2 Timothy 3:2-3 warns about the dangers that lie ahead for the people of God. Paul says,
2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God
Here is a list of 18 or 19 vices – depending on how you count. I will not go over all of them, but it is fascinating to notice the bookends of this list. At the front of the list are the “lovers of self” and at the back of the list are the “lovers of pleasure.” Everything in between is bracketed by these two descriptors.
We can therefore conclude that the prime issue that leads to pride, arrogance, slander and the other negative issues Paul mentions is self-love. We should also notice that the word “love” is used 5 times in this passage. Please note the lovers of self, those not loving the good, the lovers of money, the lovers of pleasure and then finally, opposed to all of this are the lovers of God.
Furthermore, Paul adds the word, “heartless”. Those who are heartless lack compassion for, or love for others. And so, Paul’s intention becomes obvious. He has begun by telling Timothy that in the last days, times of difficulty will arise. The word for “difficulty can also be translated at “dangerous” or even “violent” There is, says Paul, a dangerous road ahead for the people of God. And then he tells Timothy why. The great danger is in our affections. It consists in what or whom we love.
In the early 5th century, the great Christian teacher, Augustine of Hippo wrote a book entitled “City of God”. Augustine said there has always been before the human race – membership in one of two cities. The city of man is characterized by a love of self and a hatred of God – whereas the city of God is characterized by a love of God and a hatred of self.
Many contemporaries will find this to be an impossible dichotomy. We live in a culture that has made self love into a virtue and not a vice. That teaching has also found its way deeply into the church. Gone is the dichotomy that Paul painted in 2 Timothy 3, and in its place is a happy unity in which both love of God and love of self are made to peacefully co-exist.
But someone may well protest, “Doesn’t the Bible tell us to love others as we love ourselves?” Yes it does! “Well then, if so, doesn’t that mean we have to love ourselves before we can love others?” No it does not!
The Bible says, “No one ever hated his own flesh, but he nourishes and cherishes it.” That means we all demonstrate that we love ourselves by the fact that we feed ourselves and clothe ourselves. To see someone loving others as they love themselves would be a truly remarkable thing indeed. If I am concerned that I feed myself, it would indeed be remarkable if I had the same concern for others.
There is so much more that could be said. Is it possible that Blaise Pascal was right, when he remarked that suicide is the ultimate act of self-love, not of self-abasement? Is it also true, that most of us don’t suffer self-loathing, but that most of us assume we are above average? Furthermore, does valuing the love of God over the love of self, finally free us to value the love of God? I think so.