It's easy to mistake the means for the ends and in doing so, to settle for less than we were intended for. For example, we all feel pressure to be productive and to use our time wisely, but if we're not careful, we will, as Peter Drucker says, manage for the sake of management instead of managing for the sake of results. There are many stories in the Bible that reflect this part of human nature—our tendency to miss the point, which in biblical terms is often known as sin. One of these stories comes from the Gospel of John, and another, from Genesis.
In Jesus' day, there was a pool in Jerusalem where many disabled people gathered. They believed that once in a while, when the water was stirred, the first to enter into it would be healed. There was one there who "had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, 'Do you want to get well?' 'Sir,' the invalid replied, 'I have no one to help me into the pool.' Then Jesus said to him, 'Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.' At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked" (John 5:1-9).
When Jesus asked him, "Do you want to get well?" the man responded, "there is no one to help me get in the water." He couldn't understand what Jesus was offering him because he was fixated on his own idea of what needed to be done. This is not in any way to mitigate his suffering. He had been paralyzed, likely in pain, trying to get into this pool for 38 years—it would be foolish for us to look down on him for his shortsightedness.
Neither can we honestly look down on the people who began building the tower of Babel. God told these people, the descendants of Noah, to spread throughout the earth. But as they moved east, they came upon a plain and settled there. Genesis 11:4 tell us, "Then they said, 'come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches into the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.'"
They wanted to make a name for themselves, to utilize their potential and create something impressive. They were hoping to leave a legacy that would amaze men for ages after. God had told them to spread throughout the earth, but they knew that their fastest route to "progress" lay in uniting in one place with one purpose. So, though they were acting in direct disobedience to God, they began building. Who of us doesn't fall into that same trap? God makes a promise, or gives a command, or offers us something, but we instead latch onto our self-appointed task—building a tower or getting into that pool—making a name for ourselves or finally attaining that one last thing, which we believe will make everything right.
We forget that God's purposes will prevail whether we are in tune with them or not. But we have the choice of how we will participate in his plan: we can be like the man by the pool who, hearing Jesus speak, picked up his mat and walked, He was healed by faith and left the pool behind him by his own free will. Or we can be like the tower builders who refused to go where they were told as long as it was in their power to hold on. It was only when God confused their speech, rendering them unable to build, that they sheepishly abandoned their tower and spread throughout the earth as God originally commanded.
After Jesus healed the man at the pool, the Pharisees were angry with him for breaking the law by healing on the Sabbath. Jesus responded harshly, "You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life" (John 5:39-40). The Pharisees, though they were educated in the Scriptures, fell into the very same trap as the tower-builders. They latched onto an idea of their own—that salvation depends upon human intellect and will, on studying the law of the Scriptures and following every last letter of it. But they missed the Spirit of the law and in so doing rejected Jesus—the very Author of the law. It's entirely possible to be religious, to fervently study Scripture, and to be a stranger to its power, a stranger to the power of the love of God.
The Hope: Seeking God in Scripture
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor known for resisting Hitler, knew that people, even those who read and claim to follow the Bible, are likely to come up with and latch on to their own ideas about life, about God, and about relationships with others. And he knew firsthand from living in Nazi Germany that when people invent their own answers to life's questions, the results are dangerous.
Bonhoeffer believed that the only proper way to approach life was by searching Scripture with the right mindset. In a letter to his brother-in-law, he wrote: "First of all I will confess quite simply—I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer. One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared really to inquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself. Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it. That is because in the Bible God speaks to us. And one cannot simply think about God in one's own strength, one has to inquire of him. Only if we seek him, will he answer us."
You have to be seeking God Himself—not moral advice, not an intellectual challenge, not a how-to manual—but God Himself, if you are to find anything truly worthwhile in the Bible. And the Bible is the place to go if you want to find God and experience his power. We will not find life in our pools or towers or even in a book, but we will experience the power of God when we hear his words and act on them, like the man at the pool did.