From: The Grace Awakening
You’ve heard words like that, haven’t you? If you’re like me, you’ve heard them since you were just a child. They sound so right, so inspiring. “Just reach down real deep and pull up hard on your own bootstraps, and you can make it all on your own. You can endure whatever. Nothing is out of reach, so press on. Climb higher! You can make anything of yourself. You can even attain Heaven!” (Or, as in Luther’s day, at least buy a quicker way to Heaven for someone else.)
What seems so right is, in fact, heresy – the one I consider the most dangerous heresy of Earth. What is it? The emphasis on what we do for God, instead of what God does for us. Some are so convinced of the opposite, they would argue nose-to-nose. They are often the ones who claim that their favorite verse of scripture is, “God helps those who help themselves,” (which doesn’t appear in the Bible). Talk about killing grace! The fact is, God helps the helpless, the undeserving, those who don’t measure up, those who fail to achieve his standard. Nevertheless, the heresy continues louder now than ever in history. Most people see themselves as “masters” of their own fate, “captains” of their own souls. It’s an age-old philosophy deeply ingrained in the human heart. And why not? It supports humanity’s all-time favorite subject: self.
Let me show you one of the first times it reared its head back in the earliest days of the scriptures. Many, many centuries before Christ, even before there were multiple languages and dialects, tribes, and nations, the people of the Earth lived in an area called Shinar and spoke the same universal language. By unanimous vote they agreed to build an enormous structure – a tower whose top would reach into Heaven itself. The Biblical account puts it this way:
Now the whole Earth used the same language and the same words. And it came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone and they used tar for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into Heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name.” (Genesis 11:1-4)
The Living Bible calls this construction project “a proud eternal monument to themselves.” Doesn’t that sound appealing? Doesn’t that sound like a project that would attract everyone’s attention? I mean, nobody could resist! This was the choice opportunity of a lifetime. I can just imagine the Shinar Chamber of Commerce promoting the new slogan, “Glory to man in the highest,” as they recruited workers. Everybody pitched in.
This tower has intrigued me for years, especially its top that would “reach into Heaven.” As a little boy in Sunday school I remember seeing pictures of the Tower of Babel. Each picture of the tower portrayed its top far up in the clouds. I assumed in my little mind that the top literally went right up to the heavens into the very throne room of God. But there was no way such an immense, towering structure could have been erected.
Sizable construction projects were possible but certainly nothing that tall.
Several years ago, I went back and did a little extra digging in the Genesis text and discovered some helpful information. I found that a crucial part of verse 4 reads literally, “whose upper part is with the heavens.”
The little preposition “with” is a preposition of accompaniment or representation. Somehow the topmost part of the tower was designed and constructed so that it would “represent” the heavens.
In my study I also learned that an extensive excavation took place in the land of Shinar numerous decades ago. Nor just one tower, but many of these ziggurats (cone-shaped structures built with a spiral road around them for journeying up and down) were constructed. And among all the cone-shaped dwellings in this particular area, one tower stood above all the rest. Chances are good that the tallest was the tower referred to in Genesis 11. What is most interesting is that they discovered in that particular tower the signs of the zodiac etched into the stonework up toward its peak. Signs and symbols that represented the stellar spaces, which are commonly called “the heavens,” appeared at the top. It was like an ancient religious shrine up there – almost as if they were saying, “Good old God. He’s looking down on our city and is pleased with our efforts. Just think of the fame that will come our way as we make a name for ourselves. God can’t help but bless us for all we have achieved.” It was humanism’s finest hour.
The question is, What did God think of this original building constructed for and dedicated to the glory of man? To begin with, he immediately saw through their thinking:
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:5-6)
Make no mistake about it. Human effort can accomplish incredible feats. No one should underestimate the ability of human beings. God himself acknowledges such when he says, in effect, “This is just the beginning of a lifetime of such thinking. There’s no limit. Whatever they purpose to do, they will do.” Realizing that, he quickly put a stop to the project:
Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. (Genesis 11:7)
(Read the next two verses carefully. Notice that God never destroyed the Tower of Babel; the workers deliberately left it unfinished.)
So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole Earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole Earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole Earth. (Genesis 11:8-9)
One wonders how many generations traveled through Shinar and stared at that city as time slowly deteriorated those towers. Candidly, the answer is not enough. Humanity failed to learn the lesson Babel was designed to teach. Instead, we seem to have restored and enshrined what God attempted to erase. Too many of us continue to believe that doing what we want to do will result in being what we ought to be. “I want to build a tower,” one announces. Why? “Because I want to be famous. I want to have a name. I ought to be great. And I need that sense of accomplishment, the feeling of pride that comes from making a name for myself.
“I’ll do it my way.” God steps in and says, in effect, “There’s no way.” But still the self-made towers continue to be erected. After all, “God helps those who help themselves,” the workers confidently proclaim. But their self-centered efforts represent heresy – a gospel of works, a grace killer in its worst form.
James Russell Lowell was a contemporary of William Ernest Henley. They were separated by the Atlantic Ocean geographically and by an even larger distance theologically. Lowell, an American, wrote in his work, “The Present Crisis,” of a philosophy that was much different from the one in Henley’s “Invictus”:
Truth forever on the scaffold. Wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.