I’ve been listening to several messages John Piper did on “Men of Whom the World was not Worthy”. Among these, he cites such Christian luminaries as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon and his personal hero, Jonathan Edwards. He also speaks at length on some lesser known men who have had a profound effect on Christianity by having a profound effect on shaping other great men of the faith.
David Brainerd is one such man. I’d heard Piper mention him before in messages on Jonathan Edwards. Brainerd died of consumption in Edwards home. I believe he stayed with them a total of 19 weeks, during which time Edwards was sufficiently impressed by Brainerd’s piety and faith in God (while he was dying of consumption, mind you) that he wrote a biography of the young man after he died.
Brainerd was 29.
By this time he had studied at Yale, been expelled for voicing concerns about the piety of the Christian leadership there and then spent 4 years alone in the forest - often sick, often lost, often without food – ministering to the native peoples along the East Coast. By his own account, the work was very hard and he claimed no great success.
The converted tribesmen of those areas would beg to differ, I am sure.
He was “just” a missionary for a short period of time nearly 300 years ago. Had it not been for Jonathan Edwards, he would have likely slipped into obscurity. Yet, all these years later, countless missionaries credit the story of his life and ministry as an inspiration. One of these was another contemporary “nobody”…Jim Elliot. In his lifetime, he was just a guy, following the Lord’s lead and doing his best to live the crucified life. Like Brainerd who lived during the “Great Awakening”, Elliot was a missionary during a time when missionary work was much more prevalent and “the norm” than it is now...yet at the same time, each of them faced opposition to their "radical" brand of Christianity. To Elliot (and Brainerd, i am sure), however, this was the life he had been called to and he determined to give it his all. Also like Brainerd, he wrote no great works, was not a celebrated Pastor or speaker and knew the realities of hardship and sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. Each also left behind journals and each gained the love and respect of one key person which would document their life and bring them out of obscurity into the immortal.
The point is…there is no such thing as a small, insignificant life. These men did not accomplish what we might call “great things” in their life. They did not have large bodies of written works like Spurgeon or Owen or Luther. They weren’t even involved in ministry all that long and both died very young. Certainly, neither of them were seeking fame and recognition…they were simply living the life appointed them with one aim…the glory of God.
One can only speculate as to why these men’s lives stick out as opposed to other “obscure” yet sold-out missionaries of their day. Perhaps it is because of their early deaths. Perhaps it is merely the “chance” and providence of their connections. Brainerd crossed Edwards path…Elliot was married to Elisabeth Elliot. Both were writers and both achieved/have achieved notoriety during their respective lifetimes. Perhaps, though, it is something more…something far less circumstantial and far more profound. Perhaps, it was the deliberate and purposeful hand of God…the same hand that led them to their biographers, which took their lives, and which gave each of them a dose of piety and faithfulness and selflessness each of us can only pray for the grace to even aspire to, much less emulate. Perhaps, they had to die that we might see what a crucified life looks like...that countless missionaries might be moved to set about that work…and even more “average Christians” might be challenged to go a step further, climb higher, dig down deeper into the Christian life…whether they regard it small or not.