“There is no downside for me leaving, not in the slightest.”
Timothy Keller, world-renown pastor, author, and theologian, passed away on May 19 after a three-year-long battle with pancreatic cancer.1 He was 72 years old.
He had a profound influence on me, as well as a lot of people I work with.
The New York City reverend was one of the most influential ambassadors of the Christian faith in the last hundred years.
He was a best-selling author with classics such as The Meaning of Marriage, The Reason for God, and The Prodigal God.
He founded The Gospel Coalition2 and Redeemer Presbyterian Church3, which welcomes over 5,000 regular attendees.
So for someone that has had as much influence as Keller, how does he have the courage to say those words4 leading up to his passing?
“There is no downside for me leaving…”
Is there - not a downside? Could Christians not have benefited from further teachings of wisdom from Timothy Keller?
Could the world not be aided by more of Timothy Keller?
These words from Keller sounded a bit familiar in theme to me…early in John’s gospel, we see Jesus publicly announcing his kingdom. He had spent most of his 30-something-year-old life living in the shadows but was ready to make his ministry known.
We also see John the Baptist, who had been screaming from the mountaintops of a coming messiah, notice Jesus entering the scene. He baptizes Jesus, and then he himself starts to slip into the shadows that Jesus once lived in. As an explanation for his shrinking image, John later gives what we know as his final recorded words in this gospel:
“He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease.”
This is the same John, by the way, that Jesus subsequently calls the greatest person ever born. So, must he decrease? Could the soon-rising kingdom of God not have used more of John’s giftings to enhance said kingdom? Would John not have been a great right-hand man to Jesus?
Was there no room for “He must increase, and hopefully, I will increase right alongside him? Or at least, “He must increase while I hold steady right where I am?”
Could the world not be aided by more of John the Baptist?
The same questions can arise from both these departures from Timothy Keller and John the Baptist. Both were incredibly influential to the Christian movement, yet they allowed themselves to pass on with grace, humility, and confidence.
I believe Timothy Keller and John the Baptist are communicating a similar theme in their final words:
Our earthly lives, no matter how fruitful, will never surpass the value of being in the family of God and the hope of living in eternity with Jesus.
Jesus himself proclaims this later in his ministry:
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus sends out 72 disciples to heal people and preach the kingdom of God. Upon their return, the group of disciples celebrated their accomplishments, being able to do extraordinary things such as casting out demons.
Jesus’ response to them is profound and, I believe, affirm the words of Keller and John:
“Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:19-20)
John the Baptist clearing the runway and taking a backseat for Jesus makes me think he bought into this. And on his deathbed, I consider that to be what Tim Keller was doing, too - rejoicing in his name being written in heaven, not being sorrowful or bitter about how the world will miss him (even though, of course, his family misses him as do many others).5
And I don’t believe he was self-pitying himself or saying he had no reason to be alive or had no worth. His other words in the days before his death, as cited by his son Michael6, demonstrate this:
“I’m thankful for all the people who’ve prayed for me over the years. I’m thankful for my family, that loves me. I’m thankful for the time God has given me, but I’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.”
Of course, Timothy Keller loved his family. Of course, he was still impacting this world as he was alive, even in his final years. But his saying “there is no downside” speaks to how he knows that even his own life story wasn’t about him.
We are all valuable because we are loved creations of God. And that truth can free us from trying to live till we’re 120, thinking we’re the only way the world will change. And if someone with the reach and impact of Timothy Keller can say there is no downside from him leaving, maybe I can believe the same.
No matter how great our world-changing, gospel-proclaiming, kingdom-moving acts are - we will never self-create our own worth. And whether we like it or not, there will always be someone who can fill our shoes in terms of accomplishments and impact better than we can - in fact, Jesus says this immediately after boasting about John:
“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
To be sure, what we do matters. It matters how we treat others, mistreat others, love people, or don’t love people. But Jesus also reminds us that this world is only temporary, and our greatest joy lies in his embrace - now with his Spirit and in eternity - not our life’s resume. And when it comes down to it…
I may not be as important as I think I am.
I don’t say that in a self-degrading, woe-is-me way, but instead in how Tim Keller said, “There is no downside for me leaving.” He knew the world didn’t revolve around him (or his impact, talent, or giftings) and was more than ready to embrace his true home when God decided to call him.
Of course, there’s the other side of the coin, which is when we want to be great for selfish reasons and not just to create world peace, no? We may wish to impact those around us positively but also have a hidden desire for worldly fame and a shiny reputation.
And ‘decreasing’ as a person or there being ‘no downside of our leaving’ is our culture’s worst fear, isn’t it? We’re terrified of not leaving a legacy, not hitting our potential, and not being remembered: thinking we won’t be missed.
We see it in celebrities getting Botox when their fame starts to dim. We see it in Batman: Arkham Knight’s Joker having a panic attack when he realizes he’s been forgotten. And we see it in ourselves daily, constantly bulking up our LinkedIn profiles and Instagram stories to prove our lives are worthy of being lived.
Whether for wholesome or selfish reasons, we want our lives to matter.
But Jesus flips this entire value system upside down. He gives us value inherently, not through our doings. God sent Jesus to save us because he loves us, not because we earned it in any way. And this love compels us to then, in turn, go love and impact the world (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Tim Keller had another great word on that, believe it or not:
“Religion operates on the principle “I obey—therefore I am accepted by God.” But the operating principle of the gospel is “I am accepted by God through what Christ has done—therefore I obey.”7
Sounds less exhausting and a lot more freeing than how a lot of us live.
Moving forward, I want to be constantly reminded of all of these words by Keller that are certain to let me live more freely: that my true worth is my name being written in heaven, not my accomplishments (no matter how holy they are).
I believe this word has the power to push me to care with more humility. To serve with less worry about my name being recognized. To love without expectation of a return. And that when God calls me home, I don’t need to go out kicking and screaming but with excitement to see my creator face to face.
The humility and freedom shown in Timothy Keller’s final words can remind us all of that.
Disclaimer: This article is 100% human-generated.
1 The Gospel Coalition’s Word on Tim Keller’s Passing
3 Redeember Presbyterian Church
4 Timothy Keller Last Words Before Passing
5 Timothy Keller Family Thoughts
6 Timothy Keller Last Words Before Passing
7 Timothy Keller, The Reason for God
Article photo CC License 2.0 - Frank Licorice