On Dane Ortlund’s “Gentle and Lowly.”
A reflection on the love that will not let us go.
This article was originally written for 1517.
Renowned American pastor A. W. Tozer famously proposed that the “most important thing” in one’s life is one’s perception of God.1 While Tozer’s proposition does, indeed, ring true, more significant than what one thinks of God would be a consideration of what God thinks of man. One might arrive at the same conclusion from either starting point, but it is the latter inquiry which precipitates Dane Ortlund’s endearingly scriptural work, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. This carefully crafted compendium of twenty-three meditative explorations of the depths of the heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers is a relieving read, extending an open hand and warm heart for those ensnared by their own wretchedness (Rom. 7:24). Gentle and Lowly is an oxygen mask for those suffocating on the polluted air of law-addicted religiosity and sanctimonious spirituality. For sinners who cannot seem to get out of their own way, Dane’s brings to bear the gospel of Christ’s heart, which aerates one’s spiritual lungs with undiluted grace.
The book’s hinge turns upon both a question and a confession. The question is, What is Christ’s disposition towards those in sin and suffering? Or it could also be worded, What is God’s heart like when one of his children fails? The author endeavors to answer these inquiries by analyzing a treasure-trove of the most revealing Scriptures — chief of which remains the most illuminating instance of divine self-disclosure in the entire canon. “Come unto me,” Jesus says, “all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matt. 11:28–29). This, Dane asserts, is the “one place where Jesus tells us about his own heart.”2 Christ’s own confession that he is “meek [or gentle] and lowly in heart” serves as the catalyst for the remainder of the author’s reflections.
Like a jeweler scrutinizing an immaculate diamond through a loupe, Dane revels in demonstrating that Christ’s heart burns with compassion, especially for sinners and sufferers. Text after text is turned to refract the light of God’s countenance towards his creatures, revealing a tenderness that is often only momentarily considered. Dane, however, desires nothing more than for the reader to pause in humble contemplation of the good news of God which “sweeps us into Christ’s very heart.”3 This sweeping work of the Godhead has been sovereignly executed throughout the millennia, articulated in the Spirit-inspired Word and incarnated in the Word himself. The countless marching of the ages will never exhaust the cavernous love which is found in Christ. Indeed, one is invited by the gospel to “descend ever deeper into God’s grace in kindness, into his very heart, and the more we understand of it, the more we will see it to be beyond understanding.”4
Augmenting the author’s comprehensive examination of Christ’s heart are the words of the eminent Puritan Thomas Goodwin, whose similarly titled treatise, The Heart of Christ features prominently throughout. Rather than composing a series of newfangled reflections in which the reader is offered something “life-alteringly-new,” Dane opts to harness the timeless profundity of the unilateral love of God as seen throughout Scripture, expertly intercutting the indefatigable truth of the Bible with the indelible wisdom of the Puritans, culminating in a deeply pastoral work whose weighty meditations stir the soul. One’s affections cannot help but be aroused as one is repeatedly introduced to the Savior who remains perpetually unafraid of their sin. “This high and holy Christ,” Dane writes, “does not cringe at reaching out and touching dirty sinners and numbed sufferers. Such embrace is precisely what he loves to do.”5 The pitiableness of sinners draws out the profoundest revelations of God’s love and mercy.
When his creatures rebelled, the Creator did not recoil, neither did he pull his hand away. Rather, he extended his reach further into their brokenness, assuring them, on the very ground of their insurrection, no less, that One was coming to redeem and rectify all that they had broken (Gen. 3:15). “It is the very fallenness which he came to undo that is most irresistibly attractive to him,” Dane avers. “The cumulative testimony of the four Gospels is that when Jesus Christ sees the fallenness of the world all about him, his deepest impulse, his most natural instinct, is to move toward that sin and suffering, not away from it.”6 Like water in a container, always flowing to the lowest point, so, too, does Christ occupy the place of deepest need. His heart brims with lovingkindness for the lowly. It’s who he is.
Mercy is who he is. If mercy was something he simply had, while his deepest nature was something different, there would be a limit on how much mercy he could dole out. But if he is essentially merciful, then for him to pour out mercy is for him to act in accord with who he is. It is simply for him to be God.
That God is rich in mercy means that your regions of deepest shame and regret are not hotels through which divine mercy passes but homes in which divine mercy abides. It means the things about you that make you cringe most, make him hug hardest. It means his mercy is not calculating and cautious, like ours. It is unrestrained, flood-like, sweeping, magnanimous. It means our haunting shame is not a problem for him, but the very thing he loves most to work with. It means our sins do not cause his love to take a hit. Our sins cause his love to surge forward all the more.7
When one’s heart fractures under the weight of one’s sin; when one’s faith falters, Jesus does not. His heart for sinners and sufferers, for those beat up and burned out by their own depravity doesn’t change. Christ’s love is no flash-in-the-pan spark of affection. His heart is not fickle. He is not driven by vacillating emotions or swooning passions. He is no fair-weather friend. He is the immutable One, whose person does not change, and neither does his personality. In love, patience, compassion, and grace, he is “the same yesterday, and today, and for ever” (Heb. 13:8). “He does not get flustered and frustrated,” Dane maintains, “when we come to him for fresh forgiveness, for renewed pardon, with distressed and need and emptiness. That’s the whole point. It’s what he came to heal. He went down into the horror of death and plunged out through the other side in order to provide a limitless supply of mercy and grace to his people.”8
What Dane achieves in Gentle and Lowly is an affecting and accessible treatment of what lies at the heart of Christ and at the heart of the gospel itself. It is what makes the gospel so endearing to those who are familiar with sin and suffering. “It is a heart of perfect balance and proportion, never overreacting, never excusing, never lashing out. It is a heart that throbs with desired for the destitute. It is a heart that floods the suffering with the deep solace of shared solidarity in that suffering. It is a heart that is gentle and lowly.”9 It is a heart that doesn’t flinch when faults and failures are made known but, rather, kneels down beside those stumbling and struggling to issue the tender reminder that his is a love that cannot be undone. It is already given, already poured out, in the blood-red stream which trickles down Calvary’s mount.
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” (A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy [New York: HarperCollins, 1978], 1)
Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 17.
Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, 15.
Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, 212.
Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, 24.
Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, 30.
Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, 173, 179–80.
Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, 36–37.
Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, 99.