The rediscovery of the life and writings of Lilias Trotter is, in my view, one of the most exciting things to happen in the church in years. For those who have never heard of her, Lilias Trotter was a British artist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who gave up the possibility of fame and fortune to serve God as a missionary to the Muslims for nearly 40 years. The significance of her sacrifice is intensified by the magnitude of her potential: prominent Victorian painter and critic John Ruskin, who met her and greatly admired her work–indeed, she singlehandedly reformed his view on women and the visual arts–believed that if she were to be his pupil she could become the greatest artist of her time. Turning her back on the prospect of enormous fame, however, she instead lived a life of glorious, all-out devotion to the kingdom of Christ. In the process, she left behind a splendid collection of devotional writings and divinely-directed artwork. In her writings one finds a message of unparalleled urgency for the church today.
That message is of absolute devotion to Christ–what Lilias believed was the great calling of all people. For Lilias, this devotion meant, simply, giving as much of one’s affection, energy, and time to Christ and his kingdom as one could. As she puts it in her essay “Focused”: “Gathered up, focused lives, intent on one aim–Christ–these are the lives on which God can concentrate blessedness. It is “all for all” by a law as unvarying as any law that governs the material universe.” This includes giving up even the innocent or good things in life: “Never has it been so easy to live in half a dozen good harmless worlds at once–art, music, social science, games, motoring, the following of some profession, and so on. And between them we run the risk of drifting about, the “good” hiding the “best’ even more effectually than it could be hidden by downright frivolity with its smothered heart-ache at its own emptiness.”
These are powerful words, but they are words that the evangelical church continues to push to the side. As I seek to explain and develop in my book Consumed by God, this call to absolute devotion is, just as Lilias understood it, part and parcel of the gospel itself; to miss it is to miss the fundamental call of Christ to repentance, discipleship, and the narrow road, the only pathway to eternal life. It also forms the heart of the New Testament’s message to believers–the call to live “for one thing,” as the Apostle Paul puts it in Philippians.
There are some today who profess agreement with this principle, but when it comes to exactly what it means there is a strange ambivalence. Others seem to have equated devotion to Christ with involvement in missions or evangelism, but even though many who have longed for single-minded devotion have given their lives to such a cause, just as Lilias did, it is a mistake, I believe, to draw such a conclusion. Only those who are specially called and equipped by the Spirit of God are to be on the “front lines” in the work of missions. Indeed, missions today, I can say from first-hand experience, suffers greatly from an overabundance of ill-equipped workers. One man or woman divinely placed and prepared is truly worth a thousand.
No, this devotion must consist of something else, something more universal. It may not include personal involvement on the front lines of missions, but it will include involvement with Christ and his kingdom nonetheless; and it all begins with the heart. Loving God certainly means finding in him all of our affection and delight, but this must lead to “dying to self,” as Christ commanded us–or else it is empty or meaningless. All personal ambition–all desire for power, recognition, self-fulfillment, etc.–must be surrendered entirely; this is the fundamental message of Christ’s call to discipleship. Loving Christ, in its fullness, means making his desires and interests our own–living out his very life. This is what it means to follow him. As Lilias puts it: “Narrow as Christ’s life was narrow, this is our aim; narrow as regards self-seeking, broad as the love of God to all around.”
The result of such a narrowing will be the greatest and most significant of all realities on earth–the outpouring of the Spirit of God in the soul. As Lilias puts in once again: “And in the narrowing and focusing, the channel will be prepared for God’s power–like the stream hemmed between the rock-beds, that wells up in a spring–like the burning glass that gathers the rays into an intensity that will kindle fire. It is worth while to let God see what He can do with these lives of ours, when “to live is Christ.”
The crucial message for the church today is essentially two-fold. There is first a call or command: absolute devotion to Christ. There is then a promise–or, better yet, a “law,” or principle, as Lilias thought of it: The greater amount of sacrifice for Christ a person makes, the greater will be the outpouring of the Spirit in their lives. Both of these truths, so long esteemed and proclaimed in the church, have been gradually lost, and are largely absent in the church in our times. Yet if we could only reclaim them, the church may once again recover the power and influence in the world it has known in days gone by, to the glory of God.
Lilias Trotter left behind an enormous legacy–but mostly by Heaven’s standard of measure. She never gave up her artwork–every painting she produced proclaimed the beauty and glory of God–but she cared nothing for recognition from the world, or even for the maximizing of her earthly abilities. On the contrary, her one desire was to maximize her potential to glorify Christ and be useful in his kingdom. To accomplish this, she gave up everything, embracing total obscurity during her entire earthly life. Nevertheless, her life, writings, and work still speak, and the message they contain may very well be the most urgent of our times. May God help the church once again to hear it and repent.