When I talk to people, I’m sometimes amazed that they keep on going despite the obstacles that they’re facing. We’re able to endure lousy jobs, relational problems, sicknesses, and all kinds of other problems because we believe something: things will get better. We have hope, and that hope sees us through when things don’t look good.
We believe, sometimes against the evidence, that things will get better. We could all stand up here and talk about our dreams for the future. We believe that there is hope, that we will move slowly toward what we hope for. If I told you that this is it, that things won’t get any better than they are already today, then I would be seriously demoralized, and you would be too. We keep going because we hope for something more.
Our culture tells us that we can be self-made and set goals. Today’s story is a cautionary tale. It’s not so much that our desire for hope is wrong. Actually, our ability to plan and to hope is God-given. The desire to accomplish and to hope for the future is a crucial part of how God made us.
Something can happen in us, though, as we lay out plans for ourselves. There’s a story in Genesis that you probably know. It’s a story so simple that a child can understand it, yet it’s one that doesn’t easily reveal its message to us. It’s the story of the Tower of Babel that was read for us earlier from Genesis 11.
We know the story: people decided to build a tower to reach to the heavens, out of a desire to make a name for themselves and to prevent themselves from being scattered. God intervened and confused their language, so their plans were thwarted and they were scattered all over the earth. That’s a simple enough story. It really leaves us wondering what it means for today. I guess we could focus on human pride or all kinds of related issues.
As I read the passage this past week, I noticed some things that I had never seen before. The story is written in parallel. Everything that the people of the story do in verses 1 to 4 is mirrored by God in verses 5 to 9. The story is set up in two acts: the people’s plans, and then God’s reaction. There was obviously something in the people’s plans that God didn’t like. What is that?
Troubleshooting our plans
I think there were two problems with the plans to build the Tower of Babel. You can summarize them both under one heading: their plans were an act of rebellion against God. To put it in today’s terms, it’s possible for us today to make plans that are acts of rebellion against God. It’s not so much that planning is wrong, or that God is anti-planning. Not at all. The danger is not with planning. The danger is that our plans can turn out to be acts of rebellion against God.
What was the problem with their plans? As far as anyone can figure out, the tower that they built was a ziggurat. I’ve got a picture of what one of these looks like. It’s a lot like a pyramid with steps. It doesn’t look high, does it? Back then, they only had single-story structures, and their large settlements would have been like small villages to us. This would have been a mammoth structure for them. It would have dominated the landscape and been a big deal for these people.
A ziggurat wasn’t actually used for anything. Nobody worshiped there. The top of the ziggurat was intended for use by the local god. The stairs were there to make it more convenient for the god to come down for a visit. That’s what they meant when they said that the tower would reach into the heavens: it would go up to the territory of the gods. So here is the first problem with their plans to build the tower: In building the tower, they were redefining or completely ignoring the true God. They weren’t worshipping the true God, the creator who had revealed himself. Our plans go wrong when we ignore and redefine God.
We do this all the time. Ignoring God is easy. The problem is that God doesn’t always stop us and say, “Hey, remember me?” It’s easy to live for long periods of time and to start worshiping all kinds of other things besides God, and to make plans that completely ignore him. Those plans usually get God to react, as we’re going to see in a minute.
Sometimes we just redefine God. I do this. I believe God, and I think I’m following him, but there’s this one area where I want to change what God has said because it doesn’t fit my situation. It’s easy for us to think that God intended that to apply to everyone else except us. It’s easy to think we can follow God, yet completely ignore obedience in one area of our lives and think we can get away with it. This is almost more dangerous than ignoring God. It’s selectively following him. We make plans that go against everything that God has revealed about what’s best. This is an incredible danger.
There’s one other thing about their plans. They said they wanted to build this tower to make a name for ourselves. The other thing that goes wrong with our plans is that we attempt to find significance and immortality in our own achievements. We can be so focused on ourselves. This is where people usually go with this story. They take it as a story about pride and hubris. That’s a pretty good take-away from this, actually. Our plans go wrong when we make ourselves the center of our worlds, when it’s all about our glory and our good.
We don’t need to spend a lot trying to prove that pride is an issue for us. We know it. If you were to overhear someone saying good things about you this morning, you would say “Right on.” If you heard someone badmouthing you, you’d be peeved. We may not be quite like The Donald, but some of us guys wouldn’t mind a helicopter with our name on it and something named after us. Our dreams and plans can often be all about our glory, our success, and our significance.
Before we go on to look at God’s reaction to all of this, let me ask you to take a look at your plans. Are any of them acts of rebellion against God? Do they ignore God, or even worse, do they redefine what God has asked of your life? You’ve had to change a few details about God to make it fit your plans and your life. How many of your plans are about your glory, success, and significance? This is about the motive.
Let’s look at how God responded to their plans. God responds to plans of rebellion by frustrating our plans. There’s a bit of a play on words here. The original hearers of this story would be familiar with Babylon, the most powerful city of that time. They had ziggurats there, one of which might be the one mentioned here. The name Babylon sounds like Babel, and Babel sounds like the Hebrew word for confused. The text here is making a very deliberate point: even the most powerful cultures are nothing before God. God can confuse even the most powerful forces when they make plans that rebel against God.
Take a look at how God responds here. There’s a touch of irony in verse 5: “the LORD came down…” The tower looked huge from a human perspective, but to God it looked so small that he had to come down to investigate. There’s a little bit of a right-sizing going on here. God can right-size our plans. He can reveal that things that look so important and huge in our lives are really insignificant from his perspective. God can right-size our plans.
God also confuses plans. God can decide anytime to say, “Enough,” and that’s all it takes. He acted, and the people became divided by language and scattered across the earth. I don’t understand all the details of how this happened. I’d like to know, but I don’t. The result, though, is clear: God thwarted their plans. God is capable of right-sizing our plans. He’s also capable of stopping our plans in their tracks. We think we’re in control, but God is more than capable of taking over anytime.
I don’t know what’s better. When our plans are acts of rebellion against God, it’s an act of mercy for God to thwart our plans. It doesn’t seem so at the time, but it is. The worst thing that can happen to us at times is for us to get our way. Other times, God seems to let us have what we want, and we’re left to live with the results.
Look here, you people who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what will happen tomorrow? For your life is like the morning fog-it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you will be boasting about your own plans, and all such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)
God isn’t anti-planning or anti-accomplishment, and he doesn’t delight in confusing our plans. But he does oppose the human pride, security and rebellion that we attach to our accomplishment and plans.
We’ve talked about how God can thwart the biggest plans of the most powerful people in the world. It’s time to go back to the song we heard before the message. The flip side of this is that God can multiply the smallest effort of the life that’s surrendered to him. He’s able to use the most significant effort and multiply it way beyond our efforts.
We sign a song by Robin Mark sometimes. This is my prayer of surrender today:
All of my
Ambitions, hopes, and plans
I surrender these
Into your hands
For it’s only in
Your will that I am free