Paul writes in 3:2 For men shall be lovers of their own selves…
A man is what his heart is set upon, and throughout the last days of grace, his heart shall be set upon himself. Men shall be lovers of their own selves. Men shall love self in greater numbers and to a higher degree than ever before.
This is an excessive, extreme self-love. This is the first characteristic mentioned in a list of 20 characteristics of what men shall be like in the last days. Love of self is listed first because it is the most important. All of the 19 characteristics, listed after this one, are the inevitable, predictable behaviors that spring from an extreme excessive self-love. Self-love is the cause and all the other 19 characteristics are the result. The last days of grace will prove that everything Ayn Rand ever advocated about the value of selfishness was hopelessly wrong, because to indulge in extreme selfishness is to abandon all morality, to abandon all decency, to lose all natural affection for others, to completely disregard the happiness and rights of others, to actually hate those who do good, to trample upon anyone who interferes with his self-interests, all done in pursuit of the gratification of self.
I noticed that there are a number of books and a lot of websites that advocate that this verse is talking about narcissism. At first, it sure sounds reasonable. Wikipedia’s definition of narcissism is “the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s idealized self-image and attributes. This includes self-flattery, perfectionism, and arrogance. The term originated from Greek mythology, where the young Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. Narcissism is a concept in psychoanalytic theory, which was popularly introduced in Sigmund Freud‘s essay On Narcissism (1914). The American Psychiatric Association has listed the classification narcissistic personality disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) since 1968, drawing on the historical concept of megalomania.” That sure sounds a lot like what Paul is talking about here, doesn’t it?
Not only that, I came across a few articles, like this one from a few years ago in the Atlantic called The Internet ‘Narcissism Epidemic’. They wrote that “We are in the midst of a ‘narcissism epidemic,’ concluded psychologists Jean M. Twnege and W. Keith Campbell in their 2009 book. One study they describe showed that among a group of 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as quickly as obesity from the 1980s to the present.” One psychologist had said that “narcissism levels among millennials are higher than previous generations.”
I once spoke with a friend of mine who has 3 master’s degrees in psychology. I asked him if these 19 characteristics came across to him as symptomatic of narcissism.
This gave him pause.
The first thing he said was “variables.” The definition of narcissism will change over time. Not everyone in the world prescribes to the American classification of a narcissistic personality disorder. There are variables in the degrees to which one may exhibit narcissistic traits. There are variables in the behaviors. There are variables in how often and how long they may exhibit those behaviors. It’s also a hard pill to swallow to suggest that most men around the globe will all have a specific diagnosable personality disorder.
To me, this verse speaks so broadly about excessive self-love that it could also include other concepts like egocentrism, egoism, or even megalomania. After a long conversation, I concluded that, at the end of the day, it’s best to keep God’s Word separate from man-made psychological classifications. God doesn’t need psychology to validate His Word. Rather than looking outside for validation, we simply stay focused on the Bible itself. We take God’s Word at face value by faith within the framework of the context and we compare Scripture with Scripture while also rightly dividing His Word.
Self-love has long been a debate between psychology and Christianity, which roughly originated in the 1950’s. In the 1950’s, a theologian by the name of Reinhold Niebuhr asserted the biblical fact that original sin is self-love, pride, and pretension. Psychologist Carl Rogers reacted against that, and he said, “No, people’s problems are because” – and I quote from Rogers – “they despise themselves, regard themselves as worthless and unlovable.” End quote.
In other words, the theologian said the problem is pride and self-love, and the psychologist said the problem is a lack of self-love and a lack of pride.
One article I came across highlighted a faith-based book from years ago about psychology called “Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith” written by David Myers and Malcolm Jeeves under the auspices of the Christian College Coalition. I have not read this book, but they have a chapter called “A New Look at Pride.” The basis of this chapter was to collect all this psychological data from the secular world to see if it affirms that man’s basic problem is that he doesn’t love himself enough. What they discovered was that not loving himself enough was absolutely not the problem at all. None of the data would support that notion.
They discovered in all of this psychological testing that there is, in fact, a pervasive pride. There is a dominant self-love in men, just the opposite of what they were taught, and that man is basically self-serving, self-loving, self-justifying, and he is so overwhelmed with that bias that it controls almost everything he thinks and everything he does.
Here’s a quote from the book. “Time and time again experimenters have found that people readily accept credit when told they have succeeded, yet they attribute failure to external factors such as bad luck or the problem’s inherent impossibility.”
In other words, when taking a test, if they are successful, they take the credit. If they fail, they blame something else. Typical of people, is it not?
They write, “These self-serving attributions have been observed not only in the laboratory situations, but also with athletes after victory or defeat, students after high or low exam grades, drivers after accidents, and married people among whom conflict often derives from deceiving oneself as contributing more and benefiting less than is fair in the relationship.”
There was also a “self-concept researcher” by the name of Anthony Greenwald who once wrote, “People experience life through a self-centered filter.” The problem is not they don’t love themselves enough, the problem is they love themselves too much. They’re not even realistic about themselves. In virtually any area that is both subjective and socially desirable, most people see themselves as better than average. When tested, most business people see themselves as more ethical than the average business person. Most community residents see themselves as less prejudiced than their neighbors. Most people see themselves as more intelligent, more moral, and generally more superior than most other people.
Of course, all of this brings to mind Php. 2:21, “For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” For the unbeliever, pursuit of self-interest trumps pursuit of God and His will.
But does the Bible ever teach us self-love?
I did a Google search for “Love yourself,” and do you know how many results came back? Over 3 billion. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to read it all.
No matter how much you love yourself the world insists that you must love yourself more, and because the world is now so vocal about loving yourself, the church at large has taken up this mantra now because of the many verses in the so-called New Testament stating that we should love thy neighbor as thyself.
Of course, that expression finds its origin in the law of Moses in Lev. 19. Notice what is said in these verses:
Lev 19:17 Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart (a constant hatred of your brother leads to sin, leads to wrongdoing, violence, murder, etc.): thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him (in other words do not hold a grudge against your brother, hammering him endlessly about a wrong that was done. Forgive. Forget. And autoflush.). Lev 19:18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.
Notice who the neighbors were. The neighbors were fellow Israelites. He didn’t mean their neighbor’s children. He meant that their Jewish neighbors were the children of thy people. They were all descendants of father Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob and others. They were all brothers and sisters as Jews. If they were living in the promised land, then all their neighbors would naturally be Jews, would they not? So their Jewish neighbors were to always be loved as family.
Notice, too, why they were to love their neighbor. They were to love their neighbor because of who and what they were. They were God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel, who were in a covenant relationshio with Jehovah-God, and out of that reality, they found their love of self. They loved themselves because of who and what they were, of what God had made them to be as His chosen people in a covenant relationship with Him. Their love of self was intimately tied to their identification with the Lord as part of the nation of Israel.
Consider a moment in the Gospels in which the Lord references this law.
Mat 22:34 But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Mat 22:35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Mat 22:36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Mat 22:37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. Mat 22:38 This is the first and great commandment. Mat 22:39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Mat 22:40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Who’s the Lord talking to here? The Jews, the Pharisees.
Who were the neighbors? The Jews, because the law itself said that the neighbors were the children of thy people.
Why were they to love their neighbor? This was the second great commandment, and the Jews were obligated to fulfill that law because of who and what they were, as God’s chosen people. Because of their covenant relationship with God, they had a responsibility to Him to fulfill that law. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
How did these sinful Jewish human beings find a love of self? They loved themselves because of who and what they were, of what God had made them to be as His chosen people in a covenant relationship with Him.
Paul himself would say that we should love our neighbors as ourselves:
Rom 13:8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. Rom 13:9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Rom 13:10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
So for us, who are our neighbors? One could make the case that because Paul says in vs. 8 to love one another, the context bears out that he’s talking about fellow Christians, but I would suggest that Paul means everyone, believer and unbeliever alike. The heathen and other gentiles are our neighbors.
Consider Rom 15:2 Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification. Rom 15:3 For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me. Who are our neighbors? Everyone, believers and unbelievers alike. We are to love everyone as God has loved us and gave His Son for us as a sacrifice for all our sins.
But where do we believers today find our love of self so that we may love our neighbors as ourselves? I’d suggest that the idea is similar but different than Israel. Our love of self is wrapped up in our identification with Christ. We love ourselves because of who and what we are, because of what God made us in Christ: dead, buried, and risen with His Son, all that we were in Adam now gone, literally freed from sin’s dominion, forgiven all trespasses, a new creature, an heir of God with a seat of glory in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
My psychologist friend asked me if I loved myself. I told him, “I love what God has made me in Christ.” And that is true. I love the new man. All that I am now, all the good that I may do, only God can get the glory for any of it because all of it is possible only because of what God accomplished for me and what God has made me in Christ, identified with His Son’s perfect work on the cross. He gave His life for me, so He can give His life to me, and live His life out through me.
This brings to mind2 Cor. 5:15, “And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.” Or Php. 2:4, “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” Or what Paul said of charity in 1 Cor. 13:5. Charity “doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil…”
I should also point out that Paul also speaks of self-love in Ephesians 5:28-30, “So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.” In this illustration of husbands and wives as it relates to Christ and the church, both the husbands and the wives are believers. So when Paul says, He that loveth his wife loveth himself, does he love himself in the same way that he nourishes and cherishes his own body or does he love himself because he is a member of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones? The answer would be YES.
Doug Dodd in an article called, “Learning to Deal with Me” wrote, “Christians are living in perilous times. Dissatisfaction, distress, discomfort, discouragement, despair, depression, divorce, discord, disdain, disgust, dissension, and disobedience are all too common among those people who are called to bear witness to God’s glory and to reflect the image of Christ.
“Countless Christians have turned to professional counselors and psychologists to help them solve their problems of living, but the problems seem to be increasing. There have never been so many books available to Christians in their search for the perfect family, the perfect marriage, and the perfect life. Nevertheless, many Christians fail to reflect the image of Christ in their family, marriage, and life.
“Could it be that the difficulties Christians are facing are related to living in those perilous times of which Paul warned Timothy? 2 Tim. 3:1, ‘This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. 2 For men shall be lovers of their own selves…’ People are perishing because of love—self-love. They have been taught by modern psychological experts that they should love themselves. They have been told that unless they love themselves, they cannot love others. ‘You need to love yourself.’ Radio psychologists and preachers pound the airwaves with such advice. Love yourself. Esteem yourself. Honor yourself. You are worth it.
“But the experts forget Jer. 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? 10 I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings…
“But, notice what comes from people becoming ‘lovers of their own selves.’ In the verses following… 2 Tim 3:2, ‘For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good 4 Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;’
A quick view of the words following ‘lovers of their own selves’ reveals a very sinful state of existence as well as sinful attitudes and sinful actions. Love of self is so powerful that ‘lovers of their own selves’ are ‘lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God.’
“Folks… People suffer from unhappiness and problems of living because they have become ‘lovers of their own selves’ and ‘lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God.’ The sinful inclination of humanity is to love self more than God and other people. Selfishness clings to human nature and breeds covetousness, breeds lust, breeds pride, breeds arrogance, breeds disrespect for God, breeds disobedience to parents, breeds lack of gratitude, breeds deceit, and it breeds both desire and contention for one’s own way. Selfishness leads to false accusations, which are rampant as people have been encouraged to blame their parents, circumstances, and everything else but themselves for their predicaments.
“Could it be that people are trying to grow and improve themselves and their circumstances without touching the root of the problem? Could it be that love for self is lurking beneath even the most benevolent gesture and behind the most fervent prayer? What kind of personal growth are people looking for? What kind of personal growth are YOU looking for? What kind of personal growth am I looking for? Personal growth that will enhance self-esteem? Or personal growth that involves denying self and taking up one’s cross? Personal growth that will affirm their own worth? Or personal growth that will conform to the image of Christ?”