What will you do when you stand at a cross­roads and must make a choice? What will be the basis of your decision?

At age twen­ty-six, Lil­ias Trot­ter, an accom­plished water­col­or artist, was com­pelled to make a life-alter­ing deci­sion. Just three years ear­li­er, she had come to know the famed art crit­ic John Ruskin, who was Vic­to­ri­an England’s most bril­liant and influ­en­tial arbiter of artis­tic taste. For more than thir­ty-three years Ruskin’s views on art car­ried enor­mous weight with a pub­lic eager to fol­low his lead. Ruskin held that the chief aim of art is to teach you to see,” insist­ing the great­est thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see some­thing and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hun­dreds of peo­ple can talk for one who can think, but thou­sands can think for one who can see.”1

When Ruskin met Lil­ias and saw her work, he won­dered if the young artist pos­sessed this rarest of gifts. After work­ing close­ly with her for three years, Ruskin was cer­tain. He put before Lil­ias the bril­liant future that undoubt­ed­ly would be hers if she were to give her­self ful­ly to the devel­op­ment of her art.… You would be the great­est liv­ing painter and do things that would be immor­tal!’”2

When Ruskin laid at her feet the com­mit­ment of his extra­or­di­nary resources for the devel­op­ment of her tal­ent and the pro­mo­tion of her career, Lil­ias was elat­ed. The oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op her tal­ent with a men­tor so excep­tion­al­ly qual­i­fied was entic­ing; the prospect of serv­ing her gift was com­pelling. And yet, Lil­ias hes­i­tat­ed. She under­stood as clear­ly as did he the con­di­tion for the ful­fill­ment of her artis­tic poten­tial: to give her­self up to art.”

The ten­sion built as Lil­ias wres­tled with her choice. She did not wish to choose, yet she knew she must. And so it was that in May of 1879, Lil­ias made her deci­sion. I see as clear as day­light now,” she told a friend, I can­not give myself to paint­ing in the sense Ruskin means and con­tin­ue to seek first the King­dom of God and His Righteousness.’”

What was she think­ing, sac­ri­fic­ing her remark­able God-giv­en tal­ent in this way? Biog­ra­ph­er Miri­am Huff­man Rock­ness observes that onlook­ers back then and onlook­ers today may well ques­tion the neces­si­ty of need­ing to make such a choice. Could not she have pur­sued the devel­op­ment of her artis­tic poten­tial along­side a min­istry of ser­vice to oth­ers? A strong case could be made — one that Lil­ias doubt­less con­sid­ered — that a life devot­ed to art might well extend her range of influ­ence and use­ful­ness for the King­dom of God.

But Lil­ias, wise soul that she was, under­stood that what would be required of her in either ven­ture would be com­plete. The rud­der of her soul had already been set toward God’s pur­pos­es. Lil­ias made a deci­sion about what role art would play in her life. It was a deci­sion that pen­e­trat­ed to the issue of obe­di­ence, fol­low­ing God regard­less of the cost. 

My friend Bri­an Majerus recent­ly observed that every choice involves an offer­ing; we lay down one thing in order to ful­ly take up anoth­er. Lil­ias took her art and placed it at the feet of Jesus. How God would use her life and her art, she deter­mined, would be God’s deci­sion alone. The one thing is to keep obe­di­ent in spir­it, to do oth­er­wise would be to cramp and ruin your soul.” In her deci­sion, Lil­ias expe­ri­enced the lib­er­ty of those who have noth­ing to lose, because they have noth­ing to keep.”3

It took five addi­tion­al years to put every­thing into place. In May of 1893, Lil­ias and two friends final­ly sailed to Alge­ria, a Mus­lim coun­try locat­ed in North Africa. The three went with­out the sup­port of a mis­sion board (Lil­ias was turned down because of her weak heart). They paid for every­thing out of their own pock­ets. They went not know­ing a word of Ara­bic. As sin­gle women, they entered a patri­ar­chal soci­ety where women had no place or pow­er and where it was ille­gal for Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ar­ies to plant a church, start a hos­pi­tal, or build a school.

From the out­set, the oppo­si­tion they faced was intense and oppor­tu­ni­ties to present the good news of Jesus were severe­ly lim­it­ed. A sense of exhaus­tion comes through the body to the spir­it, even apart from the con­scious­ness,” she wrote in her diary. It is so vivid at times, that the very air is full of the pow­ers of dark­ness; and the ene­my launch­es his fiery darts in show­ers on those who come to attack his strong­holds. How many of us have gone through the test­ing of every fiber of our inner life since we left Eng­land — and how many of us have known a bit­ter break­ing down under the tests!”3

While most Euro­peans chose to live apart from the Arab pop­u­la­tion, the three women secured lodg­ing on a nar­row street in the slum area of Algiers. Reach­ing out to the women liv­ing near­by was as dif­fi­cult as you imag­ine it would be. Lil­ias sent a let­ter back home plead­ing for prayer sup­port and cov­er­age. To main­tain her faith and spir­i­tu­al bal­ance, she avid­ly engaged times of dai­ly refresh­ment alone with God and estab­lished a sched­ule of soli­tary retreat for her­self and for her companions. 

As the lit­tle team, which had grown to five, befriend­ed their neigh­bors and pro­vid­ed edu­ca­tion­al train­ing to their chil­dren, Lil­ias used her art to serve Jesus. She cre­at­ed beau­ti­ful evan­ge­lis­tic book­lets and pam­phlets telling the gospel sto­ries which were then dis­trib­uted in the mar­ket­places. Lil­ias wrote, The things that are impos­si­ble with men are pos­si­ble with God. May it not be that the human impos­si­bil­i­ty is just the very thing that sets His Hand free?– & that it is the things which are pos­si­ble for us to do that He is in a mea­sure to let alone.”4

Over the three decades that Lil­ias and her team lived and served in Algiers, the work they did showed lit­tle out­ward evi­dence. It became unspeak­ably grim for for­eign work­ers as the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Alge­ria dete­ri­o­rat­ed. Almost dai­ly they faced the threat to shut down the min­istry. In times like these, she wrote, one lit­er­al­ly can do noth­ing but pray at every avail­able bit… I am begin­ning to see that it is out of a very low place that one can best believe.” Through it all, the team car­ried on in dogged per­sis­tence, deter­mined to be faith­ful to God in those things that were pos­si­ble and trust­ing God in all that seemed utter­ly impossible.

The pages of her jour­nal reveal her evolv­ing method­ol­o­gy as Lil­ias adapt­ed and mod­i­fied her approach to their mis­sion (mod­ern mis­si­ol­o­gists report that the strate­gies she devel­oped over those years were one hun­dred years ahead of their time!) As one gift­ed with spir­i­tu­al sight,” Lil­ias was able to see what God was doing and adjust accord­ing­ly. She wit­nessed delight­ful twists in God’s work­ings, as God con­sis­tent­ly pro­vid­ed just what was need­ed when and where it was most need­ed. Alert to God’s ever-chang­ing ways and means, Lil­ias stayed flex­i­ble and pre­pared for sud­den alter­ations of plan. Make me love Your will, God, what­ev­er it is!” 

In small diaries, Lil­ias record­ed what she observed in the form of insight­ful reflec­tions, sketch­es, and tiny paint­ings. The works of art that John Ruskin had hoped would grace the walls of Lon­don homes instead graced her jour­nals, her pri­vate trib­ute to the hon­or and glo­ry of God. For all her accom­plish­ments in orga­ni­za­tion, strat­e­gy, and lit­er­a­ture, per­haps her most pal­pa­ble lega­cy was, in fact, intan­gi­ble: a wide­ness and lav­ish­ness of love that trans­formed even triv­ial gifts till they became akin to a sacra­ment.’” “‘Lal­la Lili’ was like her teach­ing. To see her was to catch a glimpse of that sweet-smil­ing Jesus.’”5

Lil­ias had devot­ed thir­ty-five years of her life to lov­ing the peo­ple of Alba­nia in Jesus’ name when, toward the close of her sev­enth decade, her heart final­ly gave out. Min­istry part­ners and Arab friends sur­round­ed her bed as Jesus drew her to Him­self. Lil­ias was laid to rest in her Alger­ian home. 

So, what became of her piv­otal deci­sion to sac­ri­fice a stel­lar artis­tic career to fol­low Jesus to Alge­ria? There was, in truth, lit­tle tan­gi­ble evi­dence of suc­cess in their work. Was hers a light that flamed bright­ly for a lit­tle while then was extin­guished by time and cir­cum­stance? Miri­am Huff­man Rock­ness speaks of a small, con­tem­po­rary resur­gence of Chris­t­ian faith in mod­ern-day Alge­ria that traces back to the min­istry of Lil­ias Trot­ter and her lit­tle team. Still, it is expect­ed that her true lega­cy will not be revealed until heav­en when scores of nation­al believ­ers who accept­ed Jesus against all human odds then and now will join her in an open and free wor­ship of our Almighty God. What a day that will be!

  1. Miri­am Huff­man Rock­ness, A Pas­sion for the Impos­si­ble: The Life of Lil­ias Trot­ter (Dis­cov­ery House 1999), p.72 ↩︎
  2. Ibid, p.83 ↩︎
  3. Ibid, p.153 ↩︎
  4. Ibid, p.156 ↩︎
  5. Ibid, p.328 ↩︎

Image: Water­col­or by Lil­ias Trot­ter, shared with the per­mis­sion of Lil­ias Trot­ter Lega­cy.

Text First Published February 2023 · Last Featured on Renovare.org February 2023

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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