I was up in the early morning, sipping coffee and reading in one of those moments of quiet pleasure so rare for parents of young children. The door to my home office gently pushed open and in stumbled my 4-year-old son, groggy but awake and needing my attention.
He sat on my lap and did little more than lay his head on my shoulder. The warmth and tenderness of that moment, even in a space I had planned to claim for my myself, was overwhelming, even after the difficult moments we had with him the day before. Father and son had ended that day on a frustrating note.
But no matter. Yesterday’s struggles to listen and obey did not dampen the joy of my son in my arms. Nothing could have made me welcome this boy in my chair any more than the simple reality that he was my son.
Is this what the Bible means when it reveals God as our Father? If it is, then I think for most of my Christian life—spent in conservative evangelicalism, taking doctrine and sin as seriously as possible—I have missed this. I have failed to really reckon with the love of God.
Does that seem strange? Do people really “reckon” with God’s love? Shouldn’t we reserve that word for talking about God’s wrath, holiness, or justice? I submit that if the idea of reckoning with God’s love makes us nervous, it is not the reckoning that’s wrong, but us. We must reckon with the love of God. And I’m not sure that conservative, Reformed evangelicals have excelled at this.
We Missed This Jesus
Why do I say that? One reason is the astonishing success of Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. (As of this writing it has sold over 216,000 copies. I am—full disclosure—employed by the book’s publisher, Crossway, but I wasn’t directly involved in the book’s production or marketing. In other words, I can take no credit.)
I’ve had numerous conversations about Gentle and Lowly, often with friends and family members who have a similar heritage within evangelicalism. We all read Ortlund’s case that our sins and struggles, far from repelling Jesus, draw him closer to us. We realized this was not our predominant conception of Jesus.
Yet few books are as packed with Scripture or as conversant with great saints as Gentle and Lowly. This is not innovative theology or a feel-good devotional. While reading the book I repeatedly thought, This can’t be right; this has to be a postmodern view of Jesus.
Then I’d realize the statement was a passage from Scripture or a Puritan such as Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, or John Bunyan. The Bible teaches that this is really how Jesus relates to those he has redeemed. Our Christian forebears believed it and taught it.
How did we miss this?
If the idea of reckoning with God’s love makes us nervous, it is not the reckoning that’s wrong, but us.
I’m sure there are many valid answers. Perhaps one of them is that, for some Reformed evangelicals, confronting the world with the harder parts of biblical truth has become a higher theological priority than basking in the noonday warmth of the gospel’s promises.
There is something about God’s total sovereignty, the exclusivity of Christ, or the realities of hell and judgment, that invites the scorn of unbelievers in a way that feels invigorating. Because we believe these doctrines draw the truest lines between sheep and goats, we front-load our hearts with them and even pit them against doctrines such as the lavish grace, unfathomable forbearance, and stupefying delight of Christ toward his people. Those are truths we acknowledge but sometimes consider more fitting for liberal Christians.
Hope for the Exhausted
This is nothing new or surprising. Paul anticipated that the Christians in Rome would infer from his exposition of justification by faith that we ought to sin so that grace may abound. The sense that fear and law are what really motivate obedience, and that grace and forgiveness lower the stakes, is programmed into our self-righteous consciences every bit as much as licentiousness.
But of course, fear and law cannot sufficiently motivate obedience even if we try to make them. This is exactly why Jesus says his gentle and lowly spirit offers rest to the weary and heavy-laden.
When our intuitions say that the promises and mercies of Christ are the whipped cream and cherry on top, but that our obligations and performance are the real entrée, we end each day feeling little else but exhaustion.
Yet this exhaustion can, paradoxically, become addictive. Just as a deep conviction of the Savior’s gentle heart unlocks capacities of grace toward others, so too does a performance-centered sanctification enable a sense of leverage against others. If we wholeheartedly accept the portrait of Jesus drawn in Gentle and Lowly, it will transform the way we see other people, and it will free us from comparison, legalism, and anger, “respectable sins” to which we often cling.
If we accept the portrait of Jesus drawn in Gentle and Lowly, it will transform the way we see other people.
I realized with a shock while reading Gentle and Lowly that something in my theology and practice had conditioned me to resist what the Bible really says about how we treat others, the same way it had conditioned me to miss what the Bible says about Jesus. Bald statements of his eager love for me sounded like false teaching because I was used to hearing the Bible to learn why the wrong people are wrong.
I should instead hear what my Creator really thinks about me. My posture of readiness for a culture-war battle had given me the right answers but the wrong image of my Savior. I had reckoned with every difficult doctrine about God, except his love for a miserable, spoiled, disappointing failure like me.
That’s why I read Gentle and Lowly with the teary-eyed eagerness of someone who finds a freshwater spring after days in the desert. It’s also why, each time my 4-year-old cracks open my door to do nothing more than sit in my lap, I hold him tightly and try to remind myself that my heavenly Father feels about me the way I feel about this boy. My heart rests, my will stirs, and my pride melts.