The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: Book Summary

Written by Alistair Knight | 30 April 2022

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The freedom of self-forgetfulness is a study predicated on the teachings of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3:21 – 4:7. The passage highlights how two nouns — boastfulness and pride — are the reason for the deep root of division in society.

Timothy Keller shows us three teachings from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. These are:

  1. The natural condition of the human ego;
  2. The transformed sense of self;
  3. How to get that transformed sense of self.

My hand holding up timothy kellers book, The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. The path to true Christian joy.

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This summary will be breaking down these three teachings. I will summarise what they mean, and how you can use them in your day-to-day life. But first, let’s look at Paul’s first letter:

“So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. 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. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.

Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”

1 Corinthians 3:21 – 4:7

The Natural Condition of the Human Ego

4:6: “Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other.”

Paul urges us to have no more pride in ourselves over others as the image of ego is buried in emptiness, pain, busyness, and fragility.

Emptiness: There is an emptiness at the center of our overinflated hearts. We try to pursue things that we believe will give us a sense of worth, such as X amount of income per month, or the feeling of looking successful in front of others. But if that “success” is not rooted in Christ, then what is it? For we are reminded that if we put anything in the middle of the place that was originally made for God, it’s going to be too small, it’s going to rattle around due to the emptiness that is human ego.

Pain: We experience pain when there is something inherently wrong with something, such as when we accidentally cut our toe and have to walk around with a limp. There is also pain with the ego because every day we experience some negative emotions that — to some degree — can make us feel down. Therefore, there is always something wrong with our egos. It’s always drawing attention to itself. Like a sore toe, there is something terribly wrong about it, it hurts us.

Busyness: Our egos are also incredibly busy. Busy trying to fill the emptiness of our overinflated ego. It does this by constantly comparing ourselves to others; and boasting. We can feel proud of being more successful, more intelligent, or more good-looking than the next person, but if we reverse the position, we can feel deflated, jealous, and unpleasant. This is because we didn’t have pleasure in our ego in the first place, we just were proud of it. We try to recommend ourselves, and try to create a self-esteem resume because we are desperate to fill our sense of inadequacy and emptiness. The ego is busy. So busy all the time.

Fragility: Anything that is overinflated is likely going to pop or deflate, like a balloon. The superiority complex (the attitude of displaying superiority — or overinflation) and the inferiority complex (the attitude of displaying defeat — or deflation), are essentially the same thing: The former is about to become deflated, and the latter has already been superior, but has lost it and wants it back again. It makes the ego fragile.

Our ego will always be empty, painful, busy, and fragile, as we live in a world of sin. The only hope we have is Jesus’ Second Coming.

The Transformed Sense of Self

4:1-4: This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. 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. It is the Lord who judges me.

Paul is saying that he doesn’t care what others think of him, nor does he care what he thinks of himself. He is not waiting on the verdict of others to act, but rather doing everything he can to wait on the verdict of the Lord, “who judges”.

Paul’s heart is not inflated; it is filled. Being one of the most influential people of his day — and of all-time — people in the same shoes as Paul would have a tendency to demonstrate superiority over others. However, Paul is polar-opposite to this. He has reached a place where his ego draws no attention to itself. He has reached a place where he doesn’t think of his performance anymore. When he does something wrong or something good, he doesn’t connect it to himself.

Meeting a truly gospel-humble person like Paul would resemble someone who is totally interested and focused on others. Because the essence of gospel-humility isn’t focusing on thinking more of myself or less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.

Timothy Keller puts it: 

“Gospel-humility is not needing to think about myself. Not needing to connect things with me. It is an end to thoughts such as, I’m in this room with these people, does that make me look good? Do I want to be here? True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.”

Gospel-humble people: 

  • See themselves in a shop window, and instead of admiring or cringing about what they see, they do neither.
  • Get criticized, and instead of becoming devastated by it, they listen to it and, if it is good criticism, they see it as an opportunity to change.
  • Avoid daydreaming about successes that give them an edge over others.

Self-forgetfulness is not thinking of myself as in modern cultures, or less of myself as in traditional cultures. Simply thinking of myself less.

How to Get That Transformed Sense of Self

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”.

So how did Paul get this blessed self-forgetfulness? What we are all looking for is that ultimate verdict from others to know that others see us as important and valuable. “Every day we put ourselves back in the courtroom”. That is the way everyone’s identity works. But Paul said he has found the secret key to escape the courtroom. How is that?

“Paul puts it simply. He knows that they cannot justify him. He knows he cannot justify himself. And what does he say? He says that it is the Lord who judges him. It is only His opinion that counts” – TK.

The verdict leads to performance, not the other way around. 

The atheist might say that if they are a good person, then they will eventually get the verdict that they were good. Their performance leads to a verdict. The same is true in Islam and Buddhism.

But for Christians, the moment we believe, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased”, or Romans 8:1, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. See, the moment we believe, God imputes perfect performance to us as if it were our own, and adopts us into His family. The verdict is in. And now I perform on the basis of the verdict. I don’t have to just puff up my heart, because it becomes filled with God’s grace. I don’t have to help someone because it will make me feel better, but because I want to.

We are out of the courtroom because Jesus went into the courtroom. He was on trial. He was tortured, yet he didn’t complain. He was silent? Why? As our substitute. He took the condemnation that we deserve.

“You are my beloved child out of whom I am well pleased”. Live out of that.

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Alistair Knight

Alistair Knight is an amateur athlete in boxing and the founder of Healthy Principles. He spends most of his time practising and learning more about boxing to ensure you get the best experience-based and evidence-based insights to learn. He also loves to read non-fiction books and has recently started writing book summaries. Learn more about Alistair Knight