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Why we need the tenderness of our Savior

An Interview with Dane Ortlund about “Gentle and Lowly”

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January 6, 2021

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a series engaging the authors of new or notable books. Because discipleship and spiritual formation go hand in hand, the goal of this series is to introduce you to beneficial and enriching works in order to better equip you to love God with your mind as well as your heart and strength. Find the entire series here.

Christianity isn’t complicated, but it is difficult. If anything, the last year has made us realize in a special way just how broken our world truly is. But whether we’re facing a pandemic or a relative paradise, every Christian needs Jesus—not just for “salvation,” but for life. And apart from the Scriptures, Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly, is among the very best places you can look to connect with Jesus in a fresh and meaningful way. We recently had the opportunity to interview Dane about the book. As you read his answers below, you’ll see why Dane’s book is worthy of your time.

In the opening page of your book you write that “this is a book about the heart of Christ” and then go on to say who it’s written for, “the discouraged, the frustrated, the weary, the disenchanted, the cynical, the empty” (13). For the person who finds that these words accurately describe them, why is a deeper understanding of the heart of Christ the balm that will soothe these ills? 

Because our deep soul wounds are beneath the reach of snappy formulas or quick fixes or even theological truth. We need a Person—the Lord Jesus himself, the Greatheart. We don’t climb our way up into his love, we collapse our way down into it. That’s where he lives. 

When describing Jesus as gentle, you say that he “is not trigger-happy. Not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to him is not a pointed finger but open arms” (19). Why do we have such a hard time believing this and, moreover, what would believing it do for a Christian’s assurance?

We have a hard time believing this because we form Christ in our image. We don’t realize how easily we view him as a bigger, nicer version of us. But he’s on another plane entirely. He doesn’t tolerate our weaknesses; he is drawn in by them. For his own brothers, their failures cause his embrace to tighten, not loosen.

You lean a lot on the Puritans in your book. Why do you think Christians should spend more time reading Puritan works?

The Puritans understood two things at a deep level: the Bible, and fallen human hearts. And their writings take the Bible in one hand and our timid hearts in the other and build bridges between the two so that solace can flow from the Scripture into our own hearts. In other words, the Puritans were neither pure theoreticians nor pure practitioners, but a remarkable blend of both.

Many Christians may imagine Jesus as a sort of begrudging Savior, put out by our unceasing sins and shortcomings. But you say that “it is the very fallenness which he came to undo that is most irresistibly attractive to him” (30). You go further to say, upon seeing the fallenness of the world, Jesus’ “most natural instinct is to move toward sin and suffering, not away from it” (30). And not only that, but it makes him happy to give grace and pardon sin (36). Is Jesus really a happy Savior?

The key here is to remember we are members of Christ’s body, a point the New Testament makes time and again. So think of your own body. When you slice your finger open, you care for it, bandage it, nurse it back to health, and do whatever is needed for its healing. You don’t grow impatient with it. You don’t cut it off and cast it away. In a similar way, we are members of Christ’s own body. When we are sinning or suffering, he doesn’t cut us off—he cares for us all the more insistently. He’s healing his own body. 

Apart from the Scriptures, Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly, is among the very best places you can look to connect with Jesus in a fresh and meaningful way.

Many Christians undoubtedly assume that our ongoing sin disqualifies us from fellowship with God, but you seem to suggest that in our “crevices of sin,” as you call it, “Christ is most strongly drawn to us there” (83). Could you explain a little about what that means? And assuming this is true, how should that transform the act of confession and repentance for us if we’ve fallen into sin?

We naturally believe that the better we are performing spiritually, the stronger Christ’s love; and the worse we are performing, the more diluted his love. But the Gospels are very clear that it is in our ugliest and most entrenched strongholds of sin that God and Christ love us the most. This empties confession of its power and terror, because the only love that counts and the only love that satisfies, God’s, is certain, whatever happens on a horizontal level as we are honest about our sins with other humans. 

On the topic of Christ’s intercession, you quote Louis Berkhoff in chapter 8, saying “that Christ is praying for us, even when we are negligent in our prayer life” (84). I’m sure many feel negligent in their prayer life, so how should Christ’s intercession encourage us to pray? Why should we pray if he’s already doing it for us? 

By joining in prayer to the Father, we are going with the flow of Christ’s own prayers for us. We are entering in to the very fellowship of the Trinity. Moreover, Christ’s intercessory work reflects the truth that as those united to him, we have the Father’s ear as much as Christ himself does. Christ’s intercession gives hope and power and fuel for our own prayers.

You devote a chapter of your book to the idea that Jesus is a tender friend. How can Christians cultivate a deeper friendship with Jesus?

Let him be a person. Not a force, not an idea, not a philosophy, not a formula. Even “the gospel,” glorious as this good news is, is not itself a person but a message. But if Christ is a person, he is someone with whom we can cultivate a deep friendship. Don’t let his divinity and highness let you diminish his humanity and lowness.

As you close the book, you address what I imagine may be the most common question people ask after reading which is, “what are we to do with this?” (215). Your answer is simple: nothing. You encourage us to enjoy Jesus and his heart by simply opening ourselves up to him and going to him. In closing, can you give a word of encouragement on how doing this has transformed your own life?

In all my own struggles and in all my fathering and in all my ministry and in all my preaching, my main goal is to help people’s hearts calm down into fresh relief and wonder at the Savior’s befriending Love. There is plenty of time and opportunity to reprove and exhort, through and according to Scripture. But this entire world is deeply controlled by Law, by demand, by scrutinizing. I am only changed as I am surprised. And the deepest surprise in this relentless world is the tender heart of the Son of God.

You can order Gentle and Lowly here.

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as Director of Content and Chair of Research in Christian Ethics. He holds an M.Div from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Th.M. in Public Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author