David Brainerd and the Pursuit of Holiness
On my bed night after night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him but did not find him. (Song of Solomon 3:1)
David Brainerd was born in Haddam, Connecticut in April, 1718 and attended church regularly in the local Congregational Church, as almost everyone did in eighteenth century New England. However when he was twenty years old Brainerd came under a long, profound, and earth shattering conviction of his sin, being very fearful for the eternal destiny of his soul. Brainerd kept a journal and upon his early death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine in October, 1747, his friend, Jonathan Edwards, whose family nursed him the last few months of his life, compiled his diary while making pertinent comments on his life.1 Brainerd’s diary has edified millions of believers for over two hundred years and countless missionaries have said that it inspired them to go to the mission fields of the world to publish the glad tidings of salvation through Christ.
While reading The Life of David Brainerd recently I was struck with the intense nature of his relationship with the Lord Jesus. It took Brainerd a year or so to see, by God’s sheer grace, that his obedience and law keeping could never save him. But after being born again, Brainerd’s own personal walk with Christ reads like a fervent love affair between a man and a woman. While at Lebanon, Connecticut in November, 1742 he says that God of late has been pleased to keep his soul hungry almost continually so that he was filled with a kind of pleasing pain. In preparing to go to the Kaunaumeek Indians, residing half way between Stockbridge, Massachusetts and Albany, New York, Brainerd said on November 27, 1742,
Surely I may well love all my brethren; for none of them all is so vile as I; whatever they do outwardly, yet it seems to me none is conscious of so much guilt before God. O my leanness, my barrenness, my carnality, and past bitterness, and want of a gospel temper! These things oppress my soul. Rode from New York, thirty miles, to White Plains, and most of the way continued lifting up my heart to God for mercy and purifying grace; and spent the evening much dejected in spirit.
But while feeling dejected and estranged from God, Brainerd was able to write on December 1,
My soul breathed after God, in sweet spiritual and longing desires of conformity to him, and was brought to rest itself on his rich grace, and felt strength and encouragement to do or suffer anything, that divine providence should allot me.
As he came to the Kaunaumeek in April of 1743 he wrote, ‘I was greatly exercised with inward trials, and seemed to have no God to go to. O that God would help me.’ A few days later he wrote, ‘In the morning was again distressed as soon as I awaked.’ Later Brainerd writes, ‘In the morning I enjoyed some sweet repose and rest in God; felt some strength and confidence in him; and my soul was in some measure refreshed and comforted.’
Brainerd’s zeal for Christ is instructive in a number of ways. First, he came to understand that his salvation rested only on what Christ had done on the cross for him. He knew that he was in Christ. This, however, did not stop him from being deeply agitated when he felt that his sin had brought separation between him and the lover of his soul. He is like the bride in Song of Solomon who longs for her groom, yearning for him to come and make love to her, the one whom she loves with her whole being. She is grieved, agitated in her heart when she believes her behaviour has driven him from her. Our pursuit of Jesus ought to be marked with a similar intensity. We ought to be so sensitive to the Spirit’s presence that his absence immediately causes us to recognize this, to take great pains to restore our fellowship with him.
Consider this – before you were married, you pursued with great zeal the one whom you wished to marry. You read every letter carefully. You parsed every conversation, every note, wanting to discern the degree of love your special one had for you. If anything seemed to breach that love, then you were desperate to do what it took to remove the obstacle. Unfortunately, after you were married, if you are like most married people, this zeal to remove any offence to your spouse slowly dissipated. You began to take for granted your spouse’s love for you, and you took liberty with this love, perhaps going days or weeks without making overtures of forgiveness and restoration of a loving, affectionate relationship. You thought, ‘I am married. I know I love my wife and she loves me. That ought to be good enough.’ But that is a very poor marriage and one that will die if that assumption continues.
You, likewise, are married to Christ by virtue of his death and resurrection. Nothing can alter the eternal bonds of his covenant on your life and soul. How foolish, however, to take for granted that relationship, to assume that you can live any way you wish, neglecting him, flagrantly disobeying him. You will suffer the pains of estrangement, if you continue in your folly, when he deserts you – like the bride in Song of Solomon. You will long for him but not be able to find him. Has he left you eternally? No, if indeed you are in Christ; but persistent, willful rebellion may eventually result in your apostasy from the faith, proving that you never had true faith in the first place.
The power of David Brainerd’s short life, the remarkable usefulness to God with the heathen Indians of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut came from his intense love affair with Jesus. Brainerd would not settle for a mere relationship based on the grace of justification. Knowing his own vileness and perverse tendencies, he found it necessary to seek God daily, to draw near, to humble himself in the presence of God. He sought Christ in prayer until he found him.
This means a tender conscience, an abiding sensitivity when offending God, and a God-inspired resolve to make things right with him is something we need to develop. Our tendency is to treat God like we do our spouses – to presume upon our union, forgetting the beauty and necessity of a growing intimacy. What must you do to develop such an intimate intensity? It comes down to the same things I so often mention – you must get a fresh, full, and clear sense of the vileness, corruption, and wickedness of your own flesh and indwelling sin. You must be totally ruthless concerning your sin. You must distrust completely your own assessment of your spiritual condition. Instead you must look at what God’s Word says about your conduct, motives, and idols. And second you must also see the profound love of God in Christ for you. You must see the complete sufficiency of Jesus to justify, sanctify, and glorify you. You must draw near to God, believing that he will draw near to you. When you feel far from God, seek him until you find him.
- Diary and Journal of David Brainerd (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust reprint, 2007).
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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