The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Timothy Keller

A few months ago I read something in a Floyd McClung book that really made me think, it was almost a throwaway line

‘Sin is not the greatest barrier to community: lack of humility is’

The biggest barrier to community is a lack of honesty about how things really are: inflating numbers, putting a positive spin on mediocre results, trying to appear more effective/in control/productive than we actually are. Probably we are all guilty at some time of what has sometimes been called ‘impression management’.

McClung goes on to say that the fact that God reveals himself through broken, fallen people is a revelation of the God that he is’. That he chooses to partner with us even though we are sinful, stubborn, scared, simple or downright stupid is a sign of God’s greatness.

So why then do we expend so much energy trying to make out we are not any of those things?

Possibly because we are so sensitive to the judgement of others?

On holiday I read a book which was hugely helpful on this score. Reading it was not a great achievement as, blissfully, it was only 50 pages long, so a mini book really, but it really packed a punch.  In The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness Timothy Keller talks about our egos and asks ‘what are the marks of a heart that’s been changed by God? Answer: the ability to be unaware, unconcerned about ourselves, what people think of us or how we are ‘rated’.

He unpacks 1 Corinthians 3:21 -4:7 where Paul says ‘I don’t care what you think of me, and what’s more I don’t care what I think of me and that’s not because I have a clear conscience or I’ve found what modern psychologists might call an inner sense of resilient self-belief (which actually is not much more than self indoctrination linked to a fierce determination to be right).  No, Paul’s sense of poise and confidence is present in the same breath that he says ‘I am the worst of all sinners’. He is totally honest, totally aware of his flaws but there is no connections between his sin and his sense of identity.

‘No connection between his sin and his sense of identity!!!!’ That’s a show-stopping statement that bears repeating. How many of the rest of us connect our failures (‘I can’t lose weight/I’m a rubbish parent/my boss doesn’t like me) with who we are as people: ‘I’m lazy, I’m unsuccessful, I’m unpopular’?  Keller (and Paul) employs the image of the courtroom and makes it clear that so many of us haul ourselves into a Courtroom every day to listen to a judgement of either our own inner self or a judgement we perceive from others but for Christians the reality is the courtroom is adjourned, the judgement has already been handed down and the jury’s gone to lunch. ‘ So what are you doing there?’ says Keller, waiting for a verdict from ‘someone’ important enough that say you are a ‘somebody’ when the only person whose opinion of you matters has already given THE verdict: you are loved, you are delightful, you were worth dying for, you are a treasure in God’s eyes and more valuable than all the jewels in the universe’.

‘The essence of gospel humility is not thinking more of myself or less of myself, it is thinking of myself less‘.

Have you ever met someone who always has a story or experience to top the one you are telling?. You get the impression they are not really listening but just waiting for the opportunity to jump in and tell you how much more they know about the subject than you do. In any situation, the matter in hand is immediately connected to something in their own experience.  It’s a very irritating habit but often the mark of insecurity, they are so over anxious to impress you with their knowledge, connections or previous experience.  In contrast, The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness is the freedom to simply be, not to have to have something to say about every situation, not to have an answer or a solution.  CS Lewis said if you ever meet a humble person you will not come away knowing very much about them but you will have been struck by how totally interested they were in you’. They are the people who can think of themselves less.

The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is also a path to joy.  I  can do things not because they look good on my CV but simply for the joy of doing them or because I’m called to do them.

A few days ago, my thinking in this area came full circle with some words from Rob Bell which underlined the very same truths

Surrender the outcomes of your presence, your influence, your work, your leadership… they may ‘drink the coffee’. They may not. That’s just how it is. When you come to terms with this you are actually free.  In other words ‘it’s not about you’.  If as a pastor, or person, you do what you do because you feel called to it, without expectations, without needing a particular response, without hitching your wagon of joy to someone else’s reaction (or lack thereof) then you free not only yourself but you liberate others also.

A pastor who needs the constant approval of her or his  congregation isn’t free. And neither is the congregation.

You can pastor people (or parent children), you can love them. You can absolutely rip your heart out and put it on a plate for them week after week after week… and you cannot control whether they will be your friend, whether they will listen, whether they will walk away, whether  they will stab you in the  back. It’s simply not possible. But it is possible to live with the great illusion that if you do certain things you will achieve a certain result – and that’s simply not true. The sooner you come to terms with your powerlessness, the more joy you will have. 

God does not love you because of what you  do  or don’t do or how well or how badly.

God just loves you.

And  he gave that  verdict before you began your performance. 

The Rob Bell interview can be read in full at

You can read more review of The Timothy Keller book  at but my kindle version was from Amazon and cost 99p!

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