The builders of the tower of Babel wouldn’t be caught dead begging for loose change at a busy intersection. They were white-collar architects and blue-collar masons—proud, labor-loving men with high aspirations. They weren’t good-for-nothings looking for a handout. They dreamed big, worked hard, poured their sweat and blood into the first high rise the world would ever see. These men were the patron saints of over-achievers. So when God puts on a hardhat and visits their worksite, what He does makes no sense. He’s concerned that, because they are so unified, this tower, “is only the beginning of what they will do.” In fact, he says, “Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” (Gen 11:6). So what? How is a united humanity not a good thing? It’s not as if they’re baking bricks to build the world’s largest whorehouse. This edifice embodies high ideals. It’ll keep them one people. And it’ll prevent them from being scattered over the face of the earth. What’s so wrong with that?
Here’s what lurks beneath this seemingly righteous behavior: they wanted to make a name for themselves, these tower-builders. Up to this point in Genesis, every name is given by another. God names Adam; Adam names the animals and Eve; Eve names Cain; Cain names the city he built after his son; and so forth. Each name is a gift. It is not earned nor deserved; it is not something you make for yourself. It comes from outside you, is placed upon you, is not achieved but received.
The tower of Babel—perhaps more than any other OT story—unveils the burning desire in our hearts: we want to usurp that which God is graciously willing to give. We long to attain as an accomplishment that which the Father wants to bestow as a gift. We sweat and bleed in our efforts to build a tower while God stands before us with a free cross in his outstretched hands.
So it has always been. The devil tempts Eve to eat the fruit so she will be like God; but the divine similitude she seeks to achieve by consumption has already been bestowed upon her at creation. God, in love, has already made her like He is. But no, that simply will not suffice. She’ll build her own tower, thank you. And when she does, what Eve has striven to attain by works only makes her lose that which God had already given to her by grace.
We’re cut from same cloth. God gives us the name “Christian” and “Beloved” but hardly have we left the baptismal font before we roll up our sleeves and get busy making sure everyone knows we’ve earned those names. Every good deed becomes a brick in our rising tower of self-righteousness. We’re not beggars. In fact, we’ll honor God by proving to him we’re worthy of His love. What we won’t do, however, is accept a handout of grace. Our pride won’t allow it.
It is not our unrighteous monuments of sin that we need fear the most, but our towers of righteousness. We’ll even etch Soli Deo Gloria into the bricks; we’ll claim we’re doing it all for the glory of God. But inside these towers of piety roar parties of self-importance. We’re making a name for ourselves.
So God puts on a hardhat, grabs the sledgehammer of the law, and proceeds to tear down what we’ve so carefully constructed. It angers us. It frustrates us. Because when He’s done razing our towers, all we’re left with is what He is willing to give. We turn from our impressive towers to see an unimpressive cross in which He has done all the work, sweated out drops of blood to construct for us a gift that cannot be earned but only received.
Our Father will not allow us to make a name for ourselves. Names are His to give. And give them He does; in grace and mercy. He names us His beloved children. He etches the name “Christian” into the bricks of our soul. The cross is the only tower we need. In it we are united with Christ and His Spirit. We live rent-free, mortgage-free, for our habitation has been paid for in crimson currency.
The Gospel will brook no rivals for the God of the Gospel is love incarnate. Divine love does not look for hard workers but for beggars with dirty, empty palms. And in those palms the Father places the riches of Christ Jesus, the key to the mansion of grace.