Tag Archives: Tim Keller

Birdwatching and the freedom of self-forgetfulness

As the hatchback hurtled towards the airport, I asked a most unnatural question to the man in the front passenger seat: “So are you a birdwatcher?”


A few people know me well enough to be able to see and point out a specific way that my proud heart shows itself. When talking with people, I have a tendency to insert myself into the conversation. I’ve done it too many times to count.

“Oh, you’re from Sydney? I was there 3 months ago, and I did this and this and met so and so, and I think this about Sydney even though it’s not relevant to you. I love Sydney, what a beautiful city.”

Sorry dude, your friendly conversation starter just got hijacked by my ego.

If your conversations with others seem to always steer towards topics you want to talk about, you probably have the same self-aggrandising tendency as I have.

True gospel-humility

It was from reading Tim Keller’s “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness” with Cheryl earlier this year (best $2 we’ve spent all year) that God switched on a light bulb to my problem, and the solution.

Tim Keller writes:

“The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself: it is thinking of myself less.”

And:

“True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself.”

The ultimate self-forgetter

So the problem essentially is that I think about myself too much. The solution is not to think less of myself (“Oh I’m so terrible, I must tell you that” – a false show of self-pity, and really just another expression of selfishness), but to think of myself less.

It’s immensely difficult to change this consciously, especially if you’ve spent your whole life thinking about yours truly, and talking about yourself and what interests you. Blogs and Twitter/Facebook feeds aren’t the problem, they merely amplify the narcissism already in my heart. I’ve been a self-promoter since my youth.

But with the strength of Jesus — the ultimate self-forgetter, advocate and example in true gospel-humility (Phil) — I’ve been given grace to work on dying to myself.

I’ve been practising trying to listen better in conversations with friends or strangers, asking questions and adding responses to encourage the other person, and resisting the temptation to assert my points of interest.

Biting my tongue

So instead of asking Don and Joy what they thought of worship music trends, debating the recent Christian trends, or over-inflating my understanding of Don’s bibliography, I just bit my tongue.

I listened to them retrace where they went on their holiday, excite me with descriptions of the various birds they encountered (Australian birds, I’ve learned, are much more raucous than New Zealand species – perhaps a parable of two nations’ temperaments). I laughed with them upon their discovery of the ubiquitous pukeko (or “water chickens”, as I told them).

“So are you a birdwatcher?”

“Oh, not in a professional sense. But I’m familiar with the different types of birds in our area, local and migratory.”

I’m not there yet. Please tell me, then forgive me the next time I “convojack” you.

And by God’s grace, let’s journey together towards self-forgetfulness.

What does sin have to do with my four dead girls?

Tim Keller shares a practical example of gazing at Jesus Christ for the peace of God that surpasses all understanding:

“Horatio Spafford was an American lawyer who lost everything he had in the Chicago fire of 1871. Only two years later, he sent his wife, Anna, and their four daughters on a ship across the Atlantic Ocean to England. The ship hit another ship and began to sink. As it was sinking, Anna got the four little girls together and prayed. The ship went under the water, and they all were scattered into the waves, and all four little girls drowned. Anna was found floating unconscious in the water by a rescue ship. They took her to England, and she cabled Horatio Spafford just two words: “saved alone.”

When Spafford was on the ship on his way to England to bring his wife home, he began to write a hymn – “It is well with my soul… When peace, like a river…” Those are the words he wrote.

Here is what I want you to think about: why would a man dealing with his grief, seeking the peace of God – the peace like a river – spend the entire hymn on Jesus and His work of salvation? And why would he bring up the subject of his own sin at such a time? He wrote:

My sin, oh, though the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

What has that got to do with his four little girls who are dead? Everything!
Do you know why? When things go wrong, one of the ways you lose your peace is that you think maybe you are being punished. But look at the cross! All the punishment fell on Jesus. Another thing you may think is that maybe God doesn’t care. But look at the cross! The Bible gives you a God that says, “I have lost a child too; but not involuntarily – voluntarily, on the cross, for your sake. So that I could bring you into my family.”

In that hymn you can watch a man thinking, thanking and loving himself into the peace of God. It worked for him under those circumstances. It worked for Paul under his circumstances (Phil 4:6-13). It will work for you.

– Timothy Keller, “Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering”, p.311-2