Why Self-forgetfulness is a Poor Paradigm of Sanctification

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I read an article recently that framed sanctification in the paradigm of self-forgetfulness.  See post here for the full article:   http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/2011/12/05/the-gift-of-self-forgetfulness/

It’s been coming more and more apparent that Christians and maybe people in general have no idea what to do with the concept of the self.  Concepts of the self our shaped by so many different cultural and philosophical sources, yet we so often want to simplify the self into one box.

Is the self the embodiment of carnality, selfishness, and pride?   Those who treat sanctification and maturing as a losing of self as the life of Christ takes over would seem to take this position. Here’s a couple snapshots from the post above:

“I’ve said this before but let me say it again: there is nothing in the gospel or about the gospel that encourages me to focus on me. Nothing! It’s never honoring to God when we take our eyes off of Christ “the author and finisher of our faith” and center our eyes on ourselves. Never!”

“Any version of “the gospel”, therefore, that encourages you to think about yourself is detrimental to your faith-whether it’s your failures or your successes; your good works or your bad works; your strengths or your weaknesses; your obedience or your disobedience.”

“Sanctification is forgetting about yourself.”

Those are strong statements.  And if the self is only that which needs to “go away” or be eradicated or destroyed, all of this would probably be right on.

Only – we need to be careful when we talk about self because it’s not just a theological term equated with depravity and corruption of sin.  Self involves identity and the image of God – those things that shape who we are and how we relate to those around us.

Self does not always equate to selfishness, self includes things that can’t and should not be forgotten.To forget yourself in this way actually brings up some associations and elements of eastern religions (such as Buddhism among others) where true spirituality is found through a detachment from self or the world or other things. Sanctification and maturity for the Christ follower is more holistic than the self-forgetfulness paradigm would reinforce.

Now where I agree with the author is that a person’s eyes are to be always on Jesus.  And we are not to be self-absorbed and narcissistic in where our focus is. Many would be far better off if they heeded some of this advice to take their eyes off the self and kept them on Jesus.

But it is a logical fallacy that keeping your eyes on Jesus means the forgetting of self.  To equate spiritual maturity with the degree to which self is forgotten is really unfortunate and I think it’s destructive and towards the dehumanizing side of things.

We live life out of our sense of self, it’s an existential reality.  We can’t do anything outside of that reality that we have a self and it has different dimensions to it that shape our identity.   We need not forget ourselves just to keep our eyes on Jesus.  It is when we see our selves as our master that we run aground and fail to remember that we can only serve one Master.

Encouraging people that true spirituality is a rejection in ways of who they are where they just lose themselves in Jesus is profoundly unbiblical in my mind and actually unspiritual too.  It’s an attractive thought to many and it sounds so spiritual and amazing – except for that it’s not.  There’s a lot of movements in the history of the church that haven’t done so well with the rejection of a lot of the parts that make us human. Equating this perspective of self-forgetfulness with the “true gospel” when it’s framed the way it is I don’t think is super helpful to those seeking to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, and mind.

There’s a piece here to where such a philosophy (and it does have philosophical and not just “biblical” underpinnings) is also often ethno-centric.  Majority culture folks don’t often think about identity – because they don’t often have too.  For evangelicals identity is mostly viewed through almost an exclusively positional lens:  who you are in Christ and who you are outside of Christ (which is of great importance). Part of this is because evangelicals haven’t always had to reflect significantly on identity with its majority culture roots so self is simplified into one or two boxes.

That’s one dimension and many are on a journey to find themselves and understand who they are.  And I would agree with the author and others that we can only discover who we really are in Christ, but I would add also that it can only happen as we enter into who God has made us and how we have been shaped and what it means to keep Jesus the center out of who we are. It doesn’t help people enter into their God-given identity to establish as spiritual the absolute forgetfulness of their identity.

That – and I’m pretty sure Jesus worshiped out of his human identity, not in spite of it.

It is a beautiful thing that when we are in worship and we enter that space where we are freed from self-obsession and self-worship and narcissism to be in Christ and experience Him as the source and Master of our lives.   But those moments are meaningful only in the context of our self, our sense of identity that He has been sovereignly at work shaping and revealing to us.

We fix our eyes on Jesus (Heb 12:2) out of our self, our identity, not because we are in increasing measure forgetting ourselves.

So don’t self-obsess, but don’t self-forget.  Your worship will flow out of your sense of self, not out of it’s destruction or disappearance.

But I rejoice that we can fully agree that our eyes must be on Christ alone if we are to be anchored in His presence and will.  I have no doubt the worship and Lordship of Christ is a shared goal.  I’m just pretty sure Jesus wants to bring my self to the party and not leave it behind.

 What thoughts do you have?  How would you frame sanctification as it relates to “self”?

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