What follows is Part 3 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 or 2, I’d highly recommend you start there, by clicking the links above. If you’re all caught up, here’s a reminder of the first four reasons, and then please continue by reading Part 3 below.
1. God made it good.
2. God made us for a Garden.
3. God is the original tree-hugger.
4. God lived here.
Nature is good for your soul! These first four reasons have been fairly broad, theological, and specifically about God’s interaction and love for the created world. The remaining reasons are much more about what creation does to us.
5. Creation puts me in my place.
Creation puts me in my place. Indoors I feel in charge. I love technology as much as anybody, but at what point are we just building another Tower of Babel? With all our advancements (for which I’m thankful!), we humans feel like pretty big stuff. We live longer, are safer, and have greater access to information, resources, and delights than King Solomon himself (and remember what happened to him?).
Sometimes I forget I’m not God. If I have a question, I ask Siri. If I get lost, I ask Google. If I’m hungry, there’s Doordash. If I’m bored, I watch Netflix. If I have a flashing moment of need (or more likely want), Amazon can fix it in two days or less. There’s even Doctor On Demand! Who needs God when I’ve got my iPhone?
Until I find myself in the wilderness. In a vast forest or before an endless canyon, all of a sudden I feel very small. Have you ever really seen the stars? I mean, really seen them—middle of nowhere, absolute darkness—seen them? I love how Bill Watterson captures this feeling.
Florence Williams writes in The Nature Fix: “The world is bigger than you, nature says. Get over yourself. At the very least, nature distracts us the way a parent might distract a whining toddler, by waving a favorite stuffed animal.”
One of my favorite books is Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, about Chris McCandless, the brilliant young man who abandoned society, went into complete solitude in Alaska, and tried to survive. Spoiler alert: Nature wins. As Krakauer retells this sad story, he unpacks this mysterious drive we have toward nature, the ridiculous arrogance with which we approach it, and the many ways nature continues to defeat us. Yes, it’s a bit dark, but so fascinating.
And humbling. He’s right. We are so arrogant, but less so when we’re lost in the woods or staring down a bear! And more than that, when we’re struck with awe at the immensity of what God has made, it puts us in our rightful place.
I don’t know if you know this, but pastors deal with pride. A lot. Wow, that sermon was good. I’m something. Wow, look at all these new people at church. Good for me. Wow, look at those mountains…
Creation puts me in my place! Maybe I’m not as great as I thought I was! The Grand Canyon humbles me. An old forest humbles me. A flower. A three-toed sloth. My own body is incredibly humbling. And I need to be humbled. And the more time I spend out there, the more I’m reminded of what I need in here, and that is good for my soul.
6. Creation gives me dignity
But you know what? Creation doesn’t just humiliate me, it gives me incredible dignity. Look at all He has made, yet, He loves me more. He puts us on the top of His list, for only we are made in His image, and we are not just called good, we are very good (Genesis 1:31).
The psalmist delights,
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet…” (Psalm 8:3–6)
Of all the things God made, He’s proudest of us. He’s got pictures of YOU hanging on His fridge. And we may know that cognitively, but when I survey everything else He has made? I cried when I stood before my first redwood. Some of them have been alive since Jesus. The tallest is 379 feet tall. I’m embarrassed to tell you, it was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. And God thinks I’m more beautiful.
We spent a day in Glacier Bay National Park. For the rest of my life, every beautiful landscape I ever see will be compared to Alaska. I cried there, too. God thinks YOU are more glorious.
Not only is there such inherent dignity in God’s declaration over us, there is such worth in His invitation to us. We are actually invited in to protect and improve on God’s creation. As I mentioned, He commands us to cultivate and keep (Genesis 2:15).
Does that shock anyone else? God makes this Garden and the entire created world, all its beauty and majesty, and then hands us the keys to see if we’d like to take it for a spin. More than that, He commands us to make it better—cultivate it. Take what I’ve given you, and I trust you to make it even better.
So yes, we build homes and roads; learn how to farm and cook and protect ourselves. To paraphrase Andy Crouch: God makes wheat but we make bread. Wheat is good. Bread is better. God makes grapes but we make wine. Grapes are good. Wine is better. The list goes on! There’s dignity for us in creation, for in our work we get to take what He has made, being careful not to exploit it or misuse it, and actually make it better. My soul needs that!
7. Creation reminds me who God is.
Even more importantly, creation reminds me who God is. And wow, He’s big, powerful, ordered, generous, bubbling with delight, and beautiful! Even though it is easy to be struck with awe at creation and forget the Creator, in a culture devoid of transcendence, these soul-aching moments point us toward more. I’ve often said to my children as we’ve seen the sun set or rise, isn’t God beautiful!—not just the sky but God Himself!
Ponder for a moment God’s hidden generosity, beauty, and delight. We used to have these amazing knock-out roses bushes (before this terrible virus killed them all…I’m still heartbroken). They were enormous, some of them in full-bloom had hundreds of flowers on a single bush.
Several of the bushes backed up near our fence or house, which meant literally hundreds of our roses were completely hidden from view. Unseen! What a waste, right? I called them “God’s roses,” for He was the only one who could enjoy them, and still He persists on making them.
I’ve often felt that way while hiking in some remote place. All these wildflowers that no one sees except me and God. Just us, yet He continues to make them. Think about all the places, all the animals and birds, all the flowers, each tiny snowflake that no one ever sees but God! What a beautiful, generous God, so overflowing with delight, that He creates them anyway. He enjoys them! That fills my soul with awe!
And awe changes us. The Nature Fix points out the power of awe, even from a materialistic perspective. “A deeply powerful, awe-inspiring experience can change someone’s perspective for a long time, even permanently.” Studies have shown “…that awe is a unique emotion that turns us away from narrow self-focus and toward the interests of our collective group.” Even compared to happiness, “…only awe [leads us] to feel less time-pressured, to report less impatience and to volunteer extra time to help others.”
Awe draws us out of ourselves and connects us with others. What’s the first thing you try to do when you see something truly stunning? I want to share it! Those moments at a national park as a family when all four of us are speechless (quite a feat for some of the Millers) bond us together better than words. We still reminisce about those moments and continue to flip through our many photo albums together. We are different because of them.
And we get a glimpse of the divine. Certainly God is separate from His creation, yet His fingerprints are everywhere for those with eyes to see. There are few moments in my life where faith is more real to me and God’s presence more near, than in the presence of magnificent beauty with the people I love.
8. Creation is a good teacher.
And we learn something. Creation is a good teacher, yes, about God Himself, but also about myself, others, and His world.
Psalm 19 is one of my favorites, and certainly as a pastor, I’ve spent so much time thinking about God’s revelation to us through His Word. I love His Book. I’ve given my life to its study and proclamation, and nothing surpasses it. But that’s only one-half of that psalm. Why do we ignore the other half—the other way God speaks to us?
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1–4)
As a preacher, I can’t help but be a little envious. This sermon translates into every language. Its message is found in every place. It’s been going since the beginning of time and knows no end.
So why don’t we listen more? We know we need to read our Bibles and go to church, and many of us do. These disciplines are absolutely core to my life, but that’s only half the psalm! Read your Bible, but don’t just read your Bible. Go on walk. Go to church, but after, maybe play outside. Go on a picnic. Listen to the other preacher. You and I need to hear from both.
Jesus knew this. Look at the birds, He says. They’re preaching you a sermon with their songs. Look at the flowers. Do they look worried to you? You know God takes care of them, right? Don’t you think He’ll do that for you? (Matthew 6:25-34)
Those outside of faith recognize this as well. In his terrific book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv persuasively describes the developmental needs of children, and the ways in which nature is uniquely designed to meet those needs. We put our kids on the sports field or on the playground, which are good things, but if you really want them to learn how the world works, send them outside with no toys, no structure—just figure it out. Nature is an incredible teacher.
Nature also teaches us to slow down. It gives us space for solitude, self-reflection, and prayer. I love how Charles Spurgeon, the famous preacher from long ago, put it. “He who forgets [the awesomeness of nature] need not wonder if his heart forgets to sing and his soul grows heavy. A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours’ ramble in the beach woods’s umbrageous calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive.”
It’s also a wonderful time to learn about another human. What’s to interrupt you on a walk? Sometimes what’s impossible to say face-to-face is so much easier shoulder-to-shoulder. Kelly and I have had some of our best conversations in the woods. Things we would have never found time or courage to say, come out here. I also know my kids better. Some of our deepest interactions and most lasting memories have been on a hike or unhurried around a campsite. Nature is a great teacher for my soul.
Deep breath. I have to say. I’m pretty impressed! You’ve almost made it to the end of my list! I am proud of your tenacity, although by now, I hope you’re wondering if your time would have been better spent outside! It’s possible. Two more reasons before we get super practical.
9. Creation groans for good news.
Ninth, creation groans out for good news. Or at the very least, it helps us see how bad the bad news really is, and how desperate we are for redemption. No one says this better than Paul in Romans 8:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19–23)
We groan and creation groans. When we chose self over God and sin over goodness, even the natural world was ripped apart. Can you hear it groaning? Every decay, every natural disaster, and every illness is a reminder of the mess we’ve made of our world. Forest fires and tsunamis, cancer and infertility, and ultimately death are all reminders that our world is not as it should be.
It reminds me how terrible my sin is. I don’t mean that my sin directly caused the last earthquake or anything like that. Yet, there is a real sense that our sin, beginning with Adam and continuing with me, is the reason for all this ugliness. Think about this. Adam’s rebellion against God (and I am counted with him, so mine, too) is so ugly that it caused tornadoes and rust and leukemia and deformity and all that is broken. If we hadn’t defamed God, those things would not exist. And we hear the groans.
One day, they will be eradicated along with my rebellion. Creation is groaning for redemption, just like I am. Its groaning is a reminder of my sin, my need for salvation, and highlights just how good the good news really is, for when it comes, the groaning will be turned to celebration. Even the mountains will sing and the trees will applaud.
Look how Isaiah describes this:
For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55:12–13)
I think this is one of the reasons nature is such a good healer—it is also longing to be healed, and somehow we groan together. There’s so much being written on this right now, with mental health professionals literally writing a kind of “nature prescription” to victims of trauma, depression, anxiety, and I can tell you about it personally.
A couple years ago, I had one of my hardest years. I’ve always dealt with mild depression, but for a variety of reasons, this season was particularly tough. One of the greatest graces I received during that time—truly God’s gift to me—was a nearby park I didn’t even know existed, but which I stumbled upon.
That place became my sanctuary. I’d go at night or in the morning, after work or the middle of the day. Whenever I could. I even scheduled meetings there. My wife and I started having dates there. Family time was there. I probably hiked a hundred miles or more there that year. I’m not sure I would have made it without it. Grace.
John Muir writes, “Nature is always lovely, invincible, glad… All scars she heals, whether in rocks or water or sky or hearts.” Together we groan for the good news.
10. New Creation is our home.
Finally, nature is good for our souls because New Creation is our home. Sadly, when many Christians think of the afterlife we picture heaven, and we think of heaven as a place with wings, clouds, and harps. Or maybe you at least see a few mansions and streets of gold, but you still sort of picture us as glorified ghosts. Plus there’s this church service there that literally lasts forever. I’m a pastor. I love church services. But the pictures we often paint sound way more like the “other place,” don’t you think? Who wants to go there?
Not only are these images lame and undesirable, they’re untrue! Yes, after you die, if you’re a Christian, you go to heaven, up there somewhere, but the Bible could not be clearer: that place is only temporary. The Bible speaks way more about our final home, the New Creation, and nothing about this eternal destination sounds even remotely lame. It’s when heaven (the dwelling place of God) and earth (the dwelling place of humans) become one. Forever.
I imagine it a bit like a forest after a forest fire. (Stick with me on this metaphor—it’s going somewhere, I promise.) Forest fires are ugly and often tragic, ravaging acre upon acre with ferocious heat, destroying everything in its path. Feels like life, doesn’t it? So often, in a world so broken, we get burned and we carry those scars, and nowhere does God ever minimize our pain.
But after? In this burned-out forest, seeds that have slept dormant literally for centuries awaken. These seeds have been falling year after year, but have never seen the sunlight. The fire has opened the forest floor to the skies, and new life bursts forth in every direction. It can be absolutely spectacular. This is what God is doing with us, and even more.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:1–5)
All that’s wrong or evil in our world and in us will be no more, and God will remake this planet, and He will live with us. This means we’ll have bodies, we’ll still work and laugh, there will be trees and flowers, and all that is beautiful and good. There’s good reason to believe there will be animals and food and wine and I’m pretty sure a little In-N-Out will make it in, as well as the Rocky Mountains. Why not? They’re good, aren’t they?
Remember, you were made for a Garden! And the dominant image of the afterlife is a Garden City, a physical reality where all the redeemed will dwell with God forever.
Think about right now, how good a sunset is, or Mount Rainier, or Yosemite Valley (still on my bucket list). Unbelievable beauty. Yet when God is finished remaking this world for us, consider the delight in store. Imagine the sunset without our brokenness. No distraction, hurry, idolatry, pain, or sin. Perhaps even colors that have yet to be seen with these failing eyes. It’s beautiful now—enjoy it—but it’s only an appetizer for what’s next.
And when we enjoy creation as an appetizer, it whets our appetite for our true home. When we enjoy the best of this world today, it should prepare us and excite us for an even better world tomorrow. If creation is this good now, what will New Creation be like! When I meditate on this, it is so good for my soul.
How do I get more nature in my life?
So what should we do about it? How do I get more nature in my life? And I know some of you are wrestling with the same question I have agonized over for so long. I live in Kansas City! Do I just need to move some place more beautiful?
No, you don’t, for there is beauty everywhere for those who want to see it, and it really doesn’t take that much work to begin enjoying more of the natural world.
In our final part, I’ll suggest four 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, do you really need my help? Go outside!