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 haven’t been reached?
Well, let me tell you about a man who felt like a failure.
He was sickly, often depressed to the point of wanting to give up on life completely. Both of his parents had died by the time he was 14. He was expelled from college, which meant that his dreams of higher education and his goal of being a minister were out of the question. He struggled with loneliness and isolation. He battled with fear of death. He died at a young age in poverty after severe illness, with what seemed like 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 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 if 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?
Did God make a mistake? Is it possible to look like a failure and still be a success in God’s eyes?
His name was David Brainerd. Here’s a brief overview of his life, which I’ve compiled and condensed from several books and online sources:
David Brainerd, missionary to the North American Indians. Born April 20, 1718.
By the age of 21, he had received Jesus as his 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.
Brainerd persisted in his efforts to spread the gospel, even though, by almost every standard known to missionary boards, he was considered a risky candidate for missions. He had by his own description a melancholy disposition. He was physically weak, experienced frequent bouts of illness and depression, and had to take frequent furloughs.
In 1742, he obtained a commission as a missionary among the Native Americans. His first year of missionary activities wasn’t particularly successful. He couldn’t speak the language of the natives, nor was he prepared for the difficulties of life in the wilderness. 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. … 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 filled with hardship and sickness. His second year of missionary service he considered 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 there his meetings began to attract as many as seventy Native Americans at a time, some of them traveling 40 miles to hear the message of salvation. There was a religious awakening, and after a year and a half, the traveling preacher had about 150 converts, some of whom went on to witness to others.
Brainerd’s first journey to one ferocious tribe resulted in a miracle that left him revered among the natives as a “prophet of God.” Encamped on the outskirts of the native settlement, Brainerd planned to enter the community the next morning to preach. 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:
“God again enabled me to wrestle for numbers of souls, and had much fervency in the sweet duty of intercession.”
“Spent much time in prayer in the woods and seemed raised above the things of this world.”
“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 would 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.”
“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.”
After all the hardships Brainerd had endured, his health was broken. He died at the age of 29 on October 9, 1747. 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 inspired many to engage in missionary service. His influence is proof that God can and will use any vessel that is willing to be a tool in His hands, no matter how fragile and frail.