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Biblical Counseling and the Legacy of David Powlison

Editors’ note: 

TGC Council member David Powlison died on June 7 at the age of 69 after suffering from pancreatic cancer. In this article, Tim Keller, vice president of The Gospel Coalition, shares his reflections on Powlison. Jeremy served with David Powlison on the board of directors for the Biblical Counseling Coalition.

You know a man by what he loves. This is true in any role that man takes. I think it’s fair to say that David Powlison filled the role of primary leader in the biblical counseling movement, and as influencer over those in evangelicalism most concerned with pastoral care. I’m sure there are a number of reasons for this related to his publications and his leadership of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF). But to those who have been closest to his leadership the reason is clear: David embodied love for the things we aspire to love.

David loved many things, but I’d like to point out the particular loves that those of us following in his footsteps ought to follow.

David loved words.

We use words to make sense out of this world, to capture our experiences and ascribe meaning to them. David was hungry to read widely from those who are particularly skilled at this—poets, novelists, essayists, commentators. He would delight in those moments when a writer has used just the right wording. The kind of wording so precise and eloquent a reader feels the contours of his inner life are being read themselves. Such words allow someone to say Yes, I’ve experienced what you’re talking about. David tried to be such a writer himself.

David’s writing is not literature. But it is literary. He loved to craft words, not just write them. He wanted truth expressed beautifully. As you read him, you can tell he labored over many of his sentences long enough to make them playful, elegant, or piercing. But his love of words also came out in how he spoke with people. Having listened long, he would describe back to them their experience with words of more vivid variety, with cleaner edges and finer lines. It was masterful. David loved a word fitly spoken—they were like apples of gold in settings of silver for him.

David’s love of words was not incidental to who he was or what he produced. Those of us who wish to emulate David should perhaps turn our hearts to good writing by reading widely. Read for insight into experiences you’ll never have from behind a thousand different pairs of eyes. Read to see what it’s like to have someone else describe something so accurately that you understand your own experience better.

David loved the interrelatedness of God’s world.

Whether sliding across coastal surf on his board or reading a recently conducted sleep study, David was convinced that this world and all it contains is one big masterful expression of divine genius. Each layer of existence relates somehow to every other because all of them relate directly to the God of all. He delighted in ivy stretching up brick walls in a slow hunt for sunlight not just because it was beautiful, but because it was God’s.

This same delight allowed him to receive news of cancer with sober joy. God had done this. Yes, cancer is the uncontrolled growth and division of cells that have gone rogue, multiplying outside their designed limits. Yes, what causes cancer is mysteriously complex—was it environmental, genetic, exposure to carcinogens? And yes, our eyes don’t pierce these layers of reality. But God’s do. And they all relate back to his purposes. And he is good. Cancer is part of the interrelatedness of all things to God.

This love for the interrelatedness of God’s world also made David a model for engaging with sources of knowledge outside of God’s Word. Anyone he interacted with who came from a different theoretical approach—even approaches hostile to the tenets he held dear—he did so with a rare combination of humility and conviction. What David did better than most was critical engagement. Both words are important for understanding how he’d do it. To critique is to sense divisions—to discern between what was pleasing or displeasing to the Lord in a given piece of material. But to engage is to acknowledge the inherent legitimacy of this material’s attempt to ask a good question and seek a good answer.

The critiques he made of people he disagreed with were sweetly devastating—made all the more effective by the appreciation he showed for any good he found in their insights. His was a sympathetic criticism, far more devastating than generic dismissals or sweeping condemnations. You always had the sense from David that he had learned something valuable from the people he strongly disagreed with. Each perspective informed him of some factor in God’s interrelated world.

Those who have given their lives to a similar field of study should emulate David here. Every human being has a limited set of experiences in the world, and we grow and expand by collecting insights into a wider variety of experience. If we are consistent in our understanding of human beings as limited individuals in need of community, we must engage with wider material.

David loved the interpretive power of God’s Word.

David saw the world with new eyes (wink to those familiar with his writing), but perhaps better would be to say he saw the world with renewing eyes. The eyes of a heart continuously deepening in its love for God’s Word.

When David would share his latest thoughts in written or spoken form, you never got the sense he was excited by a new theory he came across or a new methodology he’d been developing. Instead, you heard his excitement that he’d recently been able to discern another way God’s Word illuminates the world. He loved the themes of Scripture, and the unique perspective of life that each one provides. He had a continual sense of discovery in the world of Scripture.

We should imitate this love so that we are always most impressed with the explanatory power of Scripture over the explanatory power of anything else. Scripture alone provides direct and wholly trustworthy access to God’s perspective of everything, and therefore holds unchallenged authority. Our first and happiest task is to seek understanding of our lives in the depths of divine wisdom. Our love of Scripture should brim up to our eyes, changing the way we see everything.

David loved helping people relate to both God’s Word and his world.

David’s love for people and his love for the Word converged together like two streams joining into one mighty river. This river flowed through the center of the landscape of David’s ministry, carrying life to countless people.

His love for people was like an atmosphere you entered into when having a conversation with him. Like few other people I know, David would engage his full interest in the person sitting across from him, happy to explore their unique experience. You felt cared for talking about anything from counseling theory to Philadelphia sports.

That love for people was not just a sentiment. It drove him to turn conversations toward what would bring most benefit to their soul. He did this gently, subtly, as if Jesus Christ were the natural end of any human conversation. It was never abrupt, never uncomfortably forced. It was like gravity.

We should imitate the orbit of David’s conversations by valuing people’s experiences enough to listen, then relating those experiences to God as their greatest context. This is perhaps the highest skill set that David displayed, which was something deeper than a skill set. It was a way of being for him.

David loved his unseen God.

Though David had never seen God, David loved him. This is the gift of faith. In David, this faith forged a particularly strong capacity to recognize and delight in the beauty of God. But David now sees his God, and even now finds him more beautiful than he could have imagined. David is beholding God with truly new eyes.

These are the loves that characterized David. I pray that these will be the loves that characterize us as we continue his efforts.

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