Why Should Christians Care For the Earth?

By Andy Patton

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

God sees the world as a good in its own right, not as our expendable playground. If that is true, then part of Christian maturity is coming to care for what the Lord cares about, namely, the earth.

Here are some ideas that have been benchmarks to me in my own journey to see the glory of the Lord in the earth he has made:

1. Understanding size as God does: God’s infinitude, paradoxically, has not made him less conscious of the tiny things, but more. He dresses the flowers and gives the sparrows grain. He waters the fields. Every insect and amoebae has its life in him. He did not make a complex machine that he turned on and then left to operate on its own. Rather, the Bible depicts a God who is intimately involved in his creation, knitting his creatures together in their mother’s wombs. Bringing molecules of water to hidden seeds. We, however, tend to judge by size. We give our attention to great things, thinking it somehow lesser to care for the sparrows, or the streams, or the grass. Unless we reevaluate our notion of what greatness means we run the risk of calling common the things God calls wonderful and failing to steward the whole earth.

2. Creation praises God: There are moments in the Bible that the earth is personified and often when it is it is singing for joy. In Psalm 19 the heavens tell of the glory of God. In Psalm 65 the hills clothe themselves with flocks and the valleys deck themselves with grain and they shout and sing together for joy. When the Pharisees tell Jesus to quiet the crowds his response is that if the crowds are hushed the stones themselves will burst into song. As Hopkins said, “the earth is full of the glory of God.” If we cannot see it or if it does not move us, that is no fault of the earth’s. It’s our eyes that can’t see and our ears that can’t hear and our slow hearts that won’t be moved. If we will listen we can learn truth about God through what he has made. Paul seems to indicate in the first chapter of Romans that if we do not, we will be held accountable for it.

3. We are all connected: God has made a system, not a collection of isolated objects that do not influence one another. To care for the what he has made we must begin to see those connections. This network he has made is the means by which he cares for all life on earth. The sun makes the rain evaporate and it forms clouds. The spin of the earth makes wind. The winds move the clouds to thirsty places and brings rain. The rain and the sunlight make plants grow. Things eat the plants. Things eat what eats the plants. Those nutrients come to us. We die and return to the soil and the cycle runs on. Being the planets rulers does not mean we must try to make ourselves free from the cycles God made, nor that we have no debt to them. Rather, we must understand the earth’s delicate inner workings and preserve them. If we have unbalanced some part of this planet, we must work to set it right, or we will suffer because we are still living within the connection and what we do effects us as well.

4. Heaven will be a restored earth: The attitude of “its all going to burn anyway” so it doesn’t matter how we treat the earth comes from a misunderstanding of what this earth means. The material world is not fading away, nor is it somehow subordinate to the purely spiritual. God made the material and it delights him. He is going to restore it. Plants, the sky, bodies, the trees, and all the rest of the wonderful mosaic of the ecosystem will live forever to the praise of his glory. This reminds me of a curious quote by Martin Luther. When asked what he would do if he was sure the earth would end the following day his response was, “Plant a tree.” Will the things we do in this earth endure, purified? Will this earth awaken from its sleep and groaning and shake off the accumulated brokenness that has built up on top of it like snow in this long winter? If God calls each star by name into the sky, will he call their names into restoration? And a sobering thought: Jesus bore his scars after Easter. Will this world bear its scars after its Easter? Will it make us mourn then?

5. We have become disconnected from the earth and it has led to sadness: It is a fact of this world that it has become easier to live a life disconnected from this world and from each other and this has led to so many things that Christians should oppose. We ought not only fight the fruits of injustice, but also try to change it at its roots. If a disconnection from the earth is at the root, then we are obliged to do something about it. If my lifestyle contributes to the worsening of someone else’s life, then there is a burden on me to change the way I live.

Those connections are complicated so let me tell a story by way of example. I was recently in Harmons, Jamaica building a greenhouse. Harmons is a small valley of about 2,000 people. Most, if not all, live below the poverty line. Few are consistently employed. Some years ago, a mining company took interest in Harmons. The soil of Jamaica is rich in bauxite, a key component in the making of aluminum. The mining company began to buy up land in Harmons. They approached families that had lived for generations on top of the land they wanted to mine. They offered them money in exchange for their land. Some sold and moved, others did not. Those who did not move found themselves living in the middle of a strip mine. You see, the mine coud simply force the residents out by digging around their house. Years later the company is still in Harmons and has left great pink scars on the formerly green hillsides. Many families have been uprooted and communities broken. The land will not be restored except by God’s slow processes. Someone once said that you know you are poor if you can’t stop people from taking things from you. Seems true in Harmons.

What does this have to do with a disconnection from the earth? What is happening in Harmons is a sign of what the world wants and what it values and what we think the earth means. Our disconnection from the earth has enabled the modern world to think of the earth chiefly in terms of what it can offer us, what we can extract out of it. But that is not how God thinks of it. To God it is simply a joy as it is. Seeing the earth as God does is an act that subverts the worldview that wants to mine the soil and mine the people living on it, and therefore, an act that fights the injustice that results.

6. There is wonder everywhere: Miracles are happening constantly. Christ’s first miracle was to turn water to wine. He repeats this work every day through the slower miracle of grapes. For some reason we don’t call wine miraculous. There is no reason other than joy that grapes should have the unique ability to make wine. The drama that plays out in one square foot of grass holds as much wonder as the cosmos. It holds incredible complexity. We tend to think of mystery as the only source of wonder, but with things God makes, that is not the case. Wonder increases with knowledge. The smallest bits of God’s world bear this out.

7. Simply put, we are commanded to: Our first parents were given a charge to subdue the earth and multiply upon it, but this is not a mandate to destroy. This verse has often been misunderstood as being a license to kill, so to speak. Subduing means something closer to the work of gardening than it does the work of conquest. It is here to serve us, but we are also here to serve it as stewards with wisdom. Our dominion is care-taking. We are to use the world to our purposes, but all our purposes are to foster the flourishing of the world.

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