“Himself knew what He would do.” This was a favourite quotation of a woman whose name, if she had gone one way, you would very likely know as well as any other famous artist. But since she didn’t go that way, it’s likely you’ve never heard of her. I’ve asked a few friends. “Have you ever heard of Lilias Trotter?” I get much the same response. “I think I’ve maybe heard the name, that’s about all. Who is she?”
I’ll leave it to you to find that out by reading a short biography. I’ll just say here briefly that Lilias Trotter came to a time of crisis in her life when she had to decide what she would give her life to—her art or her Lord Jesus. Born Isabella Lilias Trotter (1853-1928) to affluent parents in Victorian England, she had early shown an exceptional talent in art, leaving her father and mother with little wonder as to what direction her life might eventually take. Then when she was 23, famed art critic John Ruskin viewed some of her work, and with perceptive and far-seeing eye was sure he knew what direction her life should take. In her own words in a letter to a friend, Lilias wrote that Ruskin had persuasively convinced her that if she would forsake all else and devote herself to painting, under his tutelage she “would be the greatest living painter and do things that would be immortal.”
The problem was that Lilias also early had been a spiritually sensitive girl with a growing desire to know the Lord. As a young woman she attended what were then called the “deeper life conferences” (later the Keswick conferences) in which she heard words by which the Son of God’s love laid hold of her heart. She had also become involved in Christian outreach work in London, among other things seeking to help the many women who could not find work, some of whom had resorted to selling themselves.
Here was a love, then, that she would have to part ways with if she were to give herself to her art. She loved her art… and she loved her Jesus. She agonized over this, often on her face before God, until finally she knew clearly that she could not do what Ruskin asked. “I see clear as daylight now,” she wrote again, “I cannot give myself to painting in the way he means and continue to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.’”
And so to Ruskin’s great disappointment and the dismay of her family and friends, Lilias Trotter turned down his offer, for a few years giving herself to her Christian work in London. Then one day in a gathering she heard a missionary appeal on behalf of those in North Africa who had never heard the name of Christ. Deeply stirred, she heard the call, shortly thereafter sailing away to Algeria where she spent most of the rest of her life as an obscure missionary known only in Christian circles, as far as this world is concerned famous only to God.
Over the years from her base in Algiers Lilias Trotter established many missions. She also wrote and published a few devotional booklets. Parables of the Cross. Parables of the Christ-life. Many of her writings are accompanied by beautiful watercolours, for she continued to paint all her life—but not as her one great love. That was reserved for Another. Much of the inspiration both for her art and her writings came to her from nature. Another of her writings called Focussed is inspiration she received while considering, of all things, a dandelion with its face upturned to the sun. Focussed with its challenge to “turn full your soul’s vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him” became the inspiration of Helen Lemmel’s beloved hymn, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face…”
Lilias also kept journals, to this day largely unpublished. They must be a treasure trove of wisdom and truth if the gems in now-published selections from them are any indication. It’s in these that the quotation I introduced appears again and again. Let’s look closer at it now.
He knows what He will do
I’ve transposed into the present what in Scripture is in the past: “He Himself knew what He would do.” You’ll recall where these words come from:
When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?
Philip cast about in his own mind for the answer to this, and Andrew added his contribution with an observation about a lad who had five loaves and two fish. However, Jesus had not asked this because He was looking to them for suggestions.
And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do. (Jn. 6:5,6)
What Philip and Andrew did, isn’t that all too often what you and I do? We look to our own so-limited resources to resolve the impossible needs about us without considering what our Lord has in mind. Not so Lilias Trotter. Somewhere along the way when faced with an overwhelming need, her Lord had revealed to her that “He Himself knew what He would do.” This became a… what shall I call it… this became a habit of mind to her in all things—a looking to Jesus, anticipating His wonderful workings.
Here now is a quotation from A Passion for the Impossible, The Life of Lilias Trotter, by Miriam Huffman Rockness:
To Lilias this meant that even when there were no outward signs of encouragement, she would keep a listening heart tuned to her Father’s voice, then faithfully do what He said. As she loved to say, “He knew what He would do.” This meant complete rejoicing when His purpose was revealed in the proving of His promises.
That’s because what He does unfailingly meets the need. Perhaps someone is thinking, “Of course Jesus knows what He will do, the problem is that I don’t know what He will do.” But if we know that He knows what He will do, this ought to entirely change our outlook. It ought to inspire in us the faith that anticipates Him doing what He will do. And so instead of labourings and strivings, connivings and schemings, frettings and worryings and wearyings… trying to figure out what do to, we cease from all that and rest confidently in Him.
And it becomes a habit of mind with you and me to trust that our Lord Jesus Christ knows what He will do. He Himself has a mind, has thoughts and plans, knows what He Himself will do in any and every situation. He wants to involve us in that. Let us cease from ourselves, then, cease from looking to our own mind, so poorly lit as it is. It’s a bad habit of mind, a pattern of thinking that can be hard to kick. Let us be persistent, then, and give ourselves to a good habit of mind—He knows what He will do. Let us dwell on this. Let us nurture our minds with this. Let us surrender all to Him, trusting Him. Fully. It is rest to us when we do this, when this is our outlook, our habit of mind. He knows what He will do. When faced with the many difficult things in life that we so deeply long to see resolved, let us look to Jesus. It is rest to do so. Rest. We may not know what to do and may not know what He is doing either, but we rest our confidence in Him, rejoicing in Him, anticipating that He knows what He will do, and, as with Philip and Andrew and the other disciples, will in due time involve us in His doing.
Excellent thoughts! We must trust this.
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Thanks, Jimmy. Yes, this is such a good habit!
You’re welcome, Allen.
I stumbled across Lillias Trotter a couple of years ago while looking for the name of a desert blossom / wild flower. I ended up purchasing her book “A Blossom In The Desert” that contains her paintings with the short devotionals. A year after that a new sister in our fellowship mentioned she had been reading her works too. Her story is a real blessing as is this exhortation you shared.
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Hi Jim, thank you. I recently ordered “A Blossom in the Desert,” which has now arrived by mail. I’m looking forward to reading it!
Brings also to mind the astonishing young painter, Akiane. Visions and dreams of Jesus and heaven from a very young age which she began ‘translating’ to canvas and the world is far richer for it! Led to the conversion first (and even) of her atheist parents.
The Lord gifts us each uniquely and a part of me can’t help but feel sad this young woman didn’t fully share/develop her God-given artistic talents but it certainly sounds like she, and He, knew what she was doing.
Hi Susanna. If Lilias Trotter had lived in our day she could have become a famous artist known also to be a Christian, as certain famous rock stars and professional sports stars are known. But she was not prepared to give herself to ultimate worldly fame while being a Jesus-on-the-back-burner Christian. We are glad, aren’t we.
PS I haven’t heard of Akiane. I’ll check that out.
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I knew I had to share this insight with others. I’ve just returned from a Ministers’ Fraternal in our area (Eastern Cape, South Africa). Some of the pastors and their families are going through a tough time, health-wise (Covid) and financially due to the lock-downs. They are professionals who have made many financial sacrifices for the sake of the gospel. They were sharing authentically about the future security of their families, some have kidz at university and elderly parents, etc. I was able to pass on your message above (hope you didn’t mind), and they were so encouraged and uplifted by the thought of Jesus, who already knew what he would do. One lady pastor who was widowed a few years ago, phoned me specially to thank me – at the beginning of the meeting I shared that I had just read the blog of a godly Canadian who has seen a bit of life and learned such a valuable insight from the life of Lilias Trotter! Be encouraged, Allan, our writings travel far and wide.
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How that encourages me, Erroll, thank you! To think that here I am in poor health and more or less confined to home… and have blessed others on a continent far away! I’m quite broken up by that. Thank you, dear Lord Jesus.
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This is really good Allan. I thinks it’s the way John Ruskin presented it to her that convinced her that Jesus had to be her goal in life. Like when Jesus was tempted in the Wilderness by Satan that he could have rule over all the kingdoms of the world if he would worship him. Of course “Jesus knew what he would do”! I think the key as you mentioned is to rest in that. It doesn’t come easy for us but “Let us therefore labor to enter into His rest!”
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Hi Joe, welcome, good to see you here! You could well be right, perhaps John Ruskin’s motives were sincere, but so were Peter’s when he advised Jesus against going the way of the Cross. However, Peter was not aware of something. Jesus said to him, “Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men” (Mk 8:33). That’s quite something– that all too often “the things that be of men” have their origin in Satan. Just as the temptations in the wilderness, Peter’s words were a real temptation to Jesus, as John Ruskin’s were to Lilias Trotter. No doubt each of us faces the same trial in our own lives. May we be attentive and recognize the source that would hinder us going God’s way!
And as you said, entering into the Rest doesn’t come easy. In fact there is a real battle regarding this, as I have discovered. That’s why the writer of Hebrews counsels us to labour– give all diligence– to enter that Rest.
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I like the idea that trust the Lord becomes a habit. That is one habit we should cultivate.
Yes, Anna. This is one habit it would be good to be addicted to. 🙂