He Sees with New Eyes
My Love for David Powlison (1949–2019)
Article by John Piper
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.