In wanting to feel closer to God, we try different ways of reaching him. When it seems our prayers are not being answered, we bargain with him ("God, if I go to Mass every day, maybe then you'll do something about my request") or we increase our prayers by adding in novenas or by invoking saints. While there's nothing wrong with this of course, our motives need to be examined: Are we really trusting God? Or are we trying to manipulate him?
To feel successful in our spiritual lives, we seek spiritual highs. We want to feel more loved and more cared about. We want to feel so important to God that he'll grant us miracles. But if we don't feel his concern on an emotional level, we assume that he's not yet doing enough to make us happy, and we think that the solution is to "build up" our faith, hoping this will get us closer to the joys of heaven.
The people in today's first reading wanted that same emotional-spiritual high. To get it, they tried to reach heaven by building the tallest tower that their engineers could conceive. They defined spiritual success as fame, i.e., making a name for themselves that the rest of the world would notice. They thought they could feel heavenly by working together to build a towering accomplishment.
Was their motive really to get closer to God? Literally, yes, it was, but spiritually, no, because they were not seeking an improved relationship with the Lord. They wanted to reach heaven by their own efforts. This motive was very arrogant.
Contrast this to what Jesus says in today's Gospel reading. We reach heaven by following in Jesus' footsteps. And where did he climb? Not up a tower. He climbed onto a cross. He built the Kingdom of God in the humility of self-sacrifice and a willingness to suffer for the sake of others.
It doesn't make sense. And we surely don't like it. But it's true: Our greatest accomplishments don't come from reaching personal heights of success and fame; they happen when we build up other people.
We are at our best when we give love sacrificially. We reach God when we walk on lowly ground to reach those who need help. We experience our biggest spiritual highs when we join Jesus on the cross, which means embracing our hardships as opportunities for serving others, because that's the only way to a glorious resurrection.
What cross are you nailed to? What hardship have you been forced into? Now here's the most important question, the one that raises us up in resurrection: How can this cross benefit the Kingdom of God?