It’s always fun to read a book that’s having a powerful impact for the glory of Christ. This is one of them. It’s been read widely and loved deeply, for good reasons: its beautiful blend of biblical theology, pastoral warmth, creative word crafting, and clear focus. But there are some important critiques to be aware of as well. Scroll down to read my top three under “What I Would Have Liked.”
What I Loved
The power of Ortlund’s book is in taking a clearly biblical but often overlooked truth and making us stare at it. We’ve all read that Jesus is “gentle and lowly of heart” (Matt. 11:29). But we don’t work out what this really means for us spiritually. What does it mean for the very heart of God to be “gentle and lowly”? What does that reveal about the nature of God? What does it reveal about our own misperceptions of who God is and how we should approach him? How does this truth have the potential to revolutionize how we see and meet with God? These are some of the questions the book addresses. And it does this by engaging with some of the great Puritan writers along the way.
I would say that the heartbeat of the book is this: God is not repulsed by your sin, weakness, and shortcomings. Instead, those are the very things that draw out his Fatherly heart to you, a heart showcased in the person of Christ. God’s heart has a magnetic pull toward his children in their brokenness. Our brokenness sends him running towards us, not away from us. That’s an idea that many Christians are familiar with on the surface, but they haven’t really absorbed it. They haven’t owned it. They haven’t made it their default perception of who God is and how he relates to us. And that needs to change. I think this book will go a long way in changing that.
I have many, so I’ll try to limit myself here, maybe capping it at around 20. You’ll have your own favorites if you give the book a try.
- “The heart, in biblical terms, is not part of who we are but the center of who we are. Our heart is what defines and directs us. . . . The heart drives all we do. It is who we are” (pp. 18-19).
- “Jesus 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” (p. 19).
- “No one in human history has ever been more approachable than Jesus Christ” (p. 20).
- “The Jesus given to us in the Gospels is not simply one who loves, but one who is love; merciful affections stream from his innermost heart as rays from the sun” (p. 27).
- “As we go down into pain and anguish, we are descending ever deeper into Christ’s very heart, not away from it” (p. 57).
- “We are called to mature into deeper levels of personal holiness as we walk with the Lord, truer consecration, new vistas of obedience. But when we don’t—when we choose to sin—though we forsake our true identity, our Savior does not forsake us. These are the very moments when his heart erupts on our behalf in renewed advocacy in heaven with a resounding defense that silences all accusations, astonishes the angels, and celebrates the Father’s embrace of us in spite of all our messiness” (p. 92).
- “Let Jesus draw you in through the loveliness of his heart. This is a heart that upbraids the impenitent with all the harshness that is appropriate, yet embraces the penitent with more openness than we are able to feel. It is a heart that walks us into the bright meadow of the felt love of God. It is a heart that drew the despised and forsaken to his feet in self-abandoning hope. It is a heart of perfect balance and proportion, never overreacting, never excusing, never lashing out. It is a heart that throbs with desire 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” (p. 99).
- “When God himself sets the terms on what his glory is, he surprises us into wonder. Our deepest instincts expect him to be thundering, gavel swinging, judgment relishing. We expect the bent of God’s heart to be retribution to our waywardness. And then Exodus 34 taps us on the shoulder and stops us in our tracks. The bent of God’s heart is mercy. His glory is his goodness. His glory is his lowliness. ‘Great is the glory of the LORD. For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly’ (Ps. 138:5-6)” (p. 147).
- “The Christian life . . . is the long journey of letting our natural assumption about who God is, over many decades, fall away, being slowly replaced with God’s own insistence on who he is” (p. 151).
- “The Lord passed by Moses and revealed that his deepest glory is seen in his mercy and grace. Jesus came to do in flesh and blood what God had done only in wind and voice in the Old Testament” (p. 153).
- “God’s heart confounds our intuitions of who he is” (p. 167).
- “The Christian life is a lifelong shedding of tepid thoughts of the goodness of God” (p. 172).
- “If you are in Christ, you are as eternally invincible as he is” (p. 178).
- “The things about you that make you cringe the most, make him hug the hardest” (p. 179).
What I Would Have Liked
First, one of the dangers that theologians expose themselves to in trying to draw us into understanding God is humanizing him. In other words, they portray God in such a way that he’s more understandable to us and yet perhaps not accurate when we consider the Creator-creature distinction. There are places in the book where this happens, such as when the author talks about God being “conflicted” when he sends affliction into our lives (p. 138). There’s no conflict in God. He’s supremely certain and has gloriously good purposes for the affliction we meet (namely, to conform us to the image of his Son). This was one of the points I tried to drive home in Struck Down but Not Destroyed and Finding Hope in Hard Things. This is an example of how humanizing God too much actually does more harm than good. It sounds comforting on the surface, but it actually runs contrary to the nature of God articulated elsewhere in Scripture. Readers should always be aware of this in reading contemporary theology.
Second,readers should also be wary of reductionism or oversimplification. I’m always skeptical when theologians say, “Well, there are lots of things that reveal God’s deepest character but THIS is the most important one.” Of course, Ortlund will run into this when trying to tells us what the heart of God is. In reality, I believe God’s heart is infinitely deep. Is mercy at the heart of God? Sure! But so is love, peace, goodness, justice, sovereignty, etc. God’s heart is not for only one thing. However, I’ll temper this critique by saying that all authors use some reductionism or simplification to help us focus on their message. It’s part of what happens when you write a book. Still, it’s good to be aware of this as a reader.
Third, we need to be very careful in saying that there is something in us that draws out God’s grace and love. This suggests we have some power or influence over God, something that compels him to show grace. But the only reason Scripture gives for God’s grace is his mysterious, sovereign will. Ortlund writes, “It is the very fallenness which he came to undo that is most irresistibly attractive to him. . . . [Jesus’s] deepest impulse, his most natural instinct, is to move toward that sin and suffering, not away from it” (p. 30). Note how this suggests (1) that God is “attracted” to falleness, which is itself problematic, and (2) that our sinful condition creates a “natural instinct” or “impulse” in God to move towards us. The inference is that something in us brought out God’s love and redemption. But this undercuts the message of the gospel and the teaching of total depravity (Rom. 3:10-18). God’s love for us and his work of salvation and restoration is purely an act of his voluntary, unmerited good will. That is the only why we can give for God’s salvation of sinners.
Should You Read It?
I’m torn. There’s great pastoral wisdom in this book and powerful writing. Ortlund has clearly struck a chord in the church (currently the book has over ten thousand reviews on Amazon). It points to the love and humility of Christ. Praise God for that! However, the dangers in the book seem to be mostly overlooked by enthusiastic readers, and that troubles me. Humanizing God, reducing the biblical portrait of who he is, and undercutting the teachings of God’s unmerited grace and our depravity aren’t small blunders. I would say this is a good book to read because of its broad influence in the church. Reading it will show you much about what people are attracted to in his message. But read with an eye on Scripture, checking the passionate theology against the truth of God’s word, not against the teaching of theologians cited. That should always be the stance we take in reading anything.
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