freedom of self forgetfulness

“In Christianity, the verdict leads to performance. It is not the performance that leads to the verdict…You see the verdict is in. And now I perform on the basis of the verdict. Because He (God) loves me and He accepts me, I do not have to do things to make me look good. I can do things for the joy of doing them.”





This little book (only 48 pages) by Tim Keller is a wee gem that gets to the heart of what it means to let God’s grace change the way we view ourselves.

The book is based upon 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7, so give that a read first.

Keller opens upon the book by unpacking the context into which the first letter to the Corinthians was written. It was a young church in Corinth that was conflicted. There were divisions in the church due to people following various leaders and Paul names the root cause as pride and boasting.

Tim makes the point that we think about this kind of thing differently than the Corinthians would have, or people until quite recently. He says:

“Up until the twentieth century, traditional cultures (and this is still true of most cultures in the world) always believed that too high a view of yourself was the root cause of all the evil in the world. What is the reason for most of the crime and violence in the world? Why are people abused? Why are people cruel? Traditionally, the answer was hubris – the Greek word meaning pride or too high a view of yourself.”

He goes on to paint a picture of how we think about ourselves in contemporary society:

“But, in our modern western culture, we have developed an utterly opposite cultural consensus. The basis of contemporary education, the way we treat incarcerated prisoners, the foundation of most modern legislation and the starting point for modern counselling is exactly the opposite of the traditional consensus. 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.”

So here Keller presents two different ways of looking at “the self.” He then insists that what we find in the passage in Corinthians (as above), is that Paul presents a different picture of “self-regard” altogether. He says:

“The three things that Paul shows us here are:

  1. The natural condition of the human ego.
  2. The transformed sense of self (which Paul had discovered and which can be brought about through the gospel).
  3. How to get that transformed sense of self.”

This 3 point structure forms the 3 chapters of Keller’s book.


  1. The natural condition of the human ego:

In Corinthians 4:6 Paul reminds the Corinthians “to have no more pride in one person over another.” Paul could have used the word hubris for pride but instead Paul uses the word physioõ.

“By using this particular word, Paul is trying to teach these Corinthians something about the human ego. This word used here for pride literally means to be overinflated, swollen, distended beyond its proper size. It is related to the word for ‘bellows’. It is very evocative…I think the image suggests four things about the natural condition of the human ego: that it is empty, painful, busy and fragile.”

Empty – Keller insists that the human ego is empty because there is a space within each of us that searches for meaning without God, however without God this space will never be filled. “Spiritual pride is the illusion that we are competent to run our own lives, achieve our own sense of self-worth and find a purpose big enough to give us meaning in life without God.”

Painful –  The ego often hurts. That is because it has something incredibly wrong with it. It is always drawing attention to itself – it does so every single day. Walking around does not hurt my toes unless there is already something wrong with them. My ego would not hurt unless there was something terribly wrong with it. Think about it. It is very hard to get through a whole day without feeling snubbed or ignored or feeling stupid or getting down on ourselves. That is because there is something wrong with my ego. There is something wrong with my identity. There is something wrong with my sense of self. It is never happy. It is always drawing attention to itself.”

Busy – Tim insists that our egos are also busy. They are busy trying to fill the emptiness and cover the pain. What are they busy with? Comparison to and competition with others.

“When I was at school, my mother kept saying things like, ‘You know, honey, you ought to join the chess club.’ I would say, ‘Mum, I hate chess.’ ‘Yes, I know,’ she would say, ‘but it will look so good on your college application’… So, at school, I did all kinds of things that I had absolutely no interest in doing for themselves. I was simply putting together a résumé. That is what our egos are doing all the time. Doing jobs we have no pleasure in, doing diets we take no pleasure in. Doing all kinds of things, not for the pleasure of doing them, but because we are trying to put together an impressive curriculum vitae.”

Fragile – Our egos are fragile because we are “overinflated.” We are either in danger of popping because we have a superiority complex or we think we are so inferior that we become deflated. According to Keller both are the result of making too much of ourselves.


  1. The transformed sense of self:

So what is Paul’s solution to this overinflated ego? Keller points out that in 1 Cor 4:1-4 Paul points out that he has a job to do and that he doesn’t care whether he is judged by people for it. In Keller’s words: “Paul does not look to the Corinthians – or to any human court – for the verdict that he is somebody.”

We would all probably agree with this. Our advice to one another would be “don’t worry about what others think.” If we have low self-esteem then the remedy is developing high self-esteem. But this isn’t how Paul goes about it. Paul says: “I do not even judge myself.” Tim points out that even our own standards are a kind of trap. We cannot live up to the standards others demand of us and we feel terrible, but we can’t live up to our own either and we feel terrible.

Keller points out that Paul was a man of incredible influence. He was a strong and confident leader. Yet, he also could say, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Keller says, “This is off our maps. We are not used to someone who has incredible confidence volunteering the opinion that they are one of the worst people.”

How can Paul do this? “His sins and his identity are not connected…Paul has reached the place where he is not thinking about himself anymore. When he does something wrong or something good, he does not connect it to himself anymore.”

According to Keller this is what Gospel-humility is all about. It is a kind of freedom of self-forgetfulness as the ego is not “puffed up but filled up.” What are the marks of this kind of humility? How we take criticism is a bit of a clue. The truly humble person isn’t that hurt by criticism, rather they “listen to it and see it is an opportunity to change…The more we get to understand the gospel, the more we want to change.”


  1. How to get that transformed sense of self:

What is all of our looking for recognition about? According to Keller we each are looking for what he calls the “ultimate verdict that we are important and valuable.” The metaphor Keller that Paul uses is that of a courtroom. And what is the big point about the ultimate verdict that Christianity proclaims?

“In Christianity, the verdict leads to performance. It is not the performance that leads to the verdict…You see the verdict is in. And now I perform on the basis of the verdict. Because He (God) loves me and He accepts me, I do not have to do things to make me look good. I can do things for the joy of doing them. I can help people to help people – not so I can feel better about myself, not so I can fill up the emptiness.”

Tim then goes on with the courtroom metaphor saying that Jesus Christ went on trial in our place and that he took the condemnation we deserve. Keller finishes with two Scriptures:

-“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1

-“You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Mark 1:11








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *