I had a chance to preach at my church last August as we were in the middle of a summer sermon series titled Traveling Light. Each message was focused on one thing we need to leave behind as we walk through life seeking God and his kingdom. I want to share it here as the book it's largely based on had such an impact on me, and I hope it will be a blessing to you as well.

The following is a lightly edited version of this message.

So we’ve talked about bitterness and pride for the first two weeks of this sermon series. This morning, the approach I want to take is this:

Do I have any preconceived notions about God that are in error?

And in unpacking that question, I hope it will help any of you who may also suffer from the same thing.

What do we bring when reading the Bible or praying to God?

When I say "preconceived notion”, I'm getting at the concept of having an idea or a picture in my mind about who God is or what he is like. When I come to the Bible and begin to read, are there assumptions I hold that affect what I'm reading? Or when praying? Do my collective experiences lead me to an understanding of God's character and nature that is inaccurate and perhaps even un-Biblical?

This is a critical thing for us to examine in our own hearts. In Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer writes:

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.

That's the heart of what I want to get at this morning. And I can share with you that for me, for whatever reason, I find it far too easy to picture my heavenly Father as critical and quick to judge. In any situation, when I've succumbed to a temptation, repeated a sinful behaviour I've long wanted to get rid of in my life … sometimes it is not even something I’ve done, but rather a lack of zeal or finding myself enamored with something of this world. Whatever the cause, I so easily picture God as disappointed and disapproving. As if he would want to now withhold his affection from me.

Brothers and sisters, if you find yourself having that same kind of reaction, let me assure you this morning: this is not what the Bible tells us about our heavenly Father. So I have had to continually, over the years, preach to my soul about what my Father is really like (like the Psalmist.)

So again, I want to focus this morning on traveling light and shedding things that hinder us in our walk. And that includes wrong ideas about God that may have formed about who God is or what he is like. And while there are various different ways to think incorrectly about God, I'm going to focus on the one that has affected me most: that God is a stern, disapproving, perhaps even harsh father who is quick to judge.

And I should mention here that a common understanding is that we’ll think of God our Father based on how our own fathers treated us. I can tell you that is not the case for me: my dad was very intentional about how he treated his kids and was never short on praise. I had a very warm, loving, and well nurtured childhood.

How I view my heavenly Father is more based on what kind of person I am rather than how others have treated me. I have a critical nature. I am very quick to judge. And to my shame, I’m far more likely to point out faults than to give praise. You can ask my kids about that.

In his commentary on Isaiah, John Calvin put it this way:

There is nothing that troubles our consciences more than when we think that God is like ourselves.

And so this morning, I want to share with you some wonderful truths I’ve focused on this past year. Again, for years I’ve been preaching to my soul the idea of a loving Father who is quick to bless. But this past year I found a resource that has been very helpful in this regard. It’s a book by Dane Ortlund titled Gentle & Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. I’m going to borrow heavily from this book as it’s been a blessing to me and I think it will be for you as well.

In one of the chapters, Ortlund tells us,

The message of this book is that we tend to project our natural expectations about who God is onto him instead of fighting to let the Bible surprise us into what God himself says.

The Christian life, from one angle, is the long journey of letting our natural assumptions about who God is, over many decades, fall away, being slowly replaced with God's own insistence on who he is. This is hard work. It takes a lot of sermons and a lot of suffering to believe that God's deepest heart is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger.”

Whether those sermons are heard in a pew, or from our own heart.

So it’s a wonderful book that focuses on the one passage in all of Scripture where Christ explicitly describes his own heart. Then in each chapter, he focuses on one aspect of Christ’s heart, along with a related passage of Scripture, and some wonderful teachings from various Puritans and Reformers of the past. So I invite you this morning to open your Bible to Matthew chapter 11.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

What a wonderful invitation! The key statement from this passage is right in the middle — it is the only time that Christ makes an explicit statement about his heart. “I am gentle and humble in heart.” Or if you use other translations, it may say, “gentle and lowly in heart” as the title of this book alludes to.

What I want to do this morning is look at three other different passages that get at God’s heart and show how his attitudes and activities overflow from who he is. That’s what we’re getting at when we talk about “heart”. And each will reinforce the reality that Jesus gets to here in Matthew 11 — but a reality that is so easy for us to miss and pass right over.

Especially for some, OT passages. For it’s easy to look at a lot of what’s recorded in the OT and come away with a different picture of God than when we take the Bible in its entirety, right? But threaded through the law, and the prophets, and the poetic works of the OT is the true heart of God. As we consider how Scripture shows us the heart of Christ, let’s also consider how Jesus shows us a continuation of what the Father has been revealing to humankind in the old testament.

The first is in Isaiah chapter 55.

My ways are not your ways (Isa 55)

Again, Ortlund is writing on the premise that we “tend to project our natural expectations about who God is onto him instead of fighting to let the Bible surprise us into what God himself says.”

And this next passage shows us how God knows this is a challenge for us. Let’s turn to Isaiah 55. In verses 6–9, we see another invitation. 

Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.

Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.

Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

If you break this into two sections, the first is giving instructions on what to do. Seek the Lord. Call on him. Forsake our ways and thoughts. Turn to the Lord. 

The second half tells us why. He will have mercy and compassion, he will freely pardon. If you look back to the beginning of chapter 55, it sounds much like the words of Christ in Matthew 11. Come, all who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. 

So here God gives an invitation to seek him and find pardon. I prefer the ESV to the NIV for the line states he will abundantly pardon.

But we have to note what the text does next: it takes us deeper into the heart of the one who pardons. Or, as Ortlund puts it: “God knows that even when we hear of his compassionate pardon, we latch on to that promise with a diminished view of the heart from which that compassionate pardon flows.”

For my thoughts are not your thoughts. Your ways are not my ways. He is telling us that we cannot view his mercy with our old eyes. We must be transformed by the renewing of our mind so that we can begin to fathom the height and breadth and depth of the Father’s love.

The Hebrew text here once again conveys meaning through spatial language. A way of describing something infinite. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways than your ways, my thoughts than your thoughts.” We likely have each heard of this verse used when contemplating something we cannot comprehend about God. And that fits.

But in its context, it gives us so much more. When we are tempted to limit God, to take a small view of how he views us, come back to this passage and meditate on what it is saying about the heart of our Father. A heart that wants to abundantly pardon. I think this is what Paul was alluding to in Eph 3:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

And lest we think this invitation does not apply to us today because it’s an OT prophecy to the people of Israel, consider how it relates to what we see in the NT. Oh, how good our Lord is to us in referring to and mirroring OT invitations. Seek, and you will find. Ask, and you will receive. Knock. And he closes all of Scripture with an invitation so alike what we just read in Isa in Rev 22:17: “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”

It’s for us — for all of us. If you haven’t taken him up on that invitation, do not wait any longer. It’s freely given!

Now, let us turn to the last two passages I want to look at today. Let us consider . . .

His natural work vs. his strange work

Let’s turn to Lamentations. 

If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s written during the period just after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and took the clan of Judah away into exile. This occurs after the rest of the nation of Israel, the northern kingdom and its 10 tribes, have been defeated and exiled by the Assyrians. The author is possibly Jeremiah the prophet and the book is a darker one. 

The book itself is as the title suggests: it’s a lament. Although found near the section of the prophets in the OT scriptures, it reads more like a long Psalm. It’s poetic.

In fact, the very structure of it points to this fact. It’s 5 chapters long, with chapters 1–2, and 4–5 being exactly 22 verses long. While the middle chapter is exactly 3 times as long at 66 verses. Obviously, the chapters and verses we see in English are not in the original Hebrew, but they were chosen to reflect the structure of the book. It’s set up as an acrostic, in which lines or sets of lines are arranged according to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each line or group of lines begins with the succeeding letter.

A setting during the period of the Babylonian exile makes Lamentations a fitting sequel to the book of Jeremiah. As Jeremiah foretold the fall of Jerusalem, Lamentations expresses the pain of the event itself.

And it’s right in the exact middle of this book where we see a statement about God’s heart, which we’ll look at in a moment.

The author is pouring out his own heart and grieving the state of the nation of Judah. Their defeat, their exile, their sins that led to God moving to bring upon them the curse he promised so long ago under the covenant of works ushered in when Moses led the people from Egypt. It’s a dark book from a man feeling the loss of all that makes up his identity and the identity of Israel itself. God’s chosen people, cast off, punished and abandoned by their redeemer. Read 2:1-3, 3:1–6

How the Lord has covered Daughter Zion
with the cloud of his anger!

He has hurled down the splendor of Israel
from heaven to earth;
he has not remembered his footstool
in the day of his anger.

Without pity the Lord has swallowed up
all the dwellings of Jacob;
in his wrath he has torn down
the strongholds of Daughter Judah.

He has brought her kingdom and its princes
down to the ground in dishonor.

And it’s not only a corporate or national emphasis. In chapter 3, we see the author takes this personally.

I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of the LORD’s wrath.

He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;
indeed, he has turned his hand against me
again and again, all day long. (1–3)

He has walled me in so I cannot escape;
he has weighed me down with chains.

Even when I call out or cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer.

He has barred my way with blocks of stone;
he has made my paths crooked. (7–9)

Again, punished and abandoned by their redeemer. At least, that’s how it feels to the author. But then, like a ray of sunshine piercing through the darkest of storms, we get this beautiful reminder of who God is right in the middle of the book. Look at the section starting at 3:21. This is one of my favorite passages in all the Bible.

Finally, in verse 33, we see this comment about the heart of God:

For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.

Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.

For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.

Wait, does this mean he unwillingly brings affliction? No. As God is sovereign over all creation, he does nothing outside of his will. I prefer the way this is worded in the ESV:

but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.

He does not afflict from his heart. So although God, after longsuffering with the ways of the nation of Israel, finally brought upon them the punishment recorded in the OT, it was not his preferred way of treating them. Ortlund describes this as comparing his “natural” work and his “strange” work.

Thomas Goodwin puts it this way:

My brethren, though God is just, yet his mercy may in some respect said to be more natural to him than all acts of justice itself that God does show, I mean vindictive justice. In these acts of justice there is a satisfaction to an attribute, in that he meets and is even with sinners. Yet there is a kind of violence done to himself in it, the Scripture so expresses it; there is something in it that is contrary to him. "I desire not the death of a sinner"—that is, I delight not simply in it, for pleasure's sake. ... When he exercises acts of justice, it is for a higher end, it is not simply for the thing itself. There is always something in his heart against it.

But when he comes to show mercy, to manifest that it is his nature and disposition, it is said that he does it with his whole heart. There is nothing at all in him that is against it. The act itself pleases him for itself. There is no reluctance in him.

Therefore in Lamentations 3:33, when he speaks of punishing, he says, "He does not from his heart afflict nor grieve the children of men." But when he comes to show mercy, he rejoices over them, to do them good, with his whole heart and with his whole soul.'

Goodwin points here to another key verse that shows the heart of God. In Jeremiah 32, we see God stating all of what we’ve been looking at:

In Jer 32:42:

This is what the LORD says: As I have brought all this great calamity on this people, so I will give them all the prosperity I have promised them. 

And what is the prosperity he promises? We see that just before this verse as he promises to return the people from exile (Jer 32:38–41).

They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me and that all will then go well for them and for their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul.

Again, here we see the heart of God. We’re familiar with the command to “love the Lord your god with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength”. But here we see a wonderful picture of how God has the same bent towards his children, and it’s far more sure than our sporadic love for him.

Do not miss how momentous this statement is. Can you think of another place in Scripture where God states he will do something with all his heart and soul? And what is he doing with all his being? Rejoicing in doing his people good. Planting them in this land in faithfulness. 

On this passage, John Piper says:

I challenge you to conceive right now, in your wildest imagination, of any exuberance, or any energy, or any power, or any overflow of enthusiasm greater than that implied in the words, “The joy of the infinite God with all his heart and all his soul.” Any takers? If not, you should be blown away. There is no energy, there is no exuberance, and there is no joy conceivable greater than the joy of the Almighty acting with all his heart and with all his soul to do you good. Jesus bought that for us when he died.

We have to be careful in taking New Covenant promises in the OT and taking them to the cross. But I myself believe this is one that 100% applies to all believers. And God promises to make a new covenant, an everlasting covenant. That’s exactly what we’re about to celebrate at the Communion table—as Jesus says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” And it lasts forever.


So let’s wrap this all up. I realize that for some of us, we can be wary of past experiences where the idea of Jesus as friend was often repeated, but the wrath of God was minimized. That is not my intention. God justice will be done, the wages of sin is death, and judgment will be rendered at the Lord’s return. That’s a crucial part of the Gospel, for there is no good news if there is not first bad news.

However … and it’s a big colossal, extremely vital however. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. No condemnation, whatsoever!

If you are a child of God, that judgment does not apply to you. It has been rendered at Calvary and you were pronounced guiltless. As Ortlund puts it: “We who are in Christ no longer look to the future for judgment, but to the past; at the cross, we see our punishment happening . . .”

Yes, he is a father who may rebuke and correct when required. But he only ever has your best interests, your eternal happiness, in mind when he corrects you. If you live day to day envisioning God’s love for you as infected with disappointment, you have a false sense of God’s capacity to love. 

I know this, for I have had this mindset myself. But let us return to the invitation from Jesus:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

What is the “rest for your souls” he’s referring to? I believe it relates to how we can apply these principles practically. What can we take away from these passages into our daily lives?

What can we do practically to travel lighter and shed incorrect ideas about God?

  • So far in this series, we’ve looked at emotions or mentalities like bitterness and pride. If we had to choose a word that best gets to the point of my message today, it would be guilt. And there will be times where we feel the Spirit convicting us of sin, where we recognize sin in our lives, and we should feel guilt. In those situations, we do well to repent, to confess our sins, and ask for forgiveness. And he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
    • But once forgiven, guilt should have no part in our day-to-day interaction with our father. Condemnation is not applicable.
  • We can be intentional about our time. Let’s not be the fisherman flying down the river to get to one spot. Let us slow down and take time to notice things on the way. His ways are not our ways. Consider his natural work versus his strange work. And consider the magnificence of the almighty doing you good with all that he is.
  • In short, meditate on the passages of the Word that show us God’s heart.
  • Then preach to ourselves when we begin to doubt or the specter of disappointment hovers once again. Ortlund: “We can bring our up-and-down moral performance into subjection to the settled fixedness of what Jesus feels about us.”

Let me close with these words from Ortlund:

Christ died to confound our intuitive assumptions that divine love has an expiration date. He died to prove that God's love is, as Jonathan Edwards put it, "an ocean without shores or bottom." God's love is as boundless as God himself. This is why the apostle Paul speaks of divine love as a reality that stretches to an immeasurable "breadth and length and height and depth" (Eph. 3:18)-the only thing in the universe as immeasurable as that is God himself.

For God to cease to love his own, God would need to cease to exist, because God does not simply have love; he is love (1 John 4:16). In the death of Christ for us sinners, God intends to put his love for us beyond question.

My prayer for all of us today is we believe this truth.