Diary Entry – Tuesday 8th August:
We were walking by the river in Ho Chi Minh City. It was a hot and humid day, but down by the water I didn’t feel so exhausted. The morning had been hard for me. We had been walking the busy streets of District 3, stopping at intervals to pray for different parts of the city around us. ‘We’ being the operative word. I had hung back a little, weaving in and out of the parked mopeds and the pop-up food stalls, making sure that I walked on my own, making sure I didn’t have to pray out loud. I was doing the same now, hanging back or walking ahead. I kept trying to make excuses not pray: ‘I have depression, I can’t be expected to do this’, ‘I’m exhausted’, ‘I can’t think straight’, ‘It’s too loud for the others to hear my voice when I pray’, ‘I’m a fairly new Christian, I’m not used to praying out loud’, ‘I just can’t do it’. I stayed quiet the whole time as I felt my mind slipping into a cycle of unhelpful thoughts. But there was no denying it, the only thing stopping me from praying out loud was that I didn’t want to. I was looking at myself rather than looking at God.
Can you see it? Every thought that I wrote down in the diary entry above was centred around myself. Granted, having depression most definitely makes things harder and there are many genuine reasons for struggling with things like praying out loud, but at this point I was using my depression as a mere excuse. Just as I was using my quiet voice and the climate of Ho Chi Minh City too. My focus throughout that whole morning was upon how I felt, how comfortable I was and how much I wanted to take part. I was being self focussed. And this, I came to realise, was my default. Count how many times I use the word ‘I’ compared to how many times I use the word ‘God’. In praying, the focus is God, after all, prayer is speaking to God. And yet for me, all the focus had shifted to myself.
It was in situations like this in Vietnam that I came to realise how self focussed I was. I had become so preoccupied with how I felt, excusing any selfishness with the poor state of my mental health. I had stopped serving others, and I had stopped praying for others too. I had forgotten what it meant to love others before myself.
I care very little if I am judged by you or 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.
1 Corinthians 4:3
In this extract from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the model we are given presents a state of mind that is so very different from the self-focussed nature that I had come to see in myself. This model is self forgetfulness.
Timothy Keller uses the bible verse above in his book The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness, to demonstrate the biblical call to follow Christ. Having been leant this book just before our trip to Vietnam, I was reminded again and again of this freedom, as again and again I battled the self focussed and self hateful thoughts that my depression had been triggered by and that my depression was making worse.
Before reading this book and before going to Vietnam, I had thought that being a self focussed person was the same as being a self loving person. The phrase self focused would bring to mind the image of a person with a great deal of pride, boasting of themselves and praising their achievements. In my warped reasoning, I had come to see the self hatred I saw in myself as a form of humility. I loved others more than myself, surely that was humility?
In The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness Timothy Keller talks about true humility, humility demonstrated in the gospel of Jesus Christ:
A truly gospel-humble person is not a self hating person or a self loving person but a… self forgetful person, whose ego is just like his or her toes.
The thing is, in my self hatred, I wasn’t becoming more humble, looking outward to how I could serve others, I was becoming more self focussed, preoccupied by my own needs and feelings, rather than the needs of those around me.
And whilst it might seem freeing to live by what I want and how I feel, being so self focussed was becoming a cage to me. In each situation I would be looking inwardly, listening to my own unhelpful thoughts and anxieties. Keller challenges this mode of thinking with something so completely different:
True gospel-humility means stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness.
In Vietnam, when I felt so small in light of God and the world he created, I began to understand, more and more, this freedom of self forgetfulness. Being there as a team, we were learning again the need to be more self sacrificial, more considerate of others and ready to support one another in times of need. I can’t be thankful enough to the rest of the team and the encouragement and support they gave me. In the midst of my depression, in the middle of a country which I had never before been to, I, for once, didn’t feel scared.
In the last few days of our trip, we did another prayer walk in Ho Chi Minh city. This time, having noticed how self focussed I had become, I couldn’t ignore the fact that any reason I found not to pray was merely an excuse to place my desires above those of God. So I steeled myself, asked God for his help and I prayed. And with each prayer that each member of the team spoke, I could feel that freedom sinking in, the freedom of self forgetfulness, the freedom of turning away from myself and turning back to God.
Again and again, God was bringing me home. Again and again in Vietnam, I was learning what it meant to be self forgetful and not self focussed, outward looking and not inward looking, gospel centred and not self centred.
This is gospel-humility, blessed self forgetfulness. Not thinking more of myself as in modern cultures, or less of myself as in traditional cultures. Simply thinking of myself less.