On this episode of Open Book, Stephen Nichols and John MacArthur discuss spiritual growth, burnout, and a pastor who struggled to make ends meet.
STEPHEN NICHOLS: We’re continuing a conversation about books with an author of many books: Dr. John MacArthur. We’re going to let you have an occasion to talk about some of the books you wrote, but we’re still talking about books that have influenced you. One of these is A. W. Pink’s Spiritual Growth.
JOHN MACARTHUR: There’s a little background to that. Growing up as a kid I saw the Christian life as going to church and doing whatever you were supposed to do at the church. I just had an ache in my heart about the fact that there had to be something deeper, and I wasn’t sure what it was. As a junior-high kid— can you imagine— I read Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, and I’m a ninth grader and I’m trying to figure out if there’s something more. I read that and I thought, “I don’t even know what that’s talking about. I don’t get that mystical approach.” I tried to find something a little easier so I read Power Through Prayer by E. M. Bounds. I read about a guy who wore out the floorboards in his bedroom because he knelt for so long on them, he was wearing out the wood.
NICHOLS: It’s a high standard for a junior-high kid to attain.
MACARTHUR: I was in the ninth grade when I started it, and by the time I was in high school I’m reading that and I’m thinking, “I got to find out what this is. I got to find out where the real life is, where the real depth is, where the real power is.” I knew at the time that there were temptations that were strong in my heart. Fortunately, the Lord kept me from doing something that would have ruined my life, but I just couldn’t find the entry to the depth of understanding what spiritual life was all about. I read a few more books that were handed to me, some of the standard Hannah Whitall Smith and even Hudson Taylor. As a kid, I’m trying to figure this spirituality stuff out. The book that grounded me was Spiritual Growth by A. W. Pink.
NICHOLS: What was it about the book that you weren’t finding in these others?
MACARTHUR: Because he starts the book by showing everything that spiritual growth is not, and it just made clear biblical sense. There was a time in his life early on in his ministry when he thought very biblically and very clearly about the Word of God. His book on the character of God, his book on predestination—
NICHOLS: Right, very influential for many people.
MACARTHUR: Very influential and basically on target. Not deep, but really clear. “That’s what it’s not,” “That’s what it’s not,” “That’s what it’s not,” and he was just erasing all the things that I wondered if it was. Then he came down to what spiritual growth was. I actually had a weird copy of the book that looked like it was put together on some kind of cheap typewriter. It was big like somebody had typed it and put it together in some way, but anyway, for the first time in my life, I thought I was getting a grip on what spiritual life and spiritual growth really was. Things like, spiritual growth is not having God love you more. Spiritual growth is not a result of time. Just knocking down all those kinds of things and then establishing what spiritual growth was for me. I came out of that book and I never touched another mystical book again. I couldn’t go back to that. I understood it.
NICHOLS: You were inoculated.
MACARTHUR: Yes, because all that was what it was not.
MACARTHUR: It was not feelings. It was not experiences.
NICHOLS: That is so helpful. I think people are really caught up in this. There is that mystical tendency that somehow that’s where it’s at. Then if you don’t feel that, you feel like you’re not up to par.
MACARTHUR: Well, look, I’ve experienced that my whole life. First of all, I wasn’t a mystic and then I wasn’t a charismatic.
NICHOLS: I do know that for sure. That’s pretty clear.
MACARTHUR: There are plenty of people who have said about me, “Just think of what John MacArthur would be if he had the Holy Spirit.”
NICHOLS: That’s very funny. Well, the beauty of it is— you do.
MACARTHUR: Yes, if you want to think of me if I didn’t have the Holy Spirit, you wouldn’t be thinking of me— you wouldn’t even know I exist. That was a very important book for me. Getting a grip on spiritual life, and that showed up in my ministry here, that showed up in my preaching to people to help them understand what it was to be spiritual rather than carnal. It allowed me to reject the old Campus Crusade “carnal Christian, spiritual Christian.”
NICHOLS: You could keep Jesus off the throne of your heart.
MACARTHUR: Keep Jesus off the throne of your life.
NICHOLS: That’s right.
MACARTHUR: Those are the early underpinnings to my understanding of the Lordship of Christ.
NICHOLS: Of discipleship, yes.
MACARTHUR: And discipleship, the whole issue of discipleship.
NICHOLS: Well hopefully we’ll get into that some time. The story of Pink is a bit sad though. You’ve mentioned that you read the biography by your own biographer, Iain Murray.
MACARTHUR: Yes, Pink was a very disappointed man.
NICHOLS: He struggled in his early pastoral charges.
MACARTHUR: Well he was socially so awkward. He was such a clear biblical thinker at the beginning, and then he tried to minister in America and he just never could go anywhere. He couldn’t get anybody to come. His ministries and his churches were small and insignificant. He tried to go to Australia. He went to Australia. He tried to start churches in Australia. That didn’t work. He came back to the States I think, and he actually lived for a long time without electricity, without running water.
NICHOLS: Sort of almost like a hermit’s life.
MACARTHUR: Yes, and that was a trend. Finally, at one point in his life, he wrote this long tome on the book of Hebrews and it was a kind of polemic against what he’d written before that. He was attacking his own early theology, and then the end of the story was so sad. I was flying from Australia and I read Iain Murray’s biography of Pink. It brought tears to me as I came to the end of it.
NICHOLS: His tragic life, yes.
MACARTHUR: Yes, he ends up in Scotland on some seacoast town in the north, living on a second floor flat all by himself, just unhappy, miserable, antisocial, like a Howard Hughes type hermit. How sad. And it broke my heart because this was the guy who I thought taught me what spiritual life was.
NICHOLS: We’re sort of back to your first book, The New Testament Order for Church and Missionary. We’re back to the idea that we are the body of Christ, can’t be the church without it.
NICHOLS: Not in isolation.
MACARTHUR: You can’t tie your ego to the success of your ministry. Pastors get burnout, ditch diggers don’t get burnout. It’s not from hard work, it’s from unfulfilled expectations. Keep your expectations low and you’ll be a much happier individual, and give the Lord all the credit for whatever happens.
NICHOLS: Very wise words. Thank you, Dr. MacArthur, appreciate that.
Transcript lightly edited for readability.