Tim Keller once said, "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less."
Self-forgetfulness is the key to living a happy life.
In the book of Esther, we meet a very interesting character named Haman. He was an extremely successful, wealthy and powerful man. He was second in command to King Xerxes, who ruled over the globe-spanning Persian empire. Haman seemed to have it all, but he was not content with his life.
There was a man named Mordecai in his city who refused to show him respect and would not bow to him. Haman was so enraged by Mordecai's lack of respect that he lost all pleasure in his life, accomplishments and success, all he could think about was destroying Mordecai and his people. He states in Esther 5:13, "Yet all this is worth nothing to me, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.”
Haman is such a fascinating example of a totally self-absorbed person. People who think about themselves all the time don't necessarily have to be outwardly prideful and abrasive, in fact, they might feel quite inferior and insignificant.
The point is that both these types of people, be it the superior type or the interior type, are totally self-absorbed.
Being self-absorbed means that we don't engage our ministry, our job, our volunteer work or whatever else we do with our time for the joy of doing the thing itself, rather we engage in these activities, first and foremost, for how they will reflect on us, for how it will make people think well of us, admire us and praise us. The joy is not in the thing itself but only in the response we get from others.
If we do not receive the admiration and praise we feel we should have, it leads us to becoming resentful and critical of those who have, in our view, "let us down." All the pleasure we might have gained from the service we gave in our ministry or volunteering or career dissolves into bitterness; our joy is gone, and we find ourselves in Haman's shoes.
C.S. Lewis writes in the Screwtape Letters how God wants people to get to the place where one could:
"Design the most beautiful cathedral in the world and know it to be so and rejoice in that fact without being anymore or less glad at having done it than if it had been done by another. Jesus, you see, wants to turn our attention away from 'self' altogether and direct it towards him and our neighbours. Both vainglory and self-contempt equally keep the mind on the 'self' - both therefore lead to contempt of others and cruelty towards others" (C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters).
Whether our personal bent leads towards a sense of superiority or inferiority, both those things keep our minds on ourselves, and then ultimately, leads to joyless lives of never being fully satisfied. We look to people to validate us and never feel our cup is full because we are only ever thinking about ourselves.
What is the answer then?
Well, the answer is to truly take ourselves out of the mix, to just forget about our "approval rating" and engage in life's activities for the joy of the things themselves and not for the praise we might get for doing them.
"Yes, but that's hard," you say, "How do I really practice self-forgetfulness?" Well, interestingly, we can look back to Haman for the answer here.
Haman was asked by the king, "What should I do for the man the king delights to honour?" Haman's response is very interesting. Thinking that he himself is the man the king delights to honour, he suggests that the king should have the king's robes placed on him and that he be led about the city on a horse having someone shout how the king loves this man and honours him.
This might seem like a somewhat pompous request but, in fact, it was not a bad thing to ask for. Having the king's robes placed on your shoulders meant that you were partaking in the kingship; you were loved by the king. You were receiving the praise of the most praiseworthy person in the kingdom. To receive the praise of the praiseworthy is above all else.
Haman, in fact, asked the king for a good thing, it's just that he asked the wrong king. There is a king who is greater and higher, the most wonderful, the most praiseworthy, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords: Jesus. We, as Christians, have had the most praiseworthy King, declare to the world that he loves us with an everlasting love. Jesus had his robe ripped from him at the cross so that he could place his robe of righteousness on us. His actions on the cross proved once and for all his great love for us, and it can never be taken away.
So when we think of our "approval rating," we can know that we are approved of and loved and adopted by the God of all. We can just put it to bed and know from this day on how greatly loved we are; we can stop looking to the "wrong kings" to feel good about ourselves. In fact, we can stop being self-absorbed. We can look outward and engage in our lives' activities for the joy of them and in seeking to help others without constantly being crippled by how people either praise us, or fail to praise us for our work, but rather know without a shadow of a doubt that we are loved and seen and precious to our king and saviour, Jesus.
Self-forgetfulness isn't a way to punish ourselves, no, it is the door to a truly happy life, resting in the love and acceptance of our saviour.