Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund

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Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund feels like being wrapped in a warm, Puritan weighted blanket for your soul. I didn’t know such a thing existed, but here it is. It’s theologically rich, and at the same time easy to understand and encouraging. I have a feeling it’s going to be one of my favorites of the year.

Ortlund uses Matthew 11:28-30 as his primary text. It’s a favorite of mine:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

There’s so much hope and promise packed into that short passage. It has been popular lately for good reason. John Mark Comer focuses on the same passage in his book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. Ortlund’s approach is a little different. Gentle and Lowly focuses on the fact that this is one of the rare times that Jesus tells us about his heart—the very core of who he is.

How We View God

We tend to think that God is just barely putting up with us, especially when we are struggling with sin. I remember my hyperactive cousin testing my uncle’s patience when we were kids. His dad would take off his belt, snap it, and say, “One more time and see what happens!” That’s kind of how we think God deals with us.

Ortlund writes that this book is for—

Those of us who find ourselves thinking: “How could I mess up that bad—again?” It is for that increasing suspicion that God’s patience with us is wearing thin. 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 harbors mild resentment. Who wonder if we have shipwrecked our lives beyond what can be repaired… It is written, in other words, for normal Christians.

Ortlund points out that when Jesus tells us about his heart and who He is at the deepest level, he doesn’t mention impatience. In fact, he doesn’t say he’s demanding or strict or tough. He doesn’t even say he’s generous or joyful, though he is. He says, “I am gentle and lowly in heart.”

The Flow Of Mercy

Well, what does that mean? That’s what Ortlund spends the rest of the book examining. He uses a wealth of cross-references from both the Old and New Testaments, scripture speaking to scripture. Ortlund also uses the Puritans as guides. Gentle and Lowly draws from Thomas Goodwin, Sibbes, Bunyan, Owen, and Edwards. The Puritans have the reputation of being focused on the wrath of God. After all, Edwards wrote “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but here Ortlund points us to how they treasured God’s mercy.

I greatly appreciated Ortlund’s ability to take dense passages from the Puritans and translate them into easily understandable language. For example, after quoting portions from Thomas Goodwin’s The Heart of Christ, Ortlund writes:

Translation: 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. We tend to think that when we approach Jesus for help in our need and mercy amid our sins, we somehow detract from him, lessen him, impoverish him. Goodwin argues otherwise.

What About Wrath?

Ortlund is aware that there could be a tendency to overlook other aspects of God while focusing on his affectionate heart. He addresses that concern early in the book. Gentle and Lowly doesn’t overlook or downplay the wrath of God in any way. He is careful to judge everything against what the Bible says. This is by no means a theologically weak book. Ortlund writes:

…the wrath of Christ and the mercy of Christ are not at odds with one another, like a see-saw, one diminishing to the degree that the other is held up. Rather, the two rise and fall together. The more robust one’s felt understanding of the just wrath of Christ against all that is evil both around us and within us, the more robust our felt understanding of his mercy…

He goes on:

Throughout the rest of our study we will return to the question of how to square the very heart of Christ with actions of his or biblical statements that may seem to sit awkwardly with it… In short: it is impossible for the affectionate heart of Christ to be over celebrated, made too much of, exaggerated. It cannot be plumbed. But it is easily neglected, forgotten. We draw too little strength from it. We are not leaving behind the harsher side to Jesus as we speak of his very heart. Our sole aim is to follow the Bible’s own testimony as we tunnel in to who Jesus most surprisingly is.

Wring It Dry

Everything in Gentle and Lowly is grounded in scripture. I used to wonder how pastors could take just a few verses and talk about them for forty-five minutes. Ortlund points out that the Puritans would take a single verse and “wring it dry” for an entire book. Many chapters of Gentle and Lowly begin with a single verse, but then dive into every word in the verse and what it means in relation to Jesus’ heart.

The book flows naturally from defining what gentle and lowly means, to Christ being able to sympathize with us, on through how Christ’s heart demonstrates his great love for us. Along the way, the book dismantles our human assumptions that God is somehow like us, which is a good thing. The truth is much more encouraging.

His Natural Work & His Strange Work

My favorite chapter is “His ‘Natural’ Work and His ‘Strange’ Work,“ which I felt especially reveals our common misconceptions about God and his feelings towards us. The chapter opens with Lamentations 3:33—He does not afflict from his heart. Ortlund illustrates how This verse tells us that yes, God does afflict, but the promise is that it is not His heart. He finds no joy in it. He argues that even the Old Testament is leading us to a savior whose heart is gentle and lowly.

The chapter uses Thomas Goodwin, Jonathan Edwards, Lamentations, Hosea, and Jeremiah to unpack what exactly is God’s natural work. None of those sources are exactly hesitant about God’s wrath; yet, they all point to God rejoicing in doing us good rather than afflicting us. Ortlund writes:

Edwards, Goodwin, and the theological river in which they stand were not mushy. They affirmed and preached and taught divine wrath and an eternal hell. They saw these doctrines in the Bible (2 Thess. 1:5–12, to cite just one text). But because they knew their Bibles inside and out and followed their Bibles scrupulously, they discerned also a strand of teaching in Scripture about who God most deeply is—about his heart….

Left to our own natural intuitions about God, we will conclude that mercy is his strange work and judgment his natural work. Rewiring our vision of God as we study the Scripture, we see, helped by the great teachers of the past, that judgment is his strange work and mercy his natural work.

Why We Need The Bible

Which leads me back to one of my favorite quotes from Gentle and Lowly:

This is why we need a Bible. Our natural intuition can only give us a God like us. The God revealed in the Scripture deconstructs our intuitive predilections and startles us with one whose infinitude of perfections is matched by his infinitude of gentleness. Indeed, his perfections include his perfect gentleness.

I found myself wanting to highlight quotes on just about every page of Gentle and Lowly. If you need an encouraging and Biblical book in these uncertain and difficult times, I highly recommend picking up a copy. It releases on April 7, 2020 from Crossway. I’ll leave you with anther favorite quote from the book:

Christ was sent not to mend wounded people or wake sleepy people or advise confused people or inspire bored people or spur on lazy people or educate ignorant people, but to raise dead people.

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