My mentor, colleague, and friend, David Powlison, is gone, now home with the One whose love consumed his heart.
There are times when words fail to capture the profound impact one man can have on another. The mind scans the years as the heart struggles to accept the reality that one so significant has gone on.
I first met David Powlison as a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1985. He taught a course on the dynamics of the spiritual life that revealed him to be a wise spiritual surgeon. I drove two and a half hours each way to take that class; few things would have kept me away. That class rose way above a required academic course, each session capturing my mind and stirring up a deeper love for Jesus in my heart. What I didn’t know as I sat under my favorite teacher was that he would become my colleague and friend.
In 1987 I was called to be a faculty member at CCEF and a lecturer at Westminster. David and I shared a heart for the gospel, for the church, and for a street-level application of Scripture to everyday life. In many ways, biblical counseling was in its theological and methodological infancy, and with Ed Welch, David and I spent hours and hours together trying to construct a theology of the heart and how the gospel works change, along with seeking to develop a methodology that would encourage lasting heart and life change.
I’m deeply blessed to have been part of those hours and hours of discussion. I’m passionate and a bit crazy; David was quiet and contemplative, so he would be making insightful observations as I bounced around the room, thinking out loud. David made me think: think deeply, think biblically, and think practically. Those discussions were never a waste of time.
As we got a greater sense of what God had called us to in the field of personal, pastoral, counseling ministry, we knew we needed to train others. Since the church wasn’t coming to Philadelphia, we would need to go to the church. So David and I traveled to churches all around the United States. Since we were away from the daily busyness of counseling and teaching, we would talk. Those talks in planes, hotels room, airports, and restaurants were rich and formative. Each trip was more than a training opportunity. Each trip was marked by rich gospel fellowship with a uniquely gifted and godly friend. I will always treasure those trips.
Before long, our travel expanded. Multiple trips to South Korea and India deepened our discussions and my love for David. In Korea, we were confused together by food we didn’t know how to eat and customs we didn’t understand. In India, we were sick together, dragging ourselves out of bed only long enough to teach. But in each place, we together got new eyes to see the gospel, and in each place, I would try to get inside David’s brilliant mind to learn what he was seeing. In India, we had long discussions about what the overt idol worship there taught us about the covert idolatry that captures us all. I am blessed to have been able to serve my Lord and his church in those places, but even more blessed, that in his grace, I was able to do it alongside David Powlison. In each discussion, I was stimulated by the nuances of the gospel David was able to understand, by the details he was able to see, and by his surgical facility with Scripture.
There is so much more I could say about the richness of my 20 years learning from and working with this man whom I esteemed and loved so, but I want to end with two things. First, it’s hard for me to imagine that I would’ve written what I have written, taught what I have taught, and preached what I have preached without the impact of this dear man. But there is something more: I wasn’t just shaped by David’s mind, but more profoundly by the way he lived his life. His infectious love for Jesus, his gentle love for God’s people, his humble scholarship, and his zeal to incarnate God’s love marked me and has marked my ministry to others.
In the last several years, our ministries took us away from the regular contact we enjoyed for so long, but I have carried David in my heart and my prayers until this moment. Today I feel deep sadness mixed with profound gratitude. I am glad that David is in the arms of his Savior, but I am sure no one again will leave this kind of imprint on my heart, mind, life, and ministry.