Not many people know the name George Smith. In fact, I had never heard of him until recently. There are few records that we have about his life, but from what we do know it’s obvious he was passionate about serving Christ. After accepting the call to the mission field, raising the necessary funds and preparing for years, finally Smith headed for the jungles of Africa.
However, when he arrived he faced incredible opposition. Sickness, starvation and persecution drove him back home to England just a few years later. When he left Africa he could count only one convert, a poor widow. It wasn’t long after returning home that Smith died suddenly, those who found his body, said he was kneeling, no doubt praying for Africa. By most standards his ministry was considered a failure.
Several years after Smith died another group of missionary explorers went back to Africa where Smith was stationed. They found his little hut and a copy of the Bible he had left. The men were also able to track down the woman who was his only convert. They were shocked to discover several small villages who converted to Christ because of this woman’s simple testimony. But the story doesn’t end there. A hundred years after the death of George Smith the Moravian missionaries counted more than 13,000 living converts who had sprung from the ministry of George Smith! Like a snowball rolling downhill, one converted was multiplied into thousands.
A story like that should be encouraging to you and me, because its testimony to the fact that one person totally devoted to God can be used to accomplish great things. You don't have to be a super-star saint; many times all you must be is available. In fact, I see many parallels between George Smith and another relatively minor character in the book of Acts—Stephen. We know Stephen as the first martyr, but often times we miss his important connection to the overall advancement of the Gospel.
Just like George Smith, Stephen’s life could have been viewed as a failure. His message in front of the Sanhedrin fell on deaf ears (Acts 7). Eventually his boldness to proclaim the Gospel led to his stoning. However, while the angry mob pelted the life out of Stephen, there was one man there that day holding the cloaks of people who would later change the world for Christ—Saul of Tarsus.
What was it that Saul heard that day that shook him to the core? It was Stephen’s simple prayer, “And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Sound familiar? Stephen’s prayer was based off Jesus prayer from the cross (Luke 22:34).
Fast-forward now to the Damascus Road. Saul is on his way to snuff out more Christians. However, a blinding light puts him on his backside. It’s the risen Christ and he has a few questions, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 9:4-5).
In case you are agriculturally illiterate, a “goad” was a pole with a sharp metal tip that was used by a farmer to prod an ox or goat to pick up the pace. Sometimes when a farmer would jab an animal with a goad, an animal would kick back with its powerful hind leg, which only dug the metal tip deeper into the flesh and intensified the pain.
The goad that Jesus was speaking of here was the guilty conscience of Saul who could not get the testimony of Steven out his head. The image of Steven’s face shining like an angel was burned into this memory and sound of Steven’s voice crying out for God to forgive his killers haunted him day and night. As the hooves of the horse hit the dusty road to Damascus, Saul had these images hammered into his soul. It was futile for Saul to resist the Hound of Heaven.
Augustine remarked, that “If Stephen had not prayed, the church would not have had Paul.” As far as we know, Stephen only played a role in the conversion of one person. Not all that different from George Smith. But look how that one conversion made ripples throughout eternity.
Don’t ever underestimate the influence of one “normal” person. God uses the words and actions of unknowns to direct the course of history. Moreover, time can only be judged from the perspective of eternity. You may think your life is a failure, but just remember faith only makes sense in reverse. You may not see the fruit of your labors until God shows you from heaven’s vantage point.