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


“What are the marks of a heart that has been radically changed by the grace of God?” asks Tim Keller in the opening of The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. “If we trust in Christ, what should our hearts be like?” These are incredibly important questions, and ones that we would do well to answer.

It is not simply a matter of morally virtuous behaviour. It is quite possible to do all sorts of morally virtuous things when our hearts are filled with fear, with pride or with a desire for power. We are talking about hearts that have been changed, at the root, by the grace of God – and what that looks like in real life.

By examining 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7, The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness offers readers an explanation of what a changed heart should look like, one that is not characterized by pride and boasting in one’s own accomplishments, but in (as Keller titled the sermon from which this book is derived), “blessed self-forgetfulness.” In its three short, chapters, Keller looks at the condition of the human ego apart from Christ, its counterpart in the transformed sense of self, and how we can get that transformed sense of self.

Right off the bat, I have to say that I’m of two minds regarding this book. I really appreciate the content. It’s solid, biblical and helpful. Particularly poignant is his explanation of Paul’s view of his own self—the remedy to the problem of self-esteem:

Paul is saying something astounding. ‘I don’t care what you think and I don’t care what I think.’ He is bringing us into new territory that we know nothing about. His ego is not puffed up, it is filled up. He is talking about humility – although I hate using the word ‘humility’ because this is nothing like our idea of humility. Paul is saying that he has reached a place where his ego draws no more attention to itself than any other part of his body. He has reached the place where he is not thinking about himself anymore. When he does something wrong or something good, he does not connect it to himself any more. (p. 31)

This is a beautiful way of answering the problem of how we view ourselves, scripturally. We too often look at our view of self and think that if we’ve got low self-esteem, we need to boost it (ala Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). But Paul’s answer is simple—we don’t need to change our view of self, we need to take our eyes off of ourselves entirely. This is such a crucial distinction because it reminds us again, that our eyes are to be on Christ as the author and perfecter of our faith, not upon ourselves, for even the good that we do is of Him.

Where I struggle with the book, oddly, is that it exists as a book. Is the right way to present Keller’s message as a print book, given that it is the transcript of a 40 minute message (which means it’s 4500-5000 words on the high end)? While I’m not against sermon transcripts being compiled into books (all of Lloyd-Jones’ books are sermons and lectures, for example), I’m not certain that the best presentation of this one is as a stand-alone piece. Maybe it’s most appropriate as a low-cost eBook (think Kindle single), but being presented as a book on its own may actually do the content a disservice simply because readers may want more than is presented.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness really serves as a sketch for a larger discussion—it’s an introduction. A good one, to be sure, but an introduction nonetheless. If you as a reader are looking for a super-fast read (think 30-ish minutes), it’s definitely worth the read, but be sure to manage your expectations.

Title: The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness
Author: Tim Keller
Publisher: 10Publishing (2012)

A complementary copy was provided for review purposes by the publisher.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Tim Keller”

  1. “The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness really
    serves as a sketch for a larger discussion—it’s an introduction. A good
    one, to be sure, but an introduction nonetheless. ”

    That’s a great way to describe the book as I’ve read it and your review was spot-on. Question: do you have any recommendations for those that have received this book as an introduction and would love to dive in deeper?

    1. Forgive me for jumping into the discussion, Raheel, but I’d recommend following up with “Gospel-Powered Humility” by William Farley and “Humility” by Andrew Murray (yes, despite the issues with Keswick theology – Mike Bullmore also recommends Murray’s book).

      Thank you for the service you’ve done us in writing this review, Aaron.

    2. I’d certainly echo Mark’s recommendations below; for additional perspectives, I’d include books like Humility by C.J. Mahaney (since humility and self-image are interconnected) as well as Who Am I? by Jerry Bridges. For more thorough works, I’ll have to give it some additional thought.

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