Recently, I asked a group of believers how they feel when they approach God for forgiveness after they’ve sinned. Some of the answers were positive, like blessed and forgiven. But most, including some of my responses, were harder emotions: ashamed, guilty, numb, frustrated. I shared how I often feel like God resents that I’ve come asking for forgiveness for the same sins as yesterday, and gives mercy only grudgingly.
The good news of Jesus’ boundless mercy seems too good to be true, and we struggle to believe it.
I suspect our little group isn’t alone in feeling this way. The good news of Jesus’ boundless mercy seems too good to be true, and we struggle to believe it. That’s why I so eagerly recommend Dane Ortlund’s new book Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. He explores what Jesus is like at his core, what his very heart is towards us. And it’s good news: “The posture most natural to him is not a pointed finger but open arms.” (19)
His Heart of Mercy
Great books abound on the work of Jesus, but there aren’t so many on the person of Jesus. Why does this matter? Ortlund writes, “We do not come to a set of doctrines. We do not come to a church. We do not even come to the gospel. All those are vital. But most truly we come to a person, to Christ himself” (61). The way we perceive Christ’s heart towards us will affect how, and even whether, we come to him.
This topic hasn’t always been so rare. Ortlund draws heavily from Puritan works, particularly Thomas Goodwin’s The Heart of Christ. He brings the precious truths mined by believers past to modern readers who may never pick up a Puritan work—though I suspect that the richness of this book may draw many to a curiosity about them! I recently watched the documentary Puritan: All of Life to the Glory of God, and it gave me a greater thirst to know the heart of Christ more and more. In this book I found glittering lakes and bubbling streams; cool refreshment for my heart.
Ortlund starts with Matthew 11:28–30, from where he draws his title, then explores all different parts of the Bible that reveal to us the heart of Christ. He comes to very different conclusions than we might naturally expect, especially considering the answers to that question I posed to the group of Christians. When I come to God for forgiveness, especially for a habitual sin, I automatically think that Jesus resents me for failing again, and perhaps only forgives me out of obligation.
But Ortlund paints a different picture of our Saviour:
He does not get flustered and frustrated when we come to him for fresh forgiveness, for renewed pardon, with distress and need and emptiness. That’s the whole point. It’s what he came to heal. (36–37)
He is particularly careful to emphasise that Christ’s heart is merciful towards his people who are both sinners and sufferers. We may naturally agree with the latter, but still have a lingering sense that God is more reluctant to give us grace in our sin. But the Bible teaches that Jesus’ heart contains endless streams of mercy. His first and natural reaction to our sin is mercy and gentleness.
The Bible teaches that Jesus’ heart contains endless streams of mercy. His first and natural reaction to our sin is mercy and gentleness.
At the same time, Ortlund doesn’t see this as a reason to be permissive and flippant about sin. He is serious about repentance:
When you sin, do a thorough job of repenting. Re-hate sin all over again. Consecrate yourself afresh to the Holy Spirit and his pure ways. But reject the devil’s whisper that God’s tender heart for you has grown a little colder, a little stiffer. His is not flustered by your sinfulness. His deepest disappointment is with your tepid thoughts of his heart. (194)
He also addresses the thorny questions that are likely to arise as you read: What about wrath? Does the Father have a colder heart towards us than Jesus? Ortlund carefully places his arguments about the heart of Jesus within the wider context of the Trinity.
What It Can Do For Your Heart
This is a book of theology. But it is also inexorably devotional. It’s hard to read of Christ’s heart towards us without being overwhelmed by the grace of it all. You will naturally pray as you read. Sometimes when I sat down to read a chapter I was battle-worn and weary, weighed down by suffering or discouragement. Other times I picked it up with hands freshly stained red by my sin. In both miseries I found ample medicines for my wounds. Since finishing the book, I’ve found myself dipping back in at random to read chapters again when I want my heart to be drawn back to Christ.
Gentle and Lowly is a meal to be savoured, not a fast-food snack. Go slow with it. Let these glorious truths about Christ take root in your mind and heart, and stir you up to greater affection for our Saviour. On the release day of the book, Ortlund wrote this on Twitter:
It took me seven years to write. It will take me a lifetime to believe. And it will require nothing less than an eternity to wade into, ever deeper, never plumbing, new discoveries at every turn.
I think he’s right. Don’t be discouraged when you fail to fully believe and live out these truths after one reading. Pray to God for help in trusting that he is merciful. Keep this book on hand to read and reread, so that your heart can wade further into the gracious, glorious heart of Jesus Christ.