Book Review: The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness (Tim Keller)

The human ego is an expert attention-seeker. How it usually operates is also profoundly unbiblical. It’s unfortunate how western society now insists that low self-esteem is the contributor to most of an individual’s woes. It’s like a daily courtroom battle where you, the defendant, are constantly fighting for the verdict of You’re the greatest! This is the problem that author Tim Keller addresses in his very short book, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, comprised of 44 small pages. This review will be short and sweet as well.

Keller references I Corinthians 3:21 – 4:7 as the source material for his message, as the text contains perfectly chosen words to describe how Christians ought to regard our own opinion, and others’ opinions and attitudes about us in light of the identity we sinfully seek to have in the world.

The book highlights four interesting truths about the human ego to explain why it’s so important to forget ourselves and only look to Christ for our ultimate identity. The first is that the ego is empty, because the natural human heart always seeks an identity apart from God. The ego is also painfulit constantly demands an analysis of how you look, feel, and are. The third concept is that the ego is busy, or as I partially alluded to earlier, constantly drawing attention to itself. That because it craves to be filled, you’re tempted to compare yourself and boast about yourself. And finally, that the ego is fragile. Since the ego is always over-inflated, it is always in danger of becoming deflated as a result of the person failing to measure up to his/her own, or others’ standards.

The solution, Tim suggests, is that we imitate Paul based on those I Corinthians verses. Before expounding on the solution, I want to point out that I think Keller would have done well to clarify that opinions can be valuable to consider, such as your spouse’s, or church leaders’. You really can’t just completely ignore people; there’s a lot of wisdom and growth to be gained from taking heed of others’ Bible-based opinions. I understand why that wasn’t approached in the book since it targets self-identity and not how others’ opinions can help you grow in the Lord; I just hope it doesn’t encourage some readers to utterly blow off those in their inner circles.

Getting back on track, in the I Corinthians passage the apostle Paul teaches that he learned to not care about others’ opinions, or his own! Paul learned instead to revere only that of the Lord Jesus Christ’s. Even that of the courts did not concern Paul, since because of Christ the verdict is already in. A great way of describing the gospel is that the performance doesn’t lead to the verdict, but the verdict to the performance. And indeed therein lies the freedom of self-forgetfulness; not allowing yourself to become like celebrity Madonna (whom the book references) who believes she exists in a constant state of mediocrity and must always strive for that next great Wow! accomplishment so everyone will tell her she’s great and wonderful for a little while. But that is not the way of Christ. The Christian’s identity is vertical, not the least bit dependent on anyone of flesh and bone.

That’s the message of The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, a message straight from the gospel of Jesus Christ that we must remind ourselves of daily. Is your tendency to be devastated by criticism? Do the opinions of others keep you up at night? Do you fear honor? Do you need honor?  Can you celebrate coming in second place, and cheer on the winner? Those questions derived from the ego, and more, are handled well in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness.