A couple days ago I wrote about my bold position on self-interest in the Bible. I gave verses that point to one’s own life as the standard of value. One reader responded with a set of verses that seem to deny self-interest. Today I’ll explain one of them: 2 Timothy 3:2.
“People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy…”
The verse condemns wicked people for being “lovers of self.”
In light of this verse, should I change my view on self-interest? As a reminder, I believe:
1) The Bible shows self-interest as our main reason to follow God.
2) God operates out of self-interest, and he expects us to as well.
Is there a contradiction here?
To understand 2 Timothy 3:2 we must realize “love of self” can take more than one meaning. We learn the sense of the phrase by looking at:
1) The surrounding context (2 Tim 3:1-9)
2) Other places in which this author speaks of “love of self” (i.e. Ephesians 5:28-32)
Let’s look first at Ephesians:
28So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself;
29for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church,
30because we are members of His body.
31For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.
32This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.
33Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.
What can we gather about “love of self” from this passage?
1) A man ought to love his wife because this means loving himself (v. 28).
2) Paul seems both to assume and approve of the fact that people love their own flesh, nourish it, and cherish it (v. 29).
3) Men should love their wives as they love themselves (v. 33).
In light of the above points, let’s look now at 2 Timothy 3:2. If Paul holds consistent views, we already know he is not condemning all kinds of “love of self.” He must mean it in a particular sense. What sense? Here the broader context helps.
2 Timothy 3:1-9:
1But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.
2People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,
3without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—
5having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
6They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires,
7always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.
8Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected.
9But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone.
The passage speaks of a set of vices that includes greed, arrogance, covetousness, unholiness, deceit, and hatred. Paul is describing trouble-makers who live by manipulation of others. He condemns them for being “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God.”
What is their error? They have love for themselves, but no place for God or others. They think only of their own immediate pleasure. In this context, to be a “lover of self” means to be “only a lover of self.” The main problem: not loving God or others.
Paul concludes that “they will not get very far” (v. 9). In saying this, Paul shows that there is no self-interest in their folly.
Paul is not condemning self-interest.
While the passage seems to pose a challenge to the scriptural principle of rational self-interest, in fact it does accord with the rest of Scripture. “Lovers of self” stands for the idea of loving pleasure rather than God. Paul has not here set out to explain the concept of “love of self.” In fact, his goal is to condemn a person who’s own actions are self-destructive (v. 9). Paul assumes the reader will understand his meaning. The rest of the passage lays it out.