Earlier this month, Pope Francis released an historic encyclical calling for a “revolution” in how humankind relates to the environment. In making his plea for radical changes in “lifestyle, production and consumption” that has pushed the planet to a “breaking point”, Pope Francis draws upon theology, science and history. He also brings special attention to the consequences of climate change on the poor.
The occasion reminded me of a similar – albeit much less publicized – appeal made by First Fruit’s board member, David Bennett, in the Lausanne Global Conversation. We decided it would be timely to republish an edited version below.
I serve on the board of an evangelical foundation that for over twenty years has had holistic ministry as one of its primary focus areas. The board has joyfully and enthusiastically made grants for digging wells, training community health workers, helping farmers to grow drought-resistant crops, providing capital for small business loans, purchasing equipment for mobile clinics, and much more.
So I was not prepared for the liveliness of the discussion when one of our staff members brought forward a proposal related to the environment.
I began to see that even though our foundation board and staff were all long-time believers, nurtured in evangelical churches, we were at different places in our theological convictions and/or in our personal passions related to environmental concerns. There were even some brief comments, partly in jest, about “tree huggers,” and references to some of the more costly and politically controversial environmental initiatives in recent years.
In that context the board asked me to share my thoughts concerning a biblical basis for environmental concern and action, especially in relation to our foundation’s priorities of evangelism, church planting, leadership development and holistic ministry among the least reached and most economically needy.
I framed my comments as answers to the question: “Why should an evangelist plant a tree?”
Recurring Biblical Themes
- God created all things.
The Bible begins and ends with the statement that God created all things. Every living thing is an expression of God’s engineering, artistry and planning. As people made in God’s image, we have the privilege to explore our world, and to be awed by its complexity, beauty and elegance.
You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being. (Revelation 4:11)
- God reigns over all things and is present everywhere.
Care for creation acknowledges this transcendent dimension of life—that God reigns over all things and is present everywhere. The world we see is not all there is.
The reverence and respect for nature found in animism and many traditional religions, as well as the pantheism of Hinduism (“God is in everything, and everything is God”), are distortions of the biblical truth that a sovereign, immanent and personal God rules over and cares for his creation; but they do at least grasp the spiritual dimensions of the universe, in contrast to the secular materialism of modernism.
He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth… The trees of the LORD are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted… How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures… All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. (Psalm 104:14,16,24,27,28)
- God loves his creation.
God cares for the plants and animals he has created the way that a farmer nurtures his/her crops and tends his/her herds. Affection for the land, the soil, the crops and the trees, is a deeply held value for the gardener and the farmer; they can love their plants the same way a child loves his/her pets. Scripture often uses the metaphor of God as gardener or herder.
For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains and the insects in the fields are mine. (Psalm 50:10, 11)
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. (Luke 12:6)
- God placed people in a garden and told them to take care of it.
The very first commandment to the human race, even before the prohibition regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, involved caring for and protecting creation. Genesis 2 details the creation of the first man, Adam. He was told to work the garden, and to take care of it. The word translated “take care of” includes the ideas of watchful protection, guarding and preserving.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1:26)
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. (Genesis 2:15)
- The blessings of God are sometimes expressed in terms of an environment of lush plant and animal life.
In tending creation as God’s caretakers, and experiencing God’s blessings on our faithful labors, we see a glimpse of another dimension of “shalom,” that is, life as God intended it originally, and life as God will restore it in the age to come. The kingdom of God is both present and not yet. God’s present blessings of fruitful trees and herds, and abundant crops, foreshadow even greater blessings yet to be.
If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. (Leviticus 26:3,4)
- Struggles within the natural order are among the consequences of human sin.
The pain of the curse, the taint of sin and the stench of death impacted not just the first human pair and all of their descendants, including us, but also the entire natural order. The ground itself was cursed. Degradation of the environment in many ways is a direct result of human actions, but at a deeper level is an ongoing consequence of the original fall into sin.
For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:20-22)
- God rebukes individuals and nations for ravaging the environment.
God will not stand idly by while his creative handiwork is destroyed or abused. Israel was explicitly warned not to engage in the common practice of deforestation as part of conquest.
What right do we have to destroy ecosystems, or to decimate species that owe their existence to the hand of their Creator, especially when often we understand so little about the role that each organism, and each environment, plays in God’s larger design?
When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them? (Deuteronomy 20:19)
- The judgments of God are often expressed in terms of destruction or unfruitfulness of the environment.
When people stand under God’s condemnation for sin, they risk loss of the blessings of a rich and productive environment.
But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands…
Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of the land yield their fruit. (Leviticus 26:14,20)
The splendor of his forests and fertile fields it will completely destroy, as when a sick man wastes away. And the remaining trees of his forests will be so few that a child could write them down. (Isaiah 10:18,19)
- We love people by caring for the environment in which they live.
Environmental concern is one aspect of loving our neighbor as ourselves, as much as caring about the water they drink, the food they eat, the shelter they enjoy, and the physical ailments from which they suffer.
One aspect of love is to cultivate awareness, sensitivity and empathy regarding the impact that our attitudes, our words and our patterns of life are having on those around us, as well as the larger effects that our whole structure of life may be having as our actions and their consequences ripple outward globally.
For the entire law is summed up in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)
Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jeremiah 29:7)
- We are called to become all things to all people, in order to win some.
Concern for the environment is one of the most commonly held values among the emerging generations, who are also the most alienated from the institutional church. Engagement in environmental concerns is a way to build bridges for the gospel and to establish credibility with those who often assume the church has nothing to offer. (Note: Dr. Ken Gnanakan in India has developed a curriculum on care of creation that is used widely in private as well as public schools. The environmental projects he has initiated for the ACTS Institute campus have attracted such favorable attention that he and his colleagues have been invited to advise the Bangalore city government on some environmental challenges).
I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:22,23)
So then, why should an evangelist plant a tree? For the same reasons an evangelist may apply a dressing to a wound, or dig a well, or show a farmer how to plant a new variety of disease-resistant wheat.
- As an expression of worship and respect for God the Creator
- In imitation of the heart of God the Gardener
- In obedience to God’s command to rule over and manage the earth
- As an expression of love for the people God has made
- As a reversal of the damage to creation brought though the curse on sin
- As a sign and promise of the coming kingdom of God
- As a bridge to prepare the way for sharing the glorious good news that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and that God in Christ was reconciling the world (including all of creation) to himself.