Christians and non-Christians alike hear the siren call of personal glory. Jesus, on the other hand, calls us to the highest delight of giving—of elevating others.
Let’s compare these callings.
Adam launched the monument-making impulse by wanting to be like God. Since Adam we all celebrate personal significance at some level. Yet the impulse divides humanity into higher and lower classes: into successes and failures. Monuments of success like George Washington’s obelisk in D.C. or Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square will inspire many but, in a subtle way, they can also point away from the God who sets up every ruler and hero.
Something goes particularly wrong for those who try to build their own monuments. We see this in Israel’s first king, Saul. As Saul led his people in the face of Philistine expansionism he did well and had some military successes. But with this acclaim he “came to Carmel, and behold, he set up a monument for himself” (1 Sam. 15:12). Saul had taken a wrong turn.
The wrong was more evident as Saul then tried to crush any who threatened his legacy. In time his paranoia broke his bond with Samuel, his mentor; his ties with his best soldier, David; and it even threatened his son, Jonathan. More importantly it shattered his relationship with God.
After Saul’s death David was made king. We’ll turn to him in a moment. But first let’s look ahead to one of David’s very gifted sons, Absalom. He, like Saul, “set up for himself” a “pillar after his own name, and it is called Absalom’s monument to this day” (2 Sam. 18:18). Along with this exercise of monument-building Absalom also tried to kill his father to usurp his kingdom. Once again, something had gone very wrong.
These examples point to a tragic trajectory that can come with glory. Adam’s fall awakened a focus on self. And while that impulse often seems manageable—with ambitions today as ordinary as chasing Twitter followers and Facebook “likes”—it can begin to consume a soul. Major monuments, after all, need to be tall enough to stand out in a skyline.
The Bible presents human-focused monuments ranging from the Tower of Babel in Genesis to the Image of the Beast in Revelation. There is the epoch-defining statue in Daniel—in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream—that warns readers of a shattering future to come. And the statue Nebuchadnezzar subsequently built as an icon of his kingdom to be worshipped.
What is the alternative? For one, we can look to King David as “a man after [God’s] own heart.” That’s not to say he was immune to selfishness—we know about Bathsheba—but his best moment came in 2 Samuel 7. David saw God’s apparent need for better housing and asked the prophet Nathan for permission to build a temple to replace a modest and aging tabernacle-tent. David cared about God’s welfare.
God demurred but he was pleased with David’s heart. So he promised David, in turn, a future “Seed”: a man who would be the divine ruler for all ages. This, of course, turned out to be Jesus, the Christ.
Jesus, in turn, had an ironic monument of his own: the cross. In John’s gospel we read about the day when Jesus would be “lifted up”—first mentioned by Jesus in 3:14 and then repeated in 8:28 and 12:32. In each case Jesus was referring to his coming crucifixion. In other words it was in his death, in giving up his own life, that Jesus gave life to all who believe in him. So the cross was his monumental moment—the place where he swallowed death for our sake.
Paul certainly caught the point. Once a man who wanted to be the greatest among his Jerusalem classmates, he was transformed by meeting Jesus. His new focus was reflected at one level as he recalled Jesus saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Jesus represented the joy of selfless giving.
It was also Paul who was captured by the reversed reality of his Lord’s death: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” He also called the church in Philippi to follow Christ’s selfless example: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
Finally we can rely on Paul to help us recognize the source of this shift of focus. It only comes about by Christ’s indwelling Spirit. He alone frees us from reflexive monument-building by replacing self-love with selfless love. In specific terms Jesus captures us with his love for the Father and, by extension, with their united devotion to us.
And in Ephesians 4:16 we discover the social outcome. We are no longer monument builders but spiritual body-builders as each of us, by “working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
So the question before each of us emerges: what drives us? Is it vision of our personal legacy? Or a vision of Christ? Once again, the highest delight of giving comes in our elevating others.