There can be no doubt that many, many people are experiencing identity crises these days. How people see themselves is usually determined by what other people think about them, or else it becomes something that they set a standard for themselves. Of course, the “high self-esteem” gurus have held the field for decades now. The problem, they say, is that people simply have too low a self-esteem, and that we need to encourage people to build up their self-esteem. Is this the answer?
While I have several important theological differences with Tim Keller, the little booklet he wrote called The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is not one of them. He starts off discussing the problem of self-esteem, and, quoting Lauren Slater’s New York Times article of 2002, notes that it is rather high self-esteem, or hubris, or pride, that seems to be the problem, whether it is that someone has an over-inflated view of themselves, or an under-inflated (implying a previously inflated) view. The imagery of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3-4 describing ego and hubris uses the amusing metaphor of bellows at a forge: empty, painful, busy, and fragile.
The biggest problems in this area are that we look for approval in the wrong places, and by the wrong people. A blogger can write just to please his readership and get that many more hits. Or, a preacher can tell a congregation what their itching ears want to hear. The problem, as Keller points out, is that looking for approval in these places is a black hole (citing the example of Madonna’s rather honest self-portraiture), a bottomless pit that can never be filled.
What matters is not how other people evaluate us, nor how we evaluate ourselves, but what God says about us. This simultaneously results in a feeling of being filled, contrary to the bottomless emptiness of what humanity can do in ascribing worth to people; and also, a justification in God’s courtroom. Keller connects true biblical self-worth to justification. We are worth what God says we are worth, and His declaration of innocence (Keller mentions the imputation of Christ’s righteousness) defines our worth. The quote of the book is on page 39:
For the Buddhist…performance leads to the verdict. If you are a Muslim, performance leads to the verdict. All this means that every day, you are in the courtroom, every day you are on trial. That is the problem. But Paul is saying that Christianity, the verdict leads to performance.
Of course, Keller is not addressing the fine-tuned discussions between Westminster East and Westminster West about the relative order and relationship of justification and sanctification. At any rate, contrary to the contemporary grace movement, Keller does not shy away from performance. One might wish that he would have included a statement to the effect that even the performance is based on the enabling grace of God. Presumably, however, he would not disagree with that. All in all, a helpful little exposition of 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7.