As Americans we love to pride ourselves on success. The greater the achievement the greater the celebration and the greater the celebration the more everyone should pay attention to us – to what we did! Humble pie makes us puke. Who wants humble pie when you can have the cake of your arrogance and eat it too as others glorify you? This is often happiness to us today.
In an online NPR interview, David Brooks, author of The Road To Character, described a riveting scene from 1945 a day after Japan had surrendered thus ending Word War II. Here’s the way Brooks recounted this setting: “Bing Crosby appeared on the radio program Command Performance. ‘Well, it looks like this is it,’ he stated slowly in his warm bass-baritone voice. ‘What can you say at a time like this? You can’t throw your skimmer in the air – that’s for a run-of-the-mill holiday. I guess, I guess…’ he stammered, ‘all anybody can do is thank God it’s over. Just thank God it’s over.’”
Remember, friend, World War II was a global war lasting roughly from 1939 to 1945. All major countries at that time threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific resources into this war. The loss of life was staggering. Anywhere from 50 to upwards of 85 million lives were lost! Kind of a big deal to win such a war in the end, wouldn’t you say? And the appropriate response? Not celebration or tooting loudly your own horn. Not even the simple throwing of your straw barber shop quartet looking hat into the air. No. Simply say humbly, “Thank you God.”
Many watched in misery the play that Aaron Rodgers got his collar bone broken on when they played the Vikings. What struck me especially was the way footage on the internet showed the Viking’s defender who made the hit celebrating while running off the field. In defense of this linebacker he did not know he had actually broken the collar bone of Aaron Rodger’s. Nonetheless he carried out his self-puffing victory trot complete with Hulk Hogan muscle flex for his teammates near the sideline with great enthusiasm as a camera lingered on him.
Now compare that to Cosby’s quote about receiving the news of victory in World War II. Today we see more self-celebration after a hard hit by an NFL player than in days gone by people felt was appropriate for a final victory in World War II. Isn’t that crazy? Such is our present addiction for achievement and self-celebration of what we accomplish. And in this lust for greater success we so easily idolize ourselves and forget to thank God at all. How does the LORD deliver us from such pride in our own achievement before it kills us?
Well, let’s go to the Tower of Babel story in Scripture. Ancient people living on the plain of Shinar said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).
Their dream achievement was a tower. A tower that would punch through the clouds and scratch the heavens would mean success. And what was the purpose of the tower? To glorify God? No. To proclaim the grace of God? Try again. These Mesopotamians had one aim: to make a name for themselves. God was not found in their aim. They were aiming at their own greatness. The bricks they laid were made of selfishness and the mortar, in the words of Stuart Briscoe, “was of arrogance all for a tower to their own names.” What towers might you be building? Wealth? Recognition? Sinful satisfaction?
Woody Allen is credited for first asking, “Do you want to make God laugh?” And Allen would answer, after a strategic pause, “Tell him your plans!” You can be sure God scoffed at the selfish ambition of these people to build a name for themselves rather than humbly live for his name by replenishing the earth. God was not threatened in the least by their human ingenuity. Rather, what God knew, and what the city builders did not know was the devastation their depravity would bring if human pride were allowed to go forward unimpeded.
So here is how God graciously responded to this citadel of selfishness: “But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building” (Genesis 11:5). That God “came down” to view what men had built puts us all in our place. This is the plateful of humble pie we need. You see, God always has to ‘come down’ to examine our anthill achievements built in the sidewalk cracks of his created world. In fact, God came down to save us from our sin and grant us the free gift of salvation in Christ by faith in him as our Savior. The history of mankind is the history of our gracious God ‘coming down’ to save us from our sin. Don’t you just love this about our God, that he is a ‘coming down’ God!?
And so in his Trinitarian counsel, the LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 – Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. 8 – So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city” (Genesis 11:6-8).
This was one of the LORD’s “severe mercies” that he gave not only those Mesopotamians but all of us. It was the mercy of God for him to make their lives difficult, mess up their one great aim, and give them what they hoped wouldn’t happen. Building a Babel of blind ambition for ourselves is so self-defeating God will often intervene and mess up our plans. He, if you will, mercifully ruins our plans.
The truth is we often do not know what we are really building when we embark on our own achievements. We often aren’t aware of how deep, swepping, and motivating our pride is. We often are blind to how much we cherish the glory of our name. But God knows. And in mercy he confounds us, impedes us, and humbles us. And it is ALL mercy. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). When it comes to his children, God gives us grace in the act of opposing our pride because it makes us humble. For he knows that the more humble we are, the happier we truly are in him. People of pride will be destroyed (Proverbs 16:18) but humble believers will dwell with God (Isaiah 57:15).
Not long ago, there was a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who pulled into a service station to get gas. He went inside to pay and when he came out he noticed his wife engaged in a deep discussion with a service station attendant. He was changing the trash liners on the pump island trash containers. It turned out that she knew him. In fact, way back in Shorewood High School before she met her eventual husband, she used to date this man. The CEO got in the car, and the two drove off in silence.
This CEO of a Fortune 500 company was feeling pretty good about his past ambition and the personal portfolio he had built in himself to be a man of significant wealth when he finally spoke: “I bet I know what you were thinking,” he gloated to his wife. “I bet you were thinking you’re glad you married me, a Fortune 500 CEO, and not him, a putzy service station attendant.”
“No,” his wife responded. “I was thinking if I’d married him, he’d be a Fortune 500 CEO and you’d be a putzy service station attendant.” In a similar wifely manner God mercifully tears down our towers of prideful ambition. He puts us in our proper place. He mercifully ruins our plans. Be humble. Be grateful for his mercy.