Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”. Shelley
Sometimes, in human history, words outlast the monuments we build. And sometimes words have an echo, or carry more baggage than the current users intend.
“We built this” is one of those phrases.
To anyone with any knowledge of the Bible, this phrase is jarring at the very least.
To a Christian who knows that, above everything else, we are saved, if at all, not by our works, but purely by God’s grace. Any of our accomplishments, and certainly our righteousness, are, as Paul put it, rags, or even garbage (Philippians 3:8).
The Old Testament context to this phrase is even more disconcerting. “We built this” is remarkably similar to the words used by those who built the Tower of Babel.
Those ancient architects were proud of their tower for what it was – and what it proved; they could do anything, and they didn’t need anyone else – even God (Genesis 11:6-9).
God’s judgment was immediate – and affects us still. We get the word ‘babble’ from linguistic division and resulting confusion (Genesis 11:9).
Our pride in our own accomplishments, according to the Bible, is, at best, misguided.
Our national, ethnic, or racial pride is silly, if not downright delusional or even sinful. None of us had any choice about where or when, or to whom we were born. We are not responsible, in any way, for our skin color, size or the health we were born with. At its most basic, we didn’t ‘build’ anything.
As the term “We built this” emerged in its latest incarnation, I was reading the book Outliers: the Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell. As Gladwell puts it, “no one-not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses-ever makes it alone” (page 115).
In one of the very few verses that is in the Bible twice (in two separate books), God clarifies who He opposes and who He blesses (James 4:6,1 Peter 5:5).
God opposes the proud and lifts up the humble, in fact He loves those with a contrite heart (Psalm 51:17,Isaiah 57:15).
Our current obsession with individualism as ideology is alien to the Bible, history and personal observation and experience.
As intoxicated as we might get from the works of our own hands, we dare not lose track of God’s far, far larger vision.
And we dare not forget that Psalm 127:1 reminds us, “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain”.
Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.