A Conversation with John Piper and John MacArthur
Desiring God 2007 National Conference | Minneapolis
This message appears as an appendix in Stand.
Justin Taylor: Dr. MacArthur and Dr. Piper, do you remember when you met each other for the first time or when you became aware of each other’s ministries?
John Piper: I think I remember. He wouldn’t remember. There he was screaming away years and years ago, and I didn’t like him. He was just too harsh for me. He came to speak at Bethel College in the late seventies, and we had breakfast together with John Sailhamer. That’s the first time we ever met. Since I saw him as an expositor instead of an evangelist, I asked him the question, “If you were starting over, how would you make sure evangelism happened in your local church?” And I think his answer was, “The first staff member I would add would be an evangelist.” That’s my memory of our first encounter at a restaurant somewhere up in New Brighton, Minnesota.
John MacArthur: He’s right: I don’t remember that! I hate to say that. But there was a real highlight in my life, and he was a part of that highlight. When I wrote The Gospel According to Jesus, I was so exercised because that “no lordship” theology was coming out of the heritage that was my heritage in a sense. When I wrote that book I didn’t know anybody outside of my circles really, and I didn’t know how this book would be received. But Jim Boice agreed to write the foreword, and John Piper wrote an endorsement that was absolutely stunning to me, because I was really not moving in Reformed circles at that time. I was a leaky dispensationalist. That was my world, and I realized that I was much more one of you than I was one of them. So I was so overwhelmed that John gave such a good, encouraging endorsement to that. And, of course, from then on I have read and followed his ministry with joy and gratitude.
Another one of the little highlights in my life was when we had a little meeting down in Louisville, and John got the assignment to pray for me. I was so blessed just to have him pray for me. I’ll never forget that.
Justin Taylor: I was looking this morning at the dates for both of your fathers: Dr. Jack MacArthur, 1914–2005; Dr. Bill Piper, 1919–2007 — almost the exact same lifespan. They both had honorary doctorates from Bob Jones. They were both Baptists, and both traveling evangelists. Tell us about their examples, the lessons that you both remember from your dads on faithfulness and endurance, or particular things that stick out to you that have impacted your ministry and life.
John Piper: When you say that, I would just love to have heard John MacArthur’s dad. I don’t think I ever did.
I could talk forever about my dad. The main distinctive about my dad’s evangelism is that it was so doctrinal. He was Bible-saturated in the dispensational school, but very doctrinal, which is why he was different. He did his evangelism by developing the doctrine of regeneration, or the doctrine of hell, or the doctrine of heaven, or the doctrine of repentance. That’s the way he thought. And so I grew up assuming that’s the way you handle the Bible. That’s what you do. Even if you do evangelism, if you shepherd a church, you take the Bible and you find what it means across its terrain and its coherency, and that’s what reality is. It was an awesome privilege to grow up in a home where my dad would leave for two, three weeks. He crossed the country in those days for five or six weeks, came home for four days, eight days, and then left again. A lot of people get bent out of shape at their dad’s this or that, but I never, ever resented my father’s ministry, though he was only home a third of the time. It seemed like an awesome privilege to me.
I think the key there was that my mom loved his ministry. She never bad-mouthed him. She never said, “Where is he? He never comes home.” Never was there any of that. Growing up, I just assumed that my dad had a call on his life, and that was it. My job with my mom was to back him up. When he came home he told the stories of the victories of the gospel. And what could be better? He also brought jokes with him. We’d sit at the table, and he’d give me his latest joke.
John MacArthur: I think the thing that always stood out in my mind was, just on a personal side, how much my dad loved my mother. It was just a treasure to me. I learned how you’re supposed to love your wife. He just loved her, and he loved his children in a unique way — very endearing qualities. He was an evangelist with Fuller Foundation, with the Charles E. Fuller traveling evangelists around the States. He was also an evangelist at Moody in the years when William Culbertson was president there. He traveled all over, doing city-wide meetings all over the Midwest and East. He graduated from Eastern Seminary in Philadelphia, so he had all kinds of Eastern connections.
I had the same kind of experience as a kid living in California with my dad going away for long periods of time on the train and doing city-wide meetings and gatherings here and there. He even went overseas a couple of times to do some meetings. And like you, John, I never resented that. It was just a wonderful thing when he left, and a wonderful thing when he came home.
But eventually he became a pastor, and I had the privilege to sit under his ministry from my junior high years on. He was an expositor through Matthew, through Romans, through John, and always with an apologetic bent. He was always leaning hard on evidences for biblical veracity, always trying to answer the critic, the person who had reasons not to believe the Bible. Everything was laced with that, and that became the predominant emphasis of his radio ministry in the last years. He was on the radio program Voice of Calvary for sixty-some years. He was faithful. He used to start the program by playing the marimba. He played the theme at the beginning and the end and preached in the middle.
Justin Taylor: Did your fathers both want or expect you to be pastors? If so, did they ever express that desire to you?
John MacArthur: My father never put pressure on me to be a pastor. He loved the ministry. He loved the church. He loved the people in the church. He loved to preach. He loved to read and study. He was a voracious reader, and he just loved his ministry. So I grew up with a man who loved everything he did, and yet he never put any pressure on me because he always felt that only the Lord could do that, and he didn’t want to cloud my thinking. Because I think I had such great respect for him, I think he backed far away from that.
But the time came in my life through a car accident. When I was eighteen I got thrown out of a car and went about 120 yards down the middle of a highway and survived. I spent three months in bed. That was a time when the Lord really got hold of my heart. My dad never put pressure on me, but once I committed to that, I became his personal project. And then he got serious.
Justin Taylor: Do you remember the conversation you had when you told him you felt called to gospel ministry?
John MacArthur: I don’t remember the exact conversation, but somewhere around there he gave me a Bible, and he just wrote in it, “Dear Johnny, Preach the Word. Love, Dad.” That was the one thing he wanted to say to me: Preach the Word. And we had that conversation about 2 Timothy 4, about preaching the Word all the way to the end and being faithful to the end. That’s how his father had been, and that’s the goal that he wanted for his own life.
I was basically a football jock in my high school days and even in college, and then my dad dragged me off to seminary. He said, “You have to go to seminary. You have to get serious and go to seminary, and you need to go to Talbot Seminary because there’s this guy there named Charles Feinberg.” Do you remember the name? He was brilliant. He studied fourteen years to be a rabbi and then was converted to Christ. Feinberg earned two doctorates. He went to Dallas Seminary and got his ThD, and then he left there and went to Johns Hopkins. He studied for his PhD under William Foxwell Albright, who is a great Middle Eastern archaeologist. And so my dad had worked a deal with Feinberg to take me on as a personal project while I was in seminary.
Feinberg called me into his office periodically in honor of my dad. He didn’t tell me he was doing it because of my dad, but I know my dad was behind the scenes, trying to shift my mental focus. Feinberg would give me books to read, and he would have conversations with me, and I was even in his home. I became a good friend of his son Paul, and also with his son John. We spent a lot of time together. I had to preach my first year in seminary in chapel before the whole student body, and Feinberg chose the text. He gave me 2 Samuel 7, the great Davidic promise. So I preached on “presuming on God.” You know, “Nathan said, ‘Go build it,’ and God said, ‘Nathan, I don’t want him to do it; he’s a man of blood,’” and so forth. I preached on presuming on God — and I completely missed the point! The point was the Davidic covenant, not presuming on God. That was trivial.
When I finished, Feinberg gave me a sheet, and he wrote in red, “You missed the entire point of the passage. See me in my office.” I went into the office, and I’m telling you, he shredded me as only he could. And you know, that was the greatest lesson I ever learned. He said, “To get the point of the passage is all we’re asking out of you. That’s all we’re asking. We don’t want your creativity; just get the point of the passage.”
When Feinberg went to be with the Lord some years ago, his family called and asked if I would speak at the funeral. So I guess somewhere along the line he told somebody that he thought I was getting the point of the passage. They felt free to ask me to speak!
Justin Taylor: Dr. Piper, can you tell us about the time when you wrote a letter to your father telling him about your decision to go into pastoral ministry?
John Piper: Never in my memory did my dad urge me to be a pastor. In fact, when I chose to leave teaching in 1979 and head to the pastorate, he wrote a page-and-a-half letter to dissuade me, because after being in a thousand churches, he was afraid for me. He just said, “You have found your niche. I wanted to name you Peter, but your mother wouldn’t let me name you Peter Piper. We named you John, and that’s who you are. You’re the quiet, reflective type. You’re not the proclaimer. And so you belong in the classroom. Stay there, because you’re going to be eaten alive in the church.” That was the letter. But I couldn’t resist the call, and when I said, “Daddy, I think I’m going to do this anyway,” he said, “Good. I just want to make sure!” That was the approach that he took.
He took that exact same approach when we were about to adopt a little girl when I was fifty years old. I said, “I’m going to adopt a little girl.” He wrote me a two-and-a-half page letter discouraging me from adoption. He thought I was too old and that the next phase of life would be more fruitful if I was an empty-nester. I thought seriously about what he wrote and called him on the phone to get it mouth to mouth. But in the end we were deeply persuaded this was God’s call on our life. The first time my father met Talitha, before she was a year old, she leaned into his arms and won him over completely. He never said another word, and loved her like his other grandchildren.
So my dad, I guess, has a different way of encouraging in ministry. He really thought I had found my niche in teaching, and I think he was wrong about that.
Justin Taylor: If you could go back now to when you started pastoral ministry and talk to the thirty-four-year-old John Piper and the twenty-nine-year-old John MacArthur, knowing what you know now, what do you think would be the most important thing to tell them on the front end of their ministries?
John Piper: It’s clear to me that the most important things would have to do with my children and my wife, and not the church. I don’t think I would do anything basically differently at Bethlehem. If I thought real hard about it, I might think of some tactical changes. But I think we work out of a pastoral model that’s so simple, it’s hard to change it. You open the Bible, and you tell people what it means with all your heart, and you try to live it out before the people and figure out the other stuff as you go along.
But I could do better on my family. I could really do better as a dad, I think, if I started over again. Nobody was talking in terms of “shepherding a child’s heart” in those days (See Ted Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart [Shepherd Press, 1995]). Here’s an illustration: Rick Gamache is a pastor of a Sovereign Grace church here in Minneapolis. Rick taught my class for me last Thursday and told these guys about questions that he asks his children to draw out their heart. I read those ten questions or so, and I copied them down and sent them to all four of my sons. They all have kids, and I don’t want them to do as poorly as I did. I think I was faithful to my kids. I went to all the soccer games. I tucked them in at night. I set an example for them. I had devotions every night. But I rarely drew out their affectional life at age thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen. And that has not set them up to be as effective in their lives as they might have been, I think.
So I would go to the John Piper at age thirty-four, and I would say, “Do better at supplementing your truth commitments with drawing out your wife’s heart and drawing out your child’s heart, so that they find ways to express what’s in the heart, not just what’s in the mind.” I think I was naive about that because all that stuff sort of comes naturally for me. I’m an emotional guy. It’s easy for me to express emotions — positive, negative, I’m all over the map. But it doesn’t come naturally for everyone. You have to draw it out. So that’s the first thing that comes to my mind because it feels big now, and the boys are all grown. I still have my daughter Talitha, which is a wonderful gift. That’s why I copied these ten questions down, because she’s eleven and it’s not too late.
John MacArthur: I think there’s some of that with me. There was a lot less introspection spiritually going on in evangelicalism when I was twenty-nine and coming into my church. I don’t think people thought much about expressing feelings, at least in the world that I lived in. So I would think that would probably be more true of me too than it would be in later years.
I’m not a high-powered, Type A, steamroller guy, but I’m highly motivated — I don’t know whether it’s a natural gift or a spiritual gift — to organize everything. I think now I’ve let all of that go, and now I see that there’s a simple, natural flow to the life of the church, but in the early years I was always trying to reorganize everything and restructure it, moving people around in different boxes. I finally figured out that that’s not what you should be doing, but I think the price was paid to some degree with my family because I was so busy studying, and then on top I was coming up with all these different ways to structure and organize things. I don’t think I gave the time to my wife Patricia in particular; even though I was home, I was preoccupied. I was trying to stuff so many things in. The joke in our family is “Calling Father.” They’d wave their fingers across my face . . . even when I was there. I wasn’t always easy to engage, although I think I’m better at it now. You’d have to ask them. I hope I am.
I think from the church’s standpoint, patience was a challenge for me. I’ve never been a really patient person with myself, particularly when I was young and expected everything to happen fast; I was disappointed if it didn’t happen at the pace that I thought it should happen. Why can’t people figure it out? Here it is; do it. Our church is Grace Community Church, but I was struggling with grace. Hopefully I’ve come to understand that a little better, and I now have more patience with people. I was mentioning this to somebody earlier: Pastors must preach the Word in a way that is strong and hard and bold and clear and straightforward and without compromise, and then apply it with tenderness and compassion and grace and long-suffering with people. In the pulpit, it’s clear; it’s hard-hitting; it’s firm. But when you come down and you shepherd these people, that’s where, in the application of these great truths, you have to express the patience that endears them. You love them in the process and move them along gradually. And that’s something I had to learn.
Justin Taylor: You both receive a tremendous amount of praise — and a tremendous amount of criticism. How do you personally handle both the reception of praise and the reception of criticism? How do you keep from being prideful on the one hand, and overly discouraged on the other hand? How do you process that when a high praise comes in or a harsh criticism so that you’re responding biblically?
John MacArthur: This whole thing is a mercy. My salvation is a mercy. I’m not worthy of any of this. And I’m always amazed that God does what he does. Who’s adequate for these things? I think you just have to deal with things honestly and realistically, in the sense that God is not doing work on the basis of my abilities and my gifts and my power and my insight. I’m just a tool or an instrument.
I think part of the benefit of being in the same church for a long time is it reflects back all your strengths and weaknesses. If you just go from town to town to town, you might believe your press clippings, but if you have to live continuously with the failures, with the inadequacies, with the weaknesses in your own life that show up reflected in your people and your family and your kids, I think there’s something real about that. It helps to have a wife who knows that praise can be harmful, and without seeking to be a thorn in the flesh, she can also be the one who pulls you back to reality.
When people say kind things about me, I know that they’re responding to the teaching of the Word of God and the work of the Spirit through the Word. And I’m just grateful. It always surprises me, and I’m grateful.
On the other hand, I decided a long time ago not to try to defend myself against criticism. If the truth were known, I can’t defend myself at some points. I don’t want to get in a situation where I’m trying to portray some kind of perfection or answer every critic. We all have weaknesses. I have errors in my theology. I don’t know where they are. If I knew where they were, I would change them! I don’t know where they are, but I’m working on it. Twenty-five years ago I resolved to refuse to defend myself. I just try to do what I do and be faithful and let my life and ministry speak for itself instead of running around trying to answer every accusation and criticism that comes. I understand that they’re out there. I don’t look for them. If they come, I’ll sometimes write a letter that will say, “Thank you for causing me to examine my own heart. I appreciate what you said, and I want you to know that I took it seriously. Thank you.” That’s about it. You need to embrace those kinds of things because those things keep you humble.
John Piper: I would just make sure we hear both sides of the word mercy. If praise comes, the doctrine of God’s sovereign mercy means that you must channel all the praise to him, because without him nothing would be happening of any eternal significance. Sovereign mercy pulls the plug on the compliment terminating with me.
It also works for criticism, because what’s devastating about criticism is that it seems to undo your standing with God or usefulness in the ministry. And since God gives us ministry by mercy and saves us by mercy, therefore, criticism can’t do that. It can’t. People can’t pull the plug on that because I can roll not only the burdens of my pressures onto the Lord but also the burdens of my sin. I find it very helpful in counseling — and I counsel myself every day — that when somebody is feeling guilt for, say, the suicide of their son or a divorce or whatever, and they ask me, “Should I be feeling guilty?”
I tell them that I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. If you spend your time trying to figure out whether you should be feeling guilty, you’ll always come up with an ambiguity. Just relax and feel guilty, and then deal with it the only way that you’ll be able to deal with it at the judgment day, because I promise you at the judgment day you’ll feel guilty. Everything will be exposed. The heart will be laid bare. You’ll have no argument at all. Guilty. And if you don’t have a solution for that issue now, you may not then. So let’s just relax. We’re guilty as charged. And now I repent. That’s a little bit of an oversimplification, because we’re not guilty of some things that we’re accused of. Therefore, we have to have people around us.
I’m surrounded by people who, I pray, are not “yes men” at Bethlehem. I have a staff. They hear what I hear, and they can say, “Yeah, you probably should take that into account. That has some validity to it.” Or they say, “Blow that away. We don’t see it that way.” So having a community really, really matters.
Finally, there is a theological paradox that people don’t like to hear. But I think the Lord works on my pride by letting me sin so much. There are so many words that come out of my mouth toward my wife, so many feelings I have toward people, that when I go on my face and I do this conscience thing, I don’t know how I could say what Paul said: “I have served to this day with a clear conscience” (2 Timothy 1:3). What planet does this guy live on? Is he in touch? I mean, there are women in the world. Ever had a thought? Good night! I think he must mean something like, “I keep real short accounts.” I mean, a totally clear conscience, Paul? Give me a break. Am I being blasphemous here toward the Word of God?
John MacArthur: I think he dealt with it. In Romans 7 he said, “I do what I don’t want to do and I don’t do what I ought to do, and I’m a wretched man.”
John Piper: And he had a guilty conscience.
John MacArthur: Yeah. But he dealt with his sin. It didn’t accumulate.
John Piper: And that’s the point I took away: a cultivated, secret life of sin is the killer. (Not that you never have a thought that you’re ashamed of or that you never say a word that you’re ashamed of.) So anyway, my point was that as I go on my face morning after morning, I have so much stuff to deal with here that I can’t be pointing my finger too many places. And so when I stand in line down here and people say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you,” I know what’s going on at home. I know what’s going on in my heart. I have so much stuff to deal with. I’m just saying, “Amazing. Amazing.” Like you said, John: if anybody gets saved, you just want to stand back and feel the thunder.
Justin Taylor: So many young pastors and missionaries look up to both of you and read your books. As you counsel young men and women on the mission field, it seems like one of the truisms is that circumstances often confirm our calling. And if you’re good at something, fruit often comes with that. You’ve both had incredibly fruitful ministries. How do you think through the issues of faithfulness and fruitlessness? Take someone out there is who is in a small church, or on the mission field, and a year goes by, two years go by with no converts, no apparent fruit. How should they think through the possibility that this might not be their gifting, they need to pull back from that, there’s no fruit being produced, versus the perspective that they need to stick it out for another ten years, twenty years, thirty years?
John MacArthur: Well, there are several ways to answer that question. But first of all, I’m not in charge of the results. Paul says, “If our gospel be hid, it’s hid to the eyes of those that have been blinded by Satan” (compare with 2 Corinthians 4:4). I can’t overpower that. I learned this concept as a football player. I wanted to win the game. I always wanted to win the game. That was the whole point of playing. You don’t play to lose; you play to win. That was a given. But I couldn’t guarantee the win, because there were eleven people on the other side of the ball trying to stop me from doing what I wanted to do and ten people on my own team who sometimes didn’t do the right thing either. It was way beyond my capability to achieve the end. So at some point I determined that all I could control was effort. I could not control outcome.
Early in my first year or so at Grace Community Church, I had this little kind of motto that I used: “If you concentrate on the depth of your ministry, God will take care of the breadth of it.” My ministry hasn’t changed since that first year in that small, little church. For me, it’s all about getting into the depth of Scripture and my own personal walk with the Lord. Breadth is something that God does, and I think you’ve got to come to that, or you’re going to frustrate yourself when you compare yourself with all kinds of other people and other situations. That’s not to say that if nothing happens God wants you to stay there. He may want you to move. But that becomes a personal decision to be made with much prayer and perhaps some counsel.
I think we have to be content with effort and leave outcome to the Lord. That’s where you’re going to find your contentment. It’s like anything else. If you’re only content with numbers, then no number will bring you contentment, because there will always be somebody who has more, somebody who’s more popular, somebody who’s more well known. You’ve got to focus on the issue of faithfulness in the effort to which you’ve been called. Again, we need to get back to the idea of mercy and just realize that God rewards faithfulness.
John Piper: I think of the stories we hear about people like Robert Morrison. He was the first Protestant missionary to China. And this is the two hundredth anniversary of Protestant missionaries to China. He waited seven years before his first convert. Same with Adoniram Judson: he also waited seven years before his first convert. David Brainerd experienced the same thing. There are a handful of these guys, and their stories are told over and over again. What’s forgotten is that you don’t choose to go to the mission field wondering if you will have gifts. Gifts are verified at home before you go. So I presume that the church, the community of believers in which these men were saved and began to mature, spotted spiritual gifts in them. I think that the function of the church in the discovery of our gifts and calling is to confirm gifts. And what’s confirmed is not a skill that is ineffective. That’s not a spiritual gift, I don’t think. A spiritual gift is a skill that the Spirit anoints to be effective. The effect is not always just conversion. It’s the pricking of consciences. It’s the deepening of love for the Lord. It’s the correcting of behavior in others.
Here’s what I tell young people at Bethlehem if they’re trying to discern what the Lord wants them to do. I say, “Just start doing what you love to do. Pray down blessing on it, and see what people affirm. If you’re in a small group, they’re going to affirm that you’re a helper and lover. They’re going to affirm that you’re an effective teacher or whatever.” And so I presume that these missionaries had some experience where they did some ministry, and it blessed people. And then they had to believe God is for them, that he’s going to use them, and then they go.
We should be thankful that those early missionaries didn’t have airplanes because perhaps they would have come home early. If you have to get on a boat and ride for six months, you stick it out another year, and another year, and another year. That may be why today we don’t have the same kinds of stories, because it’s just so easy to bail now and it wasn’t in those days.
When the Bible says elders must have evidence of spiritual faithfulness and be “able to teach” (Gk. didaktios; 1 Timothy 3:2), I don’t think that just means he’s good at what he does and nobody gets helped. I think the evidence of being apt to teach is that lights go on in people. They see things in the Word that they haven’t seen before. Affections are changed, and others confirm that he has a gift.
That’s what happened to me. First I taught seventh-grade boys at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, then ninth-grade boys, then the Galilean Sunday School class, then I assisted William LaSor in Greek at Fuller Theological Seminary. And the words started coming. “We understand you. We don’t understand LaSor. You help us make sense of this.” I started feeling like maybe that’s who I am. My identity arose in community. You can’t go into the woods and figure out who you are. It’s totally ambiguous. So you stay in the church and you love people and you do what you love to do, and suddenly you start to discover who you are within the context of community.
Justin Taylor: When you personally get discouraged and want to throw in the towel, where do you go biblically? Is there a particular passage or book that you find yourself returning to over and over again? And where do you go outside the Bible? Is there a particular author or book that you return to over and over again when you’re discouraged or downcast?
John MacArthur: I don’t tend to be that way. I don’t know why. I’m not really a melancholy type of person. I just move to the next responsibility. There’s no time for me to sit and feel sorry or feel bad. There’s too much to do. I mean, I’ll sometimes get discouraged, but the next task looms large. People have no idea what it is to preach week after week after week after week, year after year, decade after decade to the same people, who have recorded everything you’ve ever said, and then to speak in chapel at a college and chapel at a seminary, and work on a book, and so on. For me, this is the track the Lord has put me on. There’s no time. I don’t have time to sit. If I have those kinds of moments, fleeting as they may be, I always think of the apostle Paul. Or I think of some of my personal heroes. My mind often goes to William Carey, when all of his manuscripts burned. Or it goes to William Tyndale (who is a particular treasure in my mind), who is sitting in prison about to die and wants somebody to bring him a needle and thread so he can sew up his leggings because he’s cold. I’ve stood by Robert Morrison’s grave and cried in China.
It’s not a long process for me, because there’s just a relentless schedule. I preach one message on Sunday morning, another message on Sunday night, and usually another time every week, somewhere else in one of our ministries. So I don’t seem to have time to let those things get me down. When I prepare a message, to this day I am so infused with the thrill of what I’ve learned and the eagerness to preach it that it drags me past whatever might have discouraged me. And even when I preach a really dumb sermon and all I want to do is hide somewhere, the sooner I can start working on next week’s sermon the better, because I will leave that behind and I will move into that new opportunity. For me it’s just getting into the Word and digging in and discovering what I need to know for the next ministry.
John Piper: I probably pray the prayer “Keep me and preserve me” as often as I pray any prayer. I mean, “Keep me saved,” because I think God uses means to cause us to persevere. I mean, “Keep me in the ministry.” I don’t want to be one of these short-lived people. I mean, “Keep me married.” I don’t want to wreck it that way. And I mean, “Keep me.” I pray that. “Now to him who is able to keep you . . .” (Jude 24). I pray that blessing down on me a lot. And the Lord has spared me.
There is something to men in midlife crisis. I remember one time, I was forty, sitting on the steps halfway through vacation sobbing. Noël comes down the steps. “What’s wrong?” I said, “I don’t have a clue.” It was like PMS. And I just said, “I don’t know if I want to stay. I don’t know if I want. . . . I don’t have a clue why I’m so sad.” And that season lasted several years, and the grace was that I could still function. I was listening to another author the other day. She was asked, “What’s the best thing about writing?” And she said, “The last page.” What’s great about depression is the light at the end of the tunnel. Nobody enjoys being depressed in the middle of it.
But one more thing with regard to solutions. I have spent a lot of effort to develop a theology of suffering. This conference and book exist to answer that question. I want to last. I want to stay in. I want to get through the discouraging times. I want to help you not be fickle, wishy-washy, dropout, trade-your-life-away, swap-wives, leave-jobs, trade-churches kind of people. I just don’t want you to be that way, so I created a conference (and now this book).
John MacArthur earlier recounted for us the endless sufferings of the apostle Paul. So when you asked him about discouragement, he said, “I go to Paul.” And I say, “Amen, me too.” I look at 2 Corinthians 1:9: “We were so unbearably crushed to make us rely surely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” And I preach that to myself. Here I am feeling that way. I feel like it would be so nice to go to heaven right now. Just let me go to heaven. Noël can take care of Talitha. It will all work out. Just let me go. And at that moment, the answer comes back: “No. If your heart just keeps beating, then you have to do theology.” I’m wired that way. I do theology. I say, “God struck Paul down in order that he might not rely on himself but on the God who raises the dead. He wanted him to be desperate. You’re desperate, so he must have a purpose for you.” And I just preach myself through a theology of suffering back into, I hope, more usefulness.
Keep on working on your “sovereignty of God” piece and your “evil of the world” piece. Those are the greatest issues in life. How can God be sovereign and there be so much horror in the world, including the horror in your own life that’s making you so discouraged?
John MacArthur: I think it’s not the things I feel. It’s how that processes in me, as all of the spiritual battles, all of the disappointments, all the griefs, all the heartbreaks. I don’t know. I’m wired to deal with those in a different way. I can’t imagine just sitting and crying and not know why I was doing it. But that’s not to say that I don’t feel the same longings on the inside. It’s how they get processed, I think. The spiritual battle for me is the same as it is for anyone. At this point in my life, I feel that in many ways I’m here because I’ve escaped by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin. But there could have been a thousand points at which through my life it all would have been ashes. It’s not to say that’s not a reality or that I’m not aware of that. It’s the way I deal with it that is different. I don’t know why. It’s just the way I’m wired.
Justin Taylor: How do you want to be remembered? What do you want people to say about you when you die? What do you want to be known for?
John MacArthur: John, do you ever think about that?
John Piper: Yes. Every funeral.
John MacArthur: I’m not trying to plan my post-death world.
John Piper: No, this is not a plan. You don’t get to plan it. But you do get to think about it. I would like them to say that I was humble, and I don’t think they will. I’d like all my sons to say that I was a really tenderhearted, sensitive, understanding father. I think they’ll say other things. I’d like my church to say that I was really there for them. And I don’t think they’ll say that.
So you might ask me, “Why aren’t you changing your lifestyle?” And the answer is that I’ve tried. I’ve tried, and I’m still working at it. But if they say that I was a means to many people getting a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ, I’ll be okay if that’s on my tombstone. Paul said that what man says isn’t going to count anyway (compare with Romans 14:4). One person’s verdict isn’t going to matter. So whatever’s written on my tombstone will be a small consequence compared to the Judge of the last day. And I think what he’ll look for is evidence that I was cleaving to Christ for my righteousness and my punishment.
Justin Taylor: Would you please close us in prayer?
John Piper: Father in heaven, we feel a great need for you, and we love grace. We love mercy. We love the fact that our ministry is given by mercy, our salvation is given by mercy, our breath is given by mercy, our singleness is given by mercy, our marriage is given by mercy, and our children are given and taken by mercy. We are a people who eat and drink and sleep and breathe mercy. And this is the way we would have it be. You exalt yourself to show mercy. And we are happy to be the beneficiaries while you get the glory and you get the praise and you get the fame. We get the joy. Through Christ I pray. Amen.