Creation and Environmental Stewardship

Tony Arnold

Go outside and spend some time observing.  Go for a walk in the park.  Go down to the creek or river or lake.  Go up to the mountains, into the forest, across the grasslands, out to the beaches and oceans.  What do you see?  How many different plants and trees?  Are any of the flowers glorious?  Are any of the butterflies, bees, dragonflies, or birds fascinating to watch? What kinds of wildlife and fish can you see?  Even if the landscape is brown and dead-looking in winter, your experience tells you that it will burst forth with growth and life in the Spring.

What you see in nature is God’s love.  You see God’s love for humans.  This is our divinely-provided earthly home.  You see God’s goodness – God created the earth, land, waters, and all living things and declared them good.  You see God’s creativity, bringing forth life out of death and populating the earth with rich, diverse manifestations of life that we couldn’t have dreamed up on our own.  You see God’s diversity, complexity, and mystery: nature is a vast web of life, places, structures, and processes that remains ever wondrous, even as our scientific knowledge and understanding grow.

You see God’s passionate love story of salvation and redemption for humans that plays out across the pages of time, made manifest in Jesus Christ.  The Gospel of John tells us that through Jesus, who is Truth and Life, all things were created. Nothing exists without having been created through Jesus.  Nature bears witness to the core truth of God’s redemptive love.  You see it in the abundant references to nature in the Psalms and the Old Testament prophets: springs bursting forth in the desert; justice rolling like a mighty river; mountains that evoke God’s majesty.  You see it in the sparrow whom God is watching.  You see it in the wildflowers that are more beautiful than the richest king in history.  You see it in rocks that would cry out in witness to our Savior.

Yes, nature is an extraordinary gift from God, but it also comes with God-given responsibility.  In Genesis 2:15, God gives humans the responsibility to “serve and keep” God’s creation, with the Hebrew word for “keep” meaning “to guard, take care of, and look after.”  Our call to be faithful and responsible stewards of the gifts God has provided us appears throughout the Bible, including many different teachings of Jesus.

I teach and write about how environmental stewardship principles are or should be manifested in legal duties.  Nonetheless, the law is a necessary but inadequate mechanism for effectuating environmental stewardship, because it calls for imperfect human institutions to regulate ourselves.  More importantly, environmental stewardship is both a moral and spiritual imperative. We are doing wrong when we irresponsibly harm God’s creation, and we are hurting our relationship with God.  When we kill or destroy God’s creation, we kill or destroy manifestations of God’s love, power, and majesty, squelching creation’s witness to God and hurting our own spiritual welfare.

And how well do take care of God’s earth?  Relatively poorly by all contemporary indications.  We are polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases from our vehicles, power plants, and livestock, which are warming the earth, causing far-reaching environmental degradation, and threatening human life and well-being.  In the U.S. and many other parts of the world, we have destroyed most of our pre-settlement forests and wetlands, both of which are places in which life generates or regenerates.  The majority of the waterways – rivers, lakes, and streams – in the U.S. are officially listed as “impaired” due to too much pollution.  The loss of biodiversity – the extinction of species – has spiked at an alarming rate worldwide: hundreds to tens of thousands of species going extinct every year.  Through the way we mis-use the earth, we have eliminated species that God purposefully created.  You see examples of environmental harms in everyday life: trash and litter, plastics in the ocean, valleys that are paved over for new development, algae blooms that create dead zones in our waterways (including the Gulf hypoxic zone that has created a lifeless zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is currently the size of the state of Massachusetts), the chemicals we use on our landscapes, and so many more.

Why?  The Bible tells us that all of creation is groaning under the strains and effects of human sin.  Four major categories of sin explain why we’re such poor stewards of the environment. First, we’re greedy and materialistic. We aren’t satisfied with just meeting basic needs or satisfying our wants in sustainable ways.  We want more – more profits, income, and money, more things, and more conveniences.  Second, we want to be in control, to have power over our environments.  We don’t want to yield control to God or to take on the humble attitude of a servant who is here to care for something that belongs to God according to God’s directives.  We want to treat it the earth and all the aspects of creation as our own to use according to our own will.  Third, we act with hostility, hatred, anger, envy, maliciousness, and violence. We commit hostile acts of violence and harm against other people and against nature and in doing so we commit acts of violence and harm against the God who made us and loves us.  Finally, we are lazy.  We want the conveniences of our daily lives that consume so many of the earth’s resources and change our environments for the worst.  We drive our vehicles more than we need to.  We buy and throw away more than we need to.  We don’t make the extra effort to replace non-native invasive species with native plants, to seek environmentally responsible governance decisions, to learn about things like loss of biodiversity or acidification of our oceans, or to change our wasteful but convenient habits.

I really do mean “we” – all of us are to blame.  I confess that I commit every single one of these four categories of wrongs against God and God’s creation every day of my life, even when I am trying hard to be environmentally responsible.  Whether you think of more Calvinistic concepts like the utter depravity of humanity or more Lutheran concepts like “simultaneously both sinner and saint,” the bottom line is that none of us is an environmentally responsible as God calls us to be.  I recognize that I need repentance, forgiveness, and redemption, and thus the story of God’s love plays out in how we endeavor to be more environmentally responsible and fall short.  It is our tender, loving God who calls and enables us to be more faithful stewards of creation – earth keepers – as we play our parts in the amazing witness that nature bears to God’s love.  May the Holy Spirit grant us the abilities and will to be responsible keepers of God’s creation.

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