In a recent online discussion a friend claimed that you can love God, or you can love yourself, but not both. To support his claim he cited 2 Timothy 3. Here’s the passage in question:
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people. 2 Timothy 3:1-5
That sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? Nobody should be like that, of course. If that’s the result of loving yourself, we should avoid loving ourselves.
On the other hand, the Bible clearly indicates that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Mark 12:31). How can we love our neighbor that way without being the kind of lover of self that Paul warned Timothy about? How can we reconcile the two passages?
When trying to understand any communication (including the Bible), context matters. We have to look at more than just the words being used. We also need to look at the bigger picture. If we ask a few simple questions, we can clear up all kinds of confusion:
- Who wrote this?
- To whom did they write it?
- Why did they write it?
…and so on. Let me share a real-life example of context: I can say the words “I like cheese” and “I don’t like cheese” without being contradictory. Both can be true, depending on the context.
We’re at a pizza parlor, deciding what to order. You ask whether I’d like to share a cheese pizza, and I reply “I like cheese”.
We’re at an ice cream parlor, deciding what to order. The clerk asks whether I’d like to try some cheese ice cream, and I reply “I don’t like cheese”.
Suggesting that I’ve contradicted myself is silly. Clearly, there are some situations in which I welcome the taste of cheese, and some where it’s kind of gross. In the same way, the Bible can say to love God RATHER THAN self and say to love your neighbor AS yourself without being contradictory. Both are true, and we can reconcile them by examining their context.
In case you were wondering, the following passages do indeed say to love your neighbor as yourself:
Read all of these verses on Biblegateway
The Greek word translated “as” in each passage is HOS, which means as, like, or even as. The source passage is Leviticus 19:18, where the Hebrew word KEMOW has the same meaning.
Clearly, there’s more than one way to love yourself. We can love ourselves in a way that makes us arrogant and rude and treacherous, and there’s another way that we should use as a blueprint for loving our neighbors. Loving yourself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be.
We shouldn’t even be having this conversation, really. The problem isn’t that my friend is having trouble reconciling two passages of Scripture. The problem is that he took the Timothy passage and agreed with it…and then had to reinterpret the Mark passage to mean something else. That’s not a wise way to handle the Bible. We should avoiding taking any passage as “standing alone”, but keep its greater context in mind. God would not tell the Israelites to love their neighbors as themselves if they weren’t supposed to love themselves at all. Looking at the big picture makes this clear.