If any age of man is the era of selfishness, ours is it. The selfie is our symbol. If Narcissus had his pool of water, we have that ubiquitous extension of our personalities, the smartphone.
In the last letter that has remained from his hand, the apostle Paul warned his son in the faith, Timothy, away from false teachers and manipulators of souls. The entire passage deserves reading, but start with these six verses:
But understand this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, savage, opposed to what is good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, loving pleasure rather than loving God. They will maintain the outward appearance of religion but will have repudiated its power. So avoid people like these. 2 Timothy 3.1-6.
The phrase: “lovers of themselves,” is a single word in the underlying Greek language. It is found only once in the New Testament. It stands here at the head of this list of sins. Perhaps Paul is thinking that all our transgressions flow from it.
In his Tyndale commentary on 2 Timothy, Donald Guthrie said this term and the second one furnish the key to the list. It begins and ends with two pairs of compound words about what people do or do not love. The second word of the first pair (“lovers of money”) may seem out of place, but remember that love of money is “a radical cause of evil, cf. 1 Tim. 6:10” (J.N.D. Kelly, Pastoral Epistles, 179).
With all these love compounds (phil-), the sins are surrounded by a love which belong to another universe than God’s sacrificial love.
Love of self is selfishness (CEB). In his work on synonyms, Trench said one writer “likened the selfish man to the hedgehog that rolls itself up into a ball, presenting only sharp spines to those without, while at the same time keeping inside the soft, warm wool for itself.”
Though the term here for selfishness is unique, the Bible has a variety of words and descriptions to help us identify self-love.
- Jude says false teachers are “following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters” Jude 16.
- ESV and other versions translate the word eritheia as “self-seeking” in Romans 2.8. NET translates it as “selfish rivalries” in Galatians 5.20, as “selfish ambition” in Philippians 1.17, and as “selfishness” in James 3.14, 16.
- “Self-will,” authades, refers to the person who acts on his own initiative, Titus 1.7; 2 Peter 2.10.
- Other words refer to pride, vanity, and arrogance.
The somewhat difficult verse of Proverbs 18.1 reminds us that selfishness cannot abide living in community: “One who has isolated himself seeks his own desires; he rejects all sound judgment.” This applies to family and church, when the “passions that battle inside you” cause conflicts and quarrels, James 4.1-3.
Preachers and teachers err when they affirm that Christians should love themselves because of the second commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The error starts by going to the Bible to find support for psychology’s concept of self-love. But did the Lord really mean we ought to love ourselves? Hardly!
On the contrary, man naturally and carnally promotes his own interests. So we ought to turn that into promoting with equal intensity the interests of others. (We cannot do both.) Love is not “self-serving” 1 Corinthians 13.5. Paul makes it clear: “Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others” Philippians 2.4 CEB.
As always, Jesus has the last word with these definitions of selfishness and selflessness and their consequences. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it” Mark 8.35.