Think About IT: Forgiving the Unforgivable

Bill Elliff was one of my predecessors at Trinity Baptist Church, and he is also the one who recommended me to the church. I have heard Bill and Tom Elliff speak a few times about the divorce of their parents and how difficult it was. I found the following synopsis of their mother’s struggle and thought you might be blessed by her love, faith, and forgiveness.

Forgiving When It Seems Impossible[1]

In 1985 the elderly Jewell Elliff lay on her deathbed, comatose after suffering a massive brain hemorrhage. Though doctors expected her to die within hours, she summoned the strength to utter three words: “Want! Want! Want!” Family members sprung into action immediately, suggesting a litany of items and people she might want. Finally, someone asked whether it was her ex-husband J.T. she wanted, whose infidelity and abandonment had crushed her more than three years previously after 43 years of marriage. At the mention of him, she uttered another word: “Forgive.” The next morning, he called. And with a family member holding the phone to Jewell’s ear, J.T. spoke words that only she could hear. Her reply was stunning: “Of course I forgive you.”[2]

Their relationship had not always been so strained. J.T. and Jewell Elliff enjoyed decades of happy ministry together as he pastored churches in the American South and Midwest,[3] and they raised four children. But one day in 1981, he announced to his son, “I have concluded that I don’t love your mother anymore and I’m planning to leave.”[4]Months later he filed for divorce, married another woman, and left his former bride devastated.[5]

Horrifically, matters got worse. Within two years, Jewell began to experience unusual forgetfulness and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.[6] Because of rapid mental deterioration, she was forced to move out of her house and closer to family–all without the man to whom she pledged her life and whom she needed more than ever.[7]

Amid such trying circumstances, Jewell exhibited sterling character drawn from her faith in Jesus Christ. On one occasion, for instance, she prayed with son Tom as they both wept over her broken marriage and debilitating disease. Amazingly, her prayer showed no signs of the bitterness one might expect. According to Tom, “My mother’s prayer was one great hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God. She thanked God for her family, for each of her four children, their spouses and their children, one by one, and she never missed a name. She thanked God for her own marriage, though now broken, and for her husband of forty-three years. Then she prayed for my father and his wife, asking God to make His way known to them.”[8]

That gracious attitude continued even after she forgave him on the phone from her deathbed. When family members wondered days later why she still clung to life, someone suggested that perhaps she was waiting for J.T. So he came to the hospital and asked to be alone with Jewell. Though a closed door prevented family members from hearing the words exchanged, the sound of sobs was unmistakable.[9] Not long after that reunion, Jewell died and J.T. enjoyed the assurance that he stood forgiven despite such grievous sin.[10]

Tom Elliff reflected on his mother’s forgiving spirit through the words of poet Edwin Markham:

He drew a circle that shut me out;
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in.[11]

On her headstone are engraved words that reflect the only source of such supernatural kindness: “Jesus is all the world to me.”[12]


[1] This was taken from the Kairos Journal, accessed 3-21-12
[2] Tom Elliff, The Red Feather: A Christmas Story for All Seasons (Oklahoma City: Living in the Word Publications, 2008), 87-91.
[3] Emir Caner and Ergun Caner, The Sacred Trust: Sketches of the Southern Baptist Convention Presidents (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2003), 194.
[4] Elliff, 36.
[5] Ibid., 41. See also, “Pastors’ Conference Looks to Unity in Love, Spirit and Purpose,” Baptist Press Website, June 23, 2009, (accessed May 12, 2010).
[6] Elliff, 56-57.
[7] Ibid., 67-70.
[8] Ibid., 62.
[9] Ibid., 92-93.
[10] Jewell Elliff died in 1985.
[11] Elliff, 93.
[12] Ibid., 94.

Ronnie W. Rogers