“I don’t care what the world says about me. I don’t care what you say about me. I don’t care what I say about me. It is about what God says about me.” — Tim Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy.
The Keller book is transformative in my understanding of identity
The book focuses on a passage in Corinthians 3:21–4:7, and the three things that the Apostle Paul shows us in the book are the world and society’s established forms of identity.
Our identities are in the form of what’s in our hearts, and what our hearts feel about who we are. Paul gives us a guide, with Keller as a messenger, of how to supernaturally transform our heart.
“He’s not after some superficial outward tinkering,” Keller writes. “But instead a deep-rooted, life-altering change that takes place on the inside…the Apostle Paul calls us to find true rest in blessed self-forgetfulness.”
Let me first give a SparkNotes and shortened guide on how to supernaturally change our hearts and affirm our identities in correct ways: instead of finding your identity in what others think of you and what we ourselves think of ourselves, let gospel-humility and self-forgetfulness in Christ define out our identities. Hear me out, and give me some time to unpack this, especially for my friends who don’t believe in God and aren’t Christian.
The first form of identity is the world’s form of identity
This is what other people think of us, and how society and our communities define us. This definition of our identities can be extremely restrictive, and make us feel like we have no personal input and choice into who we are.
The point Keller makes in the book is clear: that our others’ perceptions of our self-worth don’t matter.
That much is established in conventional and mainstream society, that we shouldn’t care at all about what others’ think of us. That much is extremely accurate, and a helpful form of advice that I wish I could accept more in my own personal life.
However, the solution that mainstream society, psychology, and the self-esteem society have offered is to make our own definitions for ourselves, to define ourselves by what we do and our own perceptions of who we are.
I bought into this self-esteem perception of identity for an incredibly long time in my life
And sometimes, it worked for me, but other times, when what I did wasn’t so great, when I was inadequate in my accomplishments and ability to get good numbers like grades or fast times or a salary, my self-perception and self-esteem fell apart.
The problem with ourselves making our identities for ourselves isn’t that it doesn’t work sometimes, it’s that it’s not sustainable, and sometimes, when we do succeed and what we do is deemed so worthy in our own eyes and our own hearts, we swell with pride.
It isn’t uncommon for me, to this day, to have an overinflated ego after doing a good thing, and think that I’m the man and don’t need anyone to help me because I achieved what I achieved completely on my own.
And that latter form of identity leads to the greatest sins in Christianity and most faiths: legalistic pride and self-righteousness. I say “I’m the man” sometimes in jest, but sometimes seriously because of my good deeds and accomplishments, and believing that I alone can change the world, that I alone am special and capable of being a savior is incredibly dangerous.
And pride is always comparative.
Notice that when we take pride in our good deeds and accomplishments that it’s not about what we do. It’s about what we do and how superior or inferior it seems compared to the next guy.
My analogy, from my campus minister, Stephen, is that comparison is dangerous because it results in a dangerous cycle of letting ourselves off the hook from our mistakes because we will always look to the next person and think, “oh, at least I’m not that bad.”
The guy who cheats on his taxes likely tries to answer his critics by saying, “oh, I”m not like that person, who murdered someone.” But what does the murderer say? At least I’m not Hitler?
The way we compare our mistakes and our sins are as dangerous as the way we compare our accomplishments
Think about the last time you boasted in something great you did, like getting a good grade on a test or that great job you had. Was there any moment in that boasting when you didn’t look to the next person and think of how much better you were than that person, because of your accomplishments and good deeds?
1 Corinthians 4:6 asks us to not “be puffed up in favor of one against another.” The ego is fragile because we always need a standard to evaluate it against, and that’s why we cannot boast in our egos.
Boasting in our egos means that we always have something to prove.
The self-aware words of Madonna perhaps demonstrate the insufficiencies and unsustainability of this approach best:
“My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that’s always pushing me, pushing me. Because even though I’ve become Somebody. I still have to prove that Somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.” — Keller
According to Keller, what Paul does and thinks is special, and goes one step further past the self-esteem evaluation. Keller’s summary of Paul’s words is that “I don’t care what you think — but I also don’t care what I think of me. I have a very low opinion of your opinion of me — but I have a very low opinion of what I think of me.”
And for those of us that aren’t religious, that are atheists and don’t believe at all in a higher power, that’s the story we have to accept and tell ourselves. I do this, and you probably do this: we say things to critique ourselves that we would never say to others because they’re too cruel. And perhaps the approach isn’t to stop having those thoughts, because that kind of emotional suppression never works, but the approach, instead, is to just have a low opinion of those self-chastising thoughts of shame. And that disregard liberates us.
But here’s my appeal of Christianity
God transforms our sense of self beyond outside opinions of us and our own opinions of ourselves. In a courtroom, we have to justify ourselves before we receive a verdict of innocence vs. guilty.
But in Christ, we have already received the verdict and justification, that Christ has already died for us, so we don’t need to prove ourselves.
God is the only one that can judge us so no one else can judge us, and we can’t judge ourselves. In this way, we are liberated. We are no longer on trial.
“An atheist might say that they get their self-image from being a good person. They are a good person and they hope that eventually, they get a verdict that confirms they’re a good person.” ~ Keller
In most cultures, in most worldviews, our performances lead to the verdict. But in Christ, the verdict leads to our performances. God tells us, in Mark 1:17, that “You are my beloved son; with you, I am well pleased.”
By accepting God, we are accepted into God’s family, and that liberates us to no longer care about the verdict, because we have already received the fact that Jesus Christ died for our sins in trial and saved us.
“Because He loves me and He accepts me, I do not have to do things 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. I can help people to help people — not so I can feel better about myself, not so I can fill up the emptiness.” ~ Keller
Therefore, there is no condemnation for those of us that are in Christ. Now, let us accept that, and live with that knowledge and joy.
Originally published at https://www.theodysseyonline.com on May 20, 2019.