Category Archives: David Powlison
Over at the Sovereign Grace blog, my friend C.J. Mahaney has posted the transcript of his dinnertime conversation with biblical counselor David Powlison. A few weeks back I mentioned this conversation on the blog. C.J.’s posts contain further details.
Dr. Powlison’s literature recommendations included two “pastoral” titles:
And six “dark realism” titles:
- Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
- The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill
- Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories
- A short story by Raymond Carver
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- The Plague by Albert Camus
For more background on the pastoral usefulness of these literary works, please read C.J.’s interview posts:
What is the core sin of the human heart? Is it pride? Is it the sin of unbelief? Theologians have debated this topic for centuries. But According to Dr. David Powlison, the sins of pride and unbelief are really “two doors into the same room.” And he adds a third door—the fear of man.
These three core sins are interrelated, and it’s not difficult to see how. Pride is the act of installing myself as the king of my own autonomous kingdom. Unbelief is the act of erasing God from my kingdom (functionally, if not deliberately). Fear of man is the act of installing other sinners as big players in my kingdom (When People are Big and God is Small).
And it’s no surprise that all of the lies and lusts of our hearts are to be found rooted in these three core sins. These lies and lusts are expressions of the three core sins.
This past week I was mostly in downtown Baltimore at the NEXT 2009 conference. The conference seemed to be a success. It was a great opportunity to meet up with friends, many I get to see in person only once a year (or less).
But the previous week we had the pleasure of hosting biblical counseling guru David Powlison in Gaithersburg. As you can imagine, the week was filled with rich biblical wisdom and applicable elucidations of biblical truth. I’ve set aside time over the next couple of days to return to my notes and to meditate further on what I learned. I’ll be posting some of these meditations.
One topic Powlison addressed: How to spark substantive conversation with your spouse?
Powlison suggested three categories of questions to ask your husband or wife. Each of these categories can be asked on a daily basis. And each of these categories are simple and broad, but certainly provide helpful reminders. Here are the three:
1. What are your present burdens? The Bible tells us that we are born for trouble (Job 5:7). So what is the trouble? A sin? A responsibility? An issue at work? A particular conflict? What weighs you down? What was your lowlight of this day? These burdens are the “heat of life.”
2. What are your present joys? What were your highlights from the day? These joys are the “dew of blessing.”
3. What is your calling? This could include the mundane tasks, or broader life-purpose questions. What are your duties for this day? What do you need to do? What are your goals for this day? For example, a parent could say, “Today, I don’t want to lose my temper with the kids.” It could be as simple as this.
These three categories are helpful in getting to substantive conversation with your spouse. And Dr. Powlison alluded to, this list can be useful in talking with your children as well. The answers to these three categories of questions will help us better know how to serve and care for those in our lives.
This week Dr. David Powlison (Harvard, Westminster Seminary, U. of Penn) is in town teaching biblical counseling at the Pastors College. As many of you already know, Powlison is a gifted biblical counselor who through his speaking, teaching, and writing has really shaped biblical counseling into its present form (ie CCEF). He would be in my list of top 5 most unique, gifted, and valuable teachers in the church today.
As time allows, I have poked my head in on the classes to learn from his 30+ years of biblical counseling wisdom. If you follow me on Twitter, you know the classes have been rich. I’ll be back in class today.
Last night C.J. and I enjoyed dinner with Dr. Powlison. And for about 20 minutes I had an opportunity to ask him more about something he mentioned in class today, the value of literature for pastors as they seek to discover and better understand the chaos and messiness of the human experience. Theology, Powlison says, is the compass that points to true north as the storm of life swirls around us. Studying theology is essential, but we cannot neglect studying the realities of human experience of this world. You can tell Powlison has a burden for pastors to become familiar with the storm of everyday life for the purpose of informing pastoral labors and helping connect biblical promises to the contours of life. Scripture makes sense of the chaos.
To this end, he recommends pastors become familiar with the arts. Over coffee and crème brûlée, Powlison recommended a number of books, drawn from required reading he assigned in his class on ministry and literature. Powlison recommended psychological novels like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a book that details many sides of human experience—anger, shame, fear, passion, guilt, shamelessness, suffering, child abuse, adultery, reconciliation, etc. He also recommended two titles that illuminate life reality but also feature simple pastors as their heroes—Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
In his class, to encourage pastors better understand the messiness of life, Powlison also assigned readings from a number of dark and despairing, but thoughtful, books. He categorizes them as “dark realism”—Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories, The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Conrad, he said, can see straight into the pit of human darkness, and writes with an unalleviated cynicism. Checkov is equally pessimistic but with a degree of common grace and palpable love and respect in the way he presents the characters. Each of these authors value honesty, an honesty pastors can learn from.
I hope to elaborate on our conversation and these recommendations soon. But I am aware that this week is the time to record and document. I can elaborate later.
See you later today on Twitter for more updates from the classroom.
“The Puritans and [Jonathan] Edwards had the highest view of the mercy of God. In a sense their high view of the mercy of God is what gave them the courage to be self-analytical. But I think people reading them who are not grounded in a high view of the gospel can become depressed and introspective.”
David Powlison, CCEL podcast: “Biblical Counseling and the Puritans.”
“Feeling sorry for yourself is one of the strongest, most addictive narcotics known to man. It feels so good to feel so bad. Self-pity arises so easily, seems so plausible, and proves so hard to shake off.”
- David Powlison in the newest Journal of Biblical Counseling (Summer 2007, Vol. 25, No. 3) p. 7.
Sovereign Grace Ministries has opened the floodgate to offer all their mp3 message for free! This is a great resource, but let me point you specifically to a few messages:
- The message on over-introspection by David Powlison at the 2007 Leadership Conference is one great one.
- Mike Bullmore on preaching.
- Ligon Duncan on N.T. Wright and the New Perspective(s) on Paul.
- Ligon Duncan on preaching from the Old Testament (from T4G’06).
- C.J. Mahaney on ‘Interrogating the Legalist Within.’
- C.J. Mahaney’s personal testimony.
- C.J. Mahaney on the main thing.
- Don’t miss the parenting messages.
- Don’t miss these messages on the Cross.
- For more mp3s see this page.
These are some of the best audio resources on the web. And now free!
Understanding our motives
One of the deepest questions we can ask of ourselves is very simple: Why do we do what we do? Here are some thoughts on the topic.
Scripture addresses our motives in a profound way. Take James 4 for example: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (v. 1). Our quarrels with others spring from our own hearts because we entertain self-centered desires. James tells us that we fight, not because we have enemies without, rather, we fight because we have a sinful heart within. The conflict problem is me. At some level, I start every fight. And this angry heart rages hot because our sinful motives arise from unmet idolatrous desires: “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (v. 2). In verses 3-10, James says our motives cause conflict because we are worldly, because we fail to ask God for His grace, because we fail to pursue humility and fail to resist Satan’s temptations. Motives are at the root of all conflict. The evil of fighting is not that we land punches. The evil of fighting is that it reveals worldly idols and pridefulness towards God in the heart. Conflict with others is profoundly theological.
In a series of articles comparing modern psychotherapies with the cure of souls, Dr. David Powlison writes, “…the dynamics of human intention and desire cannot be defined in purely psychological terms (or psycho-social terms, or psycho-social-somatic terms). Motivational dynamics do not simply operate within or between persons. The human heart has to do with God. So when the Bible describes the desires that obviously play within our souls and rule our lives, it does not portray them as hard-wired psychological or physiological givens: as needs, instincts, drives, longings, wishes. It speaks of them as morally freighted vis-à-vis God, as moral-covenantal choices: we are ruled either by cravings of the flesh or by repentance-faith-obedience to God’s desires. Our desires are tilted one way or the other, either toward the true God or toward the host of idols we fabricate both collectively and idiosyncratically. Our mastering desires are relationally and morally qualified. … In sum, the human heart – the answer to why we do what we do – must be understood as an active-verb-with-respect-to-God. Climb inside any emotional reaction, any behavioral choice or habit, any cognitive content, any reaction pattern to suffering, and you are meant to hear and see active verbs working out. Love God or anything else. Fear God or anything else. Want God or anything else. Need God or anything else. Hope in God or anything else. Take refuge in God or anything else. Obey God or anything else. Trust God or anything else. Seek God or anything else. Serve God or anything else. The Bible’s motivation theory shouts from every page – but it does not look like a motivation theory to those whose gaze has been bent and blinded by sin’s intellectual logic” [The Journal of Biblical Counseling (Spring 2007, vol. 25, No. 2) p. 24].
It’s no exaggeration to say Instruments in the Hand’s of the Redeemer (P&R: 2002) is on my top ten list of favorite books. Without hesitation, I would consider this book essential reading for pastors, fellowship group leaders, and really any thinking and reading Christian. In it author Paul David Tripp writes, “We must humbly admit we are sinners while we lay hold of the hope of our union with Christ. We don’t simply suffer; we suffer as sinners with a deep propensity to run after god-replacements. And, as believers, we don’t just suffer as sinners, but as those who have been united with Christ and therefore no longer live under the mastery of sin. We bring these two realities to times of blessing as well. Holding onto both truths is the only way to do battle with our own hearts, and the only way to be part of what God is doing in our lives and others’. This is a perspective on life that only those who believe God’s Word will ever embrace. Ist is the heart of biblical personal ministry. It is more than a topical list of problem-solving principles, more than a collection of morals on how to live life, more than an empathetic relationship or a dynamic therapeutic encounter. Biblical personal ministry is rooted in the story of a war and a Savior King. As we place our stories within this great story of the compassion and love of Christ, we will understand who we are and live as we were meant to live” (pp. 93-94).
We act and sin in certain ways because of the idolatrous motives of our hearts. This is our biggest problem: We expect to get what we want and what we naturally (and sinfully) want is an idolatrous replacement for God to steal His glory for ourselves. We are at war. “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17). At a very deep level of motive-confrontation God calls us to fight worldliness, ask for more Cross-purchased grace, pursue personal humility and resist Satan’s temptations. Scripture lays for us a profound understanding of our personal motives and — in light of the precious Cross of Christ — what to do about it.
Excellent biblical counseling resources for further study…
*** Paul David Tripp. Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (P&R: 2002) 362 pp. More conceptual in nature. One of the most important contemporary Christian books in print. Essential reading for pastors and fellowship group leaders.
*** David Powlison, editor. The Journal of Biblical Counseling. A 60- page journal published quarterly with subscriptions starting at $23/year for new subscribers. Essential reading for pastors and fellowship group leaders. In our church every small group leader receives a subscription.
** Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp. How People Change (New Growth Press: 2006) 258 pp. The text font and layout for this book is simply awful but a very helpful book with excellent illustrations. Written on an easier level and more application-oriented than Instruments.
** David Powlison. Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (P&R 2003) 274 pp. A conceptual book it “unfolds Scripture’s view of people and problems. It reinterprets common counseling phenomena through God’s eyes, as revealed in Scripture” (p. 7).
** David Powlison. Speaking the Truth in Love: Counsel in Community (Punch Press: 2005) 202 pp. The follow-up to Seeing with New Eyes, this book focuses on the act of counseling. “This second book describes living right. We will glimpse essential dynamics of relationship and sketch the shape of communities that pursue such relationships” (p. 2).
What is sin?
“First, people tend to think of sins in the plural as consciously willed acts where one was aware of and chose not to do the righteous alternative. Sin, in this popular misunderstanding, refers to matters of conscious volitional awareness of wrongdoing and the ability to do otherwise. This instinctive view of sin infects many Christians and almost all non-Christians. It has a long legacy in the church under the label Pelagianism, one of the oldest and most instinctive heresies. The Bible’s view of sin certainly includes the high-handed sins where evil approaches full volitional awareness. But sin also includes what we simply are, and the perverse ways we think, want, remember, and react.
Most sin is invisible to the sinner because it is simply how the sinner works, how the sinner perceives, wants, and interprets things. Once we see sin for what it really is – madness and evil intentions in our hearts, absence of any fear of God, slavery to various passions (Eccl. 9:3; Gen. 6:5; Ps. 36:1; Titus 3:3) – then it becomes easier to see how sin is the immediate and specific problem all counseling deals with at every moment, not a general and remote problem. The core insanity of the human heart is that we violate the first great commandment. We will love anything, except God, unless our madness is checked by grace.
People do not tend to see sin as applying to relatively unconscious problems, to the deep, interesting, and bedeviling stuff in our hearts. But God’s descriptions of sin often highlight the unconscious aspect. Sin – the desires we pursue, the beliefs we hold, the habits we obey as second nature – is intrinsically deceitful. If we knew we were deceived, we would not be deceived. But we are deceived, unless awakened through God’s truth and Spirit. Sin is a darkened mind, drunkenness, animal-like instinct and compulsion, madness, slavery, ignorance, stupor. People often think that to define sin as unconscious removes human responsibility. How can we be culpable for what we did not sit down and choose to do? But the Bible takes the opposite track. The unconscious and semiconscious nature of much sin simply testifies to the fact that we are steeped in it. Sinners think, want, and act sinlike by nature, nurture, and practice.”
- David Powlison, The Journal of Biblical Counseling (Spring 2007; Vol. 25, No. 2) pp. 25-26.
RELATED: John Piper on “What is Sin?”