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William Carey was the man who not only uttered the statement “expect great things from God, attempt great things for God,” but also with his life guided by that principle, launched much of what we know as the modern missions movement.  (Interestingly, the sermon in which that statement was made is not in print anywhere, and very little of his writing or preaching is still known to exist.)

This week (Wednesday, August 17), marked the 250th anniversary of Carey’s birth.

Several years ago I preached a biographical sermon based on Carey’s life.  I concluded the sermon this way:

Two final lessons from Carey’s life may be particularly appropriate for the contemporary American church. The first is this: God uses “small people” from “small places” to accomplish His sovereign purposes.

Carey was the epitome (at least from external observation) of the “ordinary man” used for extraordinary purposes by God. George says it well:

Here is his resume: education, minimal; degrees, none; savings, depleted; political influence, nil; references, a band of country preachers half a world away. What are his resources? A weapon: love; a desire: to bring the light of God into the darkness; a strategy: to proclaim by life, lips, and letters the unsearachable riches of Christ.

Cowper of Olney had said it: “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.”

What God accomplishes in the life of a man is not primarily dependent upon that man, but upon God. It is His purpose, His will, His plan, and His strength. He is not dependent upon the status, position, wealth, abilities or accomplishments of men to fulfill His eternal plan. What is necessary for those who will serve Him is to have a heart wholly yielded to God, submissive to whatever God will deign to do that life — whether “great” or “small.”

“What is there in all this world worth living for,” Carey asked, “but the presence and service of God? I feel a burning desire that all the world may know this God and serve Him.”

The second and final lesson is somewhat more painful: shepherd your family. When Carey left for India, his wife was not on board with him — either literally or spiritually. He felt the compelling call of God to go to India, with or without his wife. As she was pregnant at the time and furthermore felt uneasy about leaving her homeland, she resisted leaving. Carey left with their son Felix and John Thomas and his family anyway, writing to his father, “I have many sacrifices to make, I must part with a beloved family and a number of most affectionate friends….But I have set my hand to the plough.”

Through the gracious and providential hand of God, the departure of Carey and Thomas was delayed until after the birth of the Carey’s child, and Thomas was finally able to persuade Dorothy to travel with them (Carey had planned on returning for her a year later, after he was settled in India). Yet Dorothy’s reluctance never abated. And the sad end of her life was that after making absurd accusations against her husband and attempting to kill him on several occasions, she was declared “insane” and was forcibly confined to her home. Again, his journal and letters reveal the sorrow that this became to him.

And in later years we see the influence of these events on his perspective on missionary families. Perhaps the pain of his own relationship with Dorothy influenced the words he wrote to his son Jabez, as Jabez left to expand their ministry elsewhere:

You are now a married man. Be not satisfied with conducting yourself towards your wife with propriety. Let love to her be the spring of your conduct towards her. Esteem her highly and so act that she may be induced thereby to esteem you highly. The first impressions of love arising from form or beauty will soon wear off but the esteem arising from excellency of disposition and substance of character will endure and increase. Her honour is not yours and she cannot be insulted without you being degraded.

Not only is his life at the Serampore mission an example to follow in pursuing unity in the body of Christ, but so also is his life with Dorothy an exhortation to pursue unity in the marriage relationship. It is a fundamental priority of the husband and father to care for those under his care in his home.…

How then do we respond when standing in the shadow of a spiritual giant? Where do we go from here? What do we do now? How do we evaluate and respond to the life of a man who expected great things and also attempted great things?

To honor the legacy of Carey most, honor his Savior most. His Savior, our Savior, will be honored when we expect great things from His hand, and attempt great things for His glory.

I also read this morning the post about Carey’s life by Timothy George (in preparing for my message I read and much enjoyed his volume, Faithful Witness, on the life of Carey).  He concluded his blog post today with these seven lessons from Carey’s life:

  • The sovereignty of God
  • The finality of Jesus Christ
  • The authority of Holy Scripture
  • Contextualization
  • Holistic missions
  • Christian unity
  • Faithfulness