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“Daily sacrificial commitments”

By May 26, 2023 3 Comments

David Brooks’ gracious tribute to Tim Keller in Tuesday’s New York Times is the kind of lament that manages somehow to bring light into and through the palpable darkness. Brooks’ praise is unequivocal: “one of the most important theologians and greatest preachers of our time,” he says, even though his judgment begins with a startlingly goofy metaphor: “Tim Keller was a recliner.”

Dozens of readers of “The Twelve” know Keller and/or his writing far better than I do. The only theology I read comes up when the book club to which I belong ventures occasionally into “the Queen of the Sciences.” That I don’t read much will, shortly, I’m sure, be amply noted.

I don’t remember the title of the Tim Keller book I did read, because it had a notable familiarity. It seemed to me that most of what I’d found there I’d known already. The march of his ideas, however convincing, wasn’t spanken’ fresh new. His voice seemed thorough-going Reformed, taking the revelations of this world as seriously as the revelation of the Good Book.

One Keller line in David Brooks’ eulogy stuck hard-and-fast however, a line Brooks located in a book the Kellers created together, The Meaning of Marriage. Here’s how Brooks uses what stopped me cold:

The only way forward is to recognize that your own selfishness is the only selfishness you can control; your self-centeredness is the problem here. Love is an action, not just an emotion, and the marriage will only thrive if both people in it make daily sacrificial commitments to each other, learning to serve and, harder still, be served. “Whether we are husband or wife,” the Kellers wrote, “we are not to live for ourselves but for the other. And that is the hardest yet single most important function of being a husband or a wife in marriage.”

“Daily sacrificial commitments.” Whoa.

I’m of the age when looking back is far simpler than toying with a crystal ball. Whatever OT prophet ever set a foot in my soul long ago trailed off into the wilderness. Seems to me I’ve never been much of a king; and, nowadays, if I’m at all a priest, think Friar Tuck. 

But I’m old enough to recognize truth when I see it, and the Kellers’ injunction that “we are not to live for ourselves,” struck a Calvinist chord in my soul because on some mornings down here at the keyboard I can’t help but wonder if I have spent too much of my time and myself watching letters my fingers tap out on the screen. Was I a good Dad or an absent one? “Daily sacrificial commitment,” eh? Sometimes in the early mornings I can’t help but wonder whether I might have been a more devoted writer than husband. I don’t need the Kellers to awaken those soulful questions, but Brooks’ eulogy reminder, once again, most certainly did and does.

Mirrors abound in Pieter Bruegel’s depiction of “Pride,” one of his madcap Seven Deadlies. The prideful personification who appears in each of the “sins,” seems incapable of looking at anything other than her own image. Bruegel’s strange monsters use mirrors to admire themselves too, albeit, disgustingly, their nether parts. 

Bruegel throws a peacock into the gathering too, but that fan of feathers isn’t the fawning species of pride the Kellers are documenting. What they are speaking of is, simply enough, our unremitting tendency to put ourselves first–the original sin, Adam and Eve cashing in their splendid promise for what that damned snake sells as greater glory. It’s all about what we want–me first. It’s all about what lights up our passions–no, my passion. Such native depravity is as human as it is total.

It seems to this Calvinist that we’re all victims and perps; we’re all sinners, finally, as Paul says–Black and white and red and orange and gold, grandpas and grandmas and even grandkids, gay and straight and queer and whatever new gender identity was born this week and I missed.

The real sin is all of ours and each of ours. “We are not to live for ourselves but for the other,” or so spoke the Kellers, “and that is the hardest yet single most important function of being a husband or a wife in marriage.” Yea, surely, and the most gripping disfunction of being human.

Which is why all of us, every last one, even the upright, stand in need of grace.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • June says:

    Yep, swallowed hard on that quote myself a few days ago. My thought was: yay, more guilt. I believe that he lived it; we heard from him in NYC a few times. A splendid man. And he would be the first to agree with your last sentence.

  • Joyce and Wes Kiel says:

    Thank you Jim for your insights. Wes and I are using Tim and Kathy Keller’s daily devotional from their book “The Meaning of Marriage”. It has changed how we see ourselves and therefore our marriage. No easy task but so rewarding.

    And all I could keep saying as I looked closely at that picture was “Wow”. It’s hard to look pride in the face.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jim, The book the Bible Study read was Making Sense of God. I have a more positive remembrance of the book. Perhaps my time in the Orthodox Presbyterian church influenced that. Thanks for your comments on his death. Death does not wipe someone out but helps you see them clearer and more as God saw them. I know this is about how I see Charlie.

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