David Powlison’s legacy

This week marks a year since David Powlison went to be with the Lord. He was a great friend of Biblical Counselling UK and we miss him greatly. Among the many things he taught us, here are three that stand out.

1. Be intent on listening
When David first visited the UK to speak for us, we discovered that he needed a minder. Not to protect him from others, but to protect him from himself. David was always so eager to spend time in conversation that, without a minder, he would never stop. After giving a talk he would so fill the intervening hours with people that the next speaking engagement would arrive without him having had a moment’s rest. So a minder was needed to drag him away.

David listened. The intensity with which he attended to you was exceptional. And this wasn’t some mere quirk of his personality. It was far more than that. It was a theological conviction. David was convinced that unless we listen, we will not know how to speak.

Proverbs 18:13 puts it like this:

To answer before listening –
that is folly and shame.

Our evangelical heritage makes much of speaking; it is strong about the Word – and rightly so. But there are many words in Scripture, and David taught us that in order to love someone well you need to know which word is needed.

We can only say one thing at a time and that means we have to be selective. Every New Testament epistle does that. The writer selects particular truths about God and his work that need saying to these particular Christians at this particular time.

Listening isn’t a polite nicety; it’s a theological necessity. Unless we listen, we will not know how best to speak. To speak with precision; to speak words that bring healing to the wounded; conviction to the wayward; peace to the troubled and joy to the downcast is only possible if first we listen carefully to the person to whom we are about to speak.

2. Be generous towards those with whom you disagree
When I took my first biblical counselling course with CCEF, a strong motivating factor was addressing my puzzles about psychotherapy. As a junior psychiatrist I had been exposed to a wide range of therapies and needed help to make sense of them. But it was 2 or 3 years before I finally got to the course that addresses those things – it comes a fair way down the list of recommended courses. And looking back I can see why.

I first needed to learn how to ask that kind of question and it was David who taught me, by modelling generosity. David was perhaps the kindest and most gentle person I have ever had the joy of meeting.

When he addressed secular approaches to counselling and therapy, he did so with generosity. He thought well of the theorists and the therapists. He worked hard to notice the good things they were achieving. And he was genuinely eager to learn. Alongside an exceptional intellect, David was astonishingly humble and eager to learn.

This proverb captures it well:

Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still;
teach the righteous and they will add to their learning (Proverbs 9:9)

Real wisdom is open to learning new things. It is open to having error corrected and thinking expanded. David was constantly engaging with secular therapies in order to learn from them and increase his wisdom.

But he did that by taking them to Scripture. He would ask, if this is valuable, why is it valuable? If it is doing good, what good is it achieving? If this therapy says some good things, how can that be still better said from Scripture? If this therapy brings change, how can still greater change arrive because of Scripture?

But, as David would put it, never be ‘counter-converted’. Secular ideas must never undermine our own foundation.

3. Be unshakeably persuaded by Christ
For all his readiness to engage fully and honestly and generously with secular counselling, David never wavered in his convictions about the authority of Scripture.

And this rare combination of an unshakeably solid grip on Scripture and an intensively rich engagement with secular approaches is what made his writing and speaking so fresh. Old truths shone with new brilliance precisely because they were being connected with contemporary thought. David helped us see how gospel truth engaged with things we are particularly prone to treasure today. And that made his teaching vivid, perceptive and applicable.

David knew that a firm grip on truth need not make a person angular or prickly. Actually Jesus shows us that. Jesus was never harsh – he loved people even as he rebuked and corrected them. And David modelled that aspect of Christlike character more clearly than anyone I have ever known.

Two proverbs capture these things:

Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life (Proverbs 4:13)

One who loves a pure heart and who speaks with grace
will have the king for a friend. (Proverbs 22:11)

Whatever form of pastoral ministry God calls us to, these three things are qualities to be pursued. They not only honour God and guard our souls, they will also, by God’s grace, enable us to speak with relevance in whatever cultural context God has chosen to place us.

These reflections were given to those graduating this year from our Church-based Intern Scheme at an online Interns Day on 9th June 2020.