Any time you get the chance to sit and think about God is a blessing. Any time that you get to read a book that helps you to think about God’s compassionate heart toward you as a sinner is an immense blessing.
The book, Gentle and Lowly, has been a great blessing to me. When I first started this book, I wasn’t sure I would like it. There was some controversy online about this book and I read both sides of the argument. I came away from those online reviews thinking that this book wasn’t for me. But all that changed once I got the chance to read it for myself.
This post is not meant to refute any particular argument that was made about this book (though my observations may inadvertently do that). But I have written this post to give my thoughts and opinions and, most of all, to encourage you to read this book for yourself!
So, I’ll start with a brief overview of what this book is about and then two highlights from the book overall. Then I’ll share my 3 favorite chapters with one critique and then my closing thoughts on the book as a whole. Let’s jump in!
Dane Ortlund wrote Gentle and Lowly in an attempt to give us a look into the heart of our Savior and God for us, sinners and sufferers. The premise of the book and verse from which it’s titled is Matthew 11:29, where Jesus describes himself as “gentle and lowly of heart.”
The book lays out the idea that we humans try to interpret God with our own expectations of who he should be, when we should actually let God show us who he is from Scripture. Ortlund said, “The message of this book is that we tend to project our natural expectations about who God is onto him instead of fighting to let the Bible surprise us into what God himself says.”
I feel that Ortlund does this very well. Each chapter he’s written is full of scripture — what God himself says — about God and his heart for sinners and sufferers.
Always Read the Book For Yourself
The controversy over this book initially discouraged me from wanting to read it. But this taught me a good lesson: I have to read the book for myself.
So, even if you are reading through this book review post and not sure about the book… read it for yourself! If you have the time and mental capacity to handle books that may not exactly line up with what you believe, then read them. You may be surprised by what you can learn. Or, like me, you may be surprised with how much you actually agree with them.
I learned a lot from this book and I was encouraged in a lot of what I already knew. So that’s a win-win for me!
Just one small note… The language that Ortlund uses can come across as a little romantic and flowery. I could see how this might turn off a reader who does not think of Jesus’ love in these terms. But this is solely a personal preference. It is not wrong to think of Jesus’ love in romantic and flowery terms (I mean we have Song of Songs to tell us that). Nor is it wrong to think of Jesus’ love in strong, powerful words that do not seem so romantic. So this is personal preference only.
The author of Gentle and Lowly knows his puritans! He has quoted many of the puritans extensively in this book. Ortlund drew from ministers like Sibbes and Goodwin among others to help describe Jesus’ gentle and lowly heart.
I really appreciated these quotes and often underlined them in the book! It encouraged me to want to read more of the puritans and learn from them as well. So for that I am thankful.
3 Chapters to Highlight
Because I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a lot, I’m sure I could write a summary on each chapter with plenty of lessons. But I will keep it brief and only highlight three of the chapters that really encouraged me.
Ortlund went through Scriptures from the Old Testament, Gospels, and New Testament to support his thesis of God’s gentle and lowly heart for sinners and sufferers. But, I must be an Old Testament girl, because the three chapters which were most encouraging to me were all on Old Testament passages!
Here are my thoughts on those chapters with one critique.
Chapter 10: The Beauty of the Heart of Christ
There is a section in this book that I was not so sure about at first, but now treasure. In chapter 10, Ortlund is arguing for us to relish in the beauty of the heart of Christ, which, of course, is a great thing! We are supposed to love God and we should love God because he is perfectly lovely. And, as believers, God has saved us from the uttermost, so how could we not love him?
Later in the chapter, Ortlund asks us how we think older saints in the church have gotten to where they are; faithful through the test of time. And his answer is not that they have studied well or know a lot of doctrine, but it’s because they “have not only known that Jesus loved them but felt it.”
He then closes the chapter describing Jesus further, “His desire to draw to sinners and sufferers is not only doctrinally true but aesthetically attractive.”
This is SO encouraging in our study of theology and doctrine. Yes, we learn and have head knowledge of who God is, what he’s done for us, and what we should do in return. But all of our studying should lead us into praise and love of our Savior. We should “feel” the truths of deep doctrine, seeing the beauty within, and love God more because of it.
This feeling of doctrine must be why Paul’s heart, after explaining some of the most complex doctrines in Romans chapters 9-11, bursts out with praises to God, “Oh, the depth of the riches, both of wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it would be paid back to him? For from Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”
Of course, we cannot base our doctrine and understanding of God on our feelings. But we should not shy away from feeling the doctrine that God has revealed to us and letting it overflow our love for who God is. Honestly, it is easier to shy away, to not get emotional or feel God’s character deeply. In this, we should take the harder path of knowing God’s doctrines and basking in them.
Chapter 15: His “Natural” Work and His “Strange” Work
One of the pushbacks for this book is the thought that God is just. So in describing God’s heart for sinners as gentle and lowly, you are not including His just-ness in the description of His heart.
Well, this pushback must have come from someone who has not read chapter 15! Ortlund uses Lamentations 3:33 (among other Scriptures) to show that God is just, yes. But that the outworking of his just-ness is not what most naturally comes out from His heart. Ortlund quotes Thomas Goodwin, a puritan writer, at length to justify this. Here is an excerpt:
“My brethren, though God is just, yet his mercy may in some respect said to be more natural to him than all the acts of justice itself that God does show, I mean vindictive justice…. When he exercises acts of justice, it is for a higher end, it is not simply for the thing itself. There is always something in his heart against it. But when he comes to show mercy, to manifest that it is his nature and disposition, it is said that he does it with his whole heart. There is nothing at all in him that is against it. The act itself pleases him for itself. There is no reluctance in him.” –Thomas Goodwin
The most natural thing for God to do for us is to show us mercy, to love us.
God is God, which means He is perfectly just, perfectly wrathful, and so on. But it is from His gentle and lowly love for us that His wrathfulness is poured out. He does everything for our ultimate good (Romans 8:38), disciplining us, chastening us, sending judgment, because He loves us with His gentle and lowly heart.
His wrath and His heart are not pitted against each other, but work together to love and shape us into something more lovely, Christ.
From this chapter I see that God’s wrath is actually an outpouring of His love for us. Though His wrath and judgment may not come as the first thing from His heart, they come as an effect of His great love for us sinners.
And that brings me to a critique of this chapter. On page 138, Ortlund brings in an argument that is simply not scriptural.
He is talking about this idea that God’s mercy is what most naturally flows out of his heart. But then Ortlund goes on to say that God actually has conflict within himself over sending judgment on believers.
There is not a verse in Lamentations 3, or elsewhere in Scripture, that says God has conflict within himself over sending judgment on those he loves. In fact, Hebrews says that God disciplines us because He loves us, as I mentioned above.
So while the verses in Lamentations 3 show us God’s great heart for sinners and sufferers, they do not show the conflict that Ortlund suggests they do. That makes his comment on the conflict in God’s heart unhelpful.
I appreciate these words John Calvin said in his commentary on Lamentations 3:33: “This is another confirmation of the same truth, that God takes no delight in the evils or miseries of men. It is indeed a strong mode of speaking which the Prophet adopts, but very suitable. God, we know, puts on, as it were, our form or manner, for he cannot be comprehended in his inconceivable glory by human minds. Hence it is that he transfers to himself what properly can only apply to men. God surely never acts unwillingly nor feignedly: how then is that suitable which Jeremiah declares,—that God does not afflict from his heart? But God, as already said, does here assume the character of man; for though he afflicts us with sorrow as he pleases, yet true it is that he delights not in the miseries of men; for if a father desires to benefit his own children, and deals kindly with them, what ought we to think of our heavenly Father? ‘Ye,’ says Christ, ‘who are evil, know how to do good to your children,’ (Matt. 7:11;) what then are we to expect from the very fountain of goodness?”
Calvin helpfully points out that in this passage God puts on our form or manner because we cannot comprehend him totally. This is a point I covered on this recent podcast episode. And then Calvin continues:
“God does not afflict from his heart, that is, willingly, as though he delighted in the evils of men, as a judge, who, when he ascends his throne and condemns the guilty to death, does not do this from his heart, because he wishes all to be innocent, and thus to have a reason for acquitting them; but yet he willingly condemns the guilty, because this is his duty. So also God, when he adopts severity towards men, he indeed does so willingly, because he is the judge of the world; but he does not do so from the heart, because he wishes all to be innocent—for far away from him is all fierceness and cruelty; and as he regards men with paternal love, so also he would have them to be saved, were they not as it were by force to drive him to rigour.”
So, this chapter of the book was still helpful in many ways. But in this area where the comments moved away from Scriptural evidence, it is not helpful.
Chapter 17: His Ways Are Not Our Ways
In chapter 17, Ortlund covers a well-known passage in Isaiah regarding God’s unfathomable ways, chapter 55, verses 6-9.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Ortlund says, “God calls us to seek him, to call on him, and invites even the wicked to return to the Lord. What will happen when we do this? God will ‘have compassion on’ us (v.7). … ‘He will abundantly pardon’ (v. 7). This is profound consolation for us as we find ourselves time and again wandering away from the Father, looking for soul calm anywhere but in his embrace and instruction. Return to God in fresh contrition, however ashamed and disgusted with ourselves, he will not tepidly pardon. He will abundantly pardon. He does not merely accept us. He sweeps us up in his arms again.”
As fallen human beings, we naturally want to reciprocate whatever we are given. We have to try to pay back what we’ve been given. There’s an automatic tit-for-tat that goes off in our brains every time we receive something.
God knows this about us and that is why after immediately informing us of his abundant love toward us, that he is always ready to forgive us, and that he wants to have compassion on us, he reminds us that “his ways are not our ways” (v. 8-9). He is not like us. He wants to forgive us at every opportunity, not to pay us back for what we’ve done.
“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways,” means that God’s ways are on a totally different mental plane because He is God and we are not. But again, this is pointed out in light of His compassion toward us. We could never be as compassionate as God because of our fallen nature. So His compassionate ways are higher than ours.
Ortlund helpfully includes Psalm 103:11 to further explain. He says, ”There is only one other place in the Bible where we have the exact phrase ‘as high as the heavens are above the earth.’ in Psalm 103 David prays: ‘For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him” (v. 11). The two passages — Psalm 103:11 and Isaiah 55:9 — mutually illumine one another. God’s ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts in that his are thoughts of love and ways of compassion that stretch to a degree beyond our mental horizon.”
I found this chapter very encouraging and helpful. Especially in my thinking about God’s providence. These verses from Isaiah are usually used to talk about God’s providential work in our lives. I’m sure you’ve heard it said, “Well, his ways are not our ways.” when something goes wrong in our lives.
While that is true, God’s providential ways are not our ways or how we would do things because we are not God. This passage is specifically talking about God in His compassion. His compassionate, gentle and lowly heart is not like ours.
This may be the very reason this book got pushback from some! Their ways are not God’s ways and this book shows us God’s ways from Scripture.
I hope you can see by now that this book is definitely worth the read. I am so glad that I took the time to read it even though I wasn’t completely convinced at first. Save for that one critique, Ortlund keeps each chapter very biblical and argues for his points directly from the text. Which was definitely an encouragement to me.
I happened to listen to an interview with John MacArthur from years ago and he touched on these same ideas that Ortlund has in this book. Here’s what MacArthur said, “Scripture says that God is compassionate and marked with lovingkindness and shows mercy to thousands, is tenderhearted, weeps through the eyes of Jeremiah, and the same would be true of Christ… God is by nature a savior and full of compassion and mercy toward sinners.”
God is compassionate and merciful toward sinners. The Scriptures show us that and Ortlund points to those scriptures throughout his book.
In one of the final chapters, Ortlund covers Ephesians 2:4 which says that God is “rich in mercy.” I will close this review with a quote from that chapter, it encouraged me very much and I hope it does you as well.
“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.
It means on that day when we stand before him, quietly, unhurriedly, we will weep with relief, shocked at how impoverished a view of his mercy-rich heart we had.”
Have you read this book? What did you think? Leave a comment below and let me know. Are you going to read it now? I hope so!
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