David Powlison, 1949-2019

August 30, 2019

 

 

 

…The Spirit helps us in our weakness.   

                       Romans 8:26

 

 

 

My long-time friend and fellow counselor, David Powlison, “fell asleep in the Lord” on June 7, and I want to honor him today.  I truly call him “my friend,” but in fact, many, many others also call him that.   When you were with Dave, you knew he was completely present with you in that moment. This was no technique, but genuine brotherly love. Yet he was the foremost scholar and practical theologian of the modern Christian counseling movement, whose work has had a profound impact on the church globally. Here are some quotes from him, for your reflection and encouragement.

 

● In his last public address[1] David commented on the verse above: 

It does not say “weaknesses” as if there were a finite list of sins A-B-C, and sufferings X-Y-Z in your life. “Weakness” singular is a comprehensive description of our human condition. We are perishable. We are mortal. We face a multitude of afflictions in our lives. And we are sinful, bent from the heart towards pride, self-righteousness, fear of man, and a multitude of desires and fears that beset us. The mercies of God meet us in this comprehensive condition of weakness….My deepest hope for you is that in both your personal life and your ministry to others, you would be unafraid to be publicly weak as the doorway to the strength of God Himself.

 

● Regarding his love of the scientific enterprise and desire to engage with its research, he wrote:

…We have categories to reframe every tiny bit of secular thinking so it functions as a comprehensible part of the God-centered world. We know what they are really looking at.[2]

In other words, David is saying that Christians should be the best scientists!  Everything we see, and everything atheists see, must be radically recast into a biblical worldview. Only then do we understand Reality accurately.

 

● David showed his keen sense of irony in describing our culture’s overuse of the word “feel,” and the “vague and fuzzy cloud of legitimacy” it creates: 

If I feel hurt because I feel my husband has wronged me, then perhaps I don’t feel like going to talk to him.  Instead, I feel like leaving because I feel he won't listen anyway. I feel justified in the anger I feel, and I don’t feel the Bible applies to our particular conflicts.  So there![3]

With his probing mind, David then sorted the use of the word “feeling” into four biblical categories:  sensory experience, emotions, beliefs, and desires.  Each one must be handled in a different manner.

 

● David understood our Christian identity.  We are “sufferers,” “sinners,” and “saints.”  True biblical counseling must address the person as all three simultaneously.  

…“Sufferer” is one of three core elements in the identity of every child of the Father. We are sufferers. We are sinners. And, amid both, to the praise of the glory of His grace, we are saints, servants, sons and daughters of the Most High. When you counsel, you are struck hard by the troubles that people face. Ministry breaks your heart. You are struck hard by the chaotic darkness expressed in what people think, want, do, and feel. Ministry weighs you down with perplexities. And you are awestruck at the faith, kindness, courage, sensitivity, generosity, and perceptiveness expressed in what people think, want, do, and feel. Ministry makes your heart soar.[4]

 

● Above all, David strived to exalt Christ in his teaching and his life.  What distinguishes Christian counseling from its counterfeits?  David wrote:

First, how is God portrayed? Is the God revealed in Scripture central to how we are to understand and address the sins and sufferings of the human condition? Is He central in how to understand the good, the potentialities, and the blessings which counseling aims to bring to pass? In particular, what role and significance are given to Jesus Christ? Defective counseling models never get Christ right. They either completely ignore, wildly distort, or subtly misrepresent Him with whom we have to do. But the Searcher of all hearts, the one before whom every knee must bow, the only Savior of sinners and Refuge for sufferers insists on getting His due. Biblical wisdom considers all human phenomena with this God in view.[5] 

 

We give thanks to God for the Spirit of wisdom active in David Powlison’s life and the positive impact he has had the world-wide church.  Pray for his wife, Nan, and their family, and for all who grieve his loss to us.  And pray for all of us, in the words of the apostle Paul, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better (Ephesians 1:17).

 

[1] He was too ill to speak, but his comments were read at Westminster Theological Seminary’s graduation, May 23, 2019.

[2] David Powlison, The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2010), p.257

[3] I feel this is a transcription of an old lecture, and feel badly that I can’t locate the source, but I feel good about the quote.

[4] David Powlison, Journal of Biblical Counseling, Fall, 2004, p. 15

[5] David Powlison, “What Distinguishes Biblical Counseling from other Methods?” at http://www.9marks.org/journal/what-distinguishes-biblical-counseling-other-methods

 

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Christian Counseling and Mediation

Hope, Help, and Peacemaking grounded in God's Word