Starting Last, Finishing First

Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.
— Zechariah 4:10 NLT

Henry Lee’s epitaph of George Washington is memorable:

“First in war, first in peace, and first in the heart of his countrymen”

Despite the accolades, Washington was not always first in war . . .

  • He lost at the battle of Fort Necessity, July 3, 1754
  • He lost at the battle of Long Island, August 27, 1776
  • He lost at the battle of Fort Washington, November 16, 1776
  • He lost at the battle of Brandywine, September 11, 1777
  • He lost at the battle of Germantown, October 4, 1777

We err if we think that "life was good" once the Declaration of Independence was signed. In fact, Washington was still facing an uphill fight for freedom five years after the ink dried on our country's most historic document. Robert Middlekauff writes,

To some extent, throughout the year 1780 and into 1781, he was flailing . . . . On the military side, he held the army together and held the British at bay, even though he faced an army consistently more powerful than his own. . . . though his troops remained almost at all times on short rations, were badly clothed, sometimes nearly naked, dreadfully housed, and, when they fell sick or wounded, ineffectively treated.

Washington was not always first in battle, nor did he always occupy "first place" in the hearts of his countrymen. At one point, leaders of the Second Continental Congress, "disillusioned and discontented," began to lecture their general, telling him that he had not used his powers wisely.

Despite his challenges and the criticism he faced, Washington continued the quest. He brought to his challenges, "an inflexible will, and a refusal to break under strain."

I need Washington's example. It is encouraging to me when I flail, falter, or fail (sorry, the "f's" just came). I need Washington's example, but I need more. I need God's encouraging word. I find that in many places, but this morning most notably in Zechariah 4:10

Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.

Life is a series of small beginnings: friendships, new marriages, marriages on the mend, child-rearing, caring for the elderly, great dreams, church plants, a big idea, a personal relationship with God. None start complete. All take progress.

At times the progress is painful. We feel so far behind the rest of the pack. Still, we run . . . and God cheers.

On the evening of September 16, 1883, Charles Spurgeon delivered a sermon to the congregation at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. The title of his message was "Small Things Not To Be Despised." You can read the message in its entirety (click here), but let me give you a little snippet of Spurgeon's God-given wisdom and eloquence:

IT is a very great folly to despise “the day of small things,” for it is usually God’s way to begin His great works with small things. We see it every day, for the first dawn of light is but feeble and yet, by-and-by, it grows into the full noon-tide heat and glory. We know how the early spring comes with its buds of promise, but it takes some time before we get to the beauties of summer or the wealth of autumn. How tiny is the seed that is sown in the garden, yet out of it there comes the lovely flower! How small is the acorn, but how great is the oak that grows up from it! The stream commences with but a gentle rivulet, but it flows on till it becomes a brook, and then a river -- perhaps a mighty Amazon -- before its course is run!

Perhaps you, like me, are feeling a bit "behind" today. Perhaps you are not where you want to be or where you think you should be. God neither despises our feeble starts or despairs in our setbacks.

As Spurgeon notes, "it is usually God's way to begin His great works with small things." I find that it is often His way to continue them too. So rest in His goodness, ask for His help, take a small step and press on!


  • "He lost at the battle ..." from "The Battles of George Washington." Accessed April 25, 2015.
  • "To some extent, throughout the year..." from Washington's Revolution: The Making Of American's First Leader, by Robert Middlekauff. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2015. Page 238.
  • "At one point, leaders in the Second Continental Congress" and "an inflexible will" from Middlekauff, pages 170-171.
  • "It is a very great follow ..." from Charles H. Spurgeon, "Small Things Not To Be Despised." Accessed April 30, 2015