Interview with Elyse Fitzpatrick
Interview by Lexy Sauvé
My first introduction to Elyse Fitzpatrick came this last Christmas Eve. I was an exhausted mom of two busy little boys, married to a lead pastor, trying to figure out how to get holiday meals cooked, schedules coordinated between two sides of the family, as well as everyone’s Christmas outfits ironed and on so we could be out the door for our Christmas Eve service with a smile on our faces. I was worried I couldn’t please everyone, fit everything in, do everything I thought I needed to do in order to be an accomplished Christian, wife, and mom. My Christmas tree was probably too small, it was definitely fake, and I didn’t have any of those pretty white candles you put in your windows with wreaths to demonstrate your great ability to decorate according to the seasons. While ironing a button up, I searched for a Christmas podcast to listen to and came across Elyse teaching on Christmas traditions. She described the burdens we put on ourselves and others during that time of year, the very time we should be celebrating the birth of our Messiah who came to bring righteousness by faith, not works of the law. She said our holiday traditions and plans will never be able to save us, no matter how many gingerbread houses we construct or things on our holiday to-do list we accomplish. This Gospel reminder brought a deep rest as I walked through the rest of the year.
A few months later, I was again drawn to the simple Gospel message Fitzpatrick shared when I heard her talking about women’s ministry. The tagline on her website describes her mission in life well: “No fluff. No bricks. Just Good News.” Even within Christian culture, women can become absorbed in simply improving outwardly in their ministries and callings. This is the fluff we promote. This quickly breeds law and brings the burden and focus back on to ourselves. These are the bricks we carry. I believe it is Fitzpatrick’s desire to encourage men and women to turn their gaze back to their gracious King, who spilled his own blood to make peace, instead of requiring the blood of his rebellious children. This is the message of good news, which was of first importance to Paul to share, and I believe it is also of first importance for Elyse (1 Cor. 15:3–4).
Sadly, a lot of what I’ve heard Fitzpatrick talk about is often counter-cultural to what we promote in mainstream women’s ministries and churches in general. I as a Christian was thirsting for the simple Gospel message to be explained to me over and over again as I learned how it relates to every area of life. This is what Fitzpatrick excels at doing. In this interview I wanted to ask her thoughts on ways we can specifically mold our writing and art to fit the shape of the cross as we sit under its shadow and meditate on the love and grace we have been shown.
Tell us a little bit about how the Lord saved you.
I was raised in a fairly secular home with very little exposure to the Gospel, although my grandmother did take me to the Lutheran church where I was baptized and confirmed. Even so, at about age 13 I knew I was completely lost and convinced that there wasn’t any “why” to life, so I threw myself into debauchery and a meaningless search for acceptance. Then, right before my 21st birthday (after marrying, having a baby, and then divorcing), the Lord drew me to himself through a friend. It wasn’t that I was looking for God, though. It was that I was hoping to finally be able to not be such a train wreck so I could approve of myself, and the Lord used that desire to draw me to himself in the summer of 1971.
When did you start writing or recognize this gift as part of your calling?
In 1986 I began my training in biblical counseling through CCEF, and part of my course work was to write something to use in counseling on an area of interest to me. What I wrote eventually became the book, Love to Eat, Hate to Eat, my second published book. My writing flows out of the work God is doing in my own heart, usually in areas of brokenness, but also in places where I’m being challenged to grow or understand truth. I see my writing as an ancillary gifting . . . I don’t think of myself as being one of those people who write sentences that are so beautiful they make you cry. I see my writing more as public counseling and teaching.
On your podcast, Front Porch with the Fitzes, as well as the podcast, Christ Hold Fast, I’ve heard you talk about the switch you made in your writing from focusing on Christian self-help to true Gospel transformation. Can you explain how you came to this realization and if there was a specific event that prompted this change?
I came into Christianity and the Gospel 45 years ago, but after a few years I really lost sight of it. My Christianity transformed from an emphasis on Jesus and what he had done for me, to me and what I was doing for Jesus, hence the self-help books. Then, about 10 years ago, I became friends with some folks who kept telling me I was missing the primary point, and after being irritated with them, I began to investigate. That lead to the writing of Because He Loves Me, and it was really during the writing of that book that the switch happened for me, especially as I began to see and understand the difference between Gospel declarations (indicatives) and Gospel obligations (imperatives). I began to see that every command in Scripture about holy living is always given in the context of Gospel statements about God’s prior love for me in Christ. . . . I wouldn’t say that there was any crisis point that pushed me toward a more Gospel-centered focus, but rather that I saw in myself that even though I knew the Word pretty well and knew how to apply it in counseling, I certainly didn’t see much joy or patience or humility in my own life. The Gospel switch broke through all of that.
How would you encourage other writers (and artists, even) in making sure the Gospel is present in their work?
The question we have to continually ask is whether what we’re producing brings the world’s message of self-perfectability—“Do more, try harder”—to people, or the Gospel message of,“You can’t do it but he did so that you can be assured that you’re forgiven, loved, and welcomed.”
Is there a good test someone could give themselves to see if they are putting the burden of law on others or the easy yoke of the Gospel?
The test is whether people walk away from your work with a list of things to do or hearts overflowing with unexpected joy at the lavishness of God’s love and forgiveness.
Aside from the ones mentioned above, what other books have shaped your writing?
There are certain books that I read over and over: Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis, Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, The Hammer of God, by Bo Giertz, and The Suffering Saviour, by F.W. Krummacher.
On your podcast you interviewed Daniel Siedell and you mentioned that you feel the Fall should not be neglected, but rather depicted as a reality through art by believers. Why do you think we shy away from the dark side of God’s story that he showed he is capable of redeeming?
Everyone wants to sing that “the sun will come out tomorrow” and that everything is getting better and better. We love for things to be pretty and nice and tidy. We do this because it’s painful to be reminded of the darkness and brokenness that surrounds us. We also do it because we have what was called by Martin Luther a “theology of glory.” What that means is that we think that if we try harder and harder and if we follow the right leaders and get out of collective acts together, we’ll be able to save this place; while the truth is that only the Lord can make the darkness light and he does this through brokenness and humility and hiddenness, what is called a “theology of the cross.” That’s why some of the most powerful programs on TV now are about finding redemption in the midst of brokenness.
What are some practical things you like to do as a writer in order to cultivate your creativity?
Aside from reading voraciously, I listen for strands of truth in conversations I have. I’m not talking primarily about conversations about writing or being creative, but rather even superficial conversations with people at the dentist’s office where I can see glimmers of truth and those things that people are longing for. I also watch a lot of media, especially programs that display the one good story in the desperate brokenness of life in a fallen world.
What other resources would you suggest Christians look into in order to make sure all of their life motivations are centered around the Gospel?
Well, to begin with, I don’t know anyone, myself included, whose motivations are consistently centered around the Gospel. None of us does that. I find within myself really mixed motives: Yes, I want the Gospel to be shared, known, and loved, but I also want to be well thought of and respected as a Christian writer. So, in light of that, I love devotional books like Prone to Wander by Barbara Duguid and Wayne Houk, Jerry Bridges’ books on the Gospel, such as The Gospel for Real Life, Bryan Chappell’s Holiness by Grace, and of course Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians and his Heidelberg Disputations, especially Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross. Everything by C. S. Lewis or Nancy Guthrie.
Do you have any new projects in the works?
I’ve got a new book [that came out] at the beginning of August, Home: How Heaven and the New Earth Satisfy Our Deepest Longings, from Bethany House. I really am excited about this project because I think that so many of us have gotten our heaven theology really wrong, [thinking we will be] eternally floating on a cloud, strumming a harp and that we’ve missed the truth about how shockingly physical and beautiful our lives on the new earth will be.
I pray this interview and these resources would turn eyes back to Christ who alone has the “divine power [that] has granted us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence (2 Peter 1:3).