God’s Vision for our Relationship with the Natural World

An African Wild dog in Hluhluwe Park, South Africa (Photo Tim Kuiper)

This post is by Dr Timothy Kuiper, a postdoc in Zoology at the University of Oxford who studies elephant conservation in Zimbabwe.

I am a natural doubter - in my faith and in my work. Sometimes it’s healthy skepticism, at other times I think it becomes a kind of cynicism in which I’m afraid to trust things that I don’t understand perfectly. I’m beginning to learn what philosophers have known for centuries: the search for perfect certainty is a fool’s errand. God has been kind to me in my doubts, opening my eyes again and again to evidence that he is there, and that he cares.

One area of doubt has been the extent of the connection between my faith and my work as a nature conservationist and scientist. Does God care for the earth? Does he smile on those working to safeguard nature? In various ways - through friends, books, Scripture, and uncanny encounters with people at key moments - God has reminded me again and again (I need reminding!) that he cares deeply for his planet.

If I am going to be in the right relationship with God, I should treat things He has made in the same way he treats them. – Francis Schaeffer

If Jesus is Lord of all the Earth, we cannot separate our relationship to Christ from how we act in relation to the Earth. – Cape Town Commitment, Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization

 

Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky

One such encounter was with a friend from A Rocha, a Christian organization working in conservation. He pointed me to a lecture by Old Testament scholar Chris Wright which had quite an impact on my journey towards seeing how God loves his earth, and how he wants us as humans to relate to it. The focus verse was Genesis 1:26:

“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds in the sky, over all the wild animals”

It is perhaps understandable that some have pointed to this verse as establishing human domination over nature for our own ends (see Lynne White’s influential essay as an example). Yet, knowing the loving and generous character of God from elsewhere in the Bible, it seems strange that he would instruct humans to rule his earth by over-exploitation. What does this verse mean, then?

The little phrase “so that” opened my eyes to new meaning: “God made mankind in his image so that they may rule over…the wild animals”. Our rulership of the earth is closely tied to our being made in God’s image. Upon reflection, this idea really struck me: we are to rule as God would rule (in his image). We are to model our rulership on God’s rulership. As Schaeffer observes, “I should treat things God has made in the same way he treats them”. Ours is a delegated rulership. I think this interpretation of Genesis 1:26 fits better with another key verse in Genesis: “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). “Take care of” translates the Hebrew word shamar, which means to watch over and protect. It is the same word used in the blessing in Numbers 6 : “The Lord bless you and keep (shamar) you…”.

God rules by giving up his life for his creation

We are to rule creation as God rules. How, then, does God rule? How does he treat what he has made? Throughout scripture, we see that God rules with justice, mercy, truth and compassion. Yet it is at the cross of Christ that we see the ultimate declaration of the way God rules. At the climax of the biblical narrative, God comes to the earth that he rules in human form and dies. Jesus Christ gives his life up for his creation:

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20)

All around us there are signs of how we are failing in our mandate to love each other and to care for the earth. How does God respond to our failing? How does he respond to a broken earth? He comes to die for us. He comes to reconcile all things (including the earth) to himself. The two are connected – much environmental destruction can be traced to human sin. God’s rule entails costly sacrifice and deep commitment to healing and reconciliation. What sacrifices can we make as we seek to treat the earth as God treats it?

What can you do?

A first step might be to pray. To ask God to guide and convict you where he sees fit. Perhaps the most practical step is to be more sustainable in our consumerism - whether that’s buying second hand, replacing our devices less frequently, or simply buying less stuff (I personally don’t fare very well in these areas!) Another simple change might be eating less meat – livestock farming is the largest driver of the loss of natural habitats globally and a significant contributor to climate change (see here and here). If you’d like to think more deeply about lifestyle changes for the planet, Ruth Valerio’s book is excellent and simple. The changes we make will come at a cost, but we have a self-denying God as our example.

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Good to be reminded of our calling. Thanks.
You'll maybe know, but will be interested to learn that 'shamar' is also regularly translated (in the glorious English of 1611) as 'hearken unto'. It was for the needs of the Garden (no-one to water it) that the adam was put there.

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