Monday, January 07, 2013

Book Notes: The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Timothy Keller

This is the shortest of all Keller's books by some margin, yet it packs a punch in its 45 closely argued pages. It is thought-provoking and in its central message a helpful little book which deserves to be re-read several times. It is not perhaps that the thoughts in this book are entirely original but I cannot think of finding them as eloquently or concisely expressed as they are here.

Keller begins by suggesting that the modern Western presumption with elevating self-esteem, is not the whole answer to matter of improving human behaviour. In fact, in some cases great harm is caused by those whose self-belief is uncontaminated by the humility towards others which naturally embraces empathy.

In Keller's estimation, many of the difficulties of the human condition are caused by problems of the human ego. The ego he sees as being empty, painful, busy and fragile. Empty, because at the centre of our lives is an emptiness, a hollowness which is made acute by the fact that the human ego is inflated. Painful, because the distended ego is dysfunctional. Have you ever noticed that as you walk around you do not notice your toe unless there is something wrong with it? asks Keller as he points out that our constant concern with our own ego is a sign of a flaw. The ego is busy, he argues, because it drives us to constant activity seeking verification for itself, the accumulation of a CV with which to re-assure itself of its own value (despite the fact that in so doing it drains the inherent value from all the activities it embraces, making them of mere instrumental consequence to the greater good of the ego itself). Finally it is "busy" says Keller. He produces a fascinating quote from Madonna who admits being driven by a deep fear of mediocrity.

What then does Keller propose as a Christian antidote to these problems of the human ego? Readers familiar with Tim Keller's writing will be unsurprised to learn that his proposed solution is the gospel of Christ, seen as the unmerited grace of God being freely given to undeserving humans. Keller shows (using Paul's New Testament example) that this properly understood, believed, accepted and experienced leads to a remarkable freedom. This is freedom not just from what other people think about our value, but also a freedom from what we think about ourselves. Keller argues that a person who has received the love of God in Christ will not be 'puffed up' but will be filled up. 

The way in which the Christian life is worked out in these terms before God means that we can be on one hand certain that we are sinful, flawed and have made many errors, but on the other hand deeply loved and accepted by the one person whose opinion matters: GOD. This should make us neither self-hating nor self-loving, but characterised by what the author calls "gospel-humility". This he sees in the following terms (p32), Gospel humility is not thinking more of myself, or thinking less of myself, by thinking of myself less. Here is the goal that Keller puts before us, of what the gospel of Christ will do to us if we allow its sweet influence to have its way in our souls; not to be become egotists concerned with our levels of self-esteem, but rather to be so secure in the love of God that we declare our self obsession over.

The foundation on which all of this rests is of course the old Biblical idea of salvation by faith. That is to say that we do not enter into a right relationship to God on the basis of our good deeds or adequate performance; but rather that when we entrust ourselves to Jesus Christ he removes our guilt and unites us to himself. As Keller puts it, we have the verdict (loved, accepted, forgiven), prior to our performance. This, when understood is true liberation - as the person who has got this is truly liberated to love God and others.

This is a great little read, full of ideas, and shot through with a full-blooded New Testament spirituality which is satisfying and profound. 

There is a brilliant irony in all of this. I first became aware of this title because Amazon recommended the book to me on the basis of my previous purchases which is fair enough! However, the wording of their advert could not have been more bizarrely inept. "TREAT YOURSELF - to the freedom of self-forgetfulness" screamed the large font size! 

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