The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness

Everyone can probably agree that we live in a polarizing world.  We hear it every day.  Division is stirred up everywhere on all kinds of topics.  Everyone is vulnerable to criticism.

While the social media age probably started with good intentions, it now cultivates judgement and comparisons that according to a significant number of studies have led to a decline in mental health.  If anyone was worried about what other people thought of them before, it seems like it has only increased in the age of social media.  

In this type of environment, it’s hard to find positive affirmation and self-worth. Today, our self-esteem can take a beating.  And Christians are not immune.

Does the Bible have anything to say that can help us?  How can we be liberated from this oppressive onslaught of conflict and worry?  Can an ancient book really speak relevantly in our technological age?

The late Tim Keller thought it did.  In his compelling short book, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Keller presents his insights from I Corinthians 3:21-4:7, a section of the letter where Paul is writing to a Christian congregation struggling with cliques and division and self-centeredness (it sounds like today) to show us that Christ can free us from our self-centeredness and bruised egos. 

Keller’s book is less than 50 pages, but it offers some profound insights that could be transformative in your personal life.  It is worth getting and reading more than once.

Here is a quick review:

Keller breaks the book up into four sections:

Introduction. The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness:
In the opening chapter Keller lays out the context of 1 Corinthians 3-4, and previews what is to come in the remaining three chapters. Paul shows that the root cause of his reader’s divisive behavior is their pride and boasting.  What Paul wants to see in them is humility.  According to Keller, this discussion leads to the very interesting subject of self-esteem.  He points out that historically most cultures saw pride as thinking too highly of oneself, and the source of most evils.  Conversely, today, our culture sees low self-esteem as the source of most evils. If people had a higher view of themselves, we wouldn’t have the big social problems we have today — drug addiction, crime, sexual assault, and so forth. How often do we hear that the solution to self-image problems is to work on our self-esteem?  What Keller identifies in 1 Corinthians is an approach that is different from both the traditional and contemporary views.

Chapter 1 – The Natural Condition of the Human Ego:
Keller points out that in 1 Corinthians 4:6, Paul uses a Greek word physioõ, for pride, which literally means swollen, puffed up, or over-inflated.  He says, “I think the image suggests four things about the natural condition of the human ego: that it is empty, painful, busy and fragile.”  Empty: an ego that is puffed up has nothing at its center. Referencing Soren Keirkegaard, Keller says that the human heart tries to build its identity by finding purpose and meaning around something besides God.  Painful: you don’t notice anything wrong with your body until it starts to hurt.  The ego often hurts and is consequently always drawing attention to itself. It isn’t our feelings that are hurt.  It is our ego that hurts.  Busy: the ego is busy trying to fill the emptiness.  It is doing two things in particular – comparing and boasting.  In quoting C.S. Lewis, Keller discusses how pride is the pleasure of having more than the next person or being more than the next person.  Fragile: Anything that is inflated is in danger of being deflated.  A superiority complex and an inferiority complex are basically the same thing…both the result of being overinflated making it fragile.  Keller references an interview with Madonna in Vogue magazine a number of years ago where she was transparent about her career.  Keller was impressed by her self-awareness.  Every day she feels the need to prove that she is somebody.  The ego is never satisfied.

The Corinthians were trying to be somebody when they were saying they were of Apollos or of Cephas or Paul. They were using their unique relationship with one of these “spiritual giants” to claim a one-upmanship over each other.  This is the natural state of the human self.   Paul wants them to know that the Gospel offers a different way to live.

Chapter 2. The Transformed View of Self:
Keller notes that the word for ‘judge’ in I Corinthians 4:3-4 carries the same meaning as the word ‘verdict’ – the ultimate stamp of approval.  Keller explores how Paul writes that he doesn’t care what other people think, or even what he himself thinks about his own identity.  Even though Paul’s conscience was clear, Paul said that didn’t make him innocent. 

If he were alive today, what would Paul say to those who tell him to live by his own standards?  He would say it’s a trap!  Living up to anyone’s standards – yours, your parents, society’s, anybody else’s – does not deliver.  Any of these pursuits will make you feel terrible. 

Paul lived in a territory we know nothing about.  Paul believed he was the worst of sinners, and yet he didn’t act that way or consider that his identity.   The same was true regarding his accomplishments. He didn’t connect either of these things to his self-esteem.  He just confidently lived out what God had called him to do.  He was not thinking about himself anymore.  He is thinking about himself less, the freedom of self-forgetfulness.  What was his secret?

Chapter 3. How To Get That Transformed View Of Self:
Keller says that Paul’s secret was his view of justification. We get a judgment from the Lord, and that is the only one that counts. And we get this verdict before our performance is judged. Other philosophies and religions put you on trial every day, and the verdict of who you are, your identity of being either a good or a bad person, is based on your aggregate performance. For Paul, for the Christian, it was the other way around.  The trial is over.  The verdict of who you are, your identity through Christ, has already been settled.  Your justification leads to your performance. (There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. — Romans 8:1) So, this frees us to perform not for ego, but for the sake of others: “I can help people to help people—not so I can feel better about myself, not so I can fill up my emptiness.”

Keller ends by encouraging non-Christians to keep exploring, while realizing that true Christianity isn’t about how holy a person you can become, rather it’s about the identity Jesus freely gives us. And for Christians who struggle with feeling like they’re on trial, he encourages them to “re-live the gospel” every day.  Remind yourself of the gospel truth.  We are not on trial, because Jesus was already on trial for us.


Paul’s words to the Corinthians are pertinent for today.  We can be just like them.  We can be divisive through what we know or who we know or what we do or what we have accomplished.  We compare ourselves with others all of the time.  We can try to create our identity based on the opinions or standards of others.  Paul says that doesn’t matter.  In fact, when we do that, it is a trap because it will never deliver.

Instead, Paul encourages us to find our identity in our relationship with God through Christ.  He is the one who has given us the ultimate verdict.  He has affirmed that we are loved, and we are His.  Because of that, we can live freely.  We don’t have to spend time thinking more or less of ourselves.  Rather, we can spend our time thinking of others more and of ourselves less.

Take a couple of hours to read Tim Keller’s book.  Remind yourself of the solid truths of the Gospel in the midst of this divisive, insecure, empty, painful, busy, fragile world.


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