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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16 thoughts on “Why Self-forgetfulness is a Poor Paradigm of Sanctification”

  1. Such an important post.  I think the “self” is so misunderstood in Christian contexts, and people are afraid of it, or falsely dichotomize it, etc.  People really struggle to see beyond a simplistic, individualistic concept of self, to a more holistic, complex, and mature sense of what that can (and should) mean.  In fact, I think this is one of the biggest causes of confusion, misunderstanding, and angst that I see in people today.  Glad you highlighted it like you did here.

    1. thanks man, I agree.  people swing between viewpoints that self = self-help or that self = the essence of sinful man, but the dichotomizing is rampant for sure

  2. I am so glad that you decided to write a post on this, and that you sent us a link to the original article. I was pretty annoyed after reading the original article, and copied and pasted the same quotes you did to reflect on and respond to. What stuck me was the author’s rigidity, and extreme statements, like “never!” Wow! There is no room to be in process there, no room to bring up another perspective.
           In my own story, finding freedom through Christ to be loved in my identity, and sense of self, has been powerful. To look at my life, story, self, strengths, weaknesses, etc, and to find the gospel changing, healing, loving, and setting free all those places has been truly powerful. It has been as I have opened up myself to that process that i have understood and experienced the gospel, rather than it just being a concept in my mind. And it has been in those places that allow me to love, worship, and keep my eyes on Christ even more!
           I keep thinking about what you said earlier in our SPLC this fall, the concept that we bring our stories and our “self” everywhere we go. Ignoring and denying it does not mean that our identity formation, story, and self is not at work in our behaviors, thinking, and reactions. And I am starting to learn that when I recognize my story and self at work in my daily interactions, and allow the Holy Spirit to give me self-control and clarity,and freedom in those things, than I can truly live out the gospel. It is working through what’s going on in my “self” that allows me to see Christ for who he really is, because I have experienced the gospel change me!

    1. great thoughts laura! appreciate them.  Some of this is semantics and that’s part of the problem.  If people talk about the self as if it’s unspiritual (which that post clearly does), then that’s where you end up.  I also wonder if some of this flows from such a doctrinal conviction of what the depravity of man mans.  If the self is all-bad, then your picture of sanctification flows from that.  But self is more than spiritual position clearly.

      What bums me out is this type of spirituality, while trying to affirm a good thing – complete dependence on and worship of Christ, ends up undermining what I think is a more complete picture of worship and sanctification as you highlight there so well.  The picture to me that sanctification happens while you forget yourself undermines the concept of stewardship – and that’s what you highlight well. Stewardship of self combined with keeping eyes on Christ is where maturity and sanctification are fostered.

      (also – been starting to think through this a bit more, but there’s a fundamental rejection of human development in favor of a spiritualized perspective of what sanctification is – there’s a lot needed to bring clarity for so man in this area)

  3. Great post, Brian. So true. Sometimes I think as Christians, in a sincere desire to crucify the flesh with its passions and desires, we seek to deny the imago Dei within. Your post captures that beautifully. Thanks.

  4. Great post, Brian. So true. Sometimes I think as Christians, in a sincere desire to crucify the flesh with its passions and desires, we seek to deny the imago Dei within. Your post captures that beautifully. Thanks.

  5. Great post, Brian. So true. Sometimes I think as Christians, in a sincere desire to crucify the flesh with its passions and desires, we seek to deny the imago Dei within. Your post captures that beautifully. Thanks.

  6. Great post Brian.  In some ways, I get where the author was trying to go but I disagree with his premise that self-forgetfulness leads to sanctification.  In many ways, it is the opposite.  I firmly believe that the things we refuse to face within ourselves will have great power over us until we admit their presence.  We must pursue knowledge of self as much as we pursue knowledge of God.  We tend to go one way or the other, excluding knowledge of self and focusing solely on knowledge of God or vice versa.  Both are needed.  

    And you rightly point out that the self isn’t all bad…scripture calls us to steward our lives well.  I don’t see how we can do that if we don’t identify who we are/who God has called us to be.

    I feel a new blog post coming on.  Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. I agree – I think we know the essence of what he’s trying to convey.  That makes it even harder for me or more dangerous of a teaching – because there’s a kernal of truth that obviously has something to it.   I totally agree with your points and also that it is so true that stewardship can’t happen in the context of forgetfulness.   Love your comment to about the things we refuse to face.  We can try to forget ourselves, but those issues or strongholds in our lives never quite seem to forget us do they?  🙂

  7. Really glad you wrote on this topic, Brian.  It is so important and so rarely emphasized. One area that I think gets sadly neglected in the original article’s viewpoint is that if we are to forget the self then that also means our ethnicity and culture is meant to be forgotten too.  Learning to embrace all of who I am, including the culture I was born into, has been a part of my own journey over the last few years.  I like Ken’s comment below because I think that embracing our ethnicity is a part of acknowledging the Imago Dei within.  

    Orlando Crespo, in his book Being Latino in Christ, talks about how our “self” is not separate from our life of faith and obedience. I agree that we don’t need to take our focus off Jesus, but I also agree with you that the there is an either/or perspective in it that isn’t necessary.  

    1. So glad you commented Kristy – I think you are right on. That bothered me too and I think it’s part of this that doesn’t get represented often because some of these theological debates are driven by majority culture voices.  There’s so
      much going on in life that sanctification can’t be relegated to it’s
      it’s own special part of reality.  Human development and identity
      development are part of that maturing process and can’t just be dismissed from the sanctification discussion.  This area has been a growing interest of mine the last several months.

      Always love your thoughts!

  8. So important to teach and talk about. I have thought for a long time, that it would be easier to focus on God, and ignore self and my unigue identity in Him. Knowing and accepting who I am ‘in Christ’ seems the more difficult journey maybe.
    Makes me think about that book, The Gift of Being Yourself. I have always loved the Calvin quote, “There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God.” Also Thomas a Kempis, “a humble self knowledge is a surer way to God than a search after deep learning.”
    But I am simple..
    Good job.

    1. you and matthew below highlight that piece well – its actually easier just to try to worship yourself into oblivion than do the hard work of learning who we are in Christ in our reality, our real life and living out of that in a way that brings glory to God.  Those are great quotes.  Thanks!

  9. Some good points here. I really appreciate your distinctions between self and selfishness (though I think “selfishness” can even be valuable in the short-term, and one could argue that even Jesus was “selfish” at moments, just never self-centered).

    I might add that a failure to look at oneself can and will result in a failure to recognize sin, particularly its roots within the heart that the Spirit is working to draw out and resolve. If you never look to yourself, how do you know if you’re on the right track? How can you even tell if you’re looking to Jesus for your identity or not? 

    I also like your point that the person is far more complex than the Christian subculture wants to make it out to be. There is both the Fallen self and the self that bears the image of God, as well as the habituated self that has learned to be who it is (often unintentionally and without realizing it) through both good and bad teachers and experiences. The brain processes so much on multiple levels, symbolically, somatically, emotionally, intuitively, and so on, and it all happens simultaneously. With this, much happens within the self that isn’t easily explained by just sin, will, the demonic, and the indwelling Spirit. If all you have are those four pieces to human thought, speech, and behavior, your solutions to problems within them become too simplistic to work through many things. Jesus is the answer, but, for example, Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t just a bunch of folks beating Jesus into each other.

    Of course, it is far easier to think of the person as simplistic and much easier to say “Look at God and not at yourself” than it is to deal with the complexity of the person and the messiness that it creates. I think we often eschew the self because a simpler mantra makes us feel more secure. How, then, do we struggle effectively against our fears and tendencies to look for the easy way?

    1. Thanks for jumping in Matthew!  Appreciate those thoughts about the complexity of self and the temptation to oversimplify things for our own comfort.  I totally see that and it does seem quite common in our culture. 

      The more I reflect on some of the perspectives we’ve responded to in this thread, the more it does bother me that in the mentioned post there was the insinuation that the true gospel leaves to room for self.  Seems so much like removing humanity from the gospel (or at least any part of humanity with value to God) and the reference to sanctification does the same thing there – removes the humanity from sanctification and if this were to be the “right” version of the gospel as is argued for, I can’t help but be a bit disturbed by where that would leave us. Seems like much of what makes the gospel meaningful and personal would be erased.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

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