Living With Meaning: Appearances and the Big Picture

By Maria Fontaine

August 5, 2011

Do you sometimes feel like a failure? Things haven’t turned out the way you thought they should have or the way you wanted. Your expectations have been disappointed, your goals have not been reached. You’re tempted to feel that it’s because you’ve failed, or maybe others have failed. But you’ve stayed true to the Lord. You’ve been faithful. You’ve done what He’s asked of you to the best of your ability. You’ve done what you could to help souls be won for Him. Your life has been devoted to helping others and loving others.

Let me tell you about a man who had every right to feel like a failure.

He was sickly, often depressed to the point of wanting to give up on life completely. He had lost both of his parents by the time he was 14. He was expelled from college, which meant that his dreams of higher education and his goal of being accepted as a minister were out of the question. Most of the time he struggled with loneliness and isolation. He battled with fears of death. He died at a young age in poverty and severe illness, with few accomplishments to his name.

He was a failure in his own eyes, and in the eyes of many others at the time. Yet, his name lives on and his story has inspired many missionaries and workers for God, both past and present. His converts went on to witness to others, and his missionary work influenced many. Generations of Christians have been inspired through his prayer journal.

He died not knowing that he had accomplished anything, except for gaining a handful of converts. His life was only distinguished after his death.

It was his life’s struggles on this earth—his so-called failures—in the form of his doubts and depression, his anguish of spirit, that helped many other missionaries, and encouraged and strengthened them in their missions.

Was it truly failure? Or did God want to use his life as a candle—however small the light and however briefly it would shine, before being extinguished—to bring illumination and encouragement to future generations of workers for God?

His name? David Brainerd.

Does God know what He’s doing? Did God make a mistake? Did David Brainerd do something wrong? Did he mess up somewhere and therefore not hit the mark? Do you think it’s possible to look like a failure and still be a success in God’s eyes? Think about it. Can the Lord be more interested in encouraging someone through our struggles and even mistakes than by having us look and feel so good, or by allowing us to enjoy a continual stream of obvious accomplishments?

Here’s a brief overview of his life, which I’ve compiled and condensed from several books and online resources.

David Brainerd, missionary to the North American Indians. Born April 20, 1718; died October 9, 1747, at the age of 29.

He had by his own description a melancholy disposition. His father died when he was eight years old, his mother when he was 14.

By the age of 21 he had received the Savior and determined to be a witness. In September of 1739, he enrolled at Yale College. It was a time of transition at Yale. When he first entered the school he was distressed by the religious indifference he saw around him, but the impact of evangelist George Whitefield and the Great Awakening soon made its mark. Prayer and Bible study groups sprang up overnight—usually to the displeasure of school authorities who were fearful of religious “enthusiasm.” It was in this atmosphere that young Brainerd made an intemperate remark about one of the tutors, commenting that he had “no more grace than a chair,” judging him to be a hypocrite. The remark was carried back to the school officials, and David was expelled after he refused to make a public apology for what he had said in private.

But Brainerd persisted in efforts to spread the Gospel, even though, by almost every standard known to modern missionary boards, he was considered a risk as a missionary candidate. Physically weak, he experienced frequent bouts of illness and depression, and took frequent furloughs.

In 1742 he obtained a commission as a missionary among the Indians. His first year of missionary activities was not particularly successful. He couldn’t speak the language of the natives, nor was he prepared for the difficulties of life in the wilderness. His native interpreter had a problem with alcohol and wasn’t converted either, and had no understanding of spiritual matters. He was lonely and deeply sad. He wrote:

My heart was sunk ... It seemed to me I should never have any success among the Indians. My soul was weary of my life; I longed for death, beyond measure.

I live in the most lonely melancholy desert ... I board with a poor Scotchman; his wife can talk scarce any English. My diet consists mostly of hasty-pudding [ground-up grain mush], boiled corn, and bread baked in ashes. … My lodging is a little heap of straw laid upon some boards. My work is exceeding hard and difficult...

His first winter in the wilderness was one of hardship and sickness. On one occasion he was lost for a time in the woods, and on another he “was very much exposed and very wet by falling into a river.”

His second year of missionary service he looked on as a total loss, and his hopes of evangelizing the Indians faded. He seriously considered giving up his work.

His third year, he moved to a different area and a more receptive group of Indians. His meetings began to attract as many as seventy Indians at a time, some of them travelling forty miles to hear the message of salvation. Signs of a religious awakening began to appear, and after a year and a half, the travelling preacher had about 150 converts, some of whom went on to witness to others.

Brainerd’s first journey to reach one ferocious tribe resulted in a miracle that left him revered among the Indians as a “Prophet of God.” Encamped on the outskirts of the Indian settlement, Brainerd planned to enter the Indian community the next morning to preach to them. Unknown to him, his every move was being watched by warriors who had been sent out to kill him. F. W. Boreham recorded the incident:

When the braves drew closer to Brainerd’s tent, they saw the paleface on his knees. And as he prayed, suddenly a rattlesnake slipped to his side, lifted up its ugly head to strike, flicked its forked tongue almost in his face, and then without any apparent reason, glided swiftly away into the brushwood. ‘The Great Spirit is with the paleface!’ the Indians said; and thus they accorded him a prophet’s welcome.

That incident in Brainerd’s ministry illustrates more than the many divine interventions of God in his life—it also illustrates the importance and intensity of prayer in his life. On page after page in Life and Diary of David Brainerd, one reads such sentences as:

And God again enabled me to wrestle for numbers of souls, and had much fervency in the sweet duty of intercession.

This morning I spent about two hours in secret duties and was enabled more than ordinarily to agonize for immortal souls. Though it was early in the morning and the sun scarcely shined at all, yet my body was quite wet with sweat.

Spent much time in prayer in the woods and seemed raised above the things of this world.

In the morning was almost continually engaged in prayer.

Was enabled to pray much, through the whole day.

Spent this day in secret fasting, and prayer, from morning till night.

It was raining and the roads were muddy; but this desire grew so strong that I kneeled down by the side of the road and told God all about it. While I was praying, I told Him that my hands should work for Him, my tongue speak for Him, if He would only use me as His instrument—when suddenly the darkness of the night lit up, and I knew that God had heard and answered my prayer.

Here am I, send me; send me to the ends of the earth; send me to the rough, the savage pagans of the wilderness; send me from all that is called comfort on earth; send me even to death itself; if it be in Thy service and to promote Thy kingdom.

In the silences I make in the midst of the turmoil of life I have appointments with God. From these silences I come forth with spirit refreshed, and with a renewed sense of power. I hear a voice in the silences, and become increasingly aware that it is the voice of God.

This I saw, that when a soul loves God with a supreme love, God’s interests and his are become one. It is no matter when nor where nor how Christ should send me, nor what trials He should exercise me with, if I may be prepared for His work and will … Oh that I were a flame of fire in my Master’s cause! ... I cared not where or how I lived, or what hardships I went through, so that I could but gain souls to Christ. While I was asleep, I dreamed of these things, and when I awoke the first thing I thought of was this great work. All my desire was for the conversion of the heathen, and all my hope was in God.

After all the hardships Brainerd had endured, his health was broken. He was diagnosed with incurable tuberculosis. He eventually moved to the home of theologian Jonathan Edwards, where he was cared for by Jerusha Edwards, Mr. Edward’s seventeen-year-old daughter, whom he had hoped to marry.

He died on October 9, 1747. Four months later, Jerusha joined him, also dying of tuberculosis that she had apparently caught while caring for him.

His selfless devotion, zeal, and life of prayer inspired other missionaries, like Henry Martyn, William Carey, Jonathan Edwards, Adoniram Judson, and John Wesley. His influence after his death was greater than any results achieved during his lifetime. His journal became a classic that has moved many to missionary service. His influence is proof that God can and will use any vessel, no matter how fragile and frail, if it is only sold out to souls and the Savior.


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