I forget a lot of things—where I’ve put my keys, what time appointments are scheduled, and most embarrassingly, the names of people I’ve met. Inevitably, when I try to remember the name of a new professional acquaintance or the parent of my daughter’s classmate, it’s as if I’m standing at the refrigerator door, scanning the shelves for ketchup and muttering, “I know it has to be in here somewhere.”
Like all working parents, my brain is like an overloaded rickshaw: too many passengers, too much luggage. Something must give. And motherhood can only be partially blamed for my fits of amnesia. We live in a forgetful age. Our technology, endowed with gigabytes of memory, is tasked with remembering for us. We no longer store the data we once did: phone numbers, directions, the ingredients in our favorite recipe.
Nicholas Carr, in his book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, discusses the unintended consequences of that choice—the power we give to machines. One ominous example is in a plane’s cockpit: While automated flying provides many benefits, it is also cause for accidents. Research proves that pilots have learned to rely too much on the computerized system. It makes them careless and causes them to mistrust their own sensory evidence. And when systems fail, some pilots are—to passengers’ peril—out of practice. They’ve forgotten how to fly.
THE REFLEX OF MEMORY
For many different reasons, we forget the very things we intend to remember—even things upon which our lives depend. But here’s something none of us seem inclined to forget: ourselves. We don’t forget our birthdays or how we like steak prepared. We remember our shoe size and favorite ice cream topping. We keep careful records of personal achievements and public failures.
Front and center in both our short- and long-term memory is the self—which, in spiritual terms, can be disastrous. “The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first—wanting to be the centre—wanting to be God, in fact,” writes C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. He believed that the self served as the prefix for a host of human sins and that the Christian task of repentance was “unlearning of all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years.”
No doubt the human story, as recorded in Scripture, is a violent coup mounted by the self. The self wants an “Easy Street” life. The self feels owed convenience and comfort. The self is grateful for too little, greedy for too much.
The self wants an “Easy Street” life. The self feels owed convenience and comfort. The self is grateful for too little, greedy for too much.
SELF-HATRED: VIRTUE OR VICE?
If the self is to be blamed for human rebellion, does this mean we are to hate ourselves? Certainly, the impulse toward self-loathing (and physical self-harm) has thrived at certain points of Christian history. Hermits and monks, who fled to the wilderness beginning in the third century, sought solitude and self-sacrifice. Many chose practices of extreme asceticism, renouncing all forms of pleasure.
But Jesus was no masochist. His first miracle, performed at a wedding, wasn’t the provision of healing, but celebration. He also saw to His physical needs: He withdrew to eat and sleep. And when the time came for Him to die, He didn’t march into Pilate’s palace with arms outstretched, begging to be crucified. He wept to consider His own suffering and even pleaded for another way (Matt. 26:36-46). Jesus’ example dismisses the “virtue” of self-hatred. But it does reveal a better way—self-forgetfulness.
Jesus’ self-forgetfulness is modeled in John 4 in a Samaritan village. He knows the woman’s backstory: She has been married five times and is now living with a man who is not her husband. The conversation turns in many different directions—her personal story, her theological questions. And when the disciples finally return with the lunch they’d gone into town to buy, they are shocked by Jesus’ open interaction with this woman. “Rabbi, eat,” they urge (John 4:31).
“I have food to eat that you do not know about,” Jesus replies.
In this moment, He has forgotten His hunger pangs. Literally, He’s forgotten Himself. And it’s not heat stroke that causes the onset of sudden amnesia—it is His Father’s mission: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34). In His attention to ministry, Jesus has dumped the bulky baggage of self-preoccupation.
As Tim Keller says, “The essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.” Self-forgetfulness is putting God and neighbor front and center in our hearts and minds. It is also remembering to love.
PRAYER FOR THE SELF-PREOCCUPIED
If we aren’t asked to hate ourselves, neither should we pretend our needs don’t matter. Indeed, Jesus instructs us to pray for daily bread. Yet as we see in the Lord’s Prayer, personal petitions aren’t the first priority—praise is. As N.T. Wright explains in his book The Lord and His Prayer, “If we linger [in the Lord’s Prayer], we may find our priorities quietly turned inside out. The contents may remain; the order will change. With that change, we move at last from paranoia to prayer; from fuss to faith.”
“Our Father in heaven” is one antidote to the anxious self-preoccupation that keeps us awake at night, wringing our hands about the future. And “Your kingdom come” orients our petitions towards God’s greater work in the world. Prayer fertilizes the steadfast trust in which healthy self-forgetfulness grows. If God preoccupies Himself with us, what worries should we carry? (See Matt. 6:32-33.)
To pray is to self-forget. And as we pray, we rely on the memory of God—who never forgets a name or need.
Illustration by Dan Page