Does the Bible Teach Us How to Pray?
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Does the Bible Teach Us How to Pray?

David Livingstone: A Profile in Compassion

Posted February 19, 2024

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” These famous words came from G. Morgan Stanley when he discovered David Livingstone in the African interior—long after Livingstone had last been heard from and was feared dead. Many Westerners were keen to hear about the fate of the Scottish missionary who had accomplished feats most could only dream of. What made Livingstone such a wonder and what can we learn from him?

What makes him relatable? He was not a gifted preacher.

The first time David Livingstone rose to preach in his native Scotland, he was so terrified that he forgot everything he was going to say and ran away. Thereafter, he never had a reputation as a particularly gifted or effective preacher. This made his calling as a missionary to Africa all the more surprising.

The Lord delights to manifest his strength in our weakness. He does not need us to accomplish his purposes, but delights to use us and privileges us with the opportunity. Do you question your usefulness to the Lord? Remember that you are as useful as he is faithful. Trust that he will glorify his name through you.

What makes him unique? He traversed an unknown continent while resisting fame.

Livingstone did what no missionary had done before him—he traversed the continent of Africa, and did so several times. He suffered greatly. There were some who wanted to kill him and he was maimed by a lion. In the process, he made scientific and geographic discoveries that enthralled scholars and laypeople alike and earned him both fame and accolades back home.

But fame was not what Livingstone sought. Many called for him to return home, but he had seen the ravages of the Islamic East African slave trade. “Cannot the love of Christ carry the missionary as far as the slave trade carries the trader?” he retorted. His call to evangelize the continent of Africa persisted. Yes, Livingstone had earned fame, but he was in Africa for Christ Jesus. “In this work, I truly live. In this work, I hope to die.”

What points us to Jesus? He likely failed his own family.

The polished life of Livingstone was tarnished by his own neglect. His zealous cause left little room for his family. Eventually, his desperate wife left her children at home to come join him on his journeys, but she soon fell ill and died. And his children would hardly know their father.

The Good Shepherd will leave the ninety-nine in order to rescue the one lost sheep, but he doesn’t forsake the flock. He gathers them even as he brings others into the fold. Livingstone’s neglect of his family (a mistake many of us often make in our zeal for the ministerial and vocational work God calls us to do) reminds us of a savior who made no distinction between those already gathered and those soon to be—he loves them all. Where Livingstone failed in his life and ministry, Christ succeeded as the perfect evangelist, the perfect pastor, the perfect care-taker.

Nor did Livingstone’s failures negate the ongoing advance of the Gospel to the nations. The first great advance of the early church—to Judea and Samaria—was prompted by the vicious persecution of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 8). Remembering Christ Jesus, the later-converted and re-named Paul would “endure for the sake of the elect,” knowing that though he was bound and imprisoned, the word of God is not in chains (2 Tim. 2:8-10). Jesus has promised to make his people witnesses to the far ends of the earth (Acts 1:15), but this promise is rooted in the perfection of Christ himself, not his people (1 Tim. 1:15-16). We are called to make Christ known—and we are comforted that he will do so in and through us.

Livingstone’s body was found one morning by his friends—kneeling, in the posture of prayer at his bedside. For all his failures, Livingstone lived his life prostrate before his savior. Today, hundreds of millions of fellow believers count Livingstone as part of their spiritual heritage in Christ. He was not a charismatic figure—his faithfulness was his reputation. He did not want fame but continued to seek the glory of Christ’s name in Africa.

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Stephen Roberts

Stephen Roberts is an Army chaplain and also writes for Modern Reformation and The Federalist. He is married to Lindsey—a journalist—and they have three delightful and precocious children.