We all know the story of the Tower Of Babel. It’s the event that gave us all the diverse languages of the world. That account is not just for our entertainment or education, but there are many spiritual applications that can be pulled from the event. Here are just six from Genesis 11:1-9.
What we are building will only be successful if God designed the blue prints. What are we building? Where do we choose to place our time and effort? Making a name for ourself? Making the most money? Getting the most pleasure out of life? If this is the life we’re building, like the foolish man that’s a life built on sand.
We are free to do as we want, but for every bad decision there are consequences.
There is a truth to what God said about our ability to accomplish much as a unified people. There’s also a positive side to this not so positive account. When the church body is unified there is no limit to what we can accomplish. When there’s dissension we are weaker.
Ignorance does not mean a blissful existence. It was ignorant to think that a closer relationship with God involved building a stairway into the sky that in their minds would allow God to have the ability to descend to earth. The opposite is true. God built us a way to go to Him.
Be mindful of the presence you keep and the vision you share. It seemed that most if not all mankind at this time was unified under one vision. “To make a name for themselves,” they worked together. They planned, schemed, spent resources and time to build something that would change the world forever— but it wasn’t God’s vision. The presence you keep and the shared vision matters. What are we building?
Accounts in the Bible that seem unrealistic or mythical should not weaken our faith but strengthen it when we do our due diligence in digging into His word. God is capable of great things, and that hasn’t changed. We serve a powerful God who has big plans for the world. Are we willing to side with Him?
Were you ever in the 4-H Club in school? It is an organization teaching skills you might not learn at home, urging you to get involved in your community, and helping you with a wide variety of life skills from public speaking to caring for animals. The acronym stands for “head, heart, hands, and health.” Their slogan was that you learn by doing.
In Matthew 23, Jesus gives His harshest barrage of condemnation in the Bible. He didn’t aim it at godless, irreligious heathens, but to religious leaders. They were faithful churchgoers who professed faith in God, but Jesuscalls them on some glaring problems that made God reject them .
THEY WERE HYPOCRITES (3-4)
They told others to observe things but they didn’t do them (3). They laid heavy burdens on others but were unwilling to life a finger to move them themselves (4). While hypocrisy can be defined as being a spiritual chameleon, acting one way with the righteous and another way with the world, is also hypocrisy. Seven times in this chapter, Jesus says, “Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.” The world sees double standards and a person who says one thing and does another as a hypocrite. It doesn’t necessarily make them bitter or angry. It makes them not care. They are conditioned to expect that all Xians are hypocrites. Being hypocritical only reinforces and heightens the stereotype. But the Bible calls for us to have a sincere faith (1 Tim. 1:5). We are to possess pure and undefiled religion, which is objectively measured (Jas. 1:27). We have an opportunity to blow the stereotype by being the genuine article who reflects the attitude and speech of Christ each day with the world.
THEY WERE HOLLOW (5)
If there’s anything worse than beauty that’s only skin deep, it’s religion. Jesus condemns those who did all their deeds to be seen of men. The world is repelled by professed Christians who don’t take time to see them as people. Often, they feel as if their only importance is as a potential convert or as a sinner to be judged. If we’re not careful, we fail to see every person as precious to God. That includes the immoral, the edgy, the rough, and the square peg. They see us doing or saying good things, but it’s hollow. We may do it be be noticed as a good, godly person, but we miss the opportunities to actually do good and be godly with those we interact with. Paul says, “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Col. 4:5-6).
THEY WERE HAUGHTY (6-12)
They wanted honor, respect, and recognition. Jesus diagnoses their problem as one of self-exaltation (12). 2. It was the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable on prayer who thanked God for his perceived superiority over other people (Lk 18:10). The world sees smug, self-righteousness as a total turn off. Jesus later says that these folks were like whitewashed tombs, beautiful outside but full of dead men’s bones (27). This is not the religion and life Jesus calls His followers to live. He describes greatness as service (11) and self-denial (16:24). The world will never be won to Christ by proud Pharisees. It takes humble hearts and helping hands to point people to Christ.
THEY WERE HARSH (13-15)
Christ says, “But woe to you, scribes & Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (13). This is how the world sees all Christians, as Judge, jury and executioner. They don’t see the love of God and the grace of Christ. They see exclusive, isolated people who have written off everyone else. Jesus suggests that those they reach are those likeminded (15). Some people are drawn to harsh and hateful rhetoric, but they don’t make good converts of Jesus—if they stay that way. Jesus told His disciples that their identifying mark should be love (John 13:34-35). This world is an unloving place and so sincere love will reach people. At first, they may not believe we could be the real thing, but persistent compassion and grace will ultimate reach the honest heart.
The world doesn’t need Christians who compromise the truth. But they do need to see transformed disciples (Rom 12:1-2). We can be righteous without being self-righteous; We can be courageous without being callus. Matthew 23 shows that this is a must, if we will practice true righteousness.
Civil war has broken out in the kingdom after Saul’s death. David is a patriot who loves his people so he offers to treat Saul’s followers well after Judah crowns him as king. However, a man named, Abner, takes matters into his own hands and he defies God’s chosen king. He sets up Saul’s son, Ish-bosheth, as their new ruler instead. Abner, who was the general of Saul’s army, along with the servants of Ish-bosheth, make their way to the pool of Gibeon. This was a large pool carved out of rock by Saul’s father. Once they arrive they sit down. On the opposite side of the pool, Joab, David’s nephew, and his servants meet them and sit as well. Behind them, two armies stand in formation, ready for war— brother against brother. Abner, perhaps to prevent the death toll that a larger battle would bring, suggests that their servants fight for them. Joab agrees, but this idea quickly leads to a slaughter. Each servant grabs the other by the head, clinching hair in a tight fist, and cuts each other down simultaneously. This short altercation doesn’t provide a victor, so both armies charge each other. It’s a battle that is fought with so much passion, but God grants David’s army with the win. I imagine the Man After God’s Own Heart did not take joy in this victory. The chaos of war has already taken so much from him, including the life of his best friend, Jonathan.
After the battle of Gibeon has ended, David’s nephew, Asahel, takes off after the fleeing Abner. Asahel was known for his speed and agility, with it being likened to that of a gazelle. This speed allowed him to pass the others that were also in pursuit and he finds himself on the heels of Abner in no time. His swiftness will bring him a swift death. While Abner is not as quick, he is older with more experience. Twice Abner asks Asahel to stop this foolish attempt to take his life, but Asahel doesn’t take this advice. This is when Abner thrusts his spear behind him and the butt end of the spear goes through Asahel’s stomach and out the other side, killing the young warrior.
This is probably an account you never heard in Vacation Bible School, but there is so much we can learn from this event found in 2 Samuel 2:12-24. We notice how deadly pride can be. First, there is the pride of Abner in rejecting David as king, and then there’s the pride of Asahel. He was famous for being quick on his feet, but clearly slow in thought. Preachers and teachers can become well known for their ability to speak and proclaim God’s word. This fame can also be their own spiritual downfall if they begin to think more of themselves than they should. When we post scriptures, baptisms, or other good deeds on social media for our own praise and admiration, God may be the only One that sees your heart. Those are the only eyes that matter since they belong to the One that will be our final Judge.
We also learn from this story that serving a dead king is futile. As Christians we serve the King of Kings, God’s anointed son. Those standing with Him will always win. Those that chose to take matters into their own hands are fighting a losing battle.
When we read about events like this in the Bible it should also make us thankful for the day when we will enjoy a place where there is no heartache, bloodshed, or wickedness. Even David had to endure his share of trials, but now he’s with the God he modeled his heart after— and, we can assume, Jonathan. No matter what struggle we may find ourselves tangled up in, let’s place our focus on that heavenly reunion.
Up high and proud my boasts I declare
I brag and I crow with my head in the air
Til I look in the corner and see him down there
Why is that poor sinner locked up in despair?
I abstain from eating two days every week
I give money too freely, Thy thanks I now seek.
Why is that man crying, the tears stain his cheek
He’s beating his chest, must be some kind of trick.
Lord, I’m not like the swindler, the philanderer, the cheat,
Or even like that tax collector with whose prayer I compete,
I’m walking out now, Lord, my preening’s complete,
But I’ll see You here next time my boasts to repeat
While scarcely detected a man whispered his plea
His face to the floor, if not on one knee
All the sinner could say was, “Be merciful to me!”
And he left more justified than the proud Pharisee.
The preacher who dazzles with his insight, personality, influence, popularity, or following?
The teacher who is the students’ favorite?
The member who is “balling” (making a lot of money and having a lot of success in business)?
The family with the biggest house and nicest automobiles?
The one with the best academic pedigree, with the proverbial alphabet soup behind their name?
The folks who are best known and most influential in our community?
The ones who are incredibly fit and attractive?
The greatest debater, philosopher, and reasoner we know?
The elder who is most successful in his career?
One who seems to combine a great many or even all of these attributes?
It could be one of these individuals, but despite and not because of the specifics just mentioned. But, we so easily fall into the trap that causes us to think that those criteria are what make one greatest. Such can cause us to vest blind trust in them or put them in a higher place than is right. Worse, we can try to be motivated to define and promote ourselves as greatest through these means.
The tendency is so fundamental. Jesus warned against it in places like Matthew 20:25-28 and 23:12. His disciples, like James (4:6-10), Peter (1 Pet. 3:8; 5:5-6), Paul (2 Cor. 10:12-18), Jude (16), and the rest, at least implicitly, address the same trap. We all fight the desire to be seen so as to be admired. We may do so through our marriages, our children’s accomplishments, our economic status, our apparent importance, our having it all together, our professional prowess, or any other asset we feel responsible for having. If we use these things to place ourselves above and/or push others below, we are disqualifying ourselves for greatness in the only way that matters—God’s way. False modesty isn’t the answer, either.
We must look at ourselves as dependent creatures. It’s all His and without Him we’d have nothing! We must look at ourselves as devoted stewards. It’s all His and He expects us to use it wisely, on His behalf! We must look at ourselves as divine instruments.It’s all His and He works through us to do His will! We must look at ourselves as dutiful slaves.It’s all His and so are we, living and serving at and for His pleasure!
The warning and disclaimer is that this transformation must happen at heart-level, rooting out thoughts and attitudes that, while fleshly, are so easy to embrace. If the weeds of pride aren’t dislodged from deep within, this effort will prove impossible. But, if it could not be done, God would not have spent so much time instructing us to live and walk by the Spirit rather than by the desires of the flesh and mind. It is the old song, “None of self and all of Thee.” To the degree we adorn that mindset and make that transformation, to that degree we will achieve greatness God’s way!
I came across the term “selfism” in Dick Meyer’s 2008 book, Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium. He defines it as “American individualism redefined by the age of marketing, self-help, moral relativism, and the belief that the “self” is something that can be deliberately found or made” (36). He warns that “it is different than the older, can-do, self-made-man American spirit because it substitutes feeling for doing” (37). Later in the chapter, Meyer ties this hyper-emphasis on self to a growing belligerence in society. He writes, “On the Internet, belligerence can be anonymous, faceless, and hence risk-free. In schools and offices, for example, the Web is a problem, because parents and workers say nasty things in e-mail that they would never say in person. Chat rooms, blogs, and online comments are clogged with vitriol and hate-mongering…the need to make others wrong has turned into an addiction” (44). One of his points in the chapter is that the elevation of self is not just a problem of narcissism, but it has become commonplace to vaunt self by stepping on, insulting, and ridiculing others to do it. We are witnessing an ever-growing game of “King of the Mountain,” where in a rush to get noticed we are shoving off anyone who might eclipse or overshadow us.
Selfism is Satanic rather than sanctified behavior, but each of us must wrestle with it. The temptation to join them rather than “beat” them through Christlike humility is ever-present. What is “one-upmanship” if not an effort to present self as above another? In certain circles, the ability to respectfully and civilly discuss differences has been assassinated by hired killers like vanity, self-importance, animosity, and contempt.
Do we have a more difficult task than obeying Jesus’ command to deny self (cf. Mat. 16:24)? When Paul urges Philippi to eliminate selfish ambition and conceit while esteeming others as better than self (Phi. 2:3), do we appreciate the polar opposite this is to the cultural arch-hero of selfism? Jesus came into this world to show us the selfless life. It is scary to live that way, especially in a world full of adherents to the cult of self. We fear that being selfless with selfish people will lead to being walked over, preempted, or mistreated. What will help is developing the faith to trust that living the way God commands leads us to the best life possible. The best life possible is one where self is suppressed in deference to Christ and others. Such a life will be noticed as a beacon in our choppy seas of selfism!
A new preacher was moving to work with a church in a community where there were several more congregations. Two of the preachers already working in that area met for lunch and the conversation soon moved to the new preacher. One of the men asked, “Have you ever heard of this guy before?” The other said, “Yes, I know him very well.” The first, picking at the second, said, “Oh? Well, does he preach as well as you?” The second dryly said, “No, he preaches about like you!”
That second preacher had healthy self-image, didn’t he? He was obviously joking, but you probably have met his counterpart-someone who took such self-evaluation quite seriously. We call them the “one-uppers,” “the toppers,” and the one most likely to say, “Oh yeah? You think that’s something.” You hear them at work, at your kid’s ballgame, out with a group of friends, at family gatherings, and even with spiritual family members. Different things may make them tick-arrogance, low self-esteem, insecurity or feelings of inadequacy, a felt need for being the center of attention, and any number of other things. Typically, such behavior is thought boorish and overbearing and only rarely endearing.
The Bible tells the church, with its many and varied “parts,” that no one should “think more highly of himself than he ought to think” (Rom. 12:3). You are precious and valuable in the sight of the Lord, no doubt! However, you are not more special or valuable than any of His other children. Your soul is not even more valuable than the lost, as yet unredeemed soul of that wino in the gutter, that prostitute walking the street, that murderer on death row, or that blind mute living out a short life in the obscurity of an orphanage in Albania. My Grandpa Mitchell was known to often say, “Remember that nobody is better than you are and you are no better than anyone else!” What an even-handed, level-headed way to look at life. You are better at some things than others, you do better in certain areas of life than others, and there may be one of more things at which you are incredibly talented, competent, or proficient! Be grateful to God and give Him the glory for it or them. But never let it turn to sinful pride or an over-inflated ego. That is a turn off to men and God!
It was the late ’70s and I was spending the night with my best friends, Patrick and Jody Smith. We had just finished watching The Bionic Man on TV, and there was a special on Muhammad Ali. I can still remember his banter with Howard Cosell and the gifted boxer looking at the camera and saying, “I-am-the-greatest!”
“Who is the greatest?” is a burning question in men’s minds. We want to know who’s the greatest. Whatever the profession, endeavor, or skill, there are folks vying for the top spot. People once immortalized for feats and accomplishments, like Tom Courtney, Neil Armstrong, George Washington, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, or Muhammad Ali, fuel future competitors to meet and exceed their successes.
The disciples wanted Jesus to tell them, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 18:1). On a journey to Capernaum, they argued among themselves about who was the greatest (Mk. 9:34). Here were twelve men who were selected by Christ to have a part in the greatest work on earth. That was honor and purpose enough, but they wanted more. If that was good, being the best of the best was better. Such thinking was way off base, which Jesus repeatedly demonstrated through His humility, sacrifice, and service for the good of others.
Today, we wrestle with the same affliction. Whether in our daily lives or even within our function in the church, we can get caught up in being recognized as the best. This is a destructive exercise and misses the point. If we are Christians, we are among God’s chosen on this earth. What a privilege! We have the highest, most important business to do. Let us do our best and work our hardest, but let us never get caught in the trap of showing others that we are the best. The very attempts disqualify us.
What do I need to make for joy?
To beat those troubles that annoy?
Can it be bought or taken from others?
What would I get if I had my druthers?
Would I find it in possessions, investments, land?
A car that’s new or a house that’s grand?
That perfect someone to make me satisfied?
A high position to feed my pride?
When I have seen some with hardly a possession
Who know nothing of materialistic obsession
Anonymous to paparazzi and heads of state
Facing perils and diseases with no way to abate
Living contentedly, day after day
Trusting God gladly to provide them a way
Loving their neighbors and spiritual siblings
All without virtue of a bevy of things
That tells me something, I’d better take notice
Of something the apostle Paul long ago wrote us,
“Whether you have or don’t, or you spend or are spent,
Whatever you face, in life be content.”