The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness

Greg Strand – June 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Timothy Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy (Chorley, England: 10Publishing, 2012).

This little book is based on a sermon Keller did a number of years ago on 1 Corinthians 3:1-4:7 at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. It is 46 pages in length and can be read in an hour. It is excellent. I will share the heart of the book below, but I would encourage you to read the whole book.

Keller begins with two key questions:

  1. What are the marks of a heart that has been radically changed by the grace of God?
  2. If we trust in Christ, what should our hearts be like?

In this text, Paul states there is to be no pride, no boasting, which raises the issue of humility. Keller connects this to self-esteem. He notes two different and incorrect responses over the years to self-esteem. “Up until the twentieth century, traditional cultures (and it is still true of most cultures in the world) always believed that too high a view of yourself was the root cause of evil in the world.” However, “our belief today – and it is deeply rooted in everything – is that people misbehave for lack of self-esteem and because they have too low a view of themselves.”

The answer according to the Bible is gospel-humility. Keller refers to C. S. Lewis who grasped this well (p. 31-32).

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.

True, gospel-humility is “thinking of myself less.” This is the mark of a “gospel-humble person.” The test of gospel-humility, suggests Keller, is how we receive criticism and the degree to which we long for change (pp. 33-34).

A truly gospel-humble person is not a self-hating person or a self-loving person, but a gospel-humble person. The truly gospel-humble person is a self-forgetful person whose ego is just like his or her toes. It just works. It does not draw attention to itself. The toes just work; the ego just works. Neither draws attention to itself.

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. The world tells the person who is thin-skinned and devastated by criticism to deal with it by saying, ‘Who cares what they think? I know what I think. Who cares what the rabble thinks? It doesn’t bother me.’ People are either devastated by criticism – or they are not devastated by criticism because they do not listen to it. They will not listen to it or learn from it because they do not care about it. They know who they are and what they think. In other words, our only solution to low self-esteem is pride. But that is no solution. Both low self-esteem and pride are horrible nuisances to our own future and to everyone around us.

The person who is self-forgetful is the complete opposite. When someone whose ego is not puffed up but filled up gets criticism, it does not devastate them. They listen to it and see it as an opportunity to change. Sounds idealistic? The more we get to understand the gospel, the more we want to change.

Blessed self-forgetfulness is the manifestation of gospel-humility (p. 36).

This is gospel-humility, blessed self-forgetfulness. Not thinking more of myself as in modern cultures, or less of myself as in traditional cultures. Simply thinking of myself less.

According to Paul, how does one do this? How does one manifest gospel-humility by thinking of myself less? It is only through Jesus Christ, in whom we move out of the courtroom and by which we receive the verdict before the performance (p. 39).

But Paul says that he has found the secret. The trial is over for him. He is out of the courtroom. It is gone. It is over. Because the ultimate verdict is in.

Now how could that be? Paul puts it very simply. He knows that they cannot justify him. 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?

In every other realm, it is the performance that leads to the verdict. In Christianity, in and through Jesus Christ, it is reversed such that having been justified, we receive the verdict before the performance. And the fruit of the verdict is performance (p. 39).

But Paul is saying that in Christianity, the verdict leads to performance. It is not the performance that leads to the verdict.

For those who are hearing this for the first time, Keller states that Christian identity is different from any other kind of identity (p. 43).

Self-forgetfulness takes you out of the courtroom. The trial is over. The verdict is in.

To those who believe the gospel and yet are drawn back into the courtroom in which the verdict of your life remains in the balance, Keller has these words of reminder (p. 43-44).

All I can tell you is that we have to re-live the gospel every time we pray. We have to re-live it every time we go to church. We have to re-live the gospel on the spot and ask ourselves what we are doing in the courtroom. We should not be there. The court is adjourned.

Amen and amen!

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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