June 18, 2008 by

The Tower and the Ladder


Categories: changing mindsets, food for thought, religion

At a worship conference I participated in last year in Joplin, Missouri, a friend of mine there named Jim gave a Biblical comparison I’ve been chewing on ever since. And some things in Sarah’s post today indirectly stirred these thoughts again. So I thought I’d share them with you.

In the Book of Genesis, we find two powerful pictures of heaven-earth connections. One of them is the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11; the other is Jacob’s ladder dream found in Genesis 28. One negative, one positive.

The Tower of Babel is the negative example. Lots of speculation occurs over why the people were trying to build a tower reaching to heaven, but at the very least it’s understood that this was man’s attempt to ascend to the divine. And their heart-motive was “to make a name for ourselves.” God purposefully thwarted this attempt.

In Jacob’s dream–the positive example–a ladder came from heaven down to earth, and angels were ascending and descending on it, and in this transaction, God basically re-affirmed the Abrahamic covenant to Jacob. There must have been more to it than just a dream, because when Jacob awoke, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

In both accounts, there is an attempt at a heaven-earth connection. What makes one good and one bad? In the case of the Tower of Babel–man is attempting to ascend (earth to heaven). But in the case of Jacob’s ladder–heaven comes to earth.

This seems to be a consistent theme throughout Scripture. Anytime man tries to ascend to the heavenly realms to get to God, heaven takes a dim view of it, because at best it is a work of man. But whenever God initiates the heaven-earth connection, it is accompanied by His blessings. We can see this most obviously in the way Messiah came (Immanuel–God with us, God coming down to man), and even at the very end, when New Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth.

Earth-to-heaven connection, bad. Heaven-to-earth connection, good.

Now it’s time for a disturbing question. How much of what we currently do in our Christian walk is actually an attempt to ascend? We pray, study, and even worship fervently in our attempts to “get to God”, to “be spiritual”, to “be stronger Christians.” And don’t get me wrong, those are great things to do–but are we really supposed to be doing them for those reasons? I think many of us do these things in an attempt to ascend spiritually–and the tell-tale sign that this is the case is when we feel self-satisfied, even a bit proud of ourselves, when we feel we have done enough. I know that’s how I used to approach it. And looking back on it, I can truly see that this is the path of religion–just another attempt to build a tower to heaven. This is not something God blesses.

This whole approach actually flies in the face of the message of grace. The whole point is that we can’t be good enough; we can’t earn it; we can’t do anything to ascend to the divine. But by the work of Christ coming to earth, and by His grace, He comes to man and places His divine nature in us…and then He lifts us up. God initiates this whole thing. All we do is yield, receive, and submit to the blessing He wants to give. And as Sarah points out…this is where the fruit of the Spirit is birthed in our lives.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t seek to develop godly virtue in our lives, because we should. All it means is that our very ability to be and to do good comes to us because God has come down, not because we are going up.

This understanding has totally reshaped my thinking, even about ministry. Anything I do, I want it to be a response to what God has initiated–not an attempt to get God to do something. I want what I do to reflect the ladder rather than the tower. Heaven comes to earth–not the other way around. May our lives ever more be a reflection of this truth.

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

7 Responses to The Tower and the Ladder

  1. Michael

    I have noticed differences over the years in my times of prayer and study of God’s word, but I have often scratched my head at why this is. I need to process some more, but I wonder if part of the struggle is the difference between me trying to “find” God in the “tasks” I am doing versus—well I don’t know how to put it into words. Yet at the same time aren’t we told to seek in places like Jer. 29 and Matthew 6 and 7? I agree with what you are saying, but I struggle still with what that looks like practically, lived out day to day. I think the key is, as you said, a response to what God has done. I am so driven to achieve, driven to conform to this culture’s way of doing things. Thanks for the encouragement to transform that mind set.

  2. Lightbearer


    This is definitely good stuff. The difference between doing something out of duty for the purpose of earning point and doing something as a result of being led by the Holy Spirit or just out of gratitude for what God has done for us.

    That is something everyone can use a reminder on occasionally.


  3. Jeff McQ

    I think it’s definitely important to draw a distinction between “seeking” and “ascending”. As you pointed out, we are instructed and encouraged to seek God. But even in Jer. 29 (one of my favorite passages), God says that when we seek Him…”I will be *found* by you.” The wording implies that God is *letting* us find Him, as we couldn’t have done it on our own. We also have the passage in John where Jesus said no one can even come to the Father unless the Spirit is already drawing him. Even in our seeking, apparently God is the initiator.

    I think the wrongful “ascending” occurs when we mistake our good practices for spiritual growth, or take a sense of pride and accomplishment by our good deeds and practices. There’s just something about this that reduces Christianity to a self-help program, and it’s accompanied by either an attitude of self-righteousness, driven-ness, or despair, depending on how well we think we’re doing. Wayne Jacobsen, in his book “He Loves Me”, would call this “scoring points with someone who isn’t keeping score.”

    Ultimately, it’s an attitude of the heart. When we “ascend”, *we* get the credit when we think we’ve arrived; when we “seek”, God alone gets the glory when we find Him.

    And before anyone calls me on it…I recognize the picture in the O.T. of “ascending the hill of the Lord.” (Ps. 24, Is.2) But it’s important to note that the hill of the Lord spoken of was a place on earth, not in heaven. God still initiated that contact by inhabiting a space on earth for us to “ascend” to. And that’s a discussion in itself. 🙂

    Let me know what your son thinks.

    It’s definitely freeing to live out our faith from a sense of response to God, rather than a sense of duty to Him. Thanks for the comment!

  4. shaun

    I think I have something to say that may or may not have any value. Please forgive me in advance.
    I can relate personally to the difference between ascending and seeking.
    In my own spiritual/physical journey I have had times when I Was very busy “for the Lord” when it was really about me not God at all.
    I even was convinced and was convincing myself that it was in response to God’s love for me.
    The fact is, that is one of the reasons I feel like God has led me away from an institutional setting into pretty much nothing for now. My service, prayer, bible study and even acts of kindness were attempts by me to win favor.
    Looking back I can see how ridiculous this was, but at the time I felt like I was following the program to be blessed and be a blessing. I’m not saying that it was all out of bad motives, I was just misguided I think. And of course our nature is to seek (even if secretly) approval of men.
    But as Jesus said ,”they have their reward” and I did. Approval was my reward. I can’t believe the people that I alienated because I was so blind to what is most important. At the same time I think that this was all part of what has brought me to this place where I am as assured as I am unsure. I KNOW God loves me, He has so proven it over and over. At the same time I am unsure of what is the right thing to do next, which forces me to my knees and causes me to seek and to realize that I can never ascend up to Heaven. Thy Kingdom Come Thy will be done..

  5. Sarah

    Love this post! (And thanks for the link). There’s a lot to say on this topic. I started writing a comment, and it just got too long. So I’ll probably post my additional thoughts soon.

  6. Jeff McQ

    I think your comment is very valid, and a good example. No apology needed. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

    I’ll be watching your blog. 🙂 Thanks.

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