If you want to gain some powerful insight in a very short amount of time, I’m going to recommend you read The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Tim Keller. It’s very short—as in, you’ll likely be able to read the whole thing in an hour or two. And it’s inexpensive—as in, $1.62 on Kindle at the moment I’m writing this.
Like everything I’ve read from Keller, this book is powerful. It’s well thought out, it is right on the money in terms of its description of the human condition, and its advice for growth is saturated in the gospel. Here’s my pitch: If you have two dollars and two hours, you can’t afford to skip this little book.
Keller’s argument runs like this…
We’ve all heard it said that our human problems are caused by low self-esteem. What we need is to believe in ourselves, to be more self-confident, to grow in our self-esteem. But Tim Keller argues that there is no evidence to say that low self-esteem causes problems, nor is there evidence that high self-esteem would solve anything.
We don’t need to think more highly of ourselves, but neither do we need to become more self-deprecating. What we need, Keller says, it to think about ourselves less. Worrying about yourself, protecting your own interests, making a name for yourself—there is incredible freedom in letting go of these pursuits and instead choosing to love and serve others.
Keller’s book focuses on Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 4. In particular, Keller finds Paul’s basis for self-forgetfulness in verses 3–4:
“With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.”
Essentially, Paul is saying, “I’m not worried about your verdict on my life. Nor am I worried about my own verdict on my life. The only verdict that matters is God’s.” When we can live in confidence that only God’s view of our lives matters, then we are free to stop trying to prove ourselves.
We are constantly trying to prove ourselves to other people. They are trying to hold us to some standard (or at least, we often think they are trying to hold us to some standard), so we do our best to show them that we’re good enough. But we’re not good enough, so we disappoint them. We also try to live up to our own standards, but we also fail miserably at that, so we disappoint ourselves.
Paul’s words are revolutionary at this point: I don’t care what you think about me. But I also don’t care what I think about me. The only thing I care about is what God thinks about me. And because God has given his own Son to reconcile me to God and make me holy before him, God is pleased with me. That’s all that matters.
Keller explains that Christianity is the only religion in which the verdict precedes the performance. In every religion, if you perform well enough throughout your life, you receive the verdict that God (or the gods, or some impersonal force) is pleased with you, that you’re good enough. But in Christianity, the verdict comes first. God declares himself to be pleased with us before we perform anything but wicked deeds. He loves us while we are still sinners. And then that verdict enables the performance.
All of this frees us from having to prove ourselves. It frees us from having to make a name for ourselves. It frees us from having to look out for ourselves. We belong to God and he is pleased with us and he has given us a mission to accomplish. We can and must spend our lives in pursuit of something greater than ourselves.