Some books show you things; good ones help you see. I have been seeing the goodness and loveliness of God more clearly and frequently thanks to Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Crossway, 2019, 216 pages).

I’ve often felt that many, if not most, evangelical church leaders live with the concern that Ortlund addresses at the start of this book:

“This book is written… For those of us who know God loves us but suspect we have deeply disappointed him. Who have told others of the love of Christ yet wonder if – as for us – he harbours mild disappointment.” (p.13)
Maybe it’s my indolence seeking excuses but the relentless hard work of those leaders seems to be motivated at least in part by a fear that they will not hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” when they see Jesus face to face. Even more, that He won’t be pleased to see them. Alongside this, they hear other preachers offer an unconditional acceptance (“God loves you just the way you are”) and they rightly find fault with that. Gentle and Lowly shows them a better way. There is neither sentimentality nor swimming with the tide of western culture here, everything is found in the Bible and magnified by biblical commentary. And that is sufficient for the love of Christ to be seen, savoured, understood, and astonished by.

Ortlund uses an extremely limited set of tools: quotations from the Bible, quotations from the Puritans (Christians who mostly lived in England in the seventeenth century), and occasional illustrations in the forms of metaphor, simile, or analogy. There are no anecdotes, no stories, no references to natural or social sciences, no cultural observations or insights. James K.A. Smith has argued persuasively in You Are What You Love that humans are not brains on sticks but Ortlund’s aim is to persuade, to change our thinking in order to change our hearts.

The short chapters have a cumulative force that comes – again – from the work’s focus. It's all about Jesus. A couple of chapters on the other members of the Trinity are the limit of Ortlund’s variation, and these serve to reinforce his presentation of Jesus. Gentle and Lowly is about what Jesus is like, rather than simply what He has done (and is doing). Ortlund’s questions are, Why does He do these things, and why does He do them in the way the gospels show us? This exploration of motive takes us to the gloriously loving heart of Jesus. Too few Christian books can sustain a focus on God Himself; it seems to me that this is because too few Christian leaders have an intimate and delightful relationship with Him.

The book concludes without application other than to bask in the rays of the Son’s love, to come to Him. Even if you’re confident in God’s love for you, refresh yourself again with the truth of it. Don’t be thoughtlessly complacent when you could biblical convinced.

Here are some quotes from Gentle and Lowly that I found particularly helpful.

“The posture most natural to [Jesus] is not a pointed finger but open arms.” (p.19)

“When you come to Christ for mercy and love and help in your anguish and perplexity and sinfulness, you are going with the flow of his own deepest wishes, not against them.” (p.38)

“We all tend to have some small pocket of our life where we have difficulty believing the forgiveness of God reaches. We say we are totally forgiven. And we sincerely believe our sins are forgiven. Pretty much, anyway. But there’s that one deep, dark part of our lives, even our present lives, that seems so intractable, so ugly, so beyond recovery. ‘To the uttermost’ in Hebrews 7:25 means: God’s forgiving, redeeming, restoring touch reaches down into the darkest crevices of our souls, those places where we are most ashamed, most defeated. More than this: those crevices of sin are themselves the places where Christ loves us the most. His heart willingly goes there. His heart is most strongly drawn there. He knows us to the uttermost, and he saves us to the uttermost, because his heart is drawn out to us to the uttermost. We cannot sin our way out of his tender care.” (p.83)

“The whole reason we care about sound doctrine is for the sake of preserving God’s beauty, just as  the whole reason we care about effective focal lenses on a camera is to capture with precision the beauty we photograph.” (p.99)

“What does it mean that Christ is a friend to sinners [Matthew 11:19, Luke 15:1]? At the very least, it means that he enjoys spending time with them. It also means that they feel welcome and comfortable around him.” (p.114)

“He isn’t like you. Even the most intense human love is but the faintest echo of heaven’s cascading abundance. His heartful thoughts for you outstrip what you can conceive. He intends to restore you into the radiant resplendence for which you were created. And that is dependent not on you keeping yourself clean but on you taking your mess to him. He doesn’t limit himself to working with the unspoiled parts of us that remain after a lifetime of sinning. His power runs so deep that he is able to redeem the very worst parts of our past into the most radiant parts of our future. But we need to take those take miseries for him.” (pp.160-61)

“Our sins darken our feelings of his gracious heart, but his heart cannot be diminished for his own people due to their sins any more than the sun’s existence can be threatened due to the passing of a few wispy clouds our even an extended thunderstorm. The sun is shining. It cannot stop. Clouds, no clouds – sin, no sin – the tender heart of the Son of God is shining on me.” (pp.186-87)

You can sample more of this by subscribing to a podcast series of devotions by Ortlund.