What does success look like? (Building Babel or the Ark?)

“What do you think success looks like?” -I asked at a job interview once.
It is a good question: What’s the vision? Where are we aiming for? How will we know if we have reached our destination?

Most of the images in Genesis are around the theme of journey, beginning with Adam and Eve leaving the garden of Eden, Cain heading ‘East’ following the murder of his brother, Abra(ha)m and his wanderings, Jacob on the run, Joseph trafficked to Egypt, his family becoming refugees in Egypt (and Exodus is the story of God through Moses taking them home again). The imagery is around destination, taking the next step and travel, but there are three ‘building images’ that are intertwined within the journey pictures (although two certainly have a travel element to them as well!)

The first is Noah’s Ark, the second is the Tower of Babel and the third is the monument Jacob set up to mark out the place of Bethel where he met with God in a dream.

Often in scripture (particularly in the New testament) we see ‘sandwiches’ within the text, the first and third story act as commentary of the 2nd story, the middle story, is either a great example of what to do (or, as in this case) what not to do!

Noah’s Ark was an obedient response to the call of God, he heard and heeded God’s voice, and although the idea of building a boat that size seemed preposterous he trusted God and was faithful. His project looked like folly until the rains came when it was salvation.

Jacob set up a bolder as a memorial of where he had met with God, a response of worship out of his overflow of gratitude and worship to God for his goodness and loving kindness.

The Ark and the monument were built not for either Jacob or Noah’s own personal glory -indeed, probably no one other than Jacob and God knew what that rock really meant or represented!- but rather for the glory of God.

So, what of Babel? Babel was a vanity project, built for recognition and celebration of pinnacle of human achievement, it was about self glorification not about the glorification of God. Yet, like the house built on sand, it may have looked beautiful but it fell due to its deficient foundations. Success Jesus tells us in this story “is like a wise man, who hears my words and is like a man who builds his house on the rocks, and when the rains and floods came the house stood firm”.

When we ask “what does success look like?” the question we need to ask is “from whose perspective?” -does it look successful to those around us, or does it look successful to the one who ultimately really counts?

The audience of our peers? Or the audience of one?

Here in the text of Genesis it is clear which two buildings are faithful discipleship and which is egocentric sin, but in our every day life such distinctions are often much more blurry.

Many salvation initiatives in our Churches may sound like they are ‘Ark’ projects -and of course in one level no one would deny that causing the Angels to rejoice in heaven over sinners who repent is not success, but we know sadly that sometimes human-beings get proud, egos get inflated and we try and take the credit for what God has done. Good things can stem from a compromised heart, things may start off doing the right things for the right reasons but we can get distracted inch by inch, degree by degree, along the way. King David was called a man after God’s own heart, and Ezekiel prayed to have an ‘undivided heart’.

Many worship initiatives too can begin as humble service facilitating people meeting with God, often saying the right things, singing and praying the things that are correct, but again people praise and affirm us and soon we discover we have lost our focus and gained a problem.

Somethings that maybe wow us with their success and glory but are simply ‘spiritual fire works’ look great and glorious for a blink of an eye but are forgotten a moment later, spiritual success in not measured in decibels but rather in the likeness of Christ revealed in his world.

So, what does success look like, is an interesting question are we looking through the lenses of how does something make us feel? What is in it for us? Or what does God think?

Often spiritual success is clothed in religious language, it is easy to sound holy and Godly when his will and ours align, and we are asked to do something that will give us recognition and kudos, but what if the call of Christ is a call to stand for something that is unpopular, embarrassing and costly?

What if our spiritual ‘success’ is never recognised -or someone else gets the credit we feel we deserve? What if we are called to ‘break up ground’ or ‘plant seeds’ rather than ‘reaping the harvest’.

I wonder whether things that maybe look like they are like Noah’s Ark might in-fact have Babel interwoven within their DNA? Yet things that look like Babel can be redeemed and transformed and become avenues of blessing.

Success from the perspective of heaven I believes looks very different to success through our eyes.

Has Babel crept into our hearts and taken us of course?

Maybe you’ve been building Babel and disguising it as Bethel?

Would I rather be considered a failure in the eyes of the world, in order to be seen ‘successful’ in the eyes of heaven?

A call to renew our minds, to think from the perspective of heaven, to lift our eyes to a throne we will never sit on, and say the words of Paul “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain!”


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