Book Review: The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Tim Keller


Review by Dr. E.S. Williams

In his booklet The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness (2012), Dr Timothy Keller, according to the descriptive blurb, is showing that “gospel humility means we can stop connecting every experience, every conversation with ourselves and can thus be free from self condemnation. A truly gospel humble person is not a self hating person or a self loving person, but a self forgetful person. This freedom can be yours…” Indeed, Keller is promising us the pathway to true Christian joy.


Keller says, “What we are all looking for is an ultimate verdict that we are important and valuable.” (p37) Since he deems this search acceptable, he sees the ultimate problem of man as “emptiness at the center of the human ego” (p14) with the usual deficiency of “self-worth and purpose big enough to give us meaning.” (p15) He claims this problem is solved by asking “God to accept me because of what the Lord Jesus has done,” trusting that “the ultimate verdict is in” (p39) and knowing that He now “finds me more valuable than all the jewels in the earth” (p42).

In contrast to the above, Scripture presents the ultimate problem of man as rebellion against God, not as emptiness. “What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 3:9-12).

The solution to this problem is propitiation, the removal of God’s wrath rather than “fulfillment.”

“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” (Romans 3:21-25).

God sacrificed His son on the Cross to place this covering on those who believe on Him so they may escape that final judgment on sin.  Scripture gives no indication that Christ purposed to fill up their “sense of self-worth…self-regard and identity”.

freedom-of-self-forgetfulnessKeller presents a therapeutic Gospel addressing the symptoms rather than the disease. Without mention of the Law, God’s holiness, or the Cross of Christ, he presents Christianity as a method to become “self-forgetful” with this being one more technique in a myriad of facile and ultimately futile self-help methods to enhance self-worth.

The cover of another of Keller’s books (Every Good Endeavor) quotes from the New York Times commenting on “Dr. Keller’s skill in speaking the language of his urbane audience…Observing Dr. Keller’s professorial pose on stage, it is easy to understand his appeal.”  This quote applies equally to his book on self-forgetfulness.  There could be no valid objection to the language of an urbane audience or a professorial pose if Dr. Keller were speaking from “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)  Sadly however, urbane language and professorial pose masks a false gospel in this book.

Keller follows the path of so many pastors over the past century in beginning with a Scripture reference (1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7) seemingly to give the appearance of sound Christian teaching to the social commentary which follows.  Rather than describing Paul and Apollos as servants, stewards, teachers in the Corinthian church, he says the people there “had a relationship” with and were “mentored” by Paul and Apollos. (p8) Such terminology may please an urbane audience, but the opportunity for clear exposition of the passage is avoided.

He moves to use C.S. Lewis as his base for the broad generalization that “pride and boasting” is “the reason there is no peace in the world.” He quotes four sentences from the chapter on pride in Mere Christianity thus giving the appearance of agreement with Lewis. However, Keller’s view of pride is quite different in substance.  Lewis reminds us that devilish pride lies hidden beneath sinful behaviors that get us in trouble (lies, sexual immorality, greed, etc.)  Keller, however, presents sinful behaviors (drug addiction, crime, wife-beating, etc.) as “expensive social problems” (p11) brought on by the wrong “approach to self-regard.”(p12)  To correct that wrong approach, “we are after the trait of humility.” (p9)  This book supposedly tells us “how to get that transformed sense of self.” (p12)

Keller ignores Scripture’s clear teachings that it is our own evil desire which “gives birth to sin” which in turn “gives birth to death (James 1:14, 15). The reader is never faced with this real consequence, one undoubtedly far worse than “no peace in the world.” He fails to give his readers an accurate portrayal of the sinfulness of the heart of man. Scripture tells us: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?(Jeremiah 17:9)

In going after the “trait of humility,” Keller again ignores Scripture plainly instructing believers not to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think. (Romans 12:3)  Instead, he turns to “psychologist Lauren Slater” with her conclusion that ‘people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them’. (p11)  Supposedly to lessen this threat, Keller seeks the correct “theory of misbehavior” claiming that the apostle Paul discovered it in “the transformed sense of self” which in turn gave him “an approach to self-regard.”

A flurry of verbiage follows in his attempt to make the language of psychology appear Christian.   He claims that Paul’s use of the Greek word physioo (puffed up, inflated) in 1 Corinthians 4:6 justifies the belief that “the human ego…is empty, painful, busy and fragile.” (p14)

“The first thing about the human ego is that it is empty.” (p15)  Because emptiness implies that filling is needed, he turns to Kierkegaard (instead of the less urbane Rick Warren and Joel Osteen) to legitimize the purposeful building of identity, self-worth, and sense of purpose and meaning in life.

In describing the ego as “also painful”, he uses a mixed metaphor comparing the physical with the non-physical, the material with the immaterial.  Surely the ego, being like the toe, would not hurt unless “there was something terribly wrong with it.” (p16)

He dishonors his mother in using her as an illustration of the busy ego. He claims that he “did all kinds of things that I had absolutely no interest in doing” because Mother said, “It would look so good on your college application.” (p19) This is Keller’s example of the ego as always “incredibly busy trying to fill the emptiness”. (p17)

Keller follows Freud’s pleasure principle teaching that “doing… things…for the   pleasure of doing them” is the better way to “fill our sense of inadequacy and emptiness.” (p20) Presumably, this filling must achieve a precisely correct level since “anything that is overinflated is in imminent danger of being deflated” (p20) which “makes the ego fragile”. (p21)

To support this concept of ‘ego’, Keller reveals his “admiration” for Madonna as an example of one who “shows a tremendous amount of self-awareness.” (p21)  More ominously, he recasts the teaching of Paul as showing “how the gospel…transformed his sense of self-worth, his sense of self-regard and his identity” and how “his ego operates…now.” (p23)  According to Keller, Paul wanted all to know “the verdict that he is a somebody.”   Keller twists Scripture in an attempt to make it say that Paul has “discover[ed]… that sense of self, that sense of identity.” (p28)   He admits that Paul called himself the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) but only because of the “incredible poise and confidence” he had gained in this “transformed view of self”.  According to Keller, Paul had “enormous ballast…incredible confidence…nothing fazed him.” (p29)  He thus assumes his readers have not read 2 Corinthians 1:8 where Paul writes that “we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.”

Therapeutic foolishness abounds as he describes a “transformed” Paul whose “sins and… identity are not connected…He does not see a sin and let it destroy his sense of identity.” (p30)  “His ego is not puffed up, it is filled up” (p31); he now is a “somebody”.  Cloaked in this urbane language, Keller sees mankind in the same old way as the Christian psychologists of the past thirty years; that man has an empty love tank needing to be filled.  When that magical filling has occurred, the ego is just like our toes. “It just works…the toes just work; the ego just works.” (p33)

All is centered on what man wants:

            “Wouldn’t you want to be a person who does not need honour?”(p34)

            “Wouldn’t you like to be the skater who wins the silver?” (p35)

He sees all this as possible for “you and me if we keep on going where Paul is going.” (p36)  He takes this works-oriented ‘if’ into chapter 3 where he reveals “How To Get That Transformed View Of Self.”  He knows that the apostle Paul and Madonna both sought that ultimate verdict that they are “important and valuable” (p37), but only Paul found “the secret.” (p38)

In all of this, Keller is like Bunyan’s Worldly Wiseman saying to burdened Christian on his Pilgrim Journey toward the cross, “Why wilt thou seek for ease this way, seeing so many dangers attend it?  Especially since (hadst thou but patience to hear me), I could direct thee to the obtaining of what thou desirest, without the dangers that thou in this way wilt run thyself into.  Yea, and the remedy is at hand.  Besides, I will add that, instead of those dangers, thou shalt meet with much safety, friendship, and content.”  Sadly, many readers come to Keller’s booklet saying with Bunyan’s Christian, “Sir, I pray, open this secret to me.” (Chapter 1, Pilgrim’s Progress)

Keller seems to remember at the book’s end that the Gospel should be included, he quotes Romans 8:1 saying, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  He even goes on to say that God imputes Christ’s perfect performance to us as if it were our own.   However, note that it is performance that is imputed rather than righteousness. (2 Corinthians 5:21)  Keller mentions neither sin nor the wrath of God on sin.  He attempts to provide the Good News without the bad.  Without the Law and its demands, the word ‘condemnation’ falls into the same category as the word ‘ego’ having no meaning or reality to the reader.  Since the good news of the therapeutic gospel is never good enough, he tries to assure us that God “finds me more valuable than all the jewels in the earth.” (p42)  This therapeutic hyperbole goes beyond Matthew 6:26 where Jesus says we are more valuable than sparrows or Malachi 3:17 where God calls the elect his “treasured possession”. He gives no Scripture for his exaggerated assurance of our value, and therefore, this too is meaningless.

Because he sees mankind in terms of Freud, Keller follows what Peter calls “cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:16) and puffs up (physioo) his readers with the false humility described in Colossians 2.  Keller “goes into great detail” with an unspiritual mind puffed up with idle notions having lost connection with the Head. (Colossians 2:18)  The booklet is filled with “regulations having an appearance of wisdom” promoting a focus on self and lacking any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:23)

The authorities in Jerusalem were always puzzled by the apostles’ boldness for they “perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant, uneducated and common men.” (Acts 4:13)   Yet the authorities marveled, failing to understand that back of such boldness and clarity was the true humility that enabled even Peter to fall at Jesus’ feet and say, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5: 2-8)

Keller presents a false, therapeutic gospel based on what David Powlison of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation calls “skill in probing, changing, and reconciling troubled and troublesome people.”  Powlison says that as regards “modern forms of self-knowledge…the God of the Bible was insignificant for objectively explaining and addressing the human condition.”   Keller presumably is attempting to follow Powlision into reframing “everything that psychologists see and hold dear into biblical categories” with the inevitable end-result being the reframing of the Gospel into psychological categories (eg.  the use of the psychoanalytic concept of ego).

Powlison openly states that people “can be won by an approach that interacts with and radically reframes what enamors them about psychology.”  He openly seeks to “connect…Christian tradition with the technical terminologies and observational riches of the behavioral sciences.”  Keller is not the only pastor to have fallen for the delusion that ‘riches’ lie buried in these pseudo-sciences.