“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities —His eternal power and divine nature— have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” ~ Romans 1:20
A friend once summarized the three responsibilities of a Christian like this: “Look up to God, out to others and down for trash.” The phrase was catchy, especially from a guy that was always picking up litter, but I was not sure how Biblical it was. The first two responsibilities, “look up to God” and “out to others,” are clearly reflected in Christ’s teaching: ‘Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:36-40).
But the third, “looking down for trash,” seems like a trendy add-on, not really connected to the Christian faith. Sure, it is good to pick up trash and keep places clean, but is it a Christian responsibility? The earth is simply the place where we live out “loving God and others,” a temporary place that is ours to do with as we see fit . . . Right? What is the role of nature within the Christian faith?
After the epic global flood that prompted endless Sunday school stories of Noah and a big ark, God made a covenant to protect and provide (Genesis 9). Before you read further, do you remember who the covenant was made with?
This promise was made between God, Noah and the animals. With a beautiful rainbow spanning the sky, God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature.” This covenant is three-way, between God, People and Creation. Scripture suggests that there is a divine relationship between God, People and Creation. Understanding this will help us “know our place” and “value our places.”
I call this relationship the “Covenant Triangle” and when drawn, it flows two directions with God at the pinnacle. First, God created and sustains Creation to provide for People, who then praise God. Second, God calls People to enjoy and care for Creation that it may glorify God.
So, what do you think, is looking “down for trash” Biblical? How would you describe the role of nature is in the Christian faith?
Three Environmental Themes in the Book of Matthew
If you read Scripture closely, you will notice countless references to the natural world. A few years ago, I chose the book of Matthew and marked every passage with an “E” that made a reference to the environment. I found over 60 references! It seemed that three themes presented themselves. I’ve noticed these three themes throughout the Bible and maybe you have too.
1) God Has Power Over Creation
God has the power to intervene into the natural world and change the course of events for God’s purpose and message. For example, God steered the star to guide the wise men, Jesus calmed the waves when the disciples were frightened, the Spirit ascended as a dove to affirm that Jesus was the Son of God. God even caused a fish to swallow a coin so Peter could catch the fish and give the coin to the tax collectors.
Instances like this are throughout the Bible. Chances are, you have a few of your own favorite Bible stories that show God intervening in the natural world. These examples are fun to recount because they are extraordinary. You can imagine how amazing things like a burning bush or a plague of frogs would have been to see. God clearly acted! Those things that happened were not “normal”! God showed ultimate power by changing the most powerful force we know — nature itself. What a relief to know God has power over all things in this natural world.
2) Creation reflects God’s Kingdom
Throughout the Gospels Jesus tells parables — stories that have a lesson. In Mark 4:14-20, Jesus reveals the lesson when He says that the “seed” is actually the “word” or what we would call the Gospel. The different places that the seed falls represent the various ways that people react to the “word.” Some people lose interest immediately; others change their minds over time; while others receive it and produce an abundance of “fruit.” This isn’t an instructional about farming, Jesus is teaching the mysteries of His Kingdom.
This second theme is that creation reveals lessons about the Kingdom of God. They include passages that describe the growth of our faith like a seed, or the behaviors of people as sheep being watched by a shepherd, or the Spirit of God as the wind, or the compassion of God by comparing us to beautiful lilies growing in a field or the lack of fruit on a fig tree to a Christian with faith but no action.
To understand the ways of creation—how a seed grows, how a tree produces fruit, how an animal responds to its master, how the wind comes invisibly without warning, how a sparrow lives off the land—is to know more fully how God works.
Here’s a wild thought. Remember how Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God? What if creation is made in the image of God’s Kingdom?
3) God’s Messengers Spent Time in Creation.
Reflect on Romans 1:20 for a moment. Have you ever looked up at the stars or out across a beautiful overlook and thought, “Wow, there has got to be a God!” Or maybe you spent time with someone who cared deeply for you and as a result you became a better person. That person is one of God’s creations and they are evidence of the Creator. Everything in God’s creation gives witness to God. Is it possible that spending time in and with creation is necessary for spiritual development?
In the book of Matthew, we find Jesus walking beside the Sea of Galilee, gathering people to a hillside, preaching from a boat and going to a mountainside to pray. You may be able to remember some other times He was in the “outdoors” — like when He cooked up a breakfast of fish over a campfire on the beach for the disciples (John 21). Why do you think He was outside so often? Why did Jesus choose to wander around out-of-doors rather than spend more time in public squares, synagogues, homes, etc.?
Why did Jesus turn a grassy hillside into an outdoor stadium that could seat & feed 5,000 people? Why did Jesus leave the crowds and climb a mountain to quietly talk to God? Why did He go out and walk along the Sea of Galilee early in the morning, gather some sticks, start a fire and cook a meal for His followers? Was it simply a convenient place or was creation the best “classroom” and “sanctuary” for Jesus’ actions?
Can you think of any other characters in the Bible (old and new testaments) that spent time in the natural world? How does this make you think differently about your own time outside?
Look up to God, out to others and down for trash. Or maybe better said: Trust God, Serve Others and Care for Creation. The words, “Care for”, in this saying has multiple meanings. First, it refers to our role as stewards of the earth. It also refers to “an appreciation of” the natural world as it was meant to be enjoyed and benefited from. As we relate to the creation, we are able to gain a clearer understanding of God.
Creation is God’s first gift to mankind and caring for creation was our first command (Genesis 2:15). If we don’t integrate the natural world within our spiritual framework, we are missing something essential in our relationship with the Creator.
 This concept is taken from Snyder, Howard, Salvation Means Creation Healed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), chapter 8.