It is often said that what we love in life shows more about us than anything else. In his second letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul gives us some particular insight into that truth. Paul lists a number of characteristics that he says will be prevalent in “the last days.” But we should understand that from the perspective of the apostle’s writings (as is also found in other Jewish writings of that era), the “end times” could be any time from the first coming of the messiah to his second coming. In this sense, the “end times” included the day in which Timothy was living, as Paul says specifically that Timothy should “… Have nothing to do with such people” (2 Timothy 3:5); though the traits Paul lists would also continue and perhaps worsen over time.
But if we read Paul’s description carefully, we see that the characteristics he mentions all revolve around one thing: love – or the lack of it. Love is specifically mentioned six times in just these few verses, and the repeated use of the word seems to form a pattern.
Paul stresses that many people will love: 1) themselves, 2) money, and 3) pleasure. On the other hand, the apostle tells us, these people will not love: 1) others, 2) good, and 3) God. The negative versus positive characteristics are clearly interlinked in verse 4 which speaks of “lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God,” and it seems clear that Paul is making a comparison with the other characteristics as well. He seems to indicate that people will be:
- Lovers of themselves rather than of others
- Lovers of money rather than of good(ness)
- Lovers of pleasures rather than of God
These selfish characteristics may seem bad enough, along with the negative corollaries that Paul also lists with them – being boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient, etc. – but what we may miss in our English translations, in reading about these aspects of self-centeredness, is the degree of intensity Paul says will be seen in them. The Greek word for “terrible” (chalepoi) that he uses in saying “There will be terrible times in the last days” means almost uncontrollably “harsh,” “fierce,” or “savage” and only appears one other time in the New Testament – where it is used to describe the two demon-possessed individuals who were so violent no one could go near them (Matthew 8:28). In other words, Paul warns that the degree to which many people will put themselves, money and pleasure first in their lives will have terrible consequences.
But what Paul says also has a positive application. We can turn his words around to provide us with antidotes to the problems he describes. By increasing our focus on loving God, goodness, and others, we find a sure way to avoid placing too much emphasis in our lives on money, pleasure and our own selves.
As we said at the outset, what we love in life often shows more about us than anything else. Carefully thinking over how much of our lives we dedicate to money, pleasure, and ourselves – above what is necessary – can tell us a great deal about what we love. Paul’s words to Timothy also help us to see the consequences of what we love and to provide us with antidotes to the poisonous traits that characterize excessive self-centeredness. It’s a sobering but positive message. Sometimes the beginning of loving rightly is coming to see what we really do love.