He Sees with New Eyes

My Love for David Powlison (1949–2019)

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I love David Powlison, who passed away yesterday morning, and would like to honor him and exult in his Savior by giving you seven reasons why.

I say “love,” not “loved,” because that’s the way love is. It doesn’t cease to be during separations. And this one will be short.

1. I love him because when he spoke I saw.

I made no secret that I ranked him with C.S. Lewis as a see-er of what is really there. It was no coincidence that one anthology of Lewis is titled A Mind Awake, and one anthology of David’s is called Seeing with New Eyes. They were both profoundly awake to the quiddity of things — to wake up in the morning and be aware of the firmness of the mattress, the pleasant weight of the blanket on your feet, the warmth of the sun rays, the soft murmur of the distant traffic, the sheer being of things.

Lewis and Powlison gently shook me awake from the recurrent slumbering of my mind in theoretical and abstract reconstructions of things, one step removed from the concreteness of reality. Wake up! Those people have noses! (Lewis). Wake up! Those people have stories! (Powlison).

I invite you to listen to a few of David’s short videos on YouTube. Just when you think there is nothing more that can be said about this inscrutable personal problem, he sees it from a new angle, then another angle, and another. Then I realize that my speechlessness before this sorrow was owing to my not being alive to what is really there. Wonders. Wonders in the broken human being in front of me, and wonders in the word of God. He helped me see, again and again.

2. I love him because he was gently amazed at the amazing — and everything is amazing.

Let me illustrate with a story he told:

Some 1,500 years ago, the warrior-chief of a primitive, Germanic tribe bluntly questioned a visiting missionary, “Why should I believe in this Jesus that you tell me about?” The man of God answered, “Because in Jesus Christ you will find wonder upon wonder — and all true.”

David believed that Jesus Christ — revealed in Scripture — is the key to rightly seeing and experiencing everything. And everything, rightly seen, is amazing. And, rightly experienced, everything is healing — eye-opening, joy-giving. Jesus, seen and spoken wisely, is the key to all that is true and good and whole and honest and lasting. God’s Son and God’s word do not go begging among the secondhand stores of secular philosophies or psychologies.

If we are to serve people well, David said,

We must know the sheer glory and goodness of what our Father has given us in Jesus Christ. To know Jesus in truth and love is to find the one thing worth finding, the one lasting happiness, the purpose of life.

Just when we are about to sit down and look at a glossy, coffee-table book of mountain pictures, David takes us by the arm and pulls us up to the next rim of Himalayan heights of Scripture, and says, “Look at Reality! This is amazing! And more relevant to every troubled life than anything in the glossy imitations.”

3. I love him because his language is alive with what he has seen.

If you only see, and don’t say, how do you serve anyone? But if you see what is concretely amazing, and yet say it with vague abstractions, how will people see and savor the wonders you see? David did not do this. You could touch his words. They were real. This is a gift. For example, he counseled,

Don’t ever say words such as “indicative” or “imperative” or “normative, situational, existential” when you are speaking with a human being who is still breathing.

I laughed out loud when I read that! Don’t load people with wonderless jargon from your specialty. Press through your beloved shorthand to the concrete reality and find words that touch the soul.

Don’t use shorthand — “gospel, cross, metanarrative, justification, sovereignty, redemptive-historical,” and so on — when you have an opportunity to use longhand. The Bible only uses shorthand after the meaning is crystal clear, established in some detail in the context. And biblical shorthand typically moves forward with a nuance or fresh angle, rather than simply talking in technical jargon. Most people get very little out of shorthand, but get a great deal out of details and stories.

Shorthand is needed. Indeed, it is inspired by God. But it’s the “detail,” the “context,” the “crystal clear meaning,” the “nuance,” the “fresh angle,” the “stories” that waken. In some mouths this counsel might have put me off, but David has my trust as a rock-solid lover of Romans, as well as Ruth. So, I listened when he said,

Become as Ruth-ian as you are Roman-esque, as Psalmic as you are Colossianic. We who are Reformed by conviction have always loved Truth, and now we love The Story. But we still have a hard time paying attention to the stories and all the other things that are true.

4. I love him because he is radiantly serious.

Jokesters do not help my happiness or my fruitfulness. Levity, it seems to me, is what happens to the soul when the quest for happiness loses touch with reality. To do good to people we must not lose touch with reality. We must know some things. For example, David writes,

We must know the gravity of our condition as human beings. We tend to defect. We are false lovers. We are traitors — compulsively, blindly.

The Christian Counselor (that’s all of us believers in some measure) is serious because of the terrifying propensities he sees in the mirror. But along with those dreadful facts, “We must know the sheer glory and goodness of what our Father has given us in Jesus Christ.” So, the Christian Counselor is radiant with joy.

At least David was. In my experience he was never glib, or gloomy. He did not wear the heaviness of his troubles on his sleeve. They made him earnest, but not onerous. He was not a party pooper, nor the resident clown. He was serious — the opposite of superficial — radiantly serious. No one greeted me like David Powlison — eyes fixed on mine, smiling gently, seeing, asking.

5. I love him because he is calmly unshakeable but corrigible.

He devoted some of his best thinking to how he could profit from the critics of his best thinking. This was part of the bigger vision — the peaceful, happy vision— that God and his word are infallibly true even when we are not infallibly right. The safest place to live and minister is not in the fortress of defensiveness, but in the shadow of the Almighty, ready to learn from every serious witness.

David turned every detractor into a doctor for his soul. Why waste a criticism by being defensive? He liked to say, “Critics, like governing authorities, are servants of God to you for good (Romans 13:4).” As usual he got much more specific:

Nobody likes to be criticized. But critics keep us sane — or, by our reactions, prove us temporarily or permanently insane. Whether a critic’s manner is gracious or malicious, whether the timing is good or bad, whether the intention is constructive or destructive, whether the content is accurate, half-true, or utterly false, in any case the very experience of being criticized reveals you. To what madnesses are you prone?

Not many people talk like this. David Powlison does. And I am the more sane for it.

6. I love him because he knew that the counsel of Christ radically opposed and opened the world.

He knew that all truth is God’s truth. But, just as importantly, he knew that any truth cut from God as truth is radically untrue — untrue to all that is most important, most beautiful, most precious, most lasting. Biblical counseling was not a baptized imitation of the world’s ideas. It grew from the unfathomable roots of Reality in God.

God’s way is qualitatively different from everything else available in the bazaar of options, of other counsels, other schemas, other practices, other systems.

We are not at a loss when our roots grow deep and wide in the vastness of God’s wisdom. “God speaks profoundly and comprehensively to the concrete conditions of every person’s life.”

But the counsel of Christ is not only opposed to, and better than, all the world; it also opens the world as a treasure trove of human experience. David did not believe it was possible or desirable to move directly from Bible-reading to soul-healing. Nobody exists in that kind of bubble, where there is only a Bible, a reader, and a sinful, wounded soul. This reader — this counselor — has been formed by ten thousand experiences in life, besides what he sees in the Bible. Some have been harmful. Some helpful. Some both.

David’s point is this: the radically comprehensive, God-centered, Christ-exalting vision of Scripture turns the world into a school of endless wonders — horrible and beautiful. With Christ as Creator and Teacher the universe becomes a university of discovery. The Bible reader — the biblical counselor — is no longer passive about being shaped by the world, but actively pressing through appearances to depths of insight in human experience.

We see this not only in the way David listened perceptively (to us), but also in the way he read fiction and history. Why did he love Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) and Alan Paton (Cry, the Beloved Country) and Mark Helprin (A Soldier of the Great War)? He tells us:

Of course, I love [them] in a different way than I love Scripture. But alongside Scripture, I most love novels and histories. Why? Because you learn about people. You gain a feel for human experience. You come to understand riches and nuances that you could never understand just from knowing the circle of people you happen to know. You come to understand the ways that people differ from each other, and the ways we are all alike — an exceedingly valuable component of wisdom. You become a bigger person with a wider scope of perception. All those things you come to know illustrate and amplify the relevance and wisdom of our God. I love fiction and biography for the same reasons that an 18th century pastor would read his Bible and his Shakespeare.

David Powlison was absolutely confident that the counsel of Christ was the decisive, indispensable, finally authoritative word of God over against all the God-omitting world. And he knew that world was a treasure chest of discovery awaiting Christ as the key.

7. I love him because he is finally centered on the sweetness of the love of God in Christ.

When he counseled a friend who could not shake the feeling that God was distant, yes, he counseled “Listen to Scripture” (2 Timothy 4:2). Yes, “Talk heart to heart with a friend” (Hebrews 3:13). Yes, “Eat and drink the Lord’s Supper” (Matthew 26:26—29). Yes, “Take time to carefully consider the beauty of a flower” (Matthew 6:28–29). Yes, “Remember the Christian leaders whose lives and teaching most influenced you” (Hebrews 13:7). Yes, “Remember Jesus lived Lamentations 3, and lived it for you” (Lamentations 3:22).

But his counsel reaches a crescendo on this sweet note:

And remember that the most repeated sentence in the entire Bible is “His steadfast love endures forever.” God thought it worth repeating that his steadfast love lasts forever. And it’s worth our repeating it, too. Say it out loud, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end.”

I am writing this tribute in Bideford, England, just after hearing the news of David’s death. Just this morning, Noël and I were walking through a graveyard in nearby Buckland Brewer, a village where my great, great-grandfather, John Piper, was born. In the cemetery among centuries-old gravestones there was a circular cement marker with the engraved word, “Reserved.”

Marked or not, your spot, and my spot, is reserved by God. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. In life, David Powlison taught us how to live, and to help others live. In death, he helps us prepare to die. Few reminders could be sweeter than the one he leaves with us: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end.” Never.