The Freedom Of Self-Forgetfulness by Tim Keller
I installed this app on my phone recently, which I had a sneaking suspicion would change my life. Called Moment, this app has one main function, which is to track the amount of time you spend looking at your phone each day. My hope was that the findings might persuade me to change my habits dramatically. So as the app installed, I envisioned myself being liberated from the endless (and largely boring) social media scrolling, being more present in my relationships, and more mindful in everyday moments.
But what actually happened? I deleted Moment within a week. The amounts of time tracked each day were confronting, far surpassing my estimates. It all got too real. Changing my habits felt too huge a task, so I favoured a return to ignorance instead. With this feeble, failed attempt, I had hoped to turn aside habits that both fuel and are fuelled by narcissism.
Navel-gazing is a habit we are all inclined towards. We'll dwell on anything about ourselves, good or bad. Add in a social media-saturated culture that allows us to showcase ourselves while evaluating others' lives compared to our own, and being anything but a bit of a narcissist feels like an uphill battle!
Tim Keller's (exceptionally!) short book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness draws out how our standing before God remedies the fears about ourselves that fuel self-centred navel-gazing. Keller builds an argument, drawn from 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7, that the truly gospel-shaped person is self-forgetful rather than self-hating or self-loving. This is explored in three phases - 1) the natural condition of the human ego, 2) the transformed view of self, and 3) how to get that transformed view of self.
One element of The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness that I found most helpful was the correctives it offers surrounding secular wisdom on self-esteem. For some time before reading this book, I had felt convinced that the Bible’s answer to issues of low self-esteem isn’t that we should cultivate high self-esteem. But I was unsure what the Bible’s answer really is. I’d heard pithy lines about 'not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less', but I still questioned how my identity in Christ actually helps me to do that. In exegeting 1 Corinthians 4, Keller shows how the Christian is freed not only from being concerned about others’ opinions about us, but from being concerned about our own opinion. He explains that “He [Paul] is saying that the problem with self-esteem - whether it is high or low - is that, every single day, we are in the courtroom.” Seeking validation through self-esteem puts us back on trial. Keller explains that constantly assessing our worth and others’ assessments of us is out of place for the Christian. The verdict is already in. We have been united to Christ who has won us a verdict of not guilty, before the only important judge. We are liberated from the courtroom of comparison, free to love God and love others with wholehearted abandon.
There could be one pitfall to pursuing self-forgetfulness in rejection of self-condemnation and narcissism, which Keller doesn’t canvas in depth. We could find ourselves returning to the same old self-condemning patterns by beginning to assess whether we are self-forgetful enough. What a tricky cycle! But there is wisdom to an amount of thoughtful self-reflection. Elsewhere we read Paul ruminating on his failings and weaknesses, describing himself to Timothy as ’the worst of sinners’. But what is the purpose of this rumination? Not to berate himself for these failings, but to point us all back to the breadth and depth of God’s love for us in Jesus. This love needs to be the first port of call when our failings confront us.
More than apps showing me the colossal amounts of time I’ve wasted ignoring the real world in pursuit of virtual validation, I need the word of God showing me how liberated I am. We all need it to show us that we’re truly freed from the condemnation we deserve; freed from the courtroom of comparison; freed to spend life loving God and loving others.
About this EQUIP Shorts contributor, Lauren Mahaffey
Lauren is in her third year studying at Moore College, working at MTS as Communications Officer, living in Newtown, and loving being part of Summer Hill Church. Her spare time is usually all about catching up with friends and family, nerding out over podcasts, and cooking.