Thank God for Diaries, Journals, and Biography!

Oh, the refreshing, liberating, exhilarating experience of living for several days with the saints in another century! In preparing for the Pastors’ Conference I immersed myself in the diaries and journals of David Brainerd. He was a missionary to the American Indians of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. For several days I lived most of my waking hours in the years 1718 to 1747—the years this flaming young man lived. It was a short life. But O what a life! What an agonizing, burdened, painful life. But what a testimony to the long-suffering, severe mercy of God.

His father died when he was 9. His mother died when he was 14. He died of tuberculoses when he was 29. Virtually the whole of his missionary life he coughed up blood with painful spasms. There was no cure. And God did not heal. He suffered almost relentless attacks of depression which they called “melancholy” in those days. It was like a death, and when it lifted it was glorious: Tuesday, May 6, 1746, “Enjoyed some spirit and courage in my work; was in a good measure free from melancholy: Blessed be God for freedom from this death.”

He was expelled from Yale a year before graduation and was never allowed to have his degree. He had said of one of the tutors that he “had no more grace than a chair.” That was ground for expulsion in those days. So he was bumped from the normal ministerial route, became a missionary, and changed the face of history.

He never married. It was not easy. And he felt the loneliness of the wilderness keenly. Wednesday, May 18, 1743, “I have no fellow Christian to whom I might unbosom myself and lay open my spiritual sorrows, and with whom I might take sweet counsel in conversation about heavenly things and join in social prayer.” Tuesday, May 8, 1744, “My heart sometimes was ready to sink with the thought of my work, and going alone in the wilderness, I knew not where.”

Life in the wilderness was hard. “Most of my diet consists of boiled corn, hasty pudding, etc. I lodge on a bundle of straw, and my labor is extremely difficult; I have little appearance of success to comfort me…I have taken many considerable journeys…and yet God has never suffered one of my bones to be broken…though I have often been exposed to cold and hunger in the wilderness…; have frequently been lost in the woods…Blessed be God that has preserved me.”

But in it all was the relentless pursuit of God and holiness. “When I really enjoy God, I feel my desires of him the more insatiable, and my thirstings after holiness the more unquenchable;…Oh, for holiness! Oh, for more of God in my soul! Oh, this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press after God…Oh, that I might not loiter on my heavenly journey!”

Why is David Brainerd so encouraging to me? Because God took this pain-wracked, moody, lonely, compulsive, struggling young lover of God and used him to lead several hundred Indians to eternal glory, to spark the founding of Princeton and Dartmouth Colleges and to inflame two hundred years of missionaries with his radically dedicated four-year missionary life. Carey had Brainerd’s Life with him in India; Martyn in Persia; McCheyne in Scotland; Livingston in Africa; and Jim Elliot in Ecuador.

And I venture to say that none of this would have come about without his heartbreaking expulsion from college. O let us sing, brothers and sisters: “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense / But trust him or his grace. / Behind a frowning providence / he hides a smiling face.”

Cherishing the severe mercies,

Pastor John

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