Timothy Keller. The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy. United Kingdom: 10Publishing, 2012. See here to buy the booklet.
I decided to read this after reading L.L. Martin’s Positively Powerless. Martin in her book was talking about how true humility is self-forgetfulness, not thinking less of oneself. She referred to Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, which discussed the freedom of not always having to react to things in reference to oneself. I was curious about what self-forgetfulness is, exactly. I know that I think about myself often each day. Even when I am appreciating someone or something else, I am thinking about how that affects me. Is that wrong? I doubt that I could repent of that, even if I wanted to!
I was surprised to find how short The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is. It is more of a booklet than a book! By contrast, I was surprised to learn how long another book that Martin recommended is: Randy Alcorn’s If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil is over 500 pages! I still plan to read Alcorn’s book, though. One of the reviews said it is repetitive, yet it is honest about suffering and goes beyond the common Christian platitudes that Christians use about it. That sounds like a book that I would like to read.
The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is like a lot of Tim Keller’s sermons that I heard when I attended Redeemer, back when I lived in New York City. Keller talks about the ego and how empty and fragile it is. We continually want validation—-to feel as if we are worth something. One path that many of us may take is to avoid hearing criticism of us, so as to guard our feelings. For Keller, the solution to our fragile ego is recognition of how much value we are to God: Christ died for us. When we truly believe that, the hole in our ego is filled. We can think about ourselves less. We can grow from criticism rather than being afraid of it, for criticism no longer wipes out our personal sense of worth.
Keller’s main text in this booklet is I Corinthians 4:3-4. In that passage, Paul says:
3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self.
4 For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord. (KJV)
According to Keller, Paul in this passage is saying that he does not care about what others think about him. What’s more, Paul does not care about what he thinks about himself! Paul realizes that he is not blameless, whether or not he can identify anything specific that he has done wrong, for he is a sinner saved by grace. What is important to Paul is God’s verdict, and God has accepted him and declared him innocent on account of Christ.
Keller has a beautiful passage that practically explains what self-forgetfulness looks like:
Friends, wouldn’t you want to be a person who does not need honour—-nor is afraid of it? Someone who does not lust for recognition—-nor, on the other hand, is frightened to death of it?…Or perhaps you tend to beat yourself up and to be tormented by regrets. Wouldn’t you like to be free of them? 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 would like to be that sort of person. And one can probably tell that Tim Keller realizes many people would like to be that sort of person: to have such security, that ego gets taken out of the equation. To lose oneself by appreciating something else.
Does Keller believe that he is that kind of person? My hunch is that he thinks it is a process. When he talks about the fragility of the ego in this booklet, he often speaks in the first-person plural, and he often speaks in the present. A fragile ego is something that many people, even Christians, deal with.
One of my favorite things that I heard Tim Keller say in a sermon was when he had just relayed his usual message about how the Gospel changes our perspective and gives us security, and he said: “You may be thinking, ‘Now I’ve attended Redeemer for fifteen years. I’ve heard this message already! I know it by now.’ No you don’t! Why do your feelings still get easily hurt?” (This is not an exact quotation, but what I roughly remember.) For Tim Keller, we need to be continually reminded of the Gospel!
How do I respond to this today? Well, I realize that my ego is fragile. I can become embittered by criticism. The line of “What other people say about me is none of my business” resonates with me a lot. When I get a hint (correct or incorrect) that someone is about to tell me what somebody else said about me, I stop the person right there. I am aware of my propensity towards bitterness. I realize that, if I am to avoid hateful feelings towards certain people, I need to protect myself from knowing what they truly think about me.
I also believe that it is good to have something secure to grasp and to hold on to through the vicissitudes of life and the fragility of the ego. God’s love for me is one such thing. Thinking about that may give me a better attitude, but it does not entirely cure me of my insecure ego. I am still insecure—-and hyper-self-conscious—-about social situations. I still have difficulty being around certain people, especially the types who speak their mind and put me down. Part of the problem may be that I have difficulty fully believing in God’s love. There are so many worldviews out there, so how can I believe that this one is correct? There are Scriptures that understandably give people spiritual insecurity, and that includes me. Tim Keller said more than once when I went to Redeemer that, the more God’s love for us becomes real to us, the more secure we become. He is probably correct about that: it needs to become real to us. How this occurs is a good question. Tim Keller talked about the Holy Spirit, the importance of a loving Christian community that affirms the Gospel, and apologetics (i.e., N.T. Wright’s argument for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection) as ways that we can receive assurance. But, in my opinion, things do not always work out that neatly, at least not for everyone.
Then there is the question of how we should treat others. When I hurt someone’s feelings, should my response be: “Well, that person should be stronger than that! That person should be secure in Christ!” I am not saying that I reconcile with everyone I have offended, but I also do not think that I should expect others to wear inner suits of armor. If I hurt someone’s feelings, I should be sympathetic and empathetic to that person and should apologize, in part because I know how it feels to be hurt. That is loving our neighbors as ourselves, or treating others as we would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12).
In terms of self-forgetfulness, I believe that I think about myself less when I read. Even then, I cannot take myself completely out of the equation, for I am asking myself in reading what I identify with, and I am reading what interests me specifically. At the same time, I am entering someone else’s world, and that leans in the direction of self-forgetfulness. But I have to admit: when it comes to social situations, I do want some attention or affirmation, and yet it is not always easy for me to give others attention or affirmation, to be genuinely interested in listening to other people talk about their lives. Even Tim Keller asks how we would feel if we were talking to a person and that person continually brought the subject back to himself or herself. He presumes that we would be annoyed, as strong and as secure in Christ as we are supposed to be! I hope that I can arrive at a place of genuinely being interested in others, while God’s love fills my own personal “What about me?” whole.