When I received the news that David Powlison had passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, I immediately messaged those closest to me to let them know the news. Though I knew his illness was progressing, I was still devastated. My wife, close friends, and colleagues know how much Powlison means to me, but not in the way you might think.
I never knew him personally, we never corresponded, nor did we ever actually meet. Since the news of his death, those who worked closely with him and knew him well have written touching tributes. Like the vast majority of those that Powlison impacted, however, my experience with him has all been from a distance through his writing, teaching, and public ministry.
Perhaps, then, you can relate to me when I say that though I never knew him, Powlison is one of the most trusted mentors I have ever had. When I think about his influence on my life and ministry, three distinct characteristics of Powlison rise to the surface.
The way he talked about counseling
When I started attending Southern Seminary in 2009, I began my M.Div. program in biblical and theological studies, focusing on languages and exegesis. Things changed quickly, however, in a family ministry class my first semester. My professor taught a lecture on the importance of biblical counseling in the local church. At that time, I thought of counseling as only taking place in extreme circumstances with people who had a special calling to that type of practice. But when this professor talked about counseling, he used the phrase “interpersonal ministry of the Word.” He normalized the practice of counseling for everyday ministry, and I was intrigued to learn more.
This began a process of drinking deeply from biblical counseling resources and eventually switching to the biblical counseling program. This led me to Powlison’s work. He had a way of talking about counseling without you ever realizing he was talking about counseling. Whether you’re engulfed in a chapter of his writing on idolatry or listening to an interview with him untangling the complexities of human suffering, you enter into the dynamic Christian life. The way he talked about counseling helped me discover that it really is beautiful and normal, the rhythm of Christian relationships as God designed them. Counseling is a gift that God has given, in one shape or another, to the entire Church.
The way he talked about the Bible
Powlison talked about the Bible as if it were alive and true, as if it would bring hope and help to the broken, and this was the foundation of his ministry. I was particularly influenced by his helpful book, Seeing with New Eyes (P&R, 2003), where he used the book of Ephesians as an example of how to utilize Scripture in counseling. He wrote that “in a pinch you could do all counseling from Ephesians” (p.17). Then, he took the practical theology of this gospel-rich Epistle to show how to apply it to a variety of circumstances. I fell in love with the book of Ephesians, and to this day, it’s the book of the Bible to which I will most often run to provide counsel.
Powlison was gifted in the art of going from the Bible to life, as well as life to the Bible. He had a vibrant way of using Scripture to minister to others through his counseling, writing, and teaching. Those who were helped by him ended up loving God and his Word more.
The way he talked to others
In an era of Twitter debates and inflammatory language, Powlison was a breath of fresh air, though he was no stranger to debate or critical thinking. The so-called “counseling wars” of the past few decades over the use of secular resources at the counseling table have been intense, and Powlison was an important voice in the dialogue. What was distinct about Powlison was his gentle, convictional tone which earned him a reputation that was above reproach, even among those who had the sharpest disagreements with him. Rather than using his words to tear others down, he was careful to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) and made every opportunity to “build up” (Eph. 4:29).
The common thread among all these characteristics was Powlison’s strategic gift of using words that truly help others in a way that glorifies God. In his recent book, God’s Grace in Your Suffering (Crossway, 2018), he reflected on his gift:
“I love the ministry of putting words into sentences that I hope will help someone. But it is guaranteed that someday I will no longer be able to do this thing I love. And it is so important that the ability to complete a thought does not define who I am. I am weak; Christ is strong. I am a refugee falling into his care. I am one of his own” (43).
Powlison’s earthly gifts and ministry have come to an end. As we look to our brother as an example, may our words be seasoned with grace to help those in time of need. More importantly, may we long for the day when our earthly ministry and words will end, and like Powlison, our faith will become sight.