Book Review: Tim Keller, “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness”

Why do people do bad things? Is it because of a lack of self-esteem that causes them to hold too low a view of themselves?  That is the dominant view in our society. Or is it because of personal pride and too high a view of themselves?  This was what was traditionally thought; think of the concept of hubris to the ancient Greeks. This is the question Tim Keller takes up in his new, tiny book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy.

The ego is normally competitive. Pride is achieved at the expense of others and remains inflated only as long as one’s performance is better than others. This comparison game is a hard one to constantly win.

Usually we bolster our self-esteem by living up to other’s high expectations. But these shift and our ability to meet those expectations fluctuates, leaving us in a trap of frustration. The self-help industry tells us that the way out of that trap is to set our own standards and judge ourselves only by those. We can feel good about ourselves when we meet our own standards. But that is a trap too because we rarely meet those either. Or we set our goals so low they evoke little in the way of pride.  So Paul looks elsewhere.

The goal is to take oneself out of the equation, to stop judging ourselves by our failures and successes, to simply think about yourself less. Keller calls this “gospel-humility.”

Gospel-humility is not needing to think about myself.  Not needing to connect things with myself. . . . True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself.  In fact, I stop thinking about myself.  The freedom of self-forgetfulness. (p.32)

As C. S. Lewis once stated, a truly humble person doesn’t talk about how bad they are because they are still focusing on themselves. They focus on others instead.  Then they have the freedom to “perform” or act because of God’s gracious “verdict” instead of performing to get a verdict.  One should recognize that Keller has stripped down the issue of self-esteem to the level of gospel.  Our goodness derives from God’s grace, not our own actions.  This applies to salvation, but also self-esteem.

Nonetheless, Keller’s description of a truly self-forgetful person seems very idealistic and out of reach.

Wouldn’t you like to be the skater who wins the silver, and yet is thrilled about those three triple jumps that the gold medal winner did?  To love it the way you love a sunrise?  Just to love the fact that it was done?  For it not to matter whether it was their success or your success.  Not to care if they did it or you did it. You are as happy that they did it as if you had done it yourself — because you are just so happy to see it. (p.35)

This will take a great amount of emotional control to attain. God will have to be at least as real to a person as other humans are. Keller realizes this and ends with the encouragement that reminding ourselves of the redemptive truth of the gospel has to come each new day.

For $5 one gets 45 pages of sound, focused teaching that is extremely gospel-centered. This is an excellent example of how we can let the good news infuse all topics of human concern.  Given the size of the book, this is also a very good choice for an e-reader, if you have converted. Personally for the price, I would have liked a bit more practical advice on how to let these concepts change my way of thinking and living.