On Friday, June 7, 2019, David Powlison died peacefully at his home. After suffering from pancreatic cancer, he has left his home here to be with the God he so loved and honored. He was 69 years old.
If you’ve never heard of him or read any of his writing, I hope this brief reflection will encourage you to read a bit of his work. If you knew him or benefited from his work, I hope you’ll join me in thanking God for this special man who was a great gift to the body of Christ.
You can read David’s bio here. There you’ll find that he was born in Hawaii, was an all-American swimmer in high school, and a graduate of Punahou school in Honolulu. Other alumni include Ted Okada (a member of our church) and Barack Obama! David graduated from Harvard in the tumultuous times of the early 1970’s and a few years later was surprisingly and soundly converted into a follower of Christ. In the coming years, he would join Paul Tripp, Ed Welch, and others in rethinking biblical counseling and founding the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF), which has greatly influenced our church and the body of Christ for the good.
Though I only met David briefly a time or two, and only attended a few conferences where he taught, my life has been marked by both his teaching and his example. One of my favorite articles of his is called, “Think Globally, Act Locally” (see page 61). I’ll use that title to express two reasons I’m grateful for this man.
When I was a seminary student and rookie pastor in the late 1980’s, there were basically two approaches to Christian counseling. The school I attended taught an integrated model, “planting theology in the heart of psychology.” The alternative was promoted by Jay Adams, and others, who critiqued modern psychological theories and the Christians who tried to integrate them into counseling. He proposed what he called “nouthetic counseling,” which encouraged pastors not to abandon counseling to professional therapists.
In retrospect, the integrationists, though well-intended, gave away far too much of a biblical understanding of human nature and redemption in Christ. Adams, though well-intended, failed to appreciate the common grace available through psychology and trained and experienced therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists.
As so often happens, the need was for a third way that captured the best of the two options, while avoiding the faults. David Powlison and his coworkers blazed the trail for that middle way. He was a pioneer, a ground breaker. I love watching God work through people like this. Just as Adam and Eve were sent into the world to bring chaos into order, to make a garden of things, so we see the image of God in someone like David, who helped plant and grow the fruitful garden of biblical counseling.
David’s intellect was substantial, but he didn’t simply float above the everyday difficulties people like us face. He was a remarkably gentle, wise, patient, and skillful shepherd who seemed to understand the way my heart works better than I do. His writing was mostly done in articles and booklets (see the rack in our bookstore). He understood suffering in remarkable ways and was a creative thinker. I commend to you the brilliant article, “God’s Grace and Your Sufferings” in which he connects Isaiah 41:10, the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” and the inner life of a sufferer.
Let me leave you with one simple question that has become part of my inner operating system, “What is this person experiencing?” Often, when we observe someone else, we see anger or frustration or confusion or patterns of sin that aren’t changing. We want to help and so we quickly offer a bit of advice, or correction, or even a verse from the Bible. David taught me that if we want to truly be helpful, we’ll need to slow down long enough to consider carefully how this person is seeing their situation. What does life look like for them when they look through the windshield at their circumstances? Why are they angry? What do they understand is happening to them? Where is God in this? Where is their hope? Before we can offer help and connect them with the grace available in Christ, we must love the person enough to consider life from their perspective, to put their shoes on for a bit. David Powlison taught and modeled this.
You can read more of David’s work in the Journal of Biblical Counseling and in his various books for sale, or in some open letters. Here is his wonderful commencement address (see the June 3 entry) from just a few weeks ago, in which he appeals to graduating spiritual leaders not to be afraid to display public weakness.
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His godly ones. (Psalm 116:15 NASB) We’ve lost a good and gentle and Christ-honoring man. I am grateful for David Powlison’s life, legacy, and for the joy he’s now experiencing, forever free from cancer and the groanings of this age.