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.


The Deception of Hype

After over 25 years, praise the Lord I’m finally starting to catch on. I’m still guilty of buying into it at times, and likely will be somewhere down the road. (That happens when you love technology and grow up living an entertainment-led lifestyle.) Yet each time I do inevitably leads to some measure of disappointment and/or frustration. And altogether I’m thankful that the word of God has been helping me, as only it can, to expose the spiritually-sinister concept known as hype for what it really is and how the enemy uses it.


Does not come from God

You know what I’m talking about millennials. The people hired to market and advertise the products and services for hundreds of companies around the world are geniuses at drawing us in to their schemes. It’s such an obvious manifestation of what I John 2:15-17 teaches that it’s maddening that we often don’t seem to notice our own participation. The reality is that marketers and advertisers don’t do their jobs for our benefit. If anything, I’m sure these professionals laugh all the way to the bank while they gloat about just how painless it really is to jar us loose of our dollars in exchange for their flawed products and services. Congratulations to them, and shame on us!

I John 2:15-17
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but however doe the will of God abides forever.

Those verses don’t speak well of man. Frankly there’s nothing to speak well of concerning man. It’s pitiable that the very temptations which Adam and Eve gave in to in the garden, bringing upon us the Fall, are the exact same temptations that incite our sin several thousand years later. Also don’t forget that A&E were perfect before disobeying; they were merely capable of disobeying. Adam and Eve bought the serpent’s hype, as do we, year after year. And Satan’s playbook hasn’t changed. It hasn’t needed to. Our sins always fall under at least one of the sin pillars: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.

I highlight these truths especially because Christmas is almost upon us. You know, that day on the calendar when many believers pretend that they care more about the purposeful incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ than about acquiring more and more “stuff”. It’s interesting and telling how Christ doesn’t mince words speaking to this subject in Luke 12, “Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (vv.13-15) Christ, as He always did, went straight to the heart of the matter. Man by nature has an insatiable greed for the world’s things, but what Jesus said applies also to putting so much stock into having some thing in the first place. Paul addresses this succinctly as well at the end of Colossians 3:5, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” In other words, convincing yourself that life won’t go on until you have some thing is nothing more than idolatry. It’s the belief that some thing will satisfy you more, or better, than Jesus Christ Himself. Ouch! This would characterize the majority of my 28+ years of life.

And isn’t it ironic that for these products, whether as seemingly small as a Starbucks latte or as significant an investment as an iPad Air, over time you inevitably discover one or more aspects that just don’t measure up to the hype…that fail to meet your expectations…that cause you to feel disappointed? (My examples may not apply to you; if so, insert what you know does.)  But of course, marketing and advertising will never warn you about such things. That would never be to their benefit. It’s their job to build up hype to insane decibels, to loudly drum up your expectations, and to convince you that your life will be finally fulfilled after point of sale. Again, that is not for your benefit. Each time you experience this disappointment or frustration with some thing, it should be a reminder that Christ is incapable of disappointing or frustrating us, at least not in a way that isn’t our own fault.

The fact of the matter is that the people who create the products we love and believe we can’t do without are no different from us. They’re the same flawed, sinful human beings who make mistakes, rebel against their Creator, and often live for self. I always shake my head in disbelief when I hear people suggest that company executives aren’t foolish or stupid enough to make decisions that ultimately cause great damage to, if not the downfall of, their brand(s). And it’s certain that as a result, the products they produce will reflect those realities. Why then do we join them as though we share the same goals?

How does it aid our walk with Christ, and how is it God-honoring, to spend a few dollars every morning on whatever wake-up magic that promises to start our day off just right? What happened to God’s law being the daily delight of our hearts? How does it aid our walk with Christ, and how is it God-honoring, to purchase every new iteration of a particular smartphone or tablet? What happened to the great gain of godly contentment? How does it aid our walk with Christ, and how is it God-honoring, when we wake up at some insane hour the morning after Thanksgiving…or camp outside a certain store, just to exchange dollars for some piece of junk that will inevitably disappoint or not even be used six months later? What happened to separation from the ungodly acts of the unbelieving world?

I’m hardly suggesting that Christians shouldn’t have fun with things, or purchase things. After all, God created everything, and there’s still good to be enjoyed in spite of sin and the curse. There’s nothing wrong with owning a tablet, a smartphone, new clothes, jewelry, some kitchen tool…whatever tickles your fancy. There is something wrong, however, if you consistently believe the enemy’s lies that you have to have some thing… that your problems will be solved, or that you’ll finally be happy… by having some thing (i.e. buying into hype), and subsequently you do whatever is necessary to possess such things.

The bottom line is that only Christ can and does satisfy, and only He is able to deliver us from these hype hooks! Recall the temptations Christ was victorious over in the wilderness. Satan tempted Him with the suggestion of turning stones to bread because He was hungry (lust of the flesh); Satan tempted Him with rule over the world’s kingdoms (lust of the eyes); and Satan tempted Him with fame and a following if He would only jump off the temple’s pinnacle and rescue Himself with God’s angels (pride of life). Yet with Scripture the Lord Jesus defeated Satan, and so must we, along with of course depending fully upon His grace and making Him the treasure of our hearts. Not things.

Christ alone can fill your heart with true joy. The Pharisees and Sadducees wanted hype, but got simply Christ Himself. That’s really what we need, Jesus Christ Himself. That’s how it should be. He alone must be the object of our faith that we simply can’t live without. Anything else will inevitably disappoint and/or frustrate. Thus, this 2013 Christmas season [and beyond], be wary of the world’s hype, as used by the enemy!

The Call to Public Confession of Sin

James 5:16
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

The above Scripture is a clear command to Christians to confess their sins to each other. Yet I don’t understand James 5:16 to apply merely to one-on-one relationships as many probably would; I believe God through the apostle is equally pushing believers into the public arena with this verse. And millennials, I think we can be leading the way in our churches.

With that in mind I ask, why do Christians avoid public confession of sin as if it was the most terrible experience imaginable? Why do Christians refuse to touch the concept with a 10-foot pole? Why do Christians treat the matter as riskier and more frightening than the stock market? I would dare say that most Christians are this way, and I think that’s very sad and unfortunate. I believe it’s also causing each and every one of those people in the body of Christ to miss out on countless spiritual blessings.

Way scarier!

Think you already know what I’ll be arguing for here? Not so fast. I don’t think that believers should air all of their “dirty laundry” every time they fellowship. That isn’t the main purpose of God’s people coming together anyway, and surely not what God is after here either.

Where I want to shine the spotlight is on the reality that Christians who avoid public confession of sin are ultimately declaring, “I’m OK everyone. I got this. I don’t need help. I have nothing to learn. I don’t need prayer. I’m content to fight sin alone.”, yet no one actually hears those words. It’s convenient, and requires little to no effort. And beyond that, is it any wonder then that Christians lose so many moment-by-moment, daily spiritual battles that don’t have to be lost? Here’s another kicker: failing to obey James 5:16 actually impacts every single Christian you associate with. Yes, that sin, whatever it is you’re refusing to confess, or don’t believe is necessary to confess. Where do I pull that from? From all over the book of Ephesians (parts of Romans too), where Paul several times over describes God’s people as members of the body of Christ, members one to another. That means whatever you do, say, and think inevitably affects your brothers and sisters. It’s easier to convince ourselves of the opposite, but it’s true.

The gravity of that truth is overwhelming no doubt! But it’s a truth that should spur us on to much greater frequencies of public confession than what I think takes place. Allow me to offer a specific illustration from Scripture, and perhaps one you haven’t considered before. Let’s take a look at some verses in Paul’s epistle to the church in Rome.

You can’t go wrong imitating Paul!

Romans 7:15-25a
15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

I consider the above to be one of the most inspiring examples of the Christian confessing his sin publicly in all of Scripture. Think about it. Does it really matter that Paul was never physically with the people of this church to open his mouth and declare those words? I don’t believe that’s a pre-requisite for public confession of sin, and neither should you. Of course it would have been wonderful if Paul could be there, but that’s missing the point. Even this blog piece is public communication, is it not? Yet I’m not verbalizing any of it to you. Let’s maintain focus on Paul’s example and what he’s altogether saying. Our apostle didn’t mince a single word emphasizing that he is a terrible, terrible sinner. You might point out that he doesn’t dive into specifics, and that’s true, but the sheer fact that he chose to acknowledge the truth of his intense battle with the sin nature to hundreds, possibly thousands of Christians and non-Christians should cause us to pause and ponder. It’s pretty bold to confess the ugliness of your heart especially to so many people you don’t even know! It’s not enough to agree with Paul and relate to Him though; this should move us toward sharing our sin burdens with our Christian brothers and sisters.

What about shame and embarrassment? After all, are those not what likely hold most Christians back from publicly confessing their sin? They convince us of the falsehood that it would be so awful for sinners just like us to learn that hey, “We sin too!”, and let alone in similar fashion! God’s reputation as the Giver of grace is surely protected in this way. Oh, and we can’t possibly confess that we’re struggling with sins like lust, because…you know, that would make us seem weird or unseemly! How about the classic, “It’s no one’s business.”? To all this I say, what a bunch of spiritual baloney.

Someone took care of shame and embarrassment…

Dare I point out even the entirety of narrative Scripture? Christians could spend hours studying and discussing the sins that people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Peter, and a multitude of others freely confessed for generations later to read about and learn from. Sure, some of them didn’t know we’d be reading about their sinful acts, but I digress. Let’s even zoom in on Peter. Oh, poor Peter, typically picked on for what seems to be a lot of silly sinfulness. He rebuked God Himself to His face for crying out loud! And in spite of all these permanently recorded situations given for our benefit, we as Christians still somehow find it so difficult to help others equally benefit by acknowledging something as simple as , “Hey, I got angry at someone on the road today, and cursed them in my mind. Please pray for me.” Or, “Everyone should know that my prayer life is terrible. Please pray for me.” Perhaps, “I just don’t value relationships with my brothers and sisters as much as I should. Please pray for me.” These sins, and many others, aren’t being confessed in our local fellowships. Whatever happened to the church being an environment where broken sinners wouldn’t pretend that life is peachy?


Now it’s my turn to pony up at least a couple examples of confessing my own sin. My points would be relatively moot otherwise. One that I confessed relatively recently to all in attendance during an evening service at my local church was my battle in being assured of salvation, or “unbelief”. It went something like, “For a while I’ve allowed the enemy across numerous occasions to cause me to doubt that I’m a child of God, that I’m truly bound for hell.” I was touched and encouraged by the sympathetic faces I saw in reaction to my transparency, and I know I’ve been in prayers along those lines. Those prayers work by the way (see James 5:16). Also, the first time I attended a Wednesday evening prayer service about 4.5 years ago, and in spite of not knowing a single believer in the room, I freely confessed that the Lord was giving me victory over a years-long struggle with immorality in which I fell much. I don’t really remember my words, but I asked for prayer that I would somehow learn to interact with Christian sisters in a biblical way, and be able to develop friendships with them. I’ll never forget the handshake I received from someone I now appreciate very much that night.

It discourages me to think that most Christians will never come close to opening their mouths in similar ways, to confessing their sin publicly. It discourages me because I know what they’re missing out on. They’re missing out on the very blessing of James 5:16, spiritual healing, through intercessory prayer…the most powerful tool we have to participate in others’ lives. They’re missing out on the blessing of having someone hurt because you’re hurting. They’re missing out on the blessing of relationships with those who can relate to you, or could be a spiritual help and encouragement to you. I could add to this list, but surely you get the idea by now?

Please don’t forget that I’m not demanding that Christians rise from their seats every time they gather to spell out every last sin act they committed since the last time of fellowship. What I am encouraging is that you consider whether or not you’re obeying James 5:16, and how you might be the blessing that someone else in your fellowship has been dying to hear from, but doesn’t know about because you’d rather try to hide your sinfulness. No one benefits when that’s the case, and God certainly isn’t glorified. Do you think God would rather you pretend you’re OK, believe that your sin doesn’t affect the body of Christ, or think that it’s nobler to be with your brothers and sisters week after week with them not having a clue about the sins and temptations that burden your life? I frankly want nothing to do with that misery.

I also understand however that not all church fellowships organize their services to allow for this on a regular basis. Therefore it’s up to you to decide when it is best and least disruptive. As far as how you can go about this, there isn’t much to it. If the larger Sunday crowd of your fellowship is really too scary, then choose a more discreet path. A Wednesday evening prayer service, a small Bible study, a breakfast, whatever helps you feel most comfortable starting out. And please don’t wait until your mind is free of apprehension. That likely will never be the case if this is new to you; it can and will come with practice! It would be better to start off small and grow in your boldness and transparency than to look at the ultimate scenario and give up before you do anything.

It warms my heart to say that I’ve personally known the blessings I described a few paragraphs ago. Am I perfect in my own need to confess sins publicly? Certainly not, but I’ve not regretted a single time I’ve responded to the Lord’s prompting me to do so.  Thus, to obey Jesus Christ above anything else, and to experience the blessings He’s promised to provide when you do, what struggle might you be willing to tell your local church when next you meet?

Every Christian needs it.

If you are doing this, I praise the Lord for that and urge you to do so more and more…as Paul said to the Thessalonians. If you have, but were burned by the self-righteous in the end, please accept my sympathy. That should never happen, and I’m certain it hurts, but I yet implore you to give it another chance somehow. Vulnerability can’t be sacrificed in the name of self-preservation. If you’ve never done this, I encourage you to examine your heart for a reason, or the reasons, why.

You may recall I said at the beginning that we millennials can lead the way by example. How about we do that? What is the point of waiting for someone else to take charge and get the public confession ball rolling? Our churches have enough pretenders; don’t be one of them.