Podcast: Does Jesus Really Like Me? (Dane Ortlund)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Christ’s Tender Heart for Sinners

In this episode, Dane Ortlund, author of Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers discusses his answer to a question we've all wrestled with at some point: does God actually like me? He highlights what Scripture says about God's disposition towards us as redeemed sinners, explains what Jesus meant when he said that he is "gentle and lowly in heart," and explores what it means that Christ is continually interceding for us before the Father in heaven.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview

Gentle and Lowly

Gentle and Lowly

Dane C. Ortlund

How does Jesus feel about his people amid all their sins and failures? This book takes readers into the depths of Christ’s very heart—a heart of tender love drawn to sinners and sufferers.

Does Jesus Like Us?

01:37

Matt Tully
I think all of us who have been Christians for a long time, even people who aren't Christians, would not question the idea that the Bible presents Jesus as loving us. Growing up we sing songs like “Jesus Loves Me”; and yet, I think as we grow older and come face to face with our own sin and shortcomings, we might not question that Jesus loves us, but we might question that he likes us. Does Jesus like us?

Dane Ortlund
I have trouble believing both that he loves me and likes me. But I think you're right, Matt, that we do tend to not think, talk, preach, write much—or as much—about his liking us. By “liking us” I don't mean kind of indiscriminate approval of everything we do, but love communicates that he is bound to us, he's committed to us even to the point of having laid down his life for us. Liking us communicates desire, longing, affection, a desire to be in the presence of. And that's what is really hard to retain a strong sense of as we go through life and do what you just said: you go through life piling up sins and is he still attracted to me? Does he still want to be with me? And so I do think very much that we need to understand he wants us. He actually has a desire for us as sinners. He's drawn to his people. He's the friend of sinners and all the pathos that includes.

The Affection of God

03:33

Matt Tully
I'm struck that oftentimes when we as humans even think about love—you know that classic song Love Is a Verb—I mean we can think about our love for our spouse, even for God at times, and sometimes we would acknowledge that the feelings aren't there. The affection maybe doesn't feel like it's there all the time, and yet love persists through that. Do you think we are reading our own experience of love back on to God and kind of assuming the same thing about him—that sometimes he loves us just because he's committed to loving us, or he sent Christ to die for us, but the affection part isn't really there?

Dane Ortlund
I think that is the problem right there. And by the way, love is a noun over a hundred times in the New Testament as well! We don't think we realize how deeply we are fashioning our understanding of divine love after the image of our own love and lowering the ceiling as a result. I think our tendency, Matt, is to construct a view of God that unwittingly is an earth-to-heaven view rather than a heaven-to-earth view. It's taking our own natural understanding about what love is and how it works, and we might even truly do a kind of shaping our understanding of God according to Scripture—we really are sitting under, memorizing, hearing the Bible preached. We can be totally committed to that and yet not really let the Bible morph and mess with our natural, intuitive, deeply held assumptions about what God must be like. He must love like us. What other kind of God could there be? And we don't realize how we are humanly limiting divine revelation. And I think we don't detect that problem because of the problem. It's like sin—you don't feel sinful because of our sin. And I think if we really open ourselves up to what the text—slow down and really hear—what the Bible over and again says about God's heart and his love, we discover a love and a heart and a care for us that soars beyond what our natural human capacities limit us to.

Matt Tully
And that's an important part—you're pointing us to Scripture, that we are, in your own words from the book, “fighting to let the Bible surprise us into what God himself says.”

Dane Ortlund
I don't think we would know of this divine heart but for the sixty-six books of the Bible. It's just way down deep inside us that God loves with a kind of reciprocity that informs all of our natural human relationships. And so I think from one angle, Matt, the Christian life—the life of growth as a believer in Christ—is letting the Scripture deconstruct the vision of what God's love must and can only be like from birth to death.

Jesus’s Disposition toward Sinners

07:08

Matt Tully
So then take us to Scripture. Is there a passage that you would say best describes, or gets at the heart of, Jesus's disposition towards us as sinners and sufferers?

Dane Ortlund
The driving passage of the book is from Matthew 11 where Jesus—my dad pointed it out to me, Spurgeon pointed out to him—which is there's only one place in all four Gospels—I think 80 or 90 chapters of the Bible—where Jesus tells us what his own heart is. He says something which, I just defy anyone who says they would have expected this to be what Jesus says if they were asked, without knowing what the text says, Jesus is going to say one thing about what his heart is, what do you think it's going to be? I think very few of us would say, I think he's going to say he's damning and indicting in heart. We wouldn't say that; but what would you say? Maybe something like, He is joyful and exulting in heart, or he is a father glorifying in heart, or he is obedience-inducing in heart. He says, I am gentle and lowly in heart (Matt. 11:29). That's worth a lifetime of pondering. And letting that sink in, that if you have one place where Jesus opens himself up and—like peering down into a volcano, the very animating center of who he is and what makes him tick—and he says, gentle and lowly. That's an astonishing claim and really disagrees with the Jesus that many of us perceive ourselves to be walking with.

What Does It Mean that Christ Is Gentle and Lowly?

08:59

Matt Tully
Let's dig into that then. Maybe before we talk about “gentle and lowly”—what does he mean by those words—we should probably take a step back and figure out what does he mean by “heart”? I think as we look at our culture today, it's not uncommon to hear people talk about their own hearts, or someone else's heart. But it's a pretty amorphous, vague, sentimental, mushy kind of concept—even in Christian circles. So what does Jesus mean when he says that he's “gentle and lowly in his heart”?

Dane Ortlund
You're absolutely right. We use heart language all the time in the church and in the world. What the Bible—both Old Testament and New—are in lockstep on this, that the heart of a human being is the animating center. It's what makes them tick, it's what gets them out of bed in the morning, it's what they're thinking about as they drift off to sleep at night, it's the motivation headquarters of who they are. In other words, the heart isn't part of what we are in tension with our intellect or our will or something like that. In the Bible, the heart loves and feels, but also thinks and determines and discern and wills. Everything that the human at core, at root does, that's what the heart is said to do.

Matt Tully
We have this definition of the heart. What does he mean by “gentle and lowly”?

Dane Ortlund
The word “gentle” there is a word that means “meek.” It means it means tender. It means Jesus is not on the edge of his seat waiting to pounce. It means he's not trigger happy. It means he handles us with tender patience and care. He's welcoming, he's open. We're not saying anything that contradicts, or is in tension with, his purity and holiness and divinity at all. But he says in his heart he's gentle and lowly—such an interesting word because that's the word elsewhere used and generally translated in the New Testament as “humble.” Gentle and humble, gentle and lowly in heart—what in the world does that mean? Here's Jesus, what does he have to be humble about? And what that text is trying to say is Jesus is the single most accessible and approachable person in the universe. You don't have to go through security to get to him. You don't have to work your way up into a hearing before him. He is gentle and lowly in heart, which really is a fulfillment of what the Old Testament says about God himself. In places like Isaiah 57:15 God will say, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly.” So already we have these glorious hints and teachings in the Old Testament about God being accessible while holy, which Jesus is the tangible incarnation and concrete reality of.

Are the Father and Spirit Gentle and Lowly, Too?

12:30

Matt Tully
Yes, speak to that a little bit. I think sometimes we can view Jesus as if he's the compassionate one: Jesus the Son comes to us, he's gentle, he's lowly, he loves us, and he's sort of protecting us from, or shielding us from, God the Father who exists in this high and holy and completely other realm, and he's mad at us. Some of the language of the New Testament can even make us wonder if that's actually the case. So is this gentle and lowly heart characteristic of just Jesus the Son, or is it also true of God the Father and the Spirit?

Dane Ortlund
I would not say what you just depicted, though I will agree with your disagreement of it, is completely wrong. There is something in the way the triune God affects salvation that certainly, truly is talking about the Father's wrath being assuaged and the Son paying that penalty. I believe that with all my heart. But you're right, it's not as if there is a reluctance in the Son or anything like that in this. There's a long history in the Reformed tradition of speaking of the covenant of redemption by which the Father and the Son delightedly, longingly, with all their heart agree before time for the Son to go and save humanity. There's a beautiful place in the works of the old Puritan John Flavel, in a sermon in volume one of his works called The Fountain of Life, where he creates a biblically informed, two-way conversation between the Father and the Son. It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever read in the Puritans. It's like the Father saying, My Son, what shall we do for this race of humanity—these helpless sinners and the plight that they're in? And the Son says, Father, let me go—I have such love for them with you for them—and take their place. And the Father says, according to Flavel, something like, If you do this, I cannot spare you at all. I will vent all of my wrath that they deserve. And they agree together. And that agreement, that symmetry, that co-working together—if I can speak that way—is the picture that the Bible gives us.

Is the Heart of Christ Underemphasized?

15:17

Matt Tully
We do talk a lot about the love of God, the love of Christ, the deity and the humanity of Christ, the death and resurrection of Christ; but we don't tend to talk a lot about the heart of Christ, which is what you're focused on here. Maybe some of that has to do with the fact that, as you pointed out earlier, that there's only this one verse that really gets to that. Are there any other reasons why you think this whole topic is foreign to us? It sounds like the Puritans are a great example—they were much more used to thinking about the heart of God, the heart of Christ, and His affection for us.

Dane Ortlund
I don't think there's just one verse on it, which is not exactly what you said, but I did say there's that one verse where Jesus talks about his own heart. But I think that verse is tapping into a whole-Bible theme from Exodus 34 and Jeremiah 30—33 and Hosea 11 and lots of places in Isaiah and lots of places in Hebrews and Ephesians and Revelation. So I do think it is a whole-Bible theme and that's why I wanted to write this book. I don't want it to be a disproportionate depiction of what the Bible teaches and kind of extract one little thing and make it look bigger than it is. I think this is a big thing we haven't really talked about. But why don't we really talk about it? I don't really know. I haven't really thought about it most of my life. Why? Maybe it's more elusive to think about. Maybe it's easier when we think and talk about it to be accused of being a flaming liberal. Surely, as you were saying earlier, there are historical reasons. Think of the 20th century: as so much of church history, the 20th century was one battle after another for doctrinal fidelity to the gospel and who Christ is and what he came to do, even right up to recent years. Every solid seminary was formed out of these kinds of battles. And so we've rightly and needfully had a focus on what we believe about the gospel and Christ, but there's this other thing that we can lose sight of that is more subjective. The Puritans fought doctrinal battles in their day and somehow they maintained this vital other strand of how God and Christ feel—to speak anthropomorphically—about us and what their heart—to speak biblically—is for us. And so I think going back even earlier than the 20th century, back in the Puritans, is a great model for us.

Is Christ Drawn to Our Fallenness?

18:18

Matt Tully
One thing that you did say in your book that really struck me and it honestly made me sit up straighter in my chair was, “if the actions of Jesus are reflective of who he most deeply is, we cannot avoid the conclusion that it is the very fallenness which he came to undo that is most irresistibly attractive to him.” I think that's a really profound and powerful statement. Can you unpack that for us?

Dane Ortlund
It's hard to swallow at first, but I don't know what other conclusion to come to when you look at Christ in the four Gospels and what he does and who he liked to hang out with and who he was drawn to and what evoked tears from him and whom, frankly, he avoided. And one way to think about it would be simply in the categories of clean and unclean. In the Old Testament, clean plus unclean equaled unclean. A clean person touches an unclean person and they both are unclean and need to go outside the camp and go through the ritual washings and so on. In the New Testament, Jesus, the one clean person, walks around hugging unclean people. And they didn't make him unclean, he made them clean. His impulse—his heart—was to bring purity to the impure. That was what was pouring out of him. That was what he was spring-loaded to do—the coiled spring of his heart was to do that. Thomas Goodwin, one of the Puritans, said, “Christ is love covered over in flesh.” Christ is love covered over in flesh. So when Jesus Christ went walking around on two legs on this planet, as the picture Goodwin is giving us is, you saw flesh on the outside; but actually, if you peel it back, what it is is love. Like Terminator, if you peel back the flesh, you see a machine. In a similar way, if you peel back flesh, you see love. I think that's a pretty helpful image. And so that's what I mean by that.

Reconciling Gentleness and Judgement

20:42

Matt Tully
So that connects into the issue of theological liberalism because a lot of theological liberals over the last century would say, Absolutely. That is right. Jesus came with a message of love and peace and grace and that's it. That's what he's all about. How do we reconcile this idea that Jesus is fundamentally, in his core, gentle and lowly towards sinners and suffers, with the reality of what we read in the book of Revelation—the second coming—where Christ comes to judge and he's full of wrath and holiness? How do those things fit together?

Dane Ortlund
They fit together in that you cannot have one without the other. Yes, maybe liberals claim that they are the ones truly celebrating the love of God. I would say that's a profoundly impoverished love that they are celebrating. If I go to the doctor and he prescribes me medicine and I take it and I feel great but I didn't think I was sick beforehand, then my appreciation for that dampens. So I think, actually, a liberal theology—and by that I mean a theology that extracts the strand of biblical teaching about divine love and holds at arm's length the biblical teaching about divine wrath, holiness, justice, and hell eternally—that is actually an under celebration not only of divine wrath, but of divine love. That's a hollow divine love. I remember Easter of 2001, my wife and I lived in Connecticut, and my wife was sick. So out of curiosity, I went across the street to a church we didn't belong to—a mainline church, packed church—in which the pastor, to celebrate Easter Sunday, pulled out from behind the pulpit an enormous stuffed donkey and proceeded to talk about what this donkey would have felt like as it had brought Jesus in on Palm Sunday—we don't really ever pay attention to the donkey, and so on. He got chuckles and that kind of thing; but actually, what else would they do because they don't believe that there is something fearful about ourselves that we can't fix, of eternal consequence, that God himself—the covenant of redemption, the Father and the Son—undertook upon themselves to relieve miserable poor sinners out of. So I don't think liberal theology can claim a high view of divine love.

Matt Tully
I think maybe part of the problem is that we can tend to view, even conservative Christians, can fall into thinking that love and holiness are on the same spectrum and it's kind of a zero-sum game. As you get closer to love, holiness is inevitably diminished and vice versa. But you're saying that you actually think the Scripture presents this picture of more love and more holiness together.

Dane Ortlund
Both or neither. They rise and fall together.

Jesus’s Attitude toward the Pharisees

23:42

Matt Tully
Throughout the New Testament, as you've alluded to, we see Jesus showing his compassionate and lowly heart towards sinners—it's prostitutes, its tax collectors, it's the thief on the cross next to Jesus. But Jesus's words and actions do have a very different flavor and tone when it comes to his interactions with the religious leaders of the day—the Pharisees and the scribes and the Sadducees. I've wondered this before: weren't they sinners, too? Weren't they in need of his grace and mercy? And yet he treats them so differently. I don't know if I would describe his heart towards them as gentle and lowly like it is towards the others. What's behind that and is there something that we should take from that?

Dane Ortlund
I think that's a great question and I would say Christ's heart never ceases to be gentle and lowly, but it can only engage another human heart that has the floodgates open to receive it. That is, another human heart that is penitent. A heart that wants it, that has felt a need for it. If you block up your own perceived need for the mercy, love, and grace of God in Jesus Christ, then you're blocking yourself off from it and you will only receive judgment. So to the impenitent, yes, Christ says what must be said. But to the penitent, the floodgate of our hearts are open to receive what he most deeply is and most enjoys and is most comforted by doing.

Matt Tully
And that fits with the call that Jesus gives which is repent and believe.

Dane Ortlund
Right.

Jesus Tempted, But Without Sin

26:05

Matt Tully
So one of the most striking verses in the New Testament, for me, would have to be Hebrews 4:15 where the author says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” What is this verse getting at? I think this verse can be pretty perplexing to us, a little bit difficult to understand what he's getting at—how does that fit into this conversation?

Dane Ortlund
What an unreal verse! Who would ever have expected that to get put in our Bibles? In fact, that's the verse. The Puritans would take a verse they liked and wring it dry, and three hundred pages later send their findings off to a publisher, and that was a book. And this was Goodwin's book—Thomas Goodwin's book The Heart of Christ—was on that verse you just read about Christ being our high priest, tempted in every way as we are. I think what it means is he has endured everything we have, and actually more. C. S. Lewis uses the analogy of if you are walking against a strong wind and eventually it's so strong you lie down, you wouldn't have known how hard it would still be ten minutes later. Christ resisted every temptation. We give in to temptations. Jesus knows to the full, exhaustively what every temptation is like because he never gave in. It's not as if because he was sinless and perfect and pure and never gave in he can't know what temptation is like—he knows better than anyone! We're the ones who don't fully know what temptation is really like. And so I think that verse is saying Christ, even though he is now in heaven, knows what it's like for us here on earth. In fact, the fuller title of Goodwin's book The Heart of Christ was The Heart of Christ In Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth. And that's part of the burden of what he was saying, and which I think what Hebrews 4 is saying, is that Jesus isn't now in heaven glorified, lobbing down pep talks. He's traveled the road that we are walking right now and he speaks and loves and his heart is drawn out accordingly.

Jesus’s Intercession for Sinners

28:34

Matt Tully
Another perplexing passage in the book of Hebrews is Hebrews 7:25 where we read about Christ's intercession for us. What exactly is Jesus doing in heaven on our behalf right now? I think sometimes our theology would seem to tell us that at the cross and in the resurrection, Christ accomplished everything he was sent to do. He accomplished our salvation—it is done, it is finished. And then we read this verse in Hebrews where it seems like he has this ongoing role on our behalf and it's a little bit confusing at times. What do we understand about that passage?

Dane Ortlund
I love that question and I love that verse where it says that “he is able to save to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25). It's one Greek word pantelés. He saves to the uttermost those who come to him. It's so hope-giving because we are to-the-uttermost-sinners and he's a to-the-uttermost-Savior. The way to understand Christ's intercession and, I like the way you put your question; is the doctrine of Christ's heavenly intercession right now threatening something about the once-for-allness, which Hebrews also teaches a few chapters later in chapter 10, of what Christ has done for us? In other words, if he has to do something now in heaven, does that mean there's something that was missing in his work on the cross of atonement? And I think the answer is actually the two are mutually reinforcing. The cross and the resurrection was where Christ accomplished our salvation once and for all, nothing more needing to be done. But then he ascended and is now interceding and that is applying—accomplishing—applying his saving of us. So we are ongoing sinners—and this is deeply comforting—he is, in an ongoing way, delivering us. It's not like the Catholic mass where we have to see him sacrificed all over again, but he does—in an ongoing, continual, moment by moment way—intercede for us, applying what he did before his Father.

Intimacy with Christ

30:56

Matt Tully
That seems to connect back nicely with the comments about the heart of Christ that you've said so far, that there is this deeply personal and intimate relationship and affection that Christ has for us that persists. It wasn't just that he did something for us in the past. How have you found—as you've thought about this, as you've delved into this, and studied this—how has this changed the way that you've thought about Jesus and your relationship with him?

Dane Ortlund
I have absolutely no idea how to answer that because it is such a universal, all-encompassing truth. I feel like, before I stepped into this truth about eight years ago, that although everything I believed in about Jesus was true, it's almost like it was in 2D and now it's in 3D. And so how has it changed? Prayer is a lot more enjoyable. If this is the Christ through whom, alongside whom, we are praying to the Father, pain is much more endurable. I have five kids. When one of my kids has the flu, I don't love them anymore; but my heart does go out to them more. And I think in a similar way, Christ's heart does go out to us more. In the same way, the heart of God in the Old Testament went out to his people when they were in the depths of suffering. So at every every facet of the Christian life, at every point in one's journey, if this is the Savior alongside whom we are walking, if actually he's with us and he is in constant tender care mode—which includes rebuking and correcting, it doesn't mean he's a softy. But if he is gentle and lowly in heart, who in the world cannot be changed by that? Who would not want to actually simply give up everything for him who did that for me and who now is walking with me as one who is gentle and lowly and that's what's pouring out of him towards me? That's someone that you want to walk with and live for.

Christ’s Heart for the Suffering

{033:38}

Matt Tully
You've mentioned Christ's gentle and lowly heart towards sinners and sufferers as an emphasis here, and I wonder what word of encouragement you would offer to the person who—I think all of us have experienced this to some extent, but some people much more profoundly than others—that in deep seasons of suffering and pain a common thing that we hear is that God can feel so distant. That God can feel so silent in the midst of our pain. So how does this understanding of the heart of Christ impact how we suffer as Christians?

Dane Ortlund
That's a massive question and in a couple of minutes here together all we can do is begin to wade into that question and its answer, but one way to answer that—I think the deepest way to answer it—is God, in the person of his own Son, did not stand in heaven and cheer us on in our suffering and say, You can do it. Hang in there. I love you. You're going to be in heaven one day. Rather, he jumped into the suffering in which we were drowning. He jumped in himself, in the person of his Son, went down into it, plunged through death and out the other side, and then went back up to heaven. And now Christ's heart is with us in our suffering as one who has been through it. And actually, in the same way we were talking about temptation earlier, has suffered more deeply than we ever can or will. He knows the anguish and his heart is drawn out to us in that. So I would just want to say to anyone who is ready to throw in the towel because life has just gotten so overwhelming, that it's at that point of deepest anguish that God's heart—Christ's heart—is drawn out to you the most. That's when he is most tightly hugging you, embracing you into his very heart because that's who he is. He proved it in the cross.

The Yoke of Christ

36:01

Matt Tully
So how do we fit the idea that Christ's yoke is easy—again, going back to that Matthew 11 passage—with other passages where Jesus warns us explicitly to count the cost of following him. I think of Luke 14 where Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). That doesn't seem like an easy yoke.

Dane Ortlund
The word used there in Matthew 11 that we translate “easy”—and that's a good translation—you could equally translate it “kind”—chrestos. It's the word used in virtue lists elsewhere in the New Testament for kindness. So it doesn't mean easy in the sense of the bar is really, really low. Like, anyone who takes this test is going to pass it so easy. It doesn't mean it's so easy you don't have to count the cost. Let's take all of what Christ says and not cherry pick. But right there in the previous passage to what you read in Luke 14 is a parable about the crippled and the lame being brought in to a great banquet. So yes, count the cost. Count the cost of discontinuing trying to drink sand and beginning to drink fresh water. C. S. Lewis speaks of making mud pies for a holiday at the sea. Romans 8 speaks of "the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom. 8:18). So yes, it will cost us. And actually, it feels like death as we surrender ourselves, yield ourselves, consecrate ourselves fully to discipleship to Christ. It feels like you're going into meltdown. Your life is imploding and you're done.

Matt Tully
Which is why Jesus says it's “picking up your cross.”

Dane Ortlund
Picking up your cross—this instrument of torture and death. So it will cost us, but all it's costing us in hindsight—what are we going to think from heaven? We're going to think all it cost me was the fraudulent, pathetic, empty, and hollow offerings of the world for the sake of trading all of that in for the real, solid, sublime, soul-filling friendship of a Savior who walks tenderly with us all the way. It's actually not a hard trade at all as we collapse into him.


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