As you may have heard, the earth has taken a good deal of abuse over the years and might be on the verge of mass extinction-level trouble. As you may also have heard, no, it’s not. On climate change, there’s a lot of heated rhetoric about polar ice caps, carbon footprints, and whose computer gives the most accurate temperature projections—all spoken in anxious tones ranging from mild depression to full-on apocalyptic. We’re all to pick a side: Are we ruining the planet or not? It’s a difficult choice because both views are right.
We do, indeed, burden creation with a good deal of abuse. It’s hard to argue with the Bible on this point. “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption ... For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Rom. 8:20-22).
Creation was subjected to futility during the fall. But who ate from the Tree of Knowledge way back in the Garden? It wasn’t the cows. Not the fish, not the birds. It was people. As a result, God pronounced His curse, and death came to life. The curse was tinged with grace, but we’ll come to that momentarily. For now, it’s plain that suffering came into creation because of man, and we do plenty to keep it alive and well. Exhibit A: Beargrass Creek.
The creek runs through the middle of Louisville, Kentucky, cutting a beautiful swath through the city’s Olmsted Parks System. But there are signs posted all along its length, warning people not to swim, fish, or romp after a rainfall. Too much precipitation in the drainage infrastructure, you see, and the city’s sewage overflows and runs filthy into the waterway.
We’re all to pick a side: Are we ruining the planet or not?
Follow Beargrass Creek downstream and it enters the Ohio River, which hits the Mississippi, which empties into the ocean. And all along that watershed, the current gathers agricultural runoff in the form of pesticides, fertilizers, and a vast cornucopia of manures—and deposits them in the sea, where the phytoplankton find them a veritable feast. Nobody minds much save for the fish, which all die because the ensuing algal bloom devours all the available oxygen.
What we see at work here is the glory of stewardship derailed. Before the fall, God gave the new-born world to Adam to work it and care for it. Ever since, though, we’ve been corrupting it. We overwhelm cities with more trash and waste than our engineered solutions can handle. We push the land to produce more, cheaper, and with less labor—and turn to chemical shortcuts so effective we can’t imagine quitting despite negative consequences. We approach creation with demands it cannot satisfy.
In case it wasn’t obvious, I count myself among those who worry that poor stewardship of our very good earth could plunge into outright abuse. Yet here we are, and God’s creation keeps ticking along in marvelous defiance. How can this be?
Balance the groan of Romans 8 with the glory of Colossians 1: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God ... by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible…all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:15-17, emphasis added).
This grasp for control that drives us to exploit creation also fuels our drive to “save the world.”
Back when the curse was delivered, God warned that the woman’s offspring would one day undo what the serpent started. This glimpse of grace is later revealed in Colossians as the Christ who holds everything together. So, where nature seems to be caring for itself, it is actually creation being held together by godly competence: Weeds cover a bare patch of dirt to keep the precious topsoil from eroding with the rain; trees on one side of a forest use a network of underground fungus to warn trees across the forest about a horde of insects. Creation is packed with intricate, built-in care. Why do we get so nervous, then?
We think it’s up to us to provide for our own needs. This unconscious grasp for control drives us to carelessly exploit creation. But this same impulse also fuels our drive to “save the world.” In both cases, we forget our Creator. We tend to focus only on the visible half of the equation: our hazardous cause and effect. We are aware of the overburden we place on creation. It’s terrifying to consider how our various harms may come due with interest. But what about the pressure we put on ourselves to care for it, as though our stewardship will bring about heaven on earth? There is an entire side to the story that remains invisible to us—but for faith. Christ made all this, including us, and in Him all things hold together.
This isn’t to dismiss our selfish stewardship of God’s creation. But it should keep us from panic. When we take the invisible mystery of Christ at work to heart, we will honor Him by treating the world He gave us as well as we can. We’ll seek common good with as much love as Jesus showed. Above all, we certainly rest with confidence in a durable creation that will hold together for now—and be completely renewed in good time.