My grandparents have always been fighters.
When they met, he was a high school dropout and she was attending an ivy league college. It didn’t stop him from trying, and they married shortly after. Together they fought to start a business and lose it to a fire. They fought her onset of diabetes and his heart attack. They fought to stay in shape as they aged. They fought my grandmother’s cancer for every spare minute they could get.
But my grandparents are also full of stories of providence and chance—moments and times when they happened to be in the right place at the right time. They tell of moments and opportunities that drifted right into their lives without so much as a thought.
My grandparent’s lives are living testimonies to the paradox that is life: Sometimes we fight for what we want, sometimes it falls in our laps.
So when should we fight for what we want? And when should we wait for God to act?
This tension is evident in stories throughout the Bible. In Genesis 11, we’re told about Babel, an early civilization that is seemingly unified toward a common purpose. Everyone speaks the same language, and their efforts have allowed them to build a tower toward the sky with the intention of reaching heaven and making a “name” for themselves.
Is God impressed by their hard work or teamwork? Not exactly. God actually laughs at their efforts and causes people to start speaking different languages.
I always kind of saw this moment like a kid stomping on an anthill. Wasn’t teamwork good? Weren’t they working hard and for a purpose?
Unfortunately the Bible doesn’t really explain itself (surprise!). And while there are plenty of theories about what this story could mean, what’s crystal clear is that ambition isn’t necessarily as good as we paint it to be sometimes. It can unite people and change the world—but not usually without a cost.
One theory about this story pinpoints the important use of bricks to build this tower. To the ancient Israelite family who was hearing this story, bricks meant brickmakers. And brickmakers meant slaves. Sometimes our goals, even the lofty ones, use people in the process.
Even today we find ourselves building our own towers—towers of wealth and prestige, towers of material possessions and influence. This is nothing new. In the 17th century, John Wesley taught “Earn all you can, give all you can, save all you can.” Toward the end of his life he was overwhelmed with frustration that people who became Christians often lived in such a way that earned them wealth and success by secular standards, but as a result they neglected giving of themselves in return and lost their passion for God.
When we work without a God-sized purpose, even our best intentions can lead us higher and higher into our own Babels. No matter how hard we work, as followers of Christ we must remember to love our neighbors as ourselves. Because Babels are easy to build when you don’t have to worry about who you’re hurting.
So if ambition and drive are so risky, are we better off waiting for God to bring people and opportunities into our lives? Jesus doesn’t seem to think so. In Matthew 25 He tells a story about three workers who are given different amounts of money from their master who then goes on a long trip. The first two workers end up investing their share of the wealth and with great success. But the third worker plays it safe by literally burying the money in the ground. He isn’t necessarily lazy or uninspired, (perhaps more pragmatic than the other two), so instead of risking someone else’s wealth, he hides it.
To his surprise, when the master returns he’s furious at this worker. Why? Because the third worker let fear keep him from acting. He was waiting for the master to do it all.
Too much hard work and we find ourselves lost in our swaying towers in the sky and separated from the things that matter. Too much fear or “waiting on God” and we waste our potential by burying it in the earth.
We’re meant to live with our feet on the ground, present and alive and risking what we’ve been given to create something. Not in the ground. Not in the sky. Here and now and with what we’ve got. We should fight—but fight for something worth fighting for. Something that will last.
God doesn’t want to see you waste your gifts on empty ambition. God doesn’t want to see you waste your gifts on fear. To quote Frederick Buechner, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This is a different way of thinking. It’s not just about you or me. It’s about us. And this kind of goal is going to take both hard work and providence. God expects us to act, but won’t let us act alone.
God is with us, moving and speaking. But sometimes we need to use what we’ve been given before we’re given more.
Author’s Update: On September 13, my grandmother finally lost her battle with cancer and gave her life back to God. This, ultimately, is the fate that awaits us all no matter how ambitious or apathetic we might be. The master always returns. The question is: What will He discover when that time comes?
Chris once said, ÒIÕll never be a pastor.Ó Now heÕs in seminary and learning that God has a sense of humor. You can see more of his writing at christopherabel.com and his ramblings on Twitter.