What follows is Part 2 of a four-part blog on why “nature” is a spiritual discipline. Whether you love nature, have always been passive to it, afraid of it, or you just consider yourself a bit indoorsy, I am convinced from Scripture and theology, a variety of research disciplines, and personal experience that your soul and your life would be healthier and happier with a little more time spent outdoors.
If you missed Part 1, I highly recommend you start there, by clicking the link above. If you’re all caught up, please continue by reading Part 2 below.
Good for our souls
Why is nature so good for our souls? Well, today I’ve got ten reasons for you. Tomorrow it could be 40, but let’s start with ten. These reasons are all based first on Scripture and theology. I am still a pastor, after all, albeit a weird one. But I’ll also make my case using current scientific thinking, sociological research, and if all else fails, I’ll share a bit of personal experience. Once we get through these observations, I’ll offer some practical tips to help you get started, and conclude with some helpful (and/or fun) resources.
1. God made it good.
The first reason nature is good for your soul is because God made it good. We forget that sometimes. Our world is so broken, we’re often consumed with the ugliness around us. And there is a lot that is ugly, but at its core, God made it good and beautiful, and He made it for us.
Over and over in the creation account, as the material world springs forth from the mouth of God, He steps back to examine His artwork, “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). If creation were a song, and the chorus sung by God Himself, the refrain would be, Wow, that’s good.
Somehow, we’ve lost sight of this. Many Christians have become so obsessed with the “spiritual” and the faulty thinking that the goal of Christianity is to escape planet Earth to one day float on the clouds (see reason #10 below) that we’re at risk of missing out on one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. Not only is that untrue, but it’s unhelpful.
C.S. Lewis writes, “[God] likes matter. He invented it.” In the book Evangelical Convictions, published by our own denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America, we read: “A proper understanding of God as the Creator changes our understanding of what it means to be spiritual, and it leads us away from an other-worldly asceticism that somehow denigrates our physical existence in this world. It tells us that salvation and spirituality are to be found not by fleeing from or avoiding the material realm, but by sanctifying it…We should delight in creation.”
Don’t forget this. God dreamed up trees. Mountains were His idea. So was your body. The goal of Christianity isn’t to escape these things, but to join God in bringing His redemption to them and to make them whole through Jesus. It’s not an accident that you are a physical being living in a physical world. It is good, given to you by God, and like all His good gifts, it is good for your soul.
2. God made us for a Garden.
But nature is not just good from afar or in theory. It’s good because God made us for it. Humans were made for a Garden and the Garden was made for humans. Eden is our true and rightful home, and we will not be happy until we return to it.
In fact, our first job as humans is to take care of our Garden home. Isn’t that amazing? As soon as God makes us, He gives us a job. Look at the beautiful home I’ve given you, He says. Your job is to work it and keep it (Genesis 2:15). To work it—to bring the best out of it. Cultivate fields, prune the trees, make homes. Take what I’ve given you and make it better. And keep it—protect it, don’t exploit it, preserve its goodness and beauty. And enjoy it.
One of the best books I’ve read recently is The Nature Fix by Florence Williams (for a summary of some of her findings, click here). Published recently, she interacts with some of the best science and neurological studies to articulate what happens to our brains when we are in nature. There are piles of research that suggest that even small doses of being outside make you happier, healthier, more creative and energized, and that longer doses can be incredibly restorative in the midst of great stress and even trauma.
I’ve found this to be personally true. Take a simple hike for example. Not only do I receive the restorative effects of the natural world, but I get exercise and sunshine. I also get any one of three other essentials. If I’m alone, there’s little else I can do but think and pray, and we have never been more desperate for quiet self-reflection. If I’m with my wife Kelly, I get to connect relationally with my closest friend. If I’m with my kids, we get to bond together as a family without the standard distractions.
We’ve had family hikes where we all start in a lousy mood. We’re a normal family, by the way, and sometimes going on a hike is akin to eating our vegetables. We may not be in the mood for it, but we do it anyway because it’s good for us. More than once, even just a few minutes after starting, we’re laughing together. The Nature Fix explains why: the sights, smells, and sounds of nature do something magical to our brains.
Fascinated by both neurology and nature, I loved this book. But Williams and I have different worldviews. The prevailing theory is that nature is good for us because we evolved outside. That makes a lot of sense but with one fundamental change. Nature is good for us because we were created for a Garden. Again, to quote John Muir: “Going to the woods is going home, for I suppose we came from the woods originally.”
3. God is the original tree-hugger.
Third, it’s good for our souls because God is the original tree-hugger. Now, good grief, if anyone tries to get political on me here, I’m going to have to take an extra-long hike to regain my cool. I’m not talking about politics. But I am convinced, God is the first tree-hugger. It’s clear He loves trees and nature, and I could probably do a lot worse than trying to love what He loves.
If you’ve spent any time in the Bible, I hope you’ve noticed God’s obsession with trees. In a recent article in Christianity Today, “What Trees Teach Us about Life, Death, and the Resurrection,” Matthew Sleeth writes: “God Loves Trees. Other than people and God, trees are the most mentioned living thing in the Bible. There are trees in the first chapter of Genesis (v. 11–12), in the first psalm (Ps. 1:3), and on the last page of Revelation (22:2).”
Take, for example, the creation story. It’s obvious God created fruit trees to feed us, but is that all the author points out? “And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). It’s not just edible, or purely utilitarian, it’s beautiful.
Wisdom is a tree (Proverbs 3:18), God’s people are like a tree (Psalm 1, Jeremiah 17), a forest planted by God Himself, “…oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:3) The Bible begins and ends with a tree, and the very climax of our story takes place on a tree, with the greatest day in history, Resurrection Sunday, first celebrated in a garden. God is the original tree-hugger, and I want to be like Him. It’s good for my soul!
4. God lived here.
And God was not ashamed to live here with us. God lived here. Let that sink in. The God who made it all entered His own world. The One who gave us our bodies, wore one Himself. His feet squished mud between toes. He sought the shade of the trees, enjoyed the warmth of the same sun we feel, and as Sally Lloyd-Jones writes, he slept “under the stars that he made” (Song of the Stars: A Christmas Story). It’s amazing to think that when He was actually here, the redwoods were just saplings and the bristlecone pines were already middle-aged.
Jesus was here. He went on hikes with His disciples (ok, maybe they were journeys, but still), He sought solitude in the wilderness, showed His glory to His closest friends only after they’d summited a mountain together (and you might remember, Peter wanted so badly to go camping on that trip), and He spent His final night before the crucifixion in prayer in a garden. He taught regularly using birds, trees, flowers, and plants as illustrations.
If matter didn’t matter before this moment, it is forever sanctified by the God who made His home here with us. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Nature is good for your soul! These first four reasons have been fairly broad, theological, and specifically about God’s interaction with and love for the created world. The remaining reasons (coming soon in Part 3) are much more about what creation does to us. Here’s a sneak peak of where we’re headed next:
5. Creation puts me in my place.
6. Creation gives me dignity.
7. Creation reminds me who God is.
8. Creation is a good teacher.
9. Creation groans for good news.
10. New Creation is our home.
Just a reminder, if you hang with me, Part 4 will conclude with some super practical tips to help you get started in getting more nature into your life today. This will include some local favorites, as well as some helpful (and/or fun) resources. You don’t want to miss those.
But until then, watch the sunset, look at a tree, go for a walk. Get out there!