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Lilias Trotter and Living by Dying

Christians are all called to live by dying. The call is “to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus.”[1] This cross strips us of all our earthly gains and puts our shame, guilt, and fear on display for the world to see. We are called to forget ourselves, pick up the wooden beams, and follow the path laid out for us by an illegitimate Nazarene man who beat the cross at its own game.

The world taunts us with promises of pleasure and glory, and we must ask ourselves:

Should I willingly give up all the opportunities that the world offers to follow Jesus and suffer in this life?

Isabella Lilias Trotter

Isabella Lilias Trotter knew the answer to that question. Born into a wealthy family in London in 1853, Lilias was given every opportunity imaginable. Her childhood was easy and warm, but when she was just eleven years old, the harsh realities of death and its sorrows came upon the Trotter home. Lilias’ father, Alexander, died of an illness, and the easy life of his young daughter was forever changed.[2] It was this first taste of suffering that led Lilias to a deeper understanding of the Gospel. Though it is hard to pinpoint the exact time of Lilias’ conversion, it can at least be said that “now in her early twenties, [Lilias] found her understanding of Christian faith and practice clarified and solidified.”[3]

From this point on, Lilias grew in evangelistic zeal, a passion influenced by Dwight L. Moody.[4] But another passion was blooming in her heart as well. Lilias was always a gifted artist and was constantly enamored with all the beautiful things of the world. Her mother, Isabella, saw this gift and encouraged it by connecting Lilias with one of the greatest artists in England, Mr. John Ruskin.

Lilias was now growing in two directions. Her evangelism and love for those who are lost and her artistry and love for all things beautiful were both flourishing in this time. John Ruskin offered her the opportunity to be “the greatest living painter,” and yet she yearned to care for struggling women in London.[5]

It was at the age of twenty-six where she found her two loves in serious conflict. Lilias had to ask herself the hard question, “Are all things – even the treasures that He has sanctified – held loosely, ready to be parted with, without a struggle, when He asks for them?”[6]

Her answer to this question shaped the rest of her life. Lilias’ conviction was that she could not pursue art in a formal way and also be obedient to the call of Jesus.

Gospel Ministry

From this point in 1879, Lilias’ life was fully devoted to ministry. She began to serve fervently in London, sharing the gospel and caring for women in need.[7] Several years later, Lilias first learned that there were people in North Africa who had never heard the gospel. This stirred her heart, and in 1888, she boarded a ship pointed toward Algeria.

Lilias left her wealthy, comfortable life to pursue a self-supported missionary endeavor to Algeria. Two other women went with her, none of them with any knowledge of the language or any certainty for how ministry would look, but they did bring passion and commitment to the mission.

For the next forty years, Lilias denied herself, took up her cross, and followed Jesus.

Her ministry in Algeria shows that she was willing to live uncomfortably for the sake of others, and her writings are laden with language of death and dying. Two of her published works, Parables of the Cross and Parables of the Christ-Life show how often Lilias thought of the Christian life as one full of death so that true and full life might take place.

Deeper and Deeper Must be the Dying

“Deeper and deeper must be the dying,” writes Lilias, “for wider and fuller is the lifetide that it is to liberate – no longer limited by the narrow range of our own being, but with endless powers of multiplying in other souls.”[8]

It is a great paradox that dying to self brings about life in others, and yet this is the true calling of all believers. This paradox is essential to the Christian life, and yet we downplay the need for death because we want ourselves to live. We long for our will to be done and our kingdom to come. You have told Him that you want Him only. Are you ready to ratify the words when His emptying begins to come? Is God enough? Click To Tweet

Lilias Trotter is an example to all Christians of what a life committed to death looks like. She did not have a surface-level understanding of self-denial. She writes:

“[We] may co-exist with much that looks like sacrifice; there may be much of usefulness and outward self-denial, and yet below the surface may remain a clinging to our own judgement, a confidence in our own resources, an unconscious taking of our own way, even in God’s service… May God shew us every witholding thread of self that needs breaking still, and may His own touch shrivel it into death.”[9]

Not one “thread of self” should stand in our lives. We say that we want Christ alone, believe in Christ alone, and hope in Christ alone. Do we still hold fast to these statements when we are alone and have nothing except Christ?

“You have told Him that you want Him only. Are you ready to ratify the words when His emptying begins to come? Is God enough? Is it still ‘My God’ that you cry, even as Jesus cried when nothing else was left Him?”[10]

The greatest preachers, most courageous missionaries, and most pious believers still struggle to truly take up their crosses and follow Jesus. Lilias, by no means, obeyed Jesus perfectly, and she most certainly struggled with pride as we all do.

But Lilias Trotter was a cross-bearer. Her life was marked by obedience, by denial of earthly pleasures, and by death. Many do not remember Lilias, but God glorified Himself through her life and we can still learn much from her about living by dying.

“Nothing to glory in – God cannot get His whole glory while man gets any.”[11]


[1] Matthew 16:24

[2] Miriam Huffman Rockness, A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, (Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishers, 2003), 48.

[3] Rockness, 61.

[4] Rockness, 67.

[5] Rockness, 83.

[6] I. Lilias Trotter, Parables of the Cross, (Fort Myers: Oxvision Books, 2015), 32.

[7] Rockness, 91.

[8] Trotter, 43.

[9] Trotter, 47-48.

[10] Trotter, 35.

[11] I. Lilias Trotter, Parables of the Christ Life, (ValdeBooks, 2009), 18.

Allyson Todd

Allyson Todd is the Assistant Director of Events at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and an associate editor and intern for women’s initiatives at For The Church, where she also writes. She holds an undergrad degree from Midwestern College, a dual major in Christian Ministry (missions emphasis) and Humanities. She is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity degree at Midwestern Seminary and she is a member of Wornall Road Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO. You can follow her on Twitter at @_allysontodd.

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