In his mini-book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Tim Keller managed to kick me in the spiritual guts, and I needed it.
If you know anything about me, you know that I analyze absolutely everything. I critique everything I see, hear, taste, experience, etc. When someone says something, I wonder what they are really saying. When I say something, I wonder what I’m really saying. And while perceptiveness and heightened observational and analytical skills can be an asset from time to time, they certainly create a complicated dynamic in the mix of a sinner being sanctified by God’s Holy Spirit. I have consistently been counseled about my negativity from those who know me best and care for me most. I am constantly deciding if something “measures up.” I’ve struggled with leading confidently because I spend so much time questioning my own motives. And I’ve known that this has been a major hurdle in my christian growth for some time, because in all honesty, the observations are being used to connect everything to me in pride. So when I saw the title of this book last month while perusing Amazon for some good Christmas gift ideas, I knew I needed to read it and be challenged by it. Imagine the fresh air of living in a space without thoughts about yourself – free to focus on God, others, and other things without connecting them to me!
Keller starts his readers off with I Corinthians 3:21-4:7, where Paul says, “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent [justified]. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes…” (4:2-5).
The Corinthians were great examples of how every human ego functions. Instead of celebrating the influences of great leaders in their church (Paul, Apollos, Peter), they were using their connections to these men as a means of self-promotion. They were trying to fill a void in their egos that cannot be filled by any human means. They had put themselves on trial, deciding they didn’t measure up to a self-invented standard, and were trying to exalt their standing in any way they could.
After examining the Corinthian’s error, Keller then applies this pattern of thinking to our own lives. How often do we connect an event, a conversation, a relationship back to ourselves and wonder how we measure up? We enter a room and wonder what people think of us. We meet a new face and measure them while wondering what their opinion of us is. We crumble under the weight of what should be insignificant criticism. We set goals and make them our measuring stick, only feeling satisfied once they are achieved. We are kind to others, faithful to attend church, careful to live a good Christian life, disciplined, and hard-working but it all ends up being about whether or not we measure up to some line in our own minds.
After examining some of our culture’s answers to the void (the feeling we don’t measure up), Keller then turns to the one permanent solution offered in scripture.
“How did Paul get this blessed self-forgetfulness? He does tell us – but we have to look carefully….he says, ‘my conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent‘…What Paul was looking for…what we are all looking for, is an ultimate verdict that we are important and valuable. We look for that ultimate verdict every day in all the situations and people around us. And that means that every single day, we are on trial…Some days we feel we are winning the trial and some days we feel we are losing it. But Paul says that he has found the secret. The trial is over for him. He is out of the courtroom…Do you realize that it is only in the gospel of Jesus Christ that you get the verdict before the performance?…In Christianity, the moment we believe, God imputes Christ’s perfect performance to us as if it were our own, and adopts us into His family…You see, the verdict is in. And now I perform on the basis of the verdict. Because He loves me and accepts me, I do not have to do things just to build up my resume. I do not have to do things to make me look good. I can do things for the joy of doing them…(pp. 37-41).”
This one simple, often overlooked truth from Paul has so many implications for how I live my daily life, that I’ll be a long time in processing and applying it to my thinking and living. But I look forward to the outcome. I look forward to the fresh air of freedom. I’ve been living on trial long enough. Praise God that His love, His acceptance, and His opinion of our performance is unconditional because of Christ. Now let’s live in fitting response to that freedom, starting today.