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Nature study

October 1998 | by Eric Wright

Some people love nature instead of loving God. Disciples of Christ love nature because they love God. Loving the Creator ought to lead every Christian to become a naturalist! By this I mean that all Christians should study nature.

Well-meaning Christians might react with dismay. To study nature might distract us from concern for the lost, from the Great Commission. Others might worry that it would divert our energies from seeking to right the evils of society. ‘How can we give attention to nature while babies are being aborted, children abused, and marriages are ending in divorce?’ they might ask. How can we justify a woodland walk when wickedness abounds?

Seeing God in his works

The answer is that, while the danger of distraction threatens us on the one hand, imbalance threatens us on the other. A study of nature will help to restore to us a sense of perspective and balance. We have ample precedent in the life of the Master.

Jesus said; ‘Look at the sparrow…Look at the birds of the air…See how the lilies of the field grow’ (Matthew 6:26,28). The psalmist voiced a principle that undergirded all his worship. He said, ‘I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done’ (Psalm 143:5). Bible authors reveal in their writings a deep acquaintance with, and respect for, the created world of nature, and references to the world around us permeate the Bible. I want to suggest a number of reasons why we should study nature.

Comparison

Firstly, we need to realise that if we ignore nature we cannot really come to a full understanding of God as he is revealed in Scripture. God is invisible. We can only understand his nature and activities by comparison with the things that we know and see. Nature study, first of all, provides a basis for comparison. Since ‘no man has seen God at any time’ (1 John 4:12), and since God dwells in light unapproachable, we are dependent for knowledge of him upon what he chooses to reveal. Of course, God’s ultimate self-revelation is found in his Son Jesus Christ who is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15). He who has seen Christ ‘has seen the Father’ (John 14:9). It is in Christ, therefore, that God finally makes himself known. Nevertheless, it remains true that God has revealed certain of his attributes by means of comparison with things common in nature.

How can we explain something to someone who has never seen it? For instance, in Pakistan, one of the common fruits was guava and the common bread was chapatti. If you had never seen guavas or chapattis, I would have to describe them to you by comparison with something you know. I might say, for example, that guavas are like small, firm pears with a very unusual taste. I might describe chapattis as thin unleavened pancakes, about the size of a dinner plate and made from whole-wheat flour. We come to understand what we have never seen by means of comparison.

The biblical authors repeatedly use comparison to describe God. In Psalm 139 David relates the fact that God knows everything about him and is everywhere around him. This fact boggles his mind: ‘Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it’ (v. 6). To come to a better understanding of God’s omnipresence, he stretches his imagination. ‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?’ (v. 7). He imagines travelling beyond the sky, but realises that God is there. Suppose he made his bed in the depths of the earth, some deep valley, cave or even the depths of the sea? He realises, ‘you are there’ (v. 8). Next he contemplates rising from the earth at dawn and flying across the sea, only to find God there too. ‘If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me’ (vv. 9-10). The immensity and omnipresence of God staggers the imagination, but the psalmist’s insights lead us closer to an understanding of the invisible God.

Sea and mountain

We spent a wonderful six-month sabbatical in two places. One was by the sea on St Simon’s Island, Georgia. The other was in Maggie Valley in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. Our time was a rich experience of learning more about the creative glory of our God. How could the sight of sea and mountains enrich our understanding of God?

Psalm 93 provides an answer. The writer ponders God’s omnipotence as he stands on the sea coast in a tempest. Waves are crashing on the shore with great force and fury. He writes: ‘The seas have lifted up, O Lord, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea — the Lord on high is mighty’ (Psalm 93:3-4). By comparing God’s might with the power and force of the sea in a great storm, the psalmist is able to lead us to a deeper appreciation of his great power.

In Psalm 65, David also resorts to comparison with the mountains and the sea to describe the greatness of God. ‘O God our Saviour, who formed the mountains by your power, having armed yourself with strength, who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of nations’ (vv. 6-7). We can imagine David looking around at the serried ranks of mountains and realising that God created and controls all this with his little finger.

A study of nature helps us to understand God better because it gives us a basis for comparison. God is like ‘a consuming fire’. The Holy Spirit is like ‘the wind’. How sketchy would be our understanding of God without such comparisons!

Appreciation

A study of nature also enhances our ability to worship God, because it increases our appreciation. Reading about Michelangelo’s artistry cannot compare with actually seeing firsthand the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We have art galleries because appreciation of art is greatly enhanced by seeing the actual work of the artist. Our world is a living, breathing ‘art gallery’ of the wondrous works of God.

Consider Psalm 95 which begins: ‘Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord … Let us come before him with thanksgiving. … For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods’ (vv. 1-3). What enables the psalmist to grasp the greatness of God? He tells us. ‘In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land’ (vv. 4-5). His appreciation of God is enhanced by thinking about the mountains and valleys, the sea and dry land, and he is constrained to cry out: ‘Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker’ (v. 6). The contemplation of nature produces deep appreciation, which wells up in praise and thanksgiving to the one who designed and created it.

God’s wisdom revealed

Our sabbatical wanderings along the sea and in the mountains led us to repeatedly cry with Psalm 104:24: ‘O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom you have made them all!’ Even salt marshes inspired awe. I heard a Georgia biologist explain the value of the coastal marshes. For many years they were considered worthless unless drained, but now biologists realise that they fill an essential place in the coastal food chain. Cord-grass and other salt resistant plants provide a habitat for an immense variety of life forms. Each year the cord-grass dies, decays and is swept out to sea, where millions of micro-organisms depend and feed upon it. In turn, shellfish such as shrimp feed on the micro-organisms, and then fish feed on the shrimp. Destruction of the salt marshes would cripple the whole coastal ecosystem.

God’s wisdom in creating what, at first glance, seems wasteland, leaves us shaking our heads in awe. Examples of the wisdom of God in nature abound. The stamens of mountain laurel are spring-loaded to scatter pollen on invading bees. The evergreen leaves of the rhododendron reduce moisture loss by lifting or folding depending on temperature. The eyes of hawks and eagles have one million photoreceptors per square millimetre, enabling them to see something as small as a mouse from a height of 3000 feet. Yet with our eyes, we cannot even spot the eagle at that height! A study of nature again and again calls forth from the depths of our hearts an exclamation of praise. What a marvellous God is our God!