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Like many pastors and church leaders across the country who took advantage of a too-good-to-be-passed-up gift from Crossway Publishing (158 books for free!), I’m leading a small group through a study of Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. In the book, Ortlund attempts to uncover who Jesus is in relationship to us, what the shape of his heart is, what he feels about us. Each chapter looks to a different Scripture passage and commentary from the Puritans to get at different facets of what the heart of Jesus is like.
It’s a fascinating project. Ortlund writes in the preface that he’s interested in describing Jesus’ heart the way a wife would describe her husband’s heart for her. A wife can list all sorts of things about her husband: height, education, job, etc, but “what can she say to communicate his gaze across the table over a dinner at their favorite restaurant?…That glance that speaks in a moment his loving protection more clearly than a thousand words?”
Ortlund wants to describe Jesus’ heart for us – not doctrines or belief statements or accounts of what Jesus did – but the way he feels. Which is a hard thing to communicate using words. It’s much more difficult to describe an intangible thing about a loved one – a glance, the squeeze of a hand, the assurance of love – than a job or haircut or the way her eyes crinkle when she laughs.
Indeed, more than once members in my small group have seemed to resist Ortlund’s project. “How can he know?” they ask, as he makes one claim or another about why Jesus did something, or how he feels in a certain moment. On the one hand, I wonder if us Dutch Calvinists try so hard to have a big-picture faith, to avoid the “Jesus is my lover” language of other traditions, that we wrestle with the idea of a Jesus who does relate to us intimately, personally, and with love and emotion. But it also seems like there’s a base level discomfort with the idea that we can know who Jesus was/is, what he was like as a human being with emotions. As much as Scripture reveals these things, I wonder if we feel like we’re domesticating Jesus, or dishonoring Jesus, by speaking about him using the same language we use to describe a friend, a relative, a lover. Is the attempt to describe the heart of Jesus doomed from the start because we feel our words – a product of our own limited capacity and understanding – can never fully do credit to the reality of Christ?
My dad sent me an essay this week: “Against Nature Writing” by Charles Foster in Emergence Magazine. Foster, who makes his living writing about nature, wrestles with an existential fear: what if words can’t be trusted? What if, instead of leading us to greater understanding, words are obstructions, barriers over which we must climb in order to experience truthfully that which the word describes? And, he wonders, isn’t all writing just an act of the ego, more a representation of the mind of the writer than that about which the author is writing? Wouldn’t the moral thing in fact be to get rid of our words, to get out of people’s way so they can have unencumbered experiences with the world?
This is, he reasons, not possible. Of course. Language is how we inhabit the world, is how we experience the world.
And, he ultimately determines, apart from necessity, there is yet some connection between our words and reality itself – some moral good to our language. For this he looks to the ancient Hebrew traditions. God spoke, and creation came into being. The tetragrammaton, YHWH, the name of God, was only to be written with consonants, but spoken including vowels. Thus knowledge of the name, of the word, was intimately linked with knowledge of the thing, the being, itself. Foster even references the fascinating and intriguing suggestion by David Abram that God chose these consonants for his name because they are the ones that sound most like vowels, and that the combination of these vowel-sounds most closely imitates the sound of breath. YHWH is breath, is life, is the creative life-force. And we know this simply by speaking his name.
In the end, Foster concludes that to use words most truthfully, for words to be as close to reality as possible and as least self-involved and self-referential as possible, we ought to speak words that have been uttered by thousands and millions before us. For in time, as with the tetragrammaton, the word becomes so associated with the thing itself it cannot be thought of as other than it is when uttered. The ancient liturgies, the old prayers, he says, have a power to shape us and our reality because they have been “repeatedly uttered.” Because people, for centuries, have trusted these words to be true.
So perhaps my small group is uncomfortable with the idea of a personal, relatable, knowable Jesus because the language we use to describe that Jesus is, to us, new. We don’t yet trust it. Certainly the Puritans from whom Ortlund borrows trusted these words, trusted these ideas. Ortlund’s book thus strikes me as an exercise in recovery, repeatedly uttering words about Jesus that are Scripturally true, and by doing so, making them true in our comprehension and reality as well.