Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund
By Tom Day, 02 Apr 2021
Over the last few weeks, the staff team at Church by the Bay have been reading through the book Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund. The book has gained a lot of traction since it was first published April 2020 and it has become very popular. Reading Gentle and Lowly together as a staff team, it is easy to see why. Ortlund brings to us a wonderfully warm and richly reflective account of what the Bible says about the Lord Jesus. It is not a textbook style presentation of doctrines and facts, but instead more of a devotion or mediation on the truths allowing them to sink deep into our hearts.
Ortlund makes clear from the outset who this book is for. He says it is for ‘the discouraged, the frustrated, the weary, the disenchanted, the cynical, the empty’ During the last year since the beginning of the first lockdown until now, let’s be honest, who of us at times hasn’t felt like this? This is a common experience for many Christians at some point, which Ortlund acknowledges: ‘It is written, in other words, for normal Christians. In short, it is for sinners and sufferers.’ This means that as well as applying directly to the present experiences of our lives, you don’t need to be an academic theologian to read this book! Anyone can pick it up and experience the richness and depth of the truths he is drawing out.
The foundation and whole point of the book is Matthew 11:29. Ortlund points out that in all of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, there is only one place where Jesus describes his heart, ‘the core of who he is.’ He spends the first chapter unpacking that one verse, reflecting deeply on it from many different angles. The rest of the book then takes another small passage in each chapter - often only a verse or two – to explore Jesus’ heart for us - what Jesus thinks of and how he responds to us.
Ortlund uses many of the great theologians and pastors from church history. He especially draws on some of the Puritans such as: Thomas Goodwin, Richard Sibbes, John Bunyan and John Owen - whose style he also imitates. The Puritans were known for taking one truth or doctrine and then spending ages circling round that same truth, looking at it from different angles, and using different illustrations to help their readers to experience the truths as well as understand them. In a similar way to how you might take time to savour a glass of wine or delicious piece of food, Ortlund allows us to savour the sweet truths he presents us with by spending time illustrating and applying them. Many of the chapters, although focussing on different aspects, circle round this one theme: Christ’s heart for his people – how Christ thinks of us – to help us feel and believe it.
The book is a joy to read. Ortlund has a wonderfully poetic and illustrative way of writing. He knows how to use language well to not only communicate clearly to us, but also beautifully. He often uses similar language to the passages he picks, but by phrasing truths in less familiar ways than how we have heard them before, he is able to get past our defences to our hearts, again helping us experience the truth rather than just understand it. He does not allow us to remain purely observers peering through the window but he draws us inside to experience the warmth of them. It is the medicine we need when we forget – as we are so prone to doing – the grace of Christ. That his love is unearned, undeserved, and yet fully assured!
It could be argued - as some have cone - that Ortlund occasionally overstates his case by over-emphasising human descriptions of Christ. Some of his sentences, taken out of context, indeed might sound unorthodox, but reading the whole book, I think Ortlund is precise and clear enough in other places to clarify what he means. It comes back to his aim in the book. He is not trying to outline a complete systematic theology of who Jesus is – rather he is addressing a particular gap in many Christians’ thinking: how Christ Jesus thinks of us. So I would encourage you to read the whole book.
This book constantly confronts us with our own misunderstandings and wrong thinking about Jesus’ heart for us as his people. In the same way some have critiqued Ortlund’s use of human language when talking about God, he helpfully corrects the wrong way that we constantly do it! We so often project our own fallen and feeble expression and experience of love on to God. Here is Ortlund’s explanation, ‘He does not love like us. We love until we are betrayed. Jesus continued to the cross despite betrayal. We love until we are forsaken. Jesus loved through forsakenness. We love up to a limit. Jesus loves to the end.’ Gentle and Lowly acts as a helpful corrective to our own hearts and shows us in brilliant shining light the glory of Christ who is gentle and lowly in heart – who never tires of showing grace, mercy and love to his people even when we might expect him to.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this book but with one qualification. It is not a book to read quickly! Not because it is hard to read, but because it contains so much to reflect on and take to heart. Take your time over it, take a chapter at a time, reflect on it, pray on it, maybe include it in your devotions. Spend time savouring Christs’ heart for you!
Here are a few of the staff team's favourite quotes in the book to encourage you to dive into its treasures for yourself:
- The point in saying that Jesus is lowly is that he is accessible. For all his resplendent glory and dazzling holiness, his supreme uniqueness and otherness, no one in human history has ever been more approachable than Jesus Christ. No prerequisites. No hoops to jump through… “All who labor and are heavy laden.” You don’t need to unburden or collect yourself and then come to Jesus. Your very burden is what qualifies you to come. No payment is required; he says. “I will give you rest”… For the penitent, his heart of gentle embrace is never outmatched by our sins and foibles and insecurities and doubts and anxieites and failures…Gentleness is who he is. It is his heart. (20-21)
- The deeper into weakness and suffering and testing we go, the deeper into Christ’s solidarity with us. As we go down into pain and anguish, we are descending ever deeper into Christ’s very heart, not away from it. (57)
- Jesus Christ is comforted when you draw from the riches of his atoning work, because his own body is getting healed. (41)
- When we, despite our smiles and civility, were running from God as fast as we could, building our own kingdoms and loving our own glory, lapping up the fraudulent pleasures of the world, repulsed by the beauty of God and shutting up our ears at his calls to come home – it was then, in the hollowed-out horror of that revolting existence, that the prince of heaven bade his adoring angels farewell. It was then that he put himself into the murderous hands of these very rebels in a divine strategy planned from eternity past to rinse muddy sinners clean and hug them into his own heart despite their squirmy attempt to get free and scrub themselves clean on their own. Christ went down into death – “voluntary endurance of unutterable anguish,” Warfield calls it -while we applauded. We couldn’t have cared less. We were weak. Sinners. Enemies…He didn’t simply leave heaven for me, he endured hell for me…In Christ’s death God is confronting our dark thoughts of him and our chronic insistence that divine love must have an end point, a point at which it finally runs dry. Christ died to confound our intuitive assumptions that divine love has an expiration date…God’s love is as boundless as God himself. (191-192)
- In going to the cross, Jesus did not retain something for himself the way we tend to do when we seek to love others sacrificially. He does not love like us. We love until we are betrayed. Jesus continued to the cross despite betrayal. We love until we are foresaken. Jesus loved through forsakenness. We love up to a limit. Jesus loves to the end. (198)
- If you are in Christ…your waywardness does not threaten your place in the love of God, any more than history itself can be undone. The hardest part has been accomplished. God has already executed everything needed to secure your eternal happiness and he did that while you were an orphan. (194)
I hope that these small snippets encourage you to pick up this book for yourself and bask in the glory of our wonderful saviour and his heart towards you now.