This is part of an ongoing weekly series entitled “The Last Days” where we are examining 2 Timothy 3:1-5. To read the other parts in this series please click on the FAITH section in the menu above. Today we look at the warning “people will be lovers of themselves.”
People will be lovers of themselves? What a strange characteristic to attribute to the terrible times of the last days. It certainly does not fit with the traditional images of Armageddon and chaos most of us probably imagine when we consider the end times. But here it is as simply as it can be stated. One of the primary definers of the terrible times of the last days is that people will be lovers of themselves.
It is easy to see how this would fit to today’s culture and environment. Consider the extent to which our modern materialistic culture is built around the self, or self-centeredness. We have an ‘I”Phone. A “Face”book which features your face. A whole genre of marketing is built around personalizing, customizing, and expressing your world to the “I”-life so that we barely notice how strange this level of self-centeredness is. Most smartphones today include at least two built in portable cameras so that we can capture images of our self, software to doctor the image, and worldwide social network apps to distribute the image through and secure likes and validation. The word of the year in 2013 was “selfie.” That same year Time Magazine defined millennials as the Me, Me, Me, Generation. This is the generation and era of being consumed with self.
It goes beyond our cultural and consumer trends. The love of self is built deep into our psychology and economic models. Self-interest is the foundation of capitalism. In The Wealth of Nations, often considered one of the founding documents of modern capitalism, the economic philosopher Adam Smith explained that self-interest is what drives human beings to act:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations, 1776
Self-interest makes us predictable, dependable and allows economic plans to be built around it. This is the foundation of the modern global economy. We expect each individual to be a lover of self and because of their interest in self they will continue to generate growth and progress that we all benefit from within society.
The original Greek word for lovers of self in this passage from 2 Timothy is philautos which translates to loving oneself or being too intent on one’s self-interest as if predicting Adam Smith’s philosophy that was still more than 1700 years in the future when the Apostle Paul wrote these words.
Democracy is built upon this. In the 1990s Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush for the presidency. One of the famous slogans of his successful campaign was, “It’s the economy, stupid.” In other words, the economy is what we, the voters, care about. Our self-interests are what matter. Every election since, and most of the elections before, have featured the same centrality of self-interest among the voters. Democracy enshrines the self-interests of We the People as the most important element of government. Make your voice heard! Your voice is what matters!
[I did a deep dive into this topic of the Love of Self in a podcast episode some time back. From politics, to psychology, to economics, you might be surprised how deep this rabbit hole goes. Check out this podcast if you want to learn more.]
Our cultural psychology is rooted to an intense love of self. The self-esteem movement of the 1980s grew out of the counseling sessions of frustrated baby boomers who found life more difficult than they imagined it would be after the social revolutions of the 1960s and 70s. By the 1990s the self-esteem movement was becoming entrenched in the education system. Today everyone gets a trophy for playing the game, no one should feel like they have failed, and the self is protected against any form of negative consequences because it is too precious and sensitive to be endangered by the harsh forces of reality.
Today we take for granted how rampant the love of self is in our collective cultural self-image. Phrases like, “the most important thing is your happiness” form an underlying ethos to our society. Happiness is more important than responsibility, rules, and even right and wrong. Right and wrong, ethics, and truth are being reconfigured to fit with the standards of individual happiness. The ongoing culture wars where the definitions of marriage, gender, family and more are being contested are frequently the terrain where the love of self is supplanting a former standard of objective truth or fact.
Consider the transgender debate. A person identifies as a gender different from what their biology, chromosomes and birth certificates state simply because this is the way they feel. Their feelings are more important than facts because the self is the most important of all things.
Never in history has the love of self been so glorified and prioritized on both an individual and global scale.
It’s The Wrong Design
But this is also in direct opposition to the design of God. True, Jesus explained that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves, but there was a presumption that people have no problem at loving or preferring their selves. Although much of our modern pop self-help psychology tries to convince us that loving the self is a struggle we must learn to win, Jesus knew that the reality is everyone naturally loves and defers to their own self-interests. He was instructing us in another and higher way. Defer, prefer to the interests of others rather than your own self.
This mentality of deferring to others above ourselves is at the root of the concept of charity. Many older translations of scripture actually used the word “charity” in the many places of the New Testament where we read the word “love” today. The words charity and love are very closely related in the original Greek in which the New Testament was written.
Scripture literally instructs us in the opposite of the self-love and self-interest that is so central to our modern way of life today.
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:3-4
It is difficult to get more direct than this verse. The design of life ordained by God does not have the self sitting at the pinnacle. We were not designed to live in such a manner. (See this episode notes page from the prior podcast to learn more about how the love of self is central to life today.)
When life is built in opposition to the design of God, it does not work. It begins to fall apart. That is why the last days when people are lovers of self are classified as terrible times. Life is crumbling into misery and dysfunction. From the internal realities of individual lives to the global system upon which the world moves, the love of self and self-interest is proving to be a faulty design that cannot sustain life.
You might also enjoy this article on what scripture has to say about self-image and self-awareness: Who Told You That You Were Naked
We are living in this reality, but we are not bound to it. There is another pathway. The pathway to functionality, to true happiness, is through self-sacrifice and service.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:13