The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Tim Keller

Pride is the sin-which-begets-all-sins. If you’re a churchgoer, you know that. But what you might not know is that pride is the hobby horse of evangelicals which we like to ride in order to explain why we are such ego-maniacs. When we sin, we blame pride; and everyone nods in agreement, recognizing our humility in opening up about the pride issue again.

But when we leave our accountability groups and enter the workplace, we strive hard to achieve, so we can be “proud” of our work. On Sunday we confess pride and on Monday we chase it. And while we are surely wrong to be proud, there’s a certain amount of pride we must have to live successful lives. I’ve never heard pride separated into the subsequent parts of evil and good, so when I read what Tim Keller has to say about it, I was ecstatic.

How are we to be proud of ourselves (our work, productivity, person…everything) and also humble, and how am I to exude humility while receiving praise for a job well-done?

This is the main question which began to take form in my mind as I studied the ego. The self, the concepts of identity and personality, the self-confidence and self-esteem associated with pride are all necessary to form a well-rounded human, and the lack of any of these serves not to elevate in piety but to demean in dehumanization. It is dehumanizing to lack pride; but it is sinful to abound in it. So we must find a third way.

Tim Keller’s book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is that third way. It’s about 50 pages jam-packed with wisdom. The argument he makes is centered around 1 Cor 3:21–4:7 where he points out Paul’s understanding of the human ego, the self:

The three things that Paul shows us here are:

  1. The natural condition of the human ego.
  2. The transformed sense of self (which Paul had discovered and which can be brought about through the gospel).
  3. How to get that transformed sense of self.

Keller pinpoints the evil side of pride as overinflation:

This word used here for pride literally means to be overinflated, swollen, distended beyond its proper size. It is related to the word for ‘bellows’. It is very evocative. It brings to mind a rather painful image of an organ in the human body, an organ that is distended because so much air has been pumped into it. So much air, that it is overinflated and ready to burst. It is swollen, inflamed and extended past its proper size. And that, says Paul, is the condition of the natural human ego…. I think the image suggests four things about the natural condition of the human ego: That it is empty, painful, busy and fragile.

The good side of pride is what Paul refers to in 1 Cor 4:3–4:

He shows them how the gospel has transformed his sense of self-worth, his sense of self-regard and his identity. His ego operates in a completely different way now…. The word translated ‘judge’ here has the same meaning as the word ‘verdict’…. Paul does not look to the Corinthians – or to any human court – for the verdict that he is a somebody…. It is as if he is saying, ‘I don’t care what you think. I don’t care what anybody thinks.’ Paul’s self-worth, his self-regard, his identity is not tied in any way to their verdict and their evaluation of him.

And this is the glorious reality of our unity with Christ and fellowship with our Creator God: He ascribes value to us, not us to ourselves. Therefore, our value as a self isn’t determined by what we do or don’t do. Our value is intrinsic, a gift from God. That’s why we don’t go around berating ourselves in an act of humility, nor do we buy into our own press. This is where Keller points us to a new definition of the ego: not a puffed-up ego, but a filled-up one:

Paul is saying something astounding. ‘I don’t care what you think and I don’t care what I think.’ He is bringing us into new territory that we know nothing about. His ego is not puffed up, it is filled up. He is talking about humility – although I hate using the word ‘humility’ because this is nothing like our idea of humility. Paul is saying that he has reached a place where his ego draws no more attention to itself than any other part of his body. He has reached the place where he is not thinking about himself anymore. When he does something wrong or something good, he does not connect it to himself any more.

Paul’s doing is separate from his being. This allows him to be at total rest from the hubbub of the pride/humility conundrum which so defines our accountability groups. Keller references C. S. Lewis to define true humility:

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity makes a brilliant observation about gospel-humility at the very end of his chapter on pride. If we were to meet a truly humble person, Lewis says, we would never come away from meeting them thinking they were humble. They would not be always telling us they were a nobody (because a person who keeps saying they are a nobody is actually a self-obsessed person). 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. Gospel-humility is not needing to think about myself. Not needing to connect things with myself. It is an end to thoughts such as, ‘I’m in this room with these people, does that make me look good? Do I want to be here?’ True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.

Getting to this point is difficult, but it is a blessed gift of our New Covenant with God. One way to test whether or not you are there is by how you handle criticism.

Here is one little test. The self-forgetful person would never be hurt particularly badly by criticism. It would not devastate them, it would not keep them up late, it would not bother them. Why? Because a person who is devastated by criticism is putting too much value on what other people think, on other people’s opinions.

An example of this is apropos:

Wouldn’t you like to be the skater who wins the silver, and yet is thrilled about those three triple jumps that the gold medal winner did? To love it the way you love a sunrise? Just to love the fact that it was done? For it not to matter whether it was their success or your success. Not to care if they did it or you did it. You are as happy that they did it as if you had done it yourself – because you are just so happy to see it.

I think the main take-away here is in finding the center of your value as a person. If you find value in your performance, you’re off center. If you trust in your performance to give you the verdict, you are outside the gospel and therefore buying into a worldview which says you are a self-made man. At that point, you are on your own, both now and for eternity. But the Gospel tells us we owe God our everything–our entire existence. If you lay aside your self and your performance and accept his verdict of your value regardless, then you have a shot at restoring your proper ego.

Paul puts it very simply…. He knows he cannot justify himself. And what does he say? He says that it is the Lord who judges him. It is only His opinion that counts. Do you realize that it is only in the gospel of Jesus Christ that you get the verdict before the performance? The atheist might say that they get their self-image from being a good person. They are a good person and they hope that eventually they will get a verdict that confirms that they are a good person. Performance leads to the verdict. For the Buddhist too, performance leads to the verdict. If you are a Muslim, performance leads to the verdict. All this means that every day, you are in the courtroom, every day you are on trial. That is the problem. But Paul is saying that in Christianity, the verdict leads to performance. It is not the performance that leads to the verdict. In Christianity, the moment we believe, God says ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.’

Keller closes with this incredibly encouraging pastoral word:

Let me say a word to those for whom this is all new. You may wish you believed this. Here is what I would say – some people have never understood the difference between Christian identity and any other kind of identity. They would call themselves a Christian, they consider their behavior to be on the upper end of the scale, they go to church and they hope that one day God will take them home. Let me say that true Christian identity operates totally differently from any other kind of identity. Self-forgetfulness takes you out of the courtroom. The trial is over. The verdict is in.

The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is an incredible read–easily the most informative per page of any Christian treatment of the self. For more depth on idols and how they work, see Keller’s complementary little book Counterfeit Gods.