Peter Frankopan is an Oxford academic. He describes how, as a young boy, he had a fascination for maps. Above his bed, pinned to the wall, was a large map of the world. It was among his prized possessions. With it, he memorised the names and locations of faraway countries, their capitals and together with the names of seas and oceans, rivers and mountain ranges.
By the time he reached teenage years he became aware of how his school history classes maintained a rather narrow focus on Western Europe and The United States. After all, from his childhood map, he was familiar with places much further away. His class lessons, he found, covered exclusively British or American topics - the Romans in Britain, the Norman Conquest, Henry VIII, the American War of Independence, Victorian industrialisation, the First World War, Nazi Germany. The list will be familiar to many of you from school days! But, wondered Frankopan, what about the other parts of the world and the huge forgotten regions on the map above his bed?
There is more to history than what happened in Europe and America, however much those events have impacted on our lives. Frankopan goes on to describe his discovery of other maps of the world which were very different from the one which had adorned his bedroom wall; maps where ‘The West’ is no longer at the centre. For example, his father took him to see the Hereford Mappa Mundi which places Jerusalem at the centre, with the UK and the West off at the edge, as if irrelevant. He read of Arab geographers and found their maps to be ‘upside down’ and centred on the Caspian Sea, and a Turkish map centred on a city called Balasaghun, a place of uncertain location until recently and yet so important that it was regarded by many as the very centre of the world.
Where your map is centred says a great deal about your view of the world.
Frankopan describes his growing thirst for knowledge of a world that was no longer centred on where he lived in England, and a growing desire on his part to learn of the great regions of the world left unmentioned in his history classes at school, but featured at the edge of the map in his bedroom.
As I read this account I realised that this shift in Peter Frankopan’s developing thought not only set him free to satisfy his curiosity for a wider world and build a rewarding academic career, but is also a helpful illustration of what ought to happen in the life of the believer. We are set free, by God’s grace, from self-centredness to liberated self-forgetfulness, as our innate pride is dealt with.
Typically, we all come with an ego (a sense of self, our identity) that tends to be super-inflated by pride, and we are aware of it because it is usually protesting in some way or another. Let me illustrate: together with many of you, I suffer from a bad back. Most of the time I do not think about my back. It is just there, quietly doing whatever backs do. I get on with life largely forgetting that I have one. But then my back gets sore and, like most parts of the body, it only draws attention to itself when something is wrong. At that point I can’t stop thinking about it precisely because it is sore!
The human ego usually hurts badly. Why? Because there is something badly wrong with it. It is always drawing attention to itself. It is always calling notice to how we look and how others are treating us. Like my back, it doesn’t hurt until something is wrong with it. We often talk of having hurt feelings, but feelings don’t actually hurt; however, our ego does, our sense of who we are with others.
Our ego spends much of its time comparing itself with others and then boasting. Have you noticed that? It is fuelled by pride - that insatiable desire to be somehow better than everyone else. C.S. Lewis perceptively describes such pride in these words:
‘Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next person. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about.’ (‘Mere Christianity’)
Inevitably the more we suffer from such pride, the less we enjoy life. We cannot simply delight in the simple things of life, we have to have more of them than the next person and show our superiority by posting it on Facebook. Do this enough and we begin to develop a superiority complex, where our mental and spiritual map of reality is centred on me, the most important person. But if we get ‘trumped’ too often by others on the same pride-trip then we might develop an inferiority complex as we sense others much further ahead in life’s competitive game. Notice that an inferiority complex is just a superiority complex that has been deflated. A superiority complex and an inferiority complex are essentially the same, for in each case the mental and spiritual map of reality centres on ‘me’.
It is the unique power of the Gospel to liberate us from that wrongly centred ‘map’ whereby we stop being the centre of everything. Then life can begin to revolve around the God who made us and loves us. Such a transformation liberates us to
truly enjoy life as we begin to manifest the spiritual fruit of humility and self-forgetfulness.
‘…the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.’ So writes Timothy Keller, albeit borrowing from C.S. Lewis. Gospel humility is not about self-loving or self-hating but about self-forgetting. Gospel humility is learning to think about myself less and less. It is learning not to connect everything with myself. It means I can relate to people and go about my everyday life without being utterly preoccupied with how it all makes me look or feel. This is the blessed release of self-forgetfulness.
The self-forgetful person neither fantasises about the success that would put them ‘one over’ everyone else, nor tortures themselves over their mistakes. Only the self-forgetful are free to truly enjoy life, because only they can enjoy things simply for what they are.
How do we get to that point of self-forgetfulness? By recognising that the only verdict on our lives worth paying any attention to is God’s. And His verdict is that, in Christ, He loves me and accepts me.
The Apostle Paul writes to a divided fellowship in Corinth where people were nurturing a false sense of superiority over each other by forming factions. He writes:
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 1 Corinthians 4:3-4
Paul doesn’t care whether the Corinthians speak well or ill of him. He has been liberated from that self-preoccupation. The only verdict worth paying heed to is the one that has been made in Christ.
So, what map is in your head as you live your life - where is its centre?
P.S. The quote from Timothy Keller is from a booklet entitled ‘The Freedom of self-forgetfulness’ and I read about Peter Frankopan in his book entitled ‘The Silk Roads.’