A short review of “Gentle and Lowly”
Are you weak and heavy laden?
Recommended to me by multiple pastor friends, Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund is one of the top books I’ve been through this year (and I highly commend it to all, not just to pastors). While I would describe this book as devotional in character, it doesn’t shrink back from engaging more complex theological issues, but always in a straightforward and easy-to-understand manner. Ortlund takes time to dive into biblical passages and doesn’t simply tack them on (out of context) to support his arguments. Also, the book is literally packed full of time-tested quotes from the Puritans––which enriches even more what would already be a treasure of a book.
Using Matthew 11:28-30 as a starting point, and then moving throughout both Old and New Testaments, Ortlund argues that the phrase “gentle and lowly” reveals God’s heart at the most profound and intimate level. As he points out early on, Matthew 11:29 is the only place in Scripture where Jesus explicitly refers to the character of His heart: “for I am gentle and lowly in heart.” After laying this theological foundation concerning the heart of God, the author pastorally applies this truth (with the help of the Puritans again) to believers today in light of our many misconceptions about God, and how those misconceptions hijack our joy and hinder our service to Christ.
What is God’s disposition?
I am thankful to see many Christians today embracing aspects of reformed theology and rejecting seeker sensitivity and pragmatism. Like Ortlund (who does not minimize the wrath of God) these Christians rightly hold to the biblical truth that God will judge sinners who remain outside of Christ, but sometimes in their reaction to water-downed teaching, these Christians present God as one who takes pleasure in judgment––or at least they present these truths as if they themselves delighted in judgment. This is a grievous error that distorts the truth about God. So I was thrilled to see how effectively Ortlund refutes this misrepresentation. For example, he quotes Thomas Goodwin on Lamentations 3:33 and Jonathan Edwards on Hosiah 11:8-9, showing that “Mercy is what God most deeply delights in and that judgment is His strange work.” “There are some things that pour out of God more naturally than others,” Ortlund concurs. “God is unswervingly just, but what is his disposition?” A great summary answer is given by one of his numerous quotes from Thomas Goodwin, “All [God’s] attributes seem to set out His love.” Supporting this further, Ortlund points out the following from Scripture, “Not once are we told that God is “provoked to love” or “provoked to mercy.” His anger requires provocation; his mercy is pent up, ready to gush forth. We tend to think: divine anger is pent up, spring-loaded; divine mercy is slow to build. It’s just the opposite. Divine mercy is ready to burst forth at the slightest prick.”
In reaction to the sappy self-help, personal therapist view of Jesus that is often promoted today, some believers can react to the point of viewing God as indifferent towards their struggles. Some react to emotionalism by rejecting emotions and embracing a stoic and austere posture. Ironically, that is how the Puritans are often caricatured today, but with most of them, nothing could be further from the truth. The quotes in this book alone suffice to show that they were a people of great joy––and not afraid of emotion. They rightly saw their own insignificance before a holy God. However, the fact that we are insignificant when compared to such ineffable majesty does not mean that our lives and our needs are insignificant to Him, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26).
Using the full arsenal of Scripture, Ortlund builds up believers to rest confidently in the Father’s gracious affections for them and in their truly secure position in Christ. Quoting the Puritan Richard Sibbes, he states, “From whatever Christ is freed from, I am freed from it, it can no more hurt me than it can hurt Him now in heaven.” And for those who are weary and beaten down, heavy laden with the burden of indwelling sin, wondering if God will keep putting up with one who messes up so often, he offers this encouragement, “The evidence of Christ’s mercy towards you is not your own life, the evidence of his mercy towards you is His. Mistreated, misunderstood, betrayed, abandoned––eternally––in your place. If God sent His own Son to walk through the valley of condemnation, rejection, and hell, you can trust Him as you walk through your own valleys on your way to heaven.”
Conclusion: The One Qualification for Coming to Christ
Though we are called to pursue holiness and flee from the fleeting lusts of this world, we need to be reminded that our sin and struggles don’t deter Jesus from us but rather are the only qualification for coming to Him in the first place. The one who is filled up with his own sense of worthiness and sufficiency, or who thinks he can earn his way to God, is missing the heart of the gospel and far from the heart of the One who said, “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.”
Note: I listened to this book on audio and copied down quotes by ear, so the punctuation may not match that of the actual book, and any errors are likely mine.