Tim Keller died last week. It’s hard to imagine that I could add much to the tributes that have poured in. I never met Tim Keller, but I’ve read a lot of his books and listened to a lot of his sermons, and I have been shaped in my understanding of the world both by him and by people who were themselves shaped by him. 

My friend Russ Ramsey said of Keller, “What I love about what I’m seeing on the socials is the consistent witness to his humility and love for Jesus. His brilliance—which is unmatched—is not the lead in why so many people respected him so much.”

I guess we think of it as the norm for people of great talent to use their talents to build their own little kingdoms. Their brilliance becomes the point—at which point they’ve lost the point. For Keller, his brilliance was never the point. His brilliance, no doubt, helped make it possible for him to see and communicate reality more clearly than most. But that clarity of vision led him to humility rather than pride. He was, to borrow from Flannery O’Connor, “humble in the face of what-is.”

When you are humbled by reality, you always have the option of ignoring, or trying to ignore reality, spinning out new realities that are less humbling. If you have intelligence and means and clout, as Tim Keller did, you might be able to stave off reality (and humility) longer than the rest of us. But from everything I’ve ever heard, Keller chose instead to live in reality, and step ever more deeply into it. 

When people criticized or disagreed with Keller, he often engaged them when he could have ignored him—or, perhaps, crushed them. Some of my favorite online tributes have come from from Keller critics who were astonished when he reached out to them, not to punch back, but to better understand their position (here’s a great example). It makes me think of something Josef Pieper said about Thomas Aquinas:

If Thomas, at the height of his fame as a teacher, was capable of such humility, we have to see in it not so much the sign of modest self-effacement, but rather the courage to face truth… This tranquil courage, neither afraid of rejection nor overly eager for approval, shows that Thomas was happily free of all self-importance…For him, an intellectual dispute was a common striving for the victory, not of one of the contenders, but of truth.

Tranquil courage. Happy freedom from all self-importance. Yes and amen.

Last November, Keller recorded a video message for a gathering of the Redeemer network of churches that he founded in New York City. The gathering was scheduled for May 19; that turned out to be the day Tim Keller died. In this video, Keller speaks specifically to the work of Christian ministry in New York City. But his words are relevant to anybody who is interested in culture-making. I hope you have ten minutes to watch this “last word” to Redeemer. A summary of Keller’s points doesn’t do justice to the talk, but I offer it anyway:

  • Engage the culture without losing your distinct identity
  • Invest in the culture, don’t just be a consumer
  • Avoid self-aggrandizement

To that last point, Keller repeatedly quotes Jeremiah 45:5: “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not.” 

I assume you are a person of considerable talent and brilliance. Those gifts aren’t just gifts to you. They are gifts to a wider world that needs what you can bring. May we all resist the temptation to us our gifts to build our own little kingdoms. There is a bigger Kingdom, and a better one where those gifts will find their fullest use and you will find your fullest joy.

The good life and good death of Tim Keller demonstrated that freedom, happiness, and courage are available to us all, if we’re willing to dispense with self-importance. Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not.

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