The Gift of Self-Forgetfulness

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace.

Todd Brewer / 10.18.22

Habits and expectations are hard to shake loose. For anyone who has been pigeonholed by family, friends, or coworkers, who we are said to be can feel more like a curse than a blessing. On the flip side, striving to break free and become someone different has its own burdens, riddled with indelible failures along the way. Put your best self forward and your worst self looms half a step behind. Or closer.

As explained by theologian Oswald Bayer in his book Living by Faith, this is precisely where Martin Luther’s great insights about justification by grace through faith have real, down-to-earth payoff:


Those who are born anew are no longer entangled with themselves. They are solidly freed from this entanglement, from the self-reflection that always seeks what belongs to itself. This is not a deadening of self. It does not flee from thought and responsibility. No, it is the gift of self-forgetfulness. The passive righteousness of faith tells us: You do not concern yourself at all! In that God does what is decisive in us, we may live outside ourselves and solely in him. Thus, we are hidden from ourselves, and removed from the judgment of other or the judgment of ourselves about ourselves as a final judgment. “Who am I?” Such self-reflection never finds peace in itself. Resolution comes only in the prayer to which Bonhoeffer surrendered it and in which he was content to leave it. “Who am I? Thou knowest me. I am thine, O God!”

This new way of existing cannot secure itself, just as it is the liberation from all efforts at self-stabilization and self-organization. Even physically we cannot for a single moment with our own resources continue to exist and not perish. We could not live if breath was not constantly given to us and never withheld for a moment. Similarly, our new way of existing has its reality only in the breathing of prayer. “Pray God that he may work faith in you. Otherwise you will surely remain forever without faith, regardless of what you may think or do” (Martin Luther). The Lutheran Tobias Clausnitzer (1618-1684) has left us a prayer of this kind that is now a hymn:

All our knowledge, sense, and sight
Lie in deepest darkness shrouded
Till your Spirit breaks the night,
Filling us with light unclouded.
All good thoughts and all good living
Come but by your gracious giving.

The desire to seek self-assurance and to find one’s identity can lead only into the darkness of uncertainty. Faith, however, involves liberation from the drive for self-assurance and therefore from uncertainty. It means liberation from the search for identity and its attempted discovery. In prayer I am led away from myself. I am torn away from self and set outside the self with its abilities and judgments. I may look away from myself. “Pay no regard to what you yourself are” (Jochen Klepper). At this basic and decisive point and place, here where my existence is grounded, I may look away from myself and have absolutely nothing to do with self. “For faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times.” It is “more sure and certain than all experience and life itself” (Luther).

Faith is a venture. Yet we do not venture into the void — “take a chance and see what you get” (Luther). We should not compare it with throwing a stone at random. As confidence in the grace of God, faith is a well-founded risk. … “This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all other creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith” (Luther).

This boldness is not at all subjective, but rather it is something upon which we can rely and depend. It is already there at hand, so that we can hold onto it. The boldness of faith lies in the word that is given to it. That is why Luther can say that the sure and certain confidence and knowledge of divine grace can make us joyful and bold, taking pleasure in God and all other creatures.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


One response to “The Gift of Self-Forgetfulness”

  1. Joey Goodall says:

    Love this. Thanks for posting, Todd!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *