Is Your Life Defined By A Ladder Or A Cross?

Is-You-Life-Defined-Ladder-or-CrossIn Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) tells Vincent Vega (John Travolta) that she needs to find out what kind of person he is before she’ll go to dinner with him. Here’s what she says:

My theory is that when it comes to important subjects, there’s only two ways a person can answer. For instance, there’s two kinds of people in this world, Elvis people and Beatles people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis. And Elvis people can like the Beatles. But nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere you have to make a choice. And that choice tells me who you are.

There are other important things in life that can tell us what kind of person you are: chunky peanut butter, or smooth? Regular cola, or diet? It seems to me that the same is true when it comes to reading the Bible. Do you read the Bible as a helpful tool in your climb up toward moral betterment or as the story of God coming down to broken, sinful people?

In a very real way, our lives are defined by how we answer that question. Specifically, our lives are defined either by a cross or by a ladder. The ladder symbolizes our ascension—our effort to “go up.” The cross symbolizes God’s descension—his coming down.

There is no better story in the Old Testament, or perhaps the whole Bible, for depicting the difference between the ladder-defined life and the cross-defined life than that of the Tower of Babel.

In Genesis 11:4, the people make a decision. “Come, let us build ourselves a city,” they said, “with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.” This is humanity in a nutshell. We want desperately to be known, appreciated, lauded, and extolled. We want to secure our own meaning, significance, and worth. We give our all to these objectives.

But then something funny happens.

After the people go to work to build this tower that reaches “to the heavens,” v.5 says, “But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.” I find this verse to be a great and sobering picture of our futile attempts to “make a name for ourselves,” to do something great in our own power. The momentous achievement that the builders are so proud of is so small and insignificant to God that he has to “come down from heaven” to even see what they’re up to. All their efforts, all their hard work, have resulted in a tower that not only doesn’t reach the heavens, but that can’t even be seen from them!

None of our best attempts and none of our self-righteous strivings (and make no mistake, that is exactly what they are) can get us up to God.

We are like the tower-builders: addicted to a ladder-defined life. We think that a life of ladder-climbing is a life of freedom: free to move at our own pace, up or down depending on our decisions, responsible for our own progress. We climb our ladders for the same reasons that the people of the world built their tower: to make a name for ourselves, to ensure our own legacy, to secure our own value. We love to imagine that we’re on a higher rung than someone else, a better father than someone else, a more accomplished follower of Christ than someone else. But ladder-climbing actually and inevitably leads to slavery. Paul Zahl, in his amazing little book Who Will Deliver Us?, describes the ladder-defined life like this:

If I can do enough of the right things, I will have established my worth. My identity is the sum of my achievements. Hence, if I can satisfy the boss, meet the needs of my spouse and children, and still do justice to my inner aspirations, then I will have proven my worth…conversely…if I do not perform, I will be judged unworthy. To myself I will cease to exist.

The life of slavery happens when we try to “do it ourselves.” We become imprisoned by our failures (often real, sometimes perceived) and to ourselves, we cease to exist. This isn’t freedom, it’s bondage.

But there is good news: our towers of Babel don’t remain standing.

God loves us too much to leave us in the hell of unhappiness that comes from trying to do his job. Into the slavish misery of our ladder-defined lives, God condescends.

His first act is an act of judgment. He scatters them—he dis-organizes them, literally. God takes away their faith in themselves, the very misplaced faith that enslaves them. When everyone in the world spoke the same language, God came down in judgment, breaking the world apart. But at just the right time, he came down again, this time to reconcile that sinful world to himself. He replaces our ladder with his cross. His final descent was to save us, and to set us free.

So how do you read the Bible? Is the Bible a manual for living the ladder-defined life? Or is it the announcement of the one who came down and hung on a cross in order to rescue us from our efforts to make it on our own?

God is not at the top of a ladder shouting, “Climb.” He is at the bottom on a cross whispering, “It is finished.”

  • Steve Martin says:

    Amen, Pastor T..

    He went all the way down for us, didn’t He?

    All the way down to the bottom of a grave.

    We should all get off those stinking ladders that we so dearly love and recognize that all that is needful has already been done…is being done…and will yet be done…for His sake.


    To the “yeah but” ers out there that just can’t resist throwing cold water on this bit of good news (with all your legal scheme Bible verses)…why don’t you give it a rest today? And just relax in His grace and mercy? At least for a day or two. It’s a holiday weekend for cry in’ out loud.

  • Vuyelwa says:

    I watched you on TBN a few days ago where you said that for some odd reason christians believe it took Jesus’ blood, sweat and tears to save us but that it will take our blood, sweat and tears to keep us saved. I can relate.

    I came to faith about 15 years ago. The message that I responded was that I owed a debt I could never be in a position to pay and Jesus paid it for me. My response was to simply trust and believe that He had done so. Somewhere along the way I believed that Jesus had merely started something in me that requires my own strength and commitment to complete.

    I have heard many sermons about heaven’s aristocracy if you will. The judgement seat of Christ. Where those who have “done well” will be joyously welcomed into heaven by Jesus and the rest of us would just get the lazy eye from Him. He’d shake his head like, really…”you could have achieved so much for my kingdom but you were just too weak”.

    This belief ran so deep in my soul I resigned myself to a position of polishing the streets of gold for holier, worthier saints than me to walk on while adorned with crowns of life, etc. I remember reading a christian bestseller that basically said that christians who failed the climb would have a weaker relationship with Jesus even in heaven. I believed Jesus had forgiven my sin prior to my knowing Him but has very little patience for my faults and failures post salvation.

    This understanding of God and grace causes one to read even the word through mud and mire tinted glasses. I have read countless scriptures that point to the absolute contrary direction but perception is a powerful and real thing. It was about three years ago that God arrested me on the first chapter of Ephesians for weeks. I could not get past that chapter and could not believe what I was reading!

    “…[in His love] He chose us [actually picked us out for Himself as His own] in Christ before the foundation of the world….”

    God has been teaching me about His grace and slowly I am getting acquainted with His love and goodness. Today I have had a song I used to sing in high school assembly, 5 years before I even came to faith. It’s the doxology in the book of Jude:

    Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.

    Rediscovering Living Loved.

    • I don’t know your story specifically, of course, and I’m not trying to start a soteriology debate here, but I wonder if part of the danger of the evangelical idea of a moment of decision for Christ is that it can tend to what you are describing. It is, of course, important to emphasize that salvation has been won once and for all upon the cross, and that justification is applied to one personally when he is converted (as a Lutheran, I would specify baptism but others will disagree) but we are constantly being justified, not as if Christ’s work is not complete, but in the sense that He stands before the Father continuously interceding on our behalf, so that God does not see our sins but rather His wounds.

      As a Lutheran, I see confession and absolution and the Lord’s Supper as instrumental in the church’s conveyance of the perpetuity of forgiveness, but I realize that other traditions have their ways of emphasizing this as well.

  • Michelle says:

    My life is defined by a ladder that IS a cross. Or more specifically a Holy Cross with The Ladder, Himself, nailed to it. Why are you’re so determined to systematically “theologize” and therefore destroy Mystery? To box God in? You can’t do it. There is no peace there. If assurance above all seems peaceful, it is the false peace of the spiritually immature. The obedience of faith is Mystery. There is no easy path to mount calvary. You have to climb to reach a City on a Hill. Thank goodness my Ladder is Christ, and the summit I’m shooting for is Christ, and desire to go there is Christ, and the movement of my legs is Christ. Pax Christi.

  • Michelle says:

    Christ is depicted three times in this picture. Can you see Him?

  • […] on July 5, 2014 by Tullian Tchividjian In Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) tells […]

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