With all the Big Problems in life, so many things going wrong in the world — what difference can I make? Is that a fair question?
The difference your life makes will not be known until after you’ve lived it, maybe even generations later. But your life can still mean something. And don’t think it’s determined by your circumstances, even a “nobody” can leave a powerful legacy.
One such “nobody” came from worse circumstances than most of my readers. He worked in obscurity, and died very young. You might not even know his name. He is exactly the kind of guy history would normally have forgotten, and yet, his legacy endures.
The man’s name was David, and he was born in Connecticut long before the birth of the United States. His home life was hard: his father died when he was eight, and his mother before he was fifteen. By the time he came to faith in Christ at the age of twenty one, he had already given up on any attempt at farming.
He decided to preach, so he began his studies. He missed a lot of school while he was there, having contracted the illness that would later kill him.
David must have had his own “Clash Attitude” because his mouth got him expelled. He publicly questioned his professors’ salvation saying one of them had “No more grace than a chair.” That’ll get you kicked out of Yale in the 1700’s — which is a real career-killer for a would-be preacher.
So — what can an orphaned, failed farmer, seminary drop-out do? He took the opportunities made available to him. He embraced missions work, and discovered that he loved it. He generally lived in poverty and ill-health, he slept on a little straw, lived in a log house with no floor, ate mush, and walked a mile and a half to and from the place where he would minister.
More than once, he became lost in the trackless wilderness travelling between remote villages, exposed to the elements overnight. This would aggravate his tuberculosis, leaving him feeble, and in need of bed-rest.
He had only one English-speaker within miles of him, and was very much cut off from the life he had known. Still, he carried on, and tried to bring the gospel to people who had not heard it. His first two assignments in New York, and Delaware had little, if any, success. By most measurements, he could add “failed missionary” to his list of accomplishments.
David pressed on to his next assignment in New Jersey, where he saw 150 people embrace the gospel he preached during the two years he spent there. Audiences came from 40 miles away to hear his preaching, and he developed a deep affection for these people.
Emotionally and physically spent after those two years, David was welcomed to Jonathan Edwards’ home as a guest for the final year of his life. It was there, at the age of twenty-nine, that he died.
That was his life. He never married, had no property, died poor, and was relatively unknown during his lifetime. His experience was about as far from Christian-TV’s definition of “abundant living” as you can get. But instead of complaining, shortly before his death he said, “I am almost in eternity. I long to be there. My work is done … I long to be in heaven, praising and glorifying God.”
There is one last thing he did. He recorded his daily experiences, through his teen years, his conversion, his struggles and all that had happened to him right up to his death. Those records were gathered and published by Jonathan Edwards in The Life and Diary of David Brainerd.
This diary was widely circulated and read by many. His prayers, life, struggles, and honesty inspired many to the same deep faith in the Saviour that David himself so deeply cherished.
This book was credited as a meaningful inspiration to John Wesley, Henry Martyn, William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Jim Eliot. Martyn was the first missionary to Persia, Carey (“the Father of Modern Missions”) the first missionary to India, Adoniram Judson, led the first successful modern missionary trip to Burma, and Jim Eliot was famously martyred while preaching to unreached tribes in Peru.
These were just the more famous names to acknowledge David’s influence. There have been many others. The fact that Edwards interrupted another of his works to publish this, must suggest that Edwards, too, found it comforting and inspiring.
If you consider the people inspired, in turn, by Edwards, Wesley, Martyn, Judson, Eliot and Carey, this ripple effect keeps increasing. Through them, Brainerd has affected still more lives.
How has David left such a legacy? He committed his life and vocation to Christ, and (importantly) determined not be buried with regrets, “what-if’s” or untapped potential.
We are not all called to be preachers. We are not all called to be famous, or live as so-called “great men”. But in whatever we do, if we do it faithfully, we can make a difference in the place where we are. We can live as David Brainerd did.
I encourage you to read the biography, The Life and Diary of David Brainerd. Perhaps you can do so unchallenged, and unchanged, but — more likely — you will find yourself yet another ripple affected by the greatness of an ordinary man’s life.
Image: Portrait of David Brainerd on Horseback; date: 1891; source:Scanned from David Brainerd, the Apostle to the North American Indians; public domain/copyright expired