An Honest Look at Humility and Pride

Author: Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller’s The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness is a short (fifty page) work that focuses on the freedom in true humility. It’s crafted in three sections: The Natural Condition of the Human Ego, The Transformed View of Self, and finally, How to Get That Transformed View Of Self. The base for this work is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 3:21 – 4:7):

So then, no more boasting about men! 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. So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. 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 are 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 till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. Now, brothers, 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 take pride in one man over against another. For what 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?

Ford Madox Brown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout this short work, Keller hits the high points in this passage, explaining the human nature of pride and how it ultimately divides Christians from one another and from God. Pride, however, is closely linked in our culture to self-esteem and humility to humiliation. These are topics that make the modern reader shy away from the abject language of reliance on God, of no good thing being in ourselves. Keller walks us through the ancient world’s perceptions of pride and into the difference between humility and self-esteem.

Keller is not saying that we should degenerate ourselves, but that humility is a realistic view of self. Having “pride” in doing a job well is not the same thing as the sin of “pride,” and while the language is the same on the surface, the meaning is complicated and tied into our own tainted desire for freedom, a freedom we think we will get through independence, but that really comes from dependence on God and a realistic look at our fallen natures, made perfect only by Jesus’ sacrifice, not anything we do or are. Likewise, humility isn’t necessarily not caring what others think – this indeed is its own form of pride.

The rest of the book breaks down this principle and then concludes with a brief section where Keller talks about application – about accepting our ultimate validation from God. This leads to performance – to living and acting for God, to accepting the freedom of humility and that Jesus died for us and redeemed us, instead of placing our own reliance, our pride, in ourselves.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness is a quick read. It’s hardly in-depth, but it holds a lot of nuanced understanding and a common-sense, straight-forward explanation that resonates and stays with the reader. This is a great place to start a study on understanding pride and humility.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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