Do you struggle with preoccupation with yourself? Do you find yourself caring too much about what others think about you? or what you think about you?
Perhaps this is the booklet for you. Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is adapted from a sermon of his on 1 Corinthians 3. As a result, this is a relatively short treatment of a particular question. As such it can’t say everything there is to say about the subjects with which it deals. Someone I know raised some questions about this booklet, and I hope to address them briefly toward the end. I will also make a short application for pastors (something Keller does elsewhere).
He introduces the passage with the stark difference between traditional and modern thought about people’s problems. Traditionally, pride (hubris) has been identified as one of our problems that creates other problems. Criminals think more of themselves than others, for instance, and this justifies their crimes. Something odd happened in the Western world in the not too distant past. The prevailing notion, still prevalent in education, is that people actually suffer from low self-esteem. If only they would have a better view of themselves they wouldn’t be criminals, poor etc. We now, statistically, have students who are progressively worse but feel better and better about themselves despite failure. Thankfully, this view regarding self-esteem is finally being challenged academically.
The passage Keller is handling is addressing the divisions that have been plaguing the church of Corinth. The factions have allied themselves to particular teacher. The factions are filled with pride and boastful of their relationship or adherence to their favorite teacher (Paul, Peter, Apollos etc.). I know, we would never do anything like that. This leads us into contemplating the ego.
The natural state of the ego, Keller argues, is that it is inflated. Paul does not use hubris, but a word he uses often in the letters to the Corinthians and in Colossians 2. It isn’t used elsewhere in Scripture. It does have that idea of over-inflated or bloated. This means that the human ego is empty (just filled with hot air), painful (stretched too far), busy (looking to fill that emptiness) and fragile (not this is not a special award). He draws on (surprise!) C.S. Lewis, Soren Kierkegaard and Madonna.
I’m always mindful of the old song by The Who, Trick of the Light. The character’s ego is so fragile that after an encounter with a prostitute he is focused on his performance: “Was I alright? Did a shadow of emotion just cross your face, or was it just another trick of the light?” Our painful, fragile egos give us no rest.
Kierkegaard argues that the human ego is always trying to build its identity on something besides or instead of God. It is frantic and fragile in this attempt. We deal with our discomfort with comparing ourselves with others, favorably of course. This is why we struggle with being around people who are “better” than us in the area we prize.
He refers to an interview with Madonna in which she is driven to succeed in an ongoing attempt to validate her existence. The glow from commercial and/or artistic success fades like Moses’ shining face. She begins to feel the need to re-justify herself. She isn’t making art for her enjoyment, but to re-inflate her deflated ego. All our egos have a slow leak.
In Corinth, this need to be better than one another manifested itself in exalted on teacher above another. It isn’t just saying “my guy is great” it is also “your guy stinks”. Paul, for instance, was continually disparaged by many of the factions. This leads us to Paul’s solution which he models in his own life.
Paul is not concerned with boasting. He isn’t trying to exalt himself over the others. Nor does he disparage the others. Nor does he find contentment in himself: his standards, his strengths. He is not focusing on himself or others for his sense of identity. Paul is expressing a form of freedom he wishes for the Corinthians. Keller returns to Lewis to discuss gospel-humility.
“Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less. … True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself.”
The person is fully present in what is going on instead of constantly (often unconsciously) checking in with himself. He ties this in with the human body. You tend not to think about a particular body part until it hurts or cries out for attention. Otherwise you just focus on what you are doing, not on your body. I have a bad back. I usually don’t think about it unless it hurts, or I’m engaging in an activity that may trigger back pain. When I’m healthy, I’m just living without a thought of my back.
How do we get there? How do we experience this freedom? It has much to do with justification. Madonna’s justification rests on her performance, just like in the Who song. Paul’s did not. It rested in the finished work of Christ (and therefore our new identity in Christ). Grace gives us an identity prior to us achieving the right performance. We are called to live out our justification, resting on Christ’s performance instead of our own. Then we can stop thinking about ourselves and enjoy the moment and people we are with.
In terms of pastoral ministry we can often get caught in the performance trap. Sometimes congregants and lay leadership assist us in this paralyzing move. If we rest upon our performance, we are only as good as our last sermon or meeting that we led. We are constantly looking for feedback, which will drive others crazy. We will be paralyzed by our failures, unable to move on in confidence in Christ.
There are times when I am very focused on myself. Last Sunday I was too aware of my inadequacies. And mistakes in our service. It actually ending up interfering with how I served Christ and His people that morning. Thankfully those mornings are rare. But there is always a danger.
My old colleague made a critical comment about this booklet some time ago. I can’t remember the precise wording, but It seemed to be about being fully present. He thought that self-forgetfulness meant you were not fully present. As I noted, we are actually more present than when we are thinking about ourselves, analyzing ourselves.
He also noted his frustration with CCEF. We were trained in an integrationist environment. He has long been critical of CCEF in ways that I see as straw men even though I know he has read them. I just don’t see the same problems he does. I see them aware of God’s norms, our depravity and circumstances. Those circumstances include a fallen world, the results of Adam’s sin but conditions that aren’t themselves necessarily sinful. They do focus on the work of Christ for us and in us. I do find them holding forth hope.
His is an interesting critique or complaint since though Paul Tripp, whose resources are used by CCEF, provides a blurb, there is no reference to any CCEF authors. This doesn’t mean, obviously, that what he is saying isn’t consistent with what they teach. The implication, however, is that the gospel is insufficient to sustain us, and change us. I wonder if he’s perhaps doing what this book warns about: factions rooted in ego. In this case, feeling threatened or condemned by CCEF, or perhaps looking down on them and their unsophisticated approach. I don’t know, I haven’t engaged him too much on this.
What I do find interesting is that Keller rarely responds to his critics. He is not consumed with what they say about him. He’s not buying into the factionism that goes on around him (including by people who put him on a pedestal he doesn’t want to stand on). That doesn’t mean he isn’t listening and learning. He probably is. But some of his critics are not as self-forgetful when people have the nerve to challenge their criticisms. Just an observation.
Take this as it is: an adaptation of a sermon. It is not a treatise that will answer every objection or question. I think you will find it helpful as you apply the gospel to your puffed up, painful, never-resting, fragile ego.