, but Helen knew that there was something missing. After reading through the book of Romans one night, Helen understood the truth:

The steady reading of Scripture in the previous months, the careful listening to doctrinal teaching…had prepared the way. For years the Holy Spirit had been opening my eyes to a sense of sin, convicting me of my unworthiness before a Holy God. But now came the wonderful gift of repentance. God poured out His grace in forgiveness, in cleansing from all the uncleanness of sin, and in revealing, at this time, the amazing wonder of the friendship of Christ. 

As Helen continued to study the Bible in an effort to know God more intimately, she also began to sense the old feelings of doubt and insecurity creeping in.

I tended to call certain sins weaknesses – or human frailties – and thereby excuse them. It was nicer to speak of exaggeration…than to speak of lying. Yet I felt as if I was practicing mental dishonesty in making such excuses or myself…. 

This particular statement hit home. How often am I guilty of doing the very same thing? I make excuses for my sin. I push it aside and pretend that it isn’t really that big of deal. And, instead of calling it what it is, I lie to myself, and others. But, doesn’t it just sound so much better if we say “weakness”? “Sin” is just such an ugly word. Yes, it is. It is ugly – it is ugly in God’s sight, and calling it by a nicer name doesn’t change that fact.
The rest of Helen’s story continues to be a testimony to God’s sufficient grace, as she faced trials and unimaginable suffering on the mission field of the Congo. From shouldering the responsibility of starting a medical ministry and training program from nothing, to being attacked, raped and arrested during a rebel raid on the compound where she lived, Helen continued to trust in God, and experience His grace as she shared it with others.
Noel Piper closes the story of Helen Roseveare’s life with some very practical application:

Perhaps the deepest underlying personal factor in Helen’s tension was the need she felt to do her very best and, if possible to be the very best. God called her to Africa where that was not possible…. Perhaps that is an issue for some of us – struggling with the reality that God ahs called us to do less than we want to do or less than what we believe is our best. That can happen in any setting. For me, it’s been especially true in my years with small children – “I got a college degree for this?” Maybe our problem is the way we see ourselves. Maybe we think more highly of ourselves than we ought.

Throughout this book, Noel Piper shows how five very different women, from different backgrounds, and different eras followed the call of the same God. She applies the truths that they learned on their journeys to our lives today. We serve the same God, and he is still faithful!
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever!