Important Lessons I Learned from David Powlison

It was the Fall of 1999, and I was entering the final stretch of my MA program in counseling.  My zeal to become a licensed professional counselor had been waning in light of being exposed to many psychological models that seemed to oppose my values and beliefs as a Christian.

This crisis magnified with my ethics class where I learned of the discipline’s views pertaining to bringing one’s own values into the counseling process. According to the ethical guidelines within the secular arena to do so was deemed inappropriate and was strongly discouraged. This knowledge pressed me deeper into serious contemplation about my future path as a caregiver, especially since the crux of my desire to pursue a degree in counseling was, in part, to develop in my capacity to wisely bring biblical truth into my work in a manner that was relevant to the myriad of issues people face.   

Additional tension began to mount for me when one of my professors introduced me to a prolific author in Transpersonal Psychology, Ken Wilber. As I read Wilber’s The Spectrum of Consciousness, I was mesmerized by his thoughtful and elaborate construction of a model of care uniquely rooted in his rich and studied knowledge base of Eastern thought. Unlike the modernists (e.g., Freud, Rogers, and Ellis) I had studied in my courses, Wilber proposed a comprehensive view of human psychology that unabashedly esteemed the spiritual. This only exacerbated my dilemma, however, since Wilber’s view of spirituality was rooted in the tenets of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Perusing the prominent Christian counseling books of that time, I was hard-pressed to find such an exquisite work, and in the end, was left wanting. I remember asking myself the question, “Where is Christianity’s Ken Wilber?” 

Soon thereafter I began my internship at a local Christian counseling agency where my supervisor introduced me to a name I had never heard before — David Powlison.

Articles he had penned for The Journal of Biblical Counseling and The Journal of Pastoral Practice, such as X-Ray Questions: Drawing Out the Whys and Wherefores of Human Behavior, Human Defensiveness: The Third Way and Affirmations and Denials opened up a world of thought for me I had not experienced since discovering C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer many years before.

Yet, Powlison offered something even more intriguing to me because he was articulating a psychology and a critique that was beautifully extracted from the pages of the Bible. The providence of God had rescued me from the claws of cynicism through the thoughtful brilliance of this amazing man. Throughout the next three or four years, I could hardly wait for the next publication of The Journal of Biblical Counseling so I could indulge myself in Powlison’s latest expression of God’s truth as it applied to the complex work of biblical soul care.

I never dreamed this initial introduction to his writing would culminate in Powlison’s support in a personal tragedy and eventual redemption that would transpire in the following years.

During the summer of 2003, I assisted a colleague in publically launching a newly organized biblical counseling group, the Association of Biblical Counselors (ABC). As we pursued this new endeavor, I was very content in remaining in the shadows while supporting the vision of a person who had a very charismatic and magnetic personality.

However, in the Fall of 2003, my friend disclosed some personal issues to the tiny team of ABC that would require him (the brains and personality of our newly launched ministry) to step down. Devastation and utter confusion do not come close to capturing the feelings we all experienced that dreadful afternoon. The dream we had worked on for two years had finally launched, and it was over before it really ever started.

It was expected by those around me to take up the mantle and lead us out of this disastrous situation. Extremely under-skilled, terrified, heartbroken, and far too young and inexperienced to take up such a task, I frantically reached out to a dozen leaders in the biblical counseling movement who were privy to our formation.

I shared what had transpired since all of them knew my colleague. I heard back from two of them—Lance Quinn and David Powlison. Eventually, both men flew to Texas and spent the day encouraging and loving a guy who was completely clueless on what to do next, and they offered amazing wisdom for me to consider if ABC had any chance to survive this catastrophic blow. 

During that following spring (2004), ABC hosted its second annual conference—thirty-eight people attended (a drop from four hundred the year prior when my colleague was still at the helm). The immense shame, embarrassment, and discouragement I experienced that weekend compelled me to the brink of throwing in the towel, but there was David Powlison.

As weeks and months passed, David reached out to me to see how things were going. If I needed to talk, he always made time. He didn’t know me, but he treated me as a lifelong friend.  I never felt rushed off the phone. His enthusiastic tone as we talked all things biblical counseling kept the fire for my work burning in my soul.

When I was tempted to become resentful toward others within the biblical counseling community for not being as supportive as he, David would offer a gentle rebuke and remind me of the call for compassion and patience for those trying to pursue a wise path with a ministry and a person with whom they were marginally familiar at best. Our conversations were encouraging and redemptive, and the Lord used them to bring healing to a heart that was utterly tormented by confusion and a crippling fear of failure.

Those many conversations (along with much prayer) during the following years encouraged me to persevere as I sought to steward a failing ministry that had been impaled by the consequences of sin. Our frequent phone calls led to a collaborative effort in 2009 wherein David and I developed what we called the ABC Symposium. The goal of this symposium was to start a public conversation among “camps” within Christian soul care that tended to avoid much interaction, and when such interaction did occur it was typically quite negative.

The symposium was slated to be the opener for our 2009 conference—the first conference ABC had hosted since the disaster in 2004 where only thirty-eight people were in attendance. Our guests for the symposium included Steve Viars, Robert Kellemen, David Powlison, and Eric Johnson with John Henderson and me moderating. David and I spent hours on the phone developing the purpose and goal of the symposium. However, lingering anxiety haunted me as the event approached.

When the warm Thursday evening in May 2009 arrived, and the symposium was scheduled to start that evening, I remember being extremely tentative about the whole thing. I was constantly reminded of the humiliation of 2004. What if that happens, again? How embarrassed will I be if I have to relive that experience — but this time with Viars, Johnson, Powlison, and Kellemen on stage? Yet, I was comforted by the fact that the leading scholar in my field had helped me develop the event, was excited about the evening, and was in complete support of my efforts regardless of turnout.

That night, the church was packed. I would estimate over five hundred attendees. Excitement was in the air. I watched in awe as the respectful, candid conversation unfolded on stage. Whereas most of us thought the evening would expose glaring differences among the participants, it actually culminated in a grace-filled awareness, led by David, that each man on stage shared far more in common philosophically and theologically than what may have previously been acknowledged.

The symposium lasted well over three hours, and hardly one person in attendance left early. As the final prayer was offered, and as we concluded our time together, this tall, slender man with somewhat of a giddy smirk on his face raced toward me, stuck out his hand, and uttered these words, “Jeremy, tonight it looks like God chose to raise the Titanic. I’m happy for you.”

It was David. In the midst of the challenging conversations, the excitement of the crowd, and the hype of the night, he had honed in on my heart. His compassion and joy for me were glaring. I will never forget his thoughtfulness and his words. God used this wonderful saint to encourage my heart. His support and involvement with us—a ministry that had been plagued by scars of failure—began to validate our very existence as a ministry. David was not only a wise scholar but he was a dedicated servant of the Lord.

While his departure remains somewhat surreal, and all hearts who knew him to continue to bear the weight of his loss, the Association of Biblical Counselors is one of dozens upon dozens of ministries that will always bear the fingerprint of his influence and love. My prayer is that we will always seek to glorify God in our work as graciously and faithfully as he.      

About the author

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Jeremy Lelek

Jeremy Lelek, PhD, is the president of both the Association of Biblical Counselors and Metroplex Counseling. He is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Texas. He lectures frequently in churches, training believers with ABC's Equipped to Counsel curriculum. Jeremy is married to Lynne, and they have four children. He and his wife are active members of Fort Worth Presbyterian Church (PCA). Jeremy is the author of Biblical Counseling Basics: Roots, Beliefs, & Future.

1 Comment

  • Jeremy, that was so thoughtful, honoring and vulnerable. Thanks fo sharing it. Keep the light shining friend. David would love that you are still leading in a way that is winsome, humble and for God’s glory.

Jeremy Lelek

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Jeremy Lelek, PhD, is the president of both the Association of Biblical Counselors and Metroplex Counseling. He is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Texas. He lectures frequently in churches, training believers with ABC's Equipped to Counsel curriculum. Jeremy is married to Lynne, and they have four children. He and his wife are active members of Fort Worth Presbyterian Church (PCA). Jeremy is the author of Biblical Counseling Basics: Roots, Beliefs, & Future.

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