Do you think this article will go viral? Perhaps if I pair this piece with an intriguing photo, it will be shared throughout the world. Maybe then I could achieve a mass following; maybe then I could be an influencer whose words and insights are sought after. Could this really happen? Could I become recognized as a household name for Christian life and spiritual formation?
These are lofty goals, aren’t they? Such a desire is rooted in the temptation for human accolades. It is an exaltation of the self, a clamoring toward heavenly heights at the expense of godly devotion. In fact, it sounds very much like the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11.
It can be easy to see the Tower of Babel as merely a tale about the confusion of languages. That is, after all, why it is called the Tower of Babel. Babel sounds like the Hebrew word for “confused.”
Yet this account has much to say about how we live our lives faithfully before God. The Tower of Babel illustrates a temptation that we all face. We all want to be recognized and applauded to some extent. We all long to be known and praised.
Yet this desire conveys a heart that has wandered from God’s will. This intriguing story, therefore, challenges us to move away from pride and self-focus and embrace the call to be Christ’s witnesses in the world.
The Folly of Pride
The Tower of Babel is set upon the foundation of pride and inward focus. Genesis records that the people settle in the plain of Shinar (Genesis 11:2), the land eventually known as Babylon. In fact, Babylon is often depicted as a nation that rivals faithful devotion.
Babylon is rooted in prideful arrogance and defiance of God. This rivaling of faithful devotion to God is seen in this biblical account. The people of the day, possessing one language and common speech, desire to build a city with a tower.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this desire, except that this plan is entirely self-focused. The people say to each other, “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower, that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). Instead of being concerned with God’s will, they are concerned with their own.
Furthermore, notice how Scripture relays this conversation. “They said, Come let us, build ourselves a city . . .so that we may make a name for ourselves.”
There is no acknowledgment before God in this plan. The people take charge of their own lives and do not seek God’s direction. This tower, which will stretch to the heavens, will be erected for their own glorification.
This prideful self-mastery is the same temptation we see in the garden. Adam and Eve are tempted to eat of the forbidden fruit “to be like God “(Genesis 3:5).
Adam and Eve want to reach the heavens. Yet their decision to be the center of their own lives occurs at the expense of their connection with God.
As Christian people, what do we look to as a symbol of our greatness? What are the status symbols that we are tempted to cling to? Perhaps we view the size of our church as the testament of God’s blessing upon us.
Yet if we associate the size of our church with some type of heavenly status, are we not treating the church like a modern-day Tower of Babel. That is, the church becomes a mere effigy of our pride, built to provide a name for ourselves.
As followers of Jesus, we must always remember that Jesus comes to bestow life, not status. The power of the Spirit, alive in us, is not the grandiose power of the prideful empire; the power of God is a descending power; it moves in service and in love.
In doing so, the Spirit always pushes us to the place of sacrifice and self-emptying ministry. This was the way of Jesus, and it is the way in which we must walk.
A Call to Witness
The people’s desire to build a tower is not merely rooted in pride, however. Genesis makes it clear that the rationale for building this city, and this tower, was so that “we may not be scattered over the face of the earth” (11:4).
The people do not want to move beyond their comfort and their safety. Simply, they like where they are. This desire to stay in one place directly contradicts God’s plan that people “increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28).
The people of Babel wish to remain comfortable and safe, secure in their own selves. Thus, the Spirit of God descends to the people and disperses them throughout the earth.
This act leads to the call of Abram in the next chapter — a call wherein God furthers the divine decree that all the nations of the earth will become blessed (Genesis 12:4).
As the languages are confused, God proceeds to disperse God’s people. In many respects, this is a foretaste of what will occur on the Feast of Pentecost.
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit falls upon the disciples, empowering them to preach the gospel to the world. We even see a multitude of languages!
The echo of the Tower of Babel with the feast of Pentecost is significant given that, prior to Pentecost, the disciples desired to stay in one place. We read that the disciples were “together in one room” (Acts 2:1).
It is commonly held that this is the upper room, the room in which they hid “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19). One can imagine that it was comfortable and safe beyond this locked door. The disciples felt secure in themselves.
Yet they refused to bear witness to what they knew to be true. After all, they knew Jesus had been raised. The disciples had met the risen Savior and received the gospel message. The good news of Christ’s resurrection, however, went nowhere.
It was only when the Spirit came that the disciples were empowered to move beyond the comfort and security of the upper room and proclaim the gospel.
Like the ancient people of God in Babel, and like the disciples prior to Pentecost, we must ask ourselves whether we are in danger of choosing our comfort over Christ. Do we ever step away from the call to share our faith in favor of our own comfort or security?
Do we refuse to witness because we fear how other people will react? God calls us to move toward others in love and service. We are called to leave our “comfort zones” and share the good news of forgiveness of sin through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Such a calling is a non-negotiable part of our Christian faith.
Jesus says to the disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). The call to bear witness to Christ in our lives is a fundamental part of the Christian life.
What Does This Mean?
The good news is the Holy Spirit falls upon us so that we can move beyond the towers of our own pride, comfort, and security. The Holy Spirit falls on us so that we can be the hands and the feet of good news in this world.
The Spirit empowers us to speak to people who are hurting or who feel lost and alone. We may not speak in various languages, but the Holy Spirit opens our lips so that we can tell people the good news of Christ’s love.
Yes, it may be scary or nerve-racking, but the Spirit empowers us so that we may participate in what the Spirit is doing in the world. And like the people of Babel, and like the early disciples, when we accept this divine calling, we just may find that the world around us changes.
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.