Among the many godly people of the past who have profoundly influenced my life, three stand out for the contagious nature of their holiness.
David Brainerd was a missionary to the Indian tribes in the American colonies in the mid-1700s. He was known for his intensely devoted prayer life. He would regularly rise before dawn and kneel in the snow praying for his beloved Indians. He suffered emotionally from depression and physically from tuberculosis. His diaries are rich with his longings for a closer walk with Christ, for a holy life that would glorify Christ and win others to Him. Brainerd's final entry in his diary just days before he died at age 29 reads:
"My soul was this day, at turns, sweetly set on God: I longed to be with him, that I might behold his glory. I felt sweetly disposed to commit all to him, even my dearest friends, my dearest flock, my absent brother, and all my concerns for time and eternity. O that his kingdom might come in the world; that they might all love and glorify him for what he is in himself; and that the blessed Redeemer might see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied!' O come, Lord Jesus, come quickly! Amen."
When I returned from missionary service in Italy, a visited my beloved professor Dr. Eugene J. Petersen. He commented that the seminary students he was currently teaching felt that Brainerd was wrong to take such poor care of his health, neglecting it to press on in his ministry to the Indians. "What do you think, Tom?" Dr. Petersen asked. I responded, "I'm not worried about there being too many David Brainerds!" The professor smiled and nodded.
Over a half-century later, a godly young scholar named Henry Martyn discovered David Brainerd's diary, and according to Martyn's biographer, he "found his hero. He who would know Martyn must ask what manner of man was that Brainerd who called out his depths of admiration." (Henry Martyn by Constance E. Padwick) References to David Brainerd made their way into Henry Martyn's journals:
"I thought of David Brainerd, and ardently desired his devotedness to God and holy breathings of soul."
"Read David Brainerd today and yesterday, and find as usual my spirit greatly benefited by it. I long to be like him; let me forget the world and be swallowed up in a desire to glorify God."
"Read Brainerd. I feel my heart knit to this dear man, and really rejoice to think of meeting him in heaven."
Henry Martyn forsook a promising career in Cambridge University to serve nobly as a chaplain and missionary in India. Martyn also suffered from tuberculosis, and shortly after delivering his Persian translation of the New Testament to the British Ambassador in Iran, who then gave it to the Shah, Henry Martyn went to his Lord at the age of 31. According to Dr. Petersen, "One historian has said, 'There is no more heroic figure in 400 years of English history than Henry Martyn."
On to 1831. The saintly Scottish pastor Robert Murray McCheyne wrote in his diary on November 12:
"Reading H. Martyn's Memoirs. Would I could imitate him, giving up father, mother, country, house, health, life, all for Christ. And yet, what hinders? Lord, purify me, and give me strength to dedicate myself, my all, to thee!"
It is reported that the very presence of McCheyne on the church platform, before he said a word, had the effect of bringing people to tears of repentance. McCheyne suffered heart problems that had taken his godly brother, and Robert died at age twenty-nine. His eulogy in an Edinburgh periodical included these remarks:
"Robert Murray McCheyne! To dwell on his saintly character would be a pleasant theme . . . To know him was the best interpretation of many texts. At least we have a clearer conception of what is meant by a 'hidden life,' and a 'living sacrifice,' and can better understand the sort of life which Enoch led, since we made the acquaintance of Robert McCheyne."
Brainerd to Martyn to McCheyne--what contagious holiness! Oh, that their influence had been greater on me! I have lived well over twice as long as any one of them did, yet my life falls so short of theirs. Young people, look to real heroes. Those who have and manifest the power of God in a holy life are the true super-heroes!