We might think that with all this divine abundance, people would never be able to overuse—indeed abuse— this great gift from the Creator. But that’s not the case. Many areas of the world that once were clothed and carpeted by trees and forests are now denuded and desertified. One reason is that we have forgotten what has been entrusted to us.
The principle of responsible care of the earth is found first in the words of the Old Testament. There we find that God is the Creator of the earth (Gen. 1), He is the owner of the earth (Ps. 24:1), and He loves the earth (Ps. 145:9,13). Further, God clearly delegated to us the responsibility of dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:27-28; Ps. 8). However, as theologian Francis Schaeffer pointed out early in the 1970s, while God has put the earth in our hands, such oversight is still under His greater dominion and care.
The logical conclusion of these truths from Scripture is that God, who made, owns, and loves what He created, has in His love permitted people to manage and use the material creation. He is the Landlord; we are His caretakers. That role is pictured beautifully by the Greek word for “steward”: oikonomeo. This is the same word from which we get the word economy. Economics was originally considered to be the practical operations of a household in which the steward oversaw the production, distribution, and consumption on the landlord’s estate. If we recovered that same understanding of the personal relationship of the steward to the landlord, and the steward’s responsibility to the landlord, we’d more likely handle our Landlord’s material goods in a much more responsible manner.
The Bible is unique among virtually all other ancient scriptures, partly because its beginning chapters so clearly state the foundational purposes for mankind (Gen. 1:26–2:15). One can paraphrase the mandate like this: The creation was very good (Gen. 1:31), and it was perfectly prepared by God to be given over to people so they could develop all its potentialities to the glory of God and to the benefit of all creatures in keeping with the will of God. More specific direction was given in Genesis 2:15 where Adam was instructed to “tend” and “keep” the Garden of Eden. The extended meaning of the two Hebrew words used here is extremely rich and telling: “Tend” (abad) means to till, work, serve, work for, and/or make self the servant of. “Keep” (shamar) means to have charge of, guard, save life, protect, preserve, observe, refrain, abstain, and/or celebrate. While this command was given in relationship to the Garden,most Christian theologians emphasize that such control was to be extended by Adam and Eve and their descendants to the whole earth. In essence, the Genesis mandates clearly spell out our role as keepers of the earth—stewards of the true Landlord. One could say that we are to be “good earthkeepers.”
How have we done as earthkeepers? In many ways and places, not too well. Consider the unique island of Madagascar off the east coast of southern Africa as it was described by G. Tyler Miller, adjunct professor of human ecology at St. Andrews Presbyterian College. In his book Living In The Environment, Miller writes the following:
Because of [Madagascar’s] astounding biological diversity, this Texas-sized island is considered a crown jewel among Earth’s ecosystems— a biological superpower. . . . An estimated 160,000 species [are] unique to this island, mostly in its vanishing eastern rainforests. Unique species include 80% of its 10,000 flowering plants (including 1,000 orchids), 66% of the world’s species of chameleons, 800 butterfly species, half of the island’s birds, and all its reptiles and mammals. Madagascar’s plant and animal species are also among the world’s most endangered, mostly because of loss of habitat from slash-andburn agriculture on poor soils fueled by rapid population growth. Since humans arrived about 1,500 years ago, 84% of its tropical seasonal forests and over 66% of its rainforests have been cut for cropland, fuelwood, and lumber, leaving blood-red gullies and streams and vast eroded fields and hillsides. Madagascar is now the world’s most eroded country.
This picture of loss could be added to hundreds more that would graphically illustrate how we have failed to care for the natural world our God has entrusted to us. Even though there are many instances in which peoplehave become aware of the damage they were doing to forests and have dramatically reversed harmful deforestation, the broad picture is still one of serious forest degradation worldwide. It may not be surprising to followers of Christ that the world in general disregards biblical mandates and foundational principles, but the truth is that the church is also responsible for the care and protection of God’s good earth.
This often-ignored responsibility was first popularly noted among evangelical Christians by Francis Schaeffer, who wrote a significant book about the issue in 1970. It was titled Pollution And The Death Of Man: A Christian View Of Ecology. It was a challenge to the church to apply biblical principles to the world’s environmental crises—including the state of our forests. Here are some of Schaeffer’s insights:
A truly biblical Christianity has a real answer to the ecological crisis. It offers a balanced and healthy attitude toward nature, arising from the truth of its creation by God; it offers the hope here and now of a substantial healing in nature of some of the results of the Fall arising from the truth of redemption in Christ. In each of the alienations arising from the Fall, the Christians, individually and corporately, should consciously in practice be a healing, redemptive factor—in the separation of man from God, of man from himself, of man from man, of man from nature, and of nature from nature. A Christian-based science and technology should consciously try to see nature substantially healed, while waiting for the future complete healing at Christ’s return.
While the worldwide church is still slow in recovering our understanding of our lost stewardship mandate, there are some effective things being done by a number of people, organizations, and institutions that are taking both revelations of God (His Word and His works) more seriously these days.
Realizing our stewardship role as children of God, how then should we live in relation to the earth’s trees and forests? I don’t think it’s out of order to suggest these activities for followers of God’s Word:
• Learn more about trees in order to appreciate their role in your life.
• Remember the trees’ relationship to people as mutual creations of God.
• Remind yourself regularly of your responsibility to be a good earthkeeper.
• As a voter, be more aware of your government’s forest policies.
• As a consumer and/or stockholder, become informed about corporate practices regarding your nation’s forests.
• Join with the trees in praise of your Creator.