Babel and Human Potential

And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do: and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:6-7).

It is perhaps the earliest backhanded compliment ever given.

God is quite aware of human potential; He made man in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). When humans come together and work together, there is very little which they are not able to accomplish. So much of what has been accomplished over the past few hundred years testifies to this; we live in a very different world than people in the 1700s did. To a large degree we have tamed our environment, with large cities, highly developed infrastructure, and many technological innovations which have improved the quality of life immeasurably. We marvel at bridges, dams, skyscrapers, and other astounding feats of engineering. Humans, therefore, have a great amount of potential!

We think this potential is great; we do not see any problem at all with it. Yet, according to what we see in Genesis 11:6-8, God decides that this potential is problematic, and confuses the language of humans so that they will scatter and disperse.

This does not seem right. Why would God want humans to be separated and divided? Does God not want humanity to be unified? Is it not a good thing that there is no end to what humans can accomplish when they work together?

The circumstances during which God makes this declaration explain the difficulties. Humans, still unified in language, came together on the plain of Shinar in order to build a tower and a city to make a name for themselves and so that they would not be scattered across the face of the earth (Genesis 11:1-4). This was contrary to God’s intentions (cf. Genesis 9:1), and speaks volumes regarding humans, their intentions, and the ways they use their potential.

We do not think the exercise of human potential is a bad thing at all; in reality, it does not have to be. But humans have been corrupted by sin, and therefore we should not be surprised to see that human potential is often expended in misdirected ways. So it is with the Tower of Babel on the plain of Shinar: man uses his potential to seek to glorify himself and to make a monument to his endeavors and abilities. It is not about God and His glory; it does not seem as if those in Babel gave any consideration to God and what He intended.

One could make a good case that the earth cannot sustain humans living at their full potential. What do people end up doing when they come together and purpose to work together? They transform their environment. People continue to consume with abandon. Little thought is given about what resources will be left for future generations; people end up being too preoccupied with advancing their own purposes and causes in their own generation to think of that. The only checks on such activity come from illnesses and war.

And so God confuses human language, the one thing which seems to keep people together and working together, and from this point people separate from one another. Humans, apparently, must be saved from themselves. From this point on much human potential and energy would be directed against one another, finding new and innovative ways to destroy one another, to get advantages over others, and to find ways of reinforcing “us” and “our” superiority against “them”. Buildings, cities, monuments, civilizations, and the like are built and destroyed. We really have not “developed” much past our ancestors at Babel: we still yearn to be together and to make a name for ourselves. Humans, whenever they get together, plan and purpose for their own ends and glory. And their efforts, no matter how successful they might have seemed for a time, always end up frustrated. Every building, city, monument, and civilization decays and collapses. Everyone dies.

If the Bible ended here in Genesis 11, the story would be quite bleak indeed. Humans were made in God’s image but sinned and found themselves separated from God (Genesis 1:1-3:24). Humans drifted further and further from God’s intentions, suffering terribly, and now is not only separated from God but also is now separated from his fellow man (Genesis 11:1-9). Man finds himself without God, without redemption, without a covenant or identity from God, and therefore without hope. Such is life “under the sun,” and it is not a pretty picture at all. Little wonder people continue to embrace the futile goal of Babel and continue to believe the lie!

But the Bible does not end here. The genealogy immediately following the story of the Tower of Babel brings us to Abram (cf. Genesis 11:10-32), and God will call Abram to Himself and through him begin a series of promises and covenants leading to the means by which He would deliver mankind from his terrible plight.

This story reaches its climax in Abraham’s descendant Jesus of Nazareth and the Gospel proclaimed in His name as found in Acts 2:1-36. And of all the ways by which God would communicate the importance of this message, which does God choose, as exemplified in Acts 2:1-36? Of all the means by which God could communicate how He was bringing all people into the covenant through Jesus, which does God choose in Acts 10:44-48? Speaking in tongues: foreign languages!

The symbolism is potent: Jesus and His Kingdom are the anti-Babel. All that which was established on account of Babel is undone through Jesus and His Kingdom. On account of the Tower of Babel, man’s language was confused so that he could not come together by a common purpose and grew alienated from one another. Through Christ all people of every language, ethnicity, race, and any other mark of identity become one body (Ephesians 2:11-17, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).

There is another very important detail about the Apostles and Cornelius and his men as they spoke in tongues: Luke says that they spoke the “mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11) and “magnified God” (Acts 10:46). Our unity can only exist insofar as we are unified with God (cf. John 17:20-23, 1 John 1:5-7); yet we are only brought together so that we can join with one voice to praise the name of God and tell of His wonderful deeds. We are brought together into one Kingdom in Jesus not to advance our own purposes but the purposes of God who purchased us in Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Galatians 2:20). In Christ alone can we find true unity and true purpose so that it is no longer our will, but His, that will be done.

Human potential is not the problem; sin is. Human potential, misdirected because of sin, causes all sorts of problems, seeking only to magnify man’s name. The fact that God felt compelled to separate us from ourselves speaks volumes about our intentions and purposes in the flesh! Human potential, misdirected by sin, causes great damage and pain. It is only when human potential is harnessed and directed toward the glorification of God and the advancement of His purposes that it can be a beautiful sight in the eyes of God and lead to the general betterment of all things. Let us seek unity with God in Christ and thus with one another so that we can expend all of our energies and resources to God’s glory and praise!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Pray For Us

Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run and be glorified, even as also it is with you (2 Thessalonians 3:1).

We have here one of Paul’s constant requests from the people with whom he has worked– their prayers (Romans 15:30, Colossians 4:3, 1 Thessalonians 5:25, Philemon 1:22). If we stop and think about it for a moment, we can see how extraordinary this might seem. Paul, after all, is an Apostle; he has seen the Lord; he has far greater apostolic authority than anyone to whom he writes. For most of those to whom he is written, he is the one who has introduced them to the Lord Jesus! It makes sense that he would pray to God for them (cf. Romans 1:8, Colossians 1:3, 1 Thessalonians 1:2, Philemon 1:4). Yet it seems fantastic that he would need their prayers as well!

But when we understand the path of Christ, we should not be amazed or astounded at this. In fact, it should be expected! The way of Christ is not self-glorification or the path of power trips; instead, the way of Christ involves humility and dependence upon God the Source of all good things (1 Corinthians 3:5-9, 1 Timothy 1:12-16, James 1:17). Paul understood that, on his own, he could do nothing– it was God who showed him grace and mercy, calling him to the apostleship and it was the message of God that led to conversion (Romans 1:1, 1:16, 5:6-11). The success of Paul’s ventures were dependent less on Paul and more on God in Christ– therefore, it was right and well for fellow believers to pray for Paul’s success, not for Paul’s sake, but for the sake of advancing God’s purposes in the world.

And that is precisely what Paul sought– petitions for the advancement of God’s Word. Paul understood that it was not about him but about Christ (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). No matter how much effort Paul expended toward the Cause, it would not succeed without God’s blessing and assistance.

Two millennia later we still seek to advance the word of the Lord and seek to have it glorified among the nations. We would do well to remember Paul’s lesson.

Sometimes it is easy to forget about the power of prayer. We can get so busy seeking to do God’s work that we forget to frequently petition God about that work. We can forget to ask others to pray also for the work so that it may prosper. We might be expending all kinds of energy on the cause of Christ but we might not be seeing the results we would expect.

In such circumstances it is easy to get frustrated. We might wonder if we are not saying the right things or question the relevance or benefit of the materials we have produced. We might find it easier to blame those to whom we speak, believing that they just do not want to hear God’s message and no longer care about spiritual things.

Yet perhaps the problem is not with our approach or with the people with whom we speak. Perhaps part of our problem is much more fundamental– however unconsciously or unintentionally, we might have begun to rely on our own efforts and ourselves more than we rely on God. Perhaps, by a simple reorientation, everything can be turned around. Maybe– just maybe– if we bathe our approach, our activities, and our words in prayer to God, beseeching Him to empower His message for His glory, He will be more amenable to do so!

This is not to say that we should never question our approach, nor should we expect that everyone to whom we speak about the Lord will be willing to hear (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:2). Nevertheless, if there were anyone who had the “right” to think that they could just get by with their well-intentioned efforts without prayer, it would have been the Apostles inspired by the Spirit. And yet they are constantly in prayer before God the Father (cf. Acts 6:4, etc.). In the end, it is not about us, and it cannot be done by our own power. We are to be servants of God, and it is God who will make our labor stand or fall. If we are truly working to advance His purposes for His glory, why would we not pray to Him to guide us and to prosper our way? Why would we not ask everyone else to pray for the same in their own lives and for us?

It is too easy to forget about the “prayer” aspect to serving God and advancing His Word. But it is a critical failure if we do forget about it. Let us constantly pray to God, seeking His grace and favor, and pray for one another and the advancement of His purposes in our age!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Myth of Progress

That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

The past two hundred years have been a blur of technological development. Few are the aspects of life that have not been radically altered by recent innovations. Automobiles and airplanes have entirely changed how we transport ourselves and goods. The telephone, the computer, and the Internet have changed how we communicate with each other and how we are able to work. Heaters, air conditioners, stoves, ovens, microwaves, washers, dryers, and other forms of electronic equipment have made the daily activities of life that much more efficient. Advancements in medicine and science have led to better quality of life and a more enhanced understanding of the world (and the universe) around us.

When seen in terms of the whole of human history, all of these advancements have come in the blink of an eye. Ways of life that existed for hundreds or thousands of years have been irretrievably changed. These changes and advancements have led most in society to take an overly optimistic and rosy view of human potential. This has led to the myth of progress– the idea that our advancements in the arts and sciences are making us into wiser, better people than our ancestors.

In fact, we have become downright snobbish about ourselves. Consciously or unconsciously, we believe that we are superior to our ancestors. We judge all things by the standard of our own belief systems and cultural prejudices. We think and/or speak rather patronizingly about our ancestors: “they did not know any better.” “They did not have x or y technology that we have.” “We have come to a better understanding of these things.” In short, all of these statements betray the idea that we think we have progressed so far in the past few generations and thus we are superior. That which was accepted in earlier times was “primitive” or “old-fashioned,” and those terms are not used affectionately! How many young people out there believe that their parents are ignorant fossils– after all, isn’t 2009 so radically different and more advanced than, say, 1979 or 1989?

But there is an uncomfortable question we must consider: are we really progressing? There is no doubt that we are becoming more technologically sophisticated. No one will argue against the idea that our technology is allowing us to have a better understanding of the world around us. But does that mean that we as a species are really “moving forward”?

Despite all of this advancement over the past two hundred years, people in 2009 are still asking the same questions as their forefathers did in 1999, 1899, 1499, and 99. Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with my life? Why do people suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does evil exist? You would think that if we have really advanced so much over the past few hundred years that we would have made some progress on these questions. Yet the range of answers given are little different from those presented by the Greeks 2400 years ago or the Israelites 3000 years ago.

Furthermore, what are the moral challenges of our day? They do not involve people engaging in “ancient superstitions” as much as the same moral hazards that humans have suffered for generations. Drunkenness remains as much a problem today as was in Solomon’s day (cf. Proverbs 20:1). The pain and misery that results from adultery and other forms of sexual immorality is acutely felt today as it was in previous days (cf. Proverbs 5:3-14, 6:23-35). Divorce ruins homes like it did in the past (Malachi 2:16, Matthew 19:9).

We may not want to admit it, but our technological advancements have not led to that many moral advancements. In fact, our technological advancements have highlighted human tendencies toward sin. Computer technology was harnessed early and often to peddle pornography. Advancements in healthcare give excuse for a lack of self-control and self-discipline in dietary habits. Humans still hate each other, desire to hurt each other, and kill each other, and now get to use more sophisticated technology to kill more people more effectively.

As it has been said, “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” The Preacher is right: there is nothing new under the sun. He is not arguing that people cannot discover new technologies or learn new things. He is simply stating a truism: in matters of existence, each generation follows after the past generation, and there is little real advancement. We can see clearly that despite thousands of years of human wisdom accrued by experience, each generation still has to go out and make many of the same mistakes as their fathers. And just as their fathers pleaded with them and warned them, so they will plead with and warn their children, and will likely have the same result!

Ever since the Tower of Babel, humans have wanted to believe that they are going up (cf. Genesis 11:1-4). In reality, humans are the same as they have always been. They are the fallen creation of God who require His love and mercy to be esteemed (cf. Romans 5:1-18). Let us keep a proper view of ourselves, and look to God who knows best!

Ethan R. Longhenry