Review: Tim Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness

This is a book review for Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness.

Tim Keller is a rare bird these days: At times, he gets gospel motivation. That fact alone makes him a find on today’s lists of best-selling Christian authors. He understands forensic justification (Paul’s teaching that we are declared innocent in God’s courtroom through the merits of Jesus), and he understands how justification leads to a transformed life of good works. He recognizes that the key difference between Christianity and all other religions is this: All other religions teach that a life of good works can lead to being valued in God’s eyes; Christianity teaches that being valued in God’s eyes because of Jesus’ good works leads to a life of good works. Tim Keller’s short work, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, is really all about that. But he makes you think it’s about something else: self-esteem.

In this work, Keller presents an extended meditation on 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7, a section of a letter where Paul is writing to a Christian congregation struggling with cliques. Keller uses this text as an opportunity to talk about pride and self-loathing, gently showing how both are forms of self-centredness. He demonstrates how this self-centredness is the way we generally operate in the world, and how it leads doing many things in our lives not because we actually care about that activity, but because we see how it will bolster our own self-image. Keller writes that Paul demonstrates the opposite of self-centredness, not self-loathing, but self-forgetfulness. Through being primarily concerned about who he is in God’s eyes because of Jesus’ work, he is free to forget himself, strive for true humility and focus on simply the work God has called him to do. In other words, Keller argues, Christ frees us from a life driven by the guilt of pride and self-loathing, and frees us to live a life of selfless service.

Keller’s book is short. The paperback is around 50 pages. I read the ebook, and, with all the notes I took, I spent less than 2 hours on it. He breaks the book into four sections:


Introduction. The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: In this chapter Keller briefly lays out the context of 1 Corinthians 3-4, and summarizes what’s to come. He points out that historically most cultures saw pride, thinking too highly of oneself, as the source of most evils; today, though, our culture sees low self-esteem as the source of most evils. How often do we hear that the solution to self-image problems is to work on our self-esteem?

1. The Natural Condition of the Human Ego: Keller points out that Paul uses a Greek word physioõ, for pride, which literally means swollen or over-inflated. “I think the image suggests four things about the natural condition of the human ego: that it is empty, painful, busy and fragile.” This chapter outlines how a puffed up ego leads to emptiness, pain, the busyness of comparison and boasting, and the fragility of leading to inferiority complexes.

2. The Transformed View of Self: Keller explores how Paul writes that he doesn’t care what other people, and even he himself, thinks about his identity. In fact, Paul believed he was the worst of sinners, and yet he didn’t act that way or consider that his identity. Instead, he simply lived for others. What was his secret?

3. How To Get That Transformed View Of Self: Paul’s secret was justification. We get a judgment from the Lord, and that’s the only one that counts. And we get this verdict before our performance is judged. Other philosophies and religions put you on trial every day, and the verdict of who you are, your identity of whether you are a good or bad person, is based on your aggregate performance. For Paul, the verdict of who you are, your identity through the Lord, leads to your performance. (Ro 8:1) And this frees us to perform not for ego, but for the sake of others: “I can help people to help people—not so I can feel better about myself, not so I can fill up my emptiness.”

Keller ends by encouraging non-Christians to just keep exploring, while realizing that true Christianity isn’t about how holy of person you can become, but it’s about the identity Jesus freely gives us. And he encourages Christians who struggle with feeling like they’re on trial to “re-live the gospel” everyday, which I guess means to be reminded of the gospel truth that we’re not on trial, because Jesus was already on trial for us.

One Big thing I liked: When the World Says “Create your Own Identity”

Keller has some moments of tremendous insight in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness. One of my favourites: Keller observes that, In 1 Corinthians 4:3,4, Paul writes, “I care very little if I am judged,” by anyone, because Paul’s self-identity isn’t based on the opinions and judgments of people. And this is the general counsel we get from the world, to not care how we measure to other people’s standards. But then who’s standards should we measure ourselves against? Our culture says, “Decide for yourself who you ought to be.” We’re encouraged to set our own personal standards. The remedy for low self-esteem, says the world, is high self-esteem. But Paul says, “I do not even judge myself.” (v4) The practical problem with setting your own standards is either (a) just like everyone else’s standards for you, you won’t be able to keep your own, or if you can, it’s because, (b) you set such incredibly low standards you feel bad that that’s all you can amount to. I thought this was an incredibly insightful cultural observation by Keller.

He continues: Paul believed that he was the worst of sinners. (1Ti 1:15) And yet he did not connect his identity to that belief. “His sins and his identity are not connected… So, although he knows himself to be the chief of sinners, that fact is not going to stop him from doing the things that he is called to do.” And so, in reverse of how a prideful ego draws attention to itself, here Paul’s ego does not draw attention to itself, but instead points away from self to someone else.

I really liked this section of Keller’s tract. It reminded me of Adam and Eve naked in the garden. Why didn’t they care about their nakedness? The Bible doesn’t give us too many details, but I’ve always thought about Adam and Eve’s egos, and how in paradise they must have been perfectly pointed away from self and focused only on God and each other. Maybe they didn’t feel any shame because shame requires turning inwards. Only after the fall, shame entered the world as pride and selfishness did. Keller sees the redeemed and renewed eyes of Paul being able to turn away from self once again and instead focus selflessly on God and neighbour.

I think this line of thought also has incredible counselling value. When someone asks you if they need more self-esteem, why not think of Paul? Let’s stop telling people, “only what you think about yourself matters.” Keller’s right: That’s an incredibly dangerous thing to say to someone already self-loathing. Instead, find a way to get to, “Who does God say you are? A holy and precious child bought with the blood of Christ. Now that that’s settled, let’s get to the work God has for his children to do.”

Two Things I Found Wanting

Too Much from the Text

One of Keller’s flaws in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness (as I’ve found in some of his others), is that he tries too hard to force his insights into the biblical text. For example, there’s no textual reason to think Paul uses the word physioõ because he sees the ego as empty, painful, busy, and fragile in the robust way Keller describes. That’s simply too much to draw from the text. But that doesn’t invalidate what Keller is saying: His insights on the puffed-up ego are fantastic—The puffed up ego is empty, painful, busy, and fragile—and they certainly fit within a discussion of Paul’s dealing with the inflated egos of Corinth. But we can’t say that Keller’s conclusions directly flow from a textual analysis of Paul’s use of the word physioõ.

Sometimes Keller is compared to C.S. Lewis. I think this is one of the ways C.S. Lewis is superior. Because he didn’t build his identity on being a theologian, Lewis simply shared with us his insights. Keller, though, doesn’t seem to be able to share with us his insights unless he first says, “Paul is trying to teach these Corinthians something about the human ego,” as if Paul had in mind the rich analysis Keller then presents.

Just Ask God to Accept Me

As much as Keller has a solid grasp on justification and gospel-motivation, in my experiene his grasp slips at times on conversion. In the third chapter, “How to Get that Transformed View of Self,” he writes that, once I understand that Jesus was put on trial for us, “I simply need to ask God to accept me because of what the Lord Jesus has done.” For all his C.S. Lewis-like savvy, his conversion language at times falls back into this pseudo-decision-theology language. If someone asks, “What must I do,” why not just leave it where Paul does? “Believe.” Just trust it. You don’t need to ask God to do anything: He’s done it all (which was the point of Keller’s book.) You’re already justified.

For more information on Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, click here to head on over to Amazon.