The Well Squandered Life: Influential Lives of Obscurity

Not long ago I read an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that gave me cause for dismay. The article announced local auditions for a new reality television show. Unlike so many reality shows, this series does not portend to be vulgar, voyeuristic, or sensual. “Pulpit Masters” is meant to be an inspirational program, identifying the next superstar preacher to join the ranks of the pop stars lifted from obscurity by “American Idol.”

Although this show may be wholesome viewing, it reinforces a message that is nearly all-pervasive in our culture. The message is that influence depends upon fame and wealth; if we want to make a difference in the world, we must pursue goal-oriented glory.

Must we seek a “platform” to make a difference in this world? The biblical writers propose a different route to influence. Peters counsels his readers, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:5b-6). James affirms the same path to greatness, writing, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). These verses don’t portray exaltation as a bad thing. But they draw a sharp distinction between exalting yourself and being exalted by God.

The biblical model of influence inverts the world’s model. When John the Baptist’s followers complained to him that so many people were flocking to Jesus, John told them that this was the way it should be: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” I have a feeling that John the Baptist would not have made it past the first round of “Pulpit Masters.” But of this humble servant, Jesus said, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).

Several years ago, I heard Christopher Parkening make a comment in an interview that has stayed with me. Parkening is one of the most famous classical guitarists in the world. He has lived the experience of reaching lofty goals and receiving acclaim for his hard work. But since coming to know Christ midway through his career, Parkening has often remarked, “True happiness comes when you squander your life for a great purpose.”

Christopher Parkening’s statement echoes the words of Jesus, who said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). We can exhaust ourselves by seeking significance in what we do and how we are known, hoping that we will be remembered after we are gone. Or, we can lay our lives on God’s altar, squandering them in the world’s eyes, but entrusting our legacy to our maker. Let us briefly examine the lives of three of God’s children who did just that.

David Brainerd

David Brainerd was born in Connecticut in 1718. He lost both of his parents in his youth. He tried his hand at farming for a bit, but he longed for education and entered Yale University when he was twenty-one. Brainerd believed that God was calling him into ministry; his earnest temperament and scholarly disposition boded well for his success in the pastorate.

While David Brainerd was at Yale, George Whitefield preached there. The fires of the Great Awakening sweeping across the country began to burn among the students, leading to great spiritual zeal and, along with it, controversy. The faculty and administration of the university were suspicious of what was termed “enthusiasm.” The students who, for the first time, had developed a taste for spiritual ardor began to question the genuineness of faith in those who were not swept up in the Awakening. Charges of hypocrisy were leveled at various school officials who retaliated by announcing that any such charges would be greeted with expulsion. David Brainerd was overheard to make several ill-judged remarks about members of the faculty, and the university made good its threat by expelling him.

David Brainerd’s expulsion from Yale ended his career as a minister before it began. No matter how he appealed the decision, he could not get reinstated as a student. A recently passed law forbade any minister from being established in Connecticut who had not graduated from Yale, Harvard, or a European university.1 David Brainerd gave up his dream of being a pastor and instead became something he had never before considered: a missionary to Native Americans.

Brainerd’s constitution and temperament made him a far from ideal choice to be a pioneer missionary. He contracted tuberculosis while at Yale and had been physically weakened ever since. Brainerd suffered greatly from what was then known as melancholy, which we now call depression. Living alone in remote villages where no one spoke his language exacerbated his tendency toward depression. But what David Brainerd lacked in natural qualifications, he made up for in dedication and earnestness. As Ruth Tucker puts it, “Brainerd was a zealot.”2

For several years, David Brainerd had very little success in his mission work. He did not speak the language of the tribes to which he preached, and his interpreters had little spiritual understanding. He moved several times and finally ended up in Crossweeksung, New Jersey, where he found greater openness among the Iroquois of the Susquehanna Valley. In 1745, revival broke out in Crossweeksung, and, over the course of a year and a half, Brainerd saw more than a hundred Native Americans repent and believe the Gospel. He helped start a school and church. But in 1747, Brainerd’s health broke down. He died of tuberculosis in the home of Jonathan Edwards, under the watch care of Edwards’s daughter (whom he had hoped to marry).

One would have expected the memory of David Brainerd’s short stint as a missionary to be relegated to the annals of missiology. But Brainerd kept a journal, and Jonathan Edwards was so inspired by the journal that he published it along with a brief biography of his young friend. The Life of David Brainerd has never since been out of print. It has influenced countless ministers, missionaries, and lay people, including John Wesley, David Livingstone, William Carey, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Andrew Murray, and Jim Eliot.

David Brainerd’s journal is a record of one long struggle. While one might not expect such an account to inspire missionaries, it gives hope to those who recognize their own weaknesses. Brainerd’s perseverance in the face of depression, loneliness, illness, and perceived failure—obstacles faced so frequently in ministry—gives courage to the downtrodden. Though he was cut off from the life that would have made him comfortable and thrust into a ministry that seemed doomed to failure, God had a plan to use him. I doubt that there are any among us who have not been influenced by someone shaped by the life of David Brainerd.

George Herbert

George Herbert grew up in a prominent Welsh family. His mother was a well-known literary patron, and their family was frequently in the company of the eminent poets and scholars of the seventeenth century. Herbert showed great literary promise and graduated with distinction from Trinity College, Cambridge. He won a fellowship and distinguished himself by publishing Latin poetry. At the age of twenty-six, he was appointed to be “public orator” for the university. Herbert was elected to Parliament in 1624, and stood perfectly poised to reach high political office.

Yet something prompted George Herbert to step back and reconsider his ambitions. The death of several of his prominent supporters, among them Francis Bacon and King James himself, brought Herbert into a new period of spiritual searching. He decided to take a time of retreat to consider his calling. One of his contemporaries describes his struggle this way: “In this time of retirement he had many conflicts with himself, whether he should return to the painted pleasures of a court life, or betake himself to a study of divinity, and enter into sacred orders, to which his mother had often persuaded him. These were such conflicts as they only can know that have endured them; for ambitious desires, and the outward glory of this world, are not easily laid aside; but at last God inclined him to put on a resolution to serve at his altar.”3

In the year 1630, George Herbert was ordained in the Church of England. He was not to be the dean of a cathedral as was his friend John Donne, but instead he became the priest of the small country parish of Bemerton. Friends protested that he was squandering “the excellent abilities and endowments of his mind.”4 He replied that the domestic servants of the King of Heaven are of the noblest families on earth.

Herbert engrossed himself in his pastoral duties and wrote a guidebook for those called to the priesthood entitled A Priest to the Temple, or The Country Parson. When he was not visiting the sick, preparing sermons, or counseling with parishioners, he continued to write poetry, though it was not published or circulated among the public. Herbert’s health was not good, and at the age of forty he realized he would not last much longer. He assembled his poems into a manuscript, which he entrusted to his friend Nicholas Ferrar. He asked Ferrar to publish them if he believed they would “turn to the advantage of any poor dejected soul.”5 If not, he instructed his friend to burn the lot.

After George Herbert’s death, Nicholas Ferrar published the poems in a small volume called The Temple; they received immediate popular acclaim. In his style of poetry, Herbert had not followed the florid literary fashion of the day but had crafted simple, spare, honest poems about the soul’s relationship to God. Herbert mastered the art of the metaphysical conceit (the quintessential feature of the poetry of this period), but he employed metaphors to communicate rather than to impress. Nearly all of his images are biblical, and the themes running through The Temple are thoroughly Christian. Nevertheless, George Herbert’s poems have been some of the most anthologized in the English language. Students of literature everywhere receive a theological education when they study Herbert’s Christ-centered poetry. It is God’s irony that by choosing to leave the road to earthly achievement in order to follow a more humble path, George Herbert unwittingly sealed his place in the history of English letters.

Mary Carey

Mary Carey’s story is different from the two we’ve just considered in that she had no choice but to live an obscure life. We know about her because she was the sister of William Carey, the man who has come to be known as the “Father of Modern Missions.” Their father was a weaver in Northamptonshire, England. William and Mary were playmates as children, but as she grew older, she was increasingly affected by a degenerative disease of the spine.

When William Carey left for what would be a lifetime career as a missionary to India, Mary went to live with their sister Ann. For the rest of her life, she depended upon the kindness of her sister’s family for everything that she needed. By the time that she was twenty-five years old, she was paralyzed; she could not move any of her limbs except for her right arm. She was confined to her bedroom for fifty years. For thirty-one of those years, she could not speak.

This is not the life that Mary would have chosen. At one point, she wrote in a letter to her brother, “I wish we may be more conspicuous for God.”6 Though she never became “conspicuous,” God allowed her to be more influential than she could ever have dreamed. She faithfully interceded for the work going on at Carey’s mission in India. In spite of the fact that she could not speak, Mary led a Bible class, sitting propped up in bed and writing on a slate. Although self-pity must have been a ripe temptation, Mary’s niece wrote that her aunt always felt more for others than for herself.

Mary Carey outlived her brother, but as long as he was living, she wrote him letters. She was his connection to home, and she exhausted herself writing to him all of the details of their family’s news. Not only did these letters help sustain and encourage Carey on the field, Mary’s letters and William’s responses have allowed historians to piece together many of the details of Carey’s life and ministry.

Chronic illness is a heavy cross to bear. Mary was financially dependent upon her brother and physically dependent upon her sister’s family for her entire adult life. But she was emotionally dependent upon the Holy Spirit, who enabled her to think beyond her own difficulties and care for others. Her pastor often said of her, “Her work in her affliction, in its way, was as great as that which her great brother wrought.”7 William Carey’s life changed India forever. Mary Carey’s life, letters, and prayers changed those around her and left a valuable legacy for those who suffer in body.

These are just a few of the lives that God has lifted from obscurity to use for his sovereign purposes. There are thousands of others whose effect cannot be so easily traced, who have accomplished great things for the kingdom of God through their prayers. Some choose humble callings; others have no choice in the matter. But make no mistake: the life laid upon God’s altar as a living sacrifice will never be squandered.

Betsy Childs is a staff writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries

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1 John Piper, “Oh, That I May Never Loiter On My Heavenly Journey!” preached January 31, 1990; see http://www.desiringgod.org/library/biographies/90brainerd.html.

2 Ruth Tucker, “David Brainerd” in From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 90.

3 Izaak Walton, The Lives of John Donne and George Herbert. Vol. XV, Part 2. The Harvard Classics (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14); Bartleby.com, 2001. See www.bartleby.com/15/2/.

4 Ibid.

5 “George Herbert” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Century (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), 1595.

6 S. Pearce Carey, M.A., William Carey, D.D: Fellow of Linnaean Society (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1923), 40.

7 Ibi., 41.

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