Who are you making a name for — yourself or God?
This is the driving question behind the story of the Tower of Babel, recorded in Genesis 11. This text is popular among linguists, missionaries and anthropologists, but it also makes an important contribution to our discussion about work.
In the wake of Genesis 3, God’s intent for his creation was fractured; Genesis 11 reveals humanity’s heart-posture — they moved away from God. The tower of Babel recounts people working with their hands for their own glory and personal gain; it also records God’s response to their sin. The early verses of the chapter foreshadow the story’s destructive outcome by noting the people’s movement “from the east… [to] a plain in the land of Shinar” (Genesis 11:2). This phrase picks up on an existing theme in Genesis in which people leave God’s good provision to provide for themselves by their own means (Genesis 3:24; 4:16; 13:11).
Genesis 11:4 outlines the fourfold strategy developed by the people in Shinar:
- Building a tower
- to make a name for themselves and
- erecting a city
- so they would not be scattered across the face of the earth.
These ancient people are not unlike the 21st-century workforce — people who stop at nothing to make a name for ourselves. Building a tower to gain attention from surrounding peoples is much like burning the wick at both ends to be acknowledged on the job or shamelessly promoting your vocational achievements.
Using your God-given ability with the sole purpose of making a name for yourself contradicts God’s plan in Scripture. From Genesis to Revelation, God’s desire is to make himself known and thus further his plan to redeem the brokenness in the world. For example, the creation account illustrates that nothing and no one should rival God’s rule. His creative action, recorded day by day, contrasts and undercuts the pagan deities of the ancient Near East. Likewise, God’s passion for his renown is unmistakable in the Great Commission passages in the New Testament. God has granted us skill and abilities as a means of directing people to himself, and it is a disservice to our neighbors to use our God-given abilities as an opportunity for self-promotion instead of Christ-exaltation.
In the end, no matter how impressive your skills, God alone saves fallen humanity. John Piper says it well:
God is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the most loving act. Anyone else who exalts himself [or herself] distracts us from what we need, namely, God.
Curbing the tendency for self-promotion is a difficult task, especially when our hard work — done in the privacy of a study, shop, or lab — is finally recognized. The danger of self-promotion is that we rob God of his glory and distract people from the big-L Lord of the universes with our small-l lording over creation. If God affords you the opportunity to close a deal or get the contract, do your coworkers a favor and direct their attention to the God who created industry and enterprise.
God desires to use his people and their gifts for his glory, but he will not hesitate to discipline his children for deviating from his plan, as he did in Shinar. By his grace, God scattered the people in Shinar to remove them from patterns of temptation and distractions that plagued them (Gen 11:8). The God of redemption did not abandon those who were scattered because of their sin; he sent Abram and his descendants to restore them to a right relationship with him (Gen 12:1-3).
The glory for our work belongs to God alone; be careful to direct those who respect your work to the original worker, God himself.
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 John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 36.