Chapter 4

What The Wilderness Reveals

The apostle Paul said that we can “clearly” see God’s “eternal power and divine nature” in what He has created. So what is it we can actually witness in the wild? This question compelled me to pay attention more carefully to the natural world and also to learn from others about what they have discovered while reading the book of God’s works in the wilderness.

Here’s a sampling of what we can witness when we enter the less traveled areas of what John Calvin called “the theater of God’s glory”:

Mystifying Light, Energy, And Matter. Even though science tells us much about the cosmos, the true nature of light, energy, and matter still defies human definition and understanding. Because we do not know much about what these natural features do and how they do it, we usually forget that we use them much like a person who skillfully drives a car but knows next to nothing about what’s under the hood. In the wilderness, these natural elements meet to produce a sense of awe that primitive civilizations often understood better than our more mechanized world.

Seemingly Endless Time And Space. According to the apostle Paul, the material world provides evidence of God’s “eternal” power. Time has no beginning or ending apparent to our human senses or understanding. Because our earthbound human mind cannot conceive of eternality, we want to either deny it or somehow bring it into our human scope. But we can’t.

Space too has no span measurable by our human instruments. Using our most powerful microscopes, we find no limit to smallness. In the largest telescopes, bigness gets forever bigger.

Yes, timelessness and infinity are frightening realities for time-bound, finite creatures to ponder. Nonetheless, those actualities that we can “clearly see” should cause us to bow in humility before our Creator.

Astronomical Extravagance And Magnitude. Realizing how immense our galaxy is and how many stars and planets it contains staggers the mind. But grasping the fact that there are billions of such galaxies is beyond our capacity. We try to somehow understand the dimensions of God’s cosmic creation by using specific measures like “light years.” But one night under the stars in the wilderness is enough to show us that the extravagance and magnitude of the universe is beyond our imagination and beyond our mathematical calculations. Astronomers say, for instance, that one star is 20 million light years away and another is a billion light years from earth—figures based on the speed of light (186,000 miles per second). In saying so, we often think we’ve made the universe measurable. Reality mocks that assumption.

The Wonder Of Life. Life is a human mystery like light and matter. Scientists don’t know what it is or how it came to thrive so richly on one small planet in a wider cosmos that is so hostile to life.

Yet even, and perhaps especially, in the wilderness regions of our earth, one is awed by the constant celebration of life—life that is intricately balanced in its multitude of different structures, from slugs to sequoias. That’s one reason that abuse of our wilderness areas seems so profane. We’re causing the extinction of thousands of these life forms—which the Bible affirms our Creator loves (Ps. 145:9)—before we even know their God-given purposes. Certainly our destruction of these living creatures cannot continue without negative consequences for humanity.

Awesome Power. John Muir wrote of an experience he had of climbing as high as he could in one of Yosemite’s huge Douglas firs in a windstorm. He wanted to feel the power of the gale experienced by the tree. He writes:

When the storm began to abate, I dismounted and sauntered down through the calming woods. The storm-tones died away, and, turning toward the east, I beheld the countless hosts of the forests hushed and tranquil, towering above one another on the slopes of the hills like a devout audience. The setting sun filled them with amber light, and seemed to say, while they listened, “My peace I give unto you.” As I gazed on the impressive scene, all the so-called ruin of the storm was forgotten, and never before did these noble woods appear so fresh, so joyous, so immortal.1

The power of the forces that God maintains to keep the engine of His creation going is so overwhelming that it is beyond words. A blinding blizzard, a roaring waterfall, a surging wave, a bolt of lightning, a grinding glacier—all these fill our souls with wonder and admiration.

Profound Mystery. Light, matter, energy, and life remain inscrutable to mankind. But those are not the only mysteries that surround us in the natural world. I have a philodendron vine that has existed indoors for years. This common domesticated vine still causes me to marvel. It grows about a foot each month by taking artificial light, carbon dioxide, and water to create its solid material structure. I’m still amazed at photosynthesis.

All around us are similar mysteries: birds that were never carpenters’ apprentices but know how to construct intricate nests; fireflies that turn organic matter into flashlights; wasps that make paper; spiders that spin nature’s strongest fibers; fish that spend their entire adult lives at sea, only to return over thousands of miles to the very creek that spawned their existence. We may well be able to dissect their anatomies and describe their life processes, but we remain mystified about the hows and the whys.

Abiding Orderliness And Unfailing Regularity. Secular scientists often speak of apparent randomness and disorder in nature; yet for science even to exist, the creation must be mostly predictable. Researchers cherish its orderliness and regularity while at the same time admit that the source of such order and regularity is beyond their understanding. If planetary motions and gravity, for instance, were not orderly and regular, life would not exist. There is such order and regularity in the entire creation that mathematicians who don’t acknowledge God often speculate that mathematical laws are eternal and are the ultimate cause of the cosmos. One theoretical mathematician, in fact, calls the mathematical principles in nature “beautiful.”

Constant Re-creation. One of the most significant aspects of the wilderness is that when we enter it, we come nearest to being present at creation. In the wilderness, God’s work is still going on. Christian philosopher Wolfhart Pannenberg exclaims:

The creation does not remain what it was at its point of origin. It changes. It develops. New forms appear. New things happen. There is a sense in which one can say that creation ex nihilo [out of nothing] is complemented ex continua, continuing creation. . . . The faithfulness of the creating God continues to conserve the existence of this world while drawing it forward toward a new and transformed state of existence.2

God rested from the original work of creation, but we can praise Him that He still works in the process of its continuation and its redemption:

For by [Christ] all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. . . . For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross (Col. 1:16-20).

When we’re in the unspoiled regions, it’s thrilling to contemplate the divine Trinity’s ultimate purpose for us: to be looking for and working in the power of God the Holy Spirit toward the time when God the Son will come and reconcile all things to God the Father.

Unfathomable Complexity And Incredible Design. Naturalistic evolutionists assert that life on earth is the result of uncomplicated basic elements acted on by simple forces in an entirely random and undirected manner. But scientific studies show us that the material world is irreducibly complex and its features reflect astounding design. Every year, millions of words are written and hundreds of thousands of research studies are conducted that do little more than raise even more questions about how things work and how they are made to work. In spite of the arguments of those who deny the existence of a Creator, the creation defies simple explanation. From massive cosmic forces to subatomic particles, the natural world is unrelenting in yielding up only more complexity and more evidence of purpose.

George MacDonald used the purposefulness of the creation to touch the heart of the key character in his novel The Musician’s Quest. Agnostic Robert Falconer had gone to the wilderness for solitude and rest, but found himself pondering whether the natural world might have its source in a supernatural Creator.

Now working in Falconer’s mind was the dull and faint movement of the greatest need that the human heart possesses—the need of God. There must be truth in the scent of that pinewood; someone must mean it. There must be a glory in those heavens that depends not upon our imagination; some power greater than they must dwell in them. Some spirit must move in that wind that haunts us with a kind of human sorrow; some soul must look up to us from the eye of that starry flower. Little did Robert think that such was his need—that his soul was searching after the One whose form was constantly presented to him, but as constantly obscured by words without knowledge spoken in the religious assemblies of the land.3

Impressed by the same obvious design in nature, C. S. Lewis shared MacDonald’s belief that a proper consideration of the natural world will point away from itself and to its Creator. Lewis believed, therefore, that “because God created the natural— invented it out of His love and artistry—it demands our reverence.”4

Abundant Joy. The French term is joie de vivre, “the joy of living.” Few things in the outdoors fill me with delight like the joy of living that is often demonstrated by God’s creatures. Recently while I was kayaking on a lake, a sudden commotion in the water near the shore caught my eye. As I paddled closer I saw a lone female mallard splashing in the shallows, turning in mad circles and making the water fly. After that she began preening and then drinking—savoring whatever flavors and organisms the lake water yielded by holding her mouth wide open and then clacking her beak. Academics might propose that her activity was mere utility. But I’m sure I saw the duck smiling!

And what about cavorting calves, squirrels playing tag, songbirds rejoicing at the dawn, otters gliding down muddy slides over and over again, and grizzly bears deliberately somersaulting on mountain slopes? You’ll not convince me that these creatures are not living with joy.

Henry Van Dyke, the writer of the well-known hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” must have felt the same way:

All Thy works
with joy surround Thee,
earth and heaven
reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels
sing around Thee,
center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest,
vale and mountain,
flowery meadow,
flashing sea,
Chanting bird
and flowing fountain
call us to rejoice in Thee.

God made the wild creatures and the wilderness for them to live in. And the Psalms tell us that God delights in the wilderness and its creatures. Hence, the more we delight in them, the more we share in God’s joy.

Virtually Endless Variety. Science has a word for nature’s great variety: biodiversity. And for virtually every v ariant, scientists offer supposed practical values. Male cardinals are brilliant red and more striking than the dull orange females in order to get the female’s attention for mating. So why do male and female blue jays look the same? The males of some species are larger than the females so they can protect the females. So why are females of some species larger than the males? Some insect species are brilliantly colored to attract attention. So why are other insect species dull in color to keep from attracting attention?

I heard a scientist say that biologists once thought they knew why a certain animal acted a particular way, but new observations have forced them to conclude: “We don’t have a clue why it does it!” That was a refreshing admission to hear.

The endless variety in nature is just another aspect of God’s boundless creativity. Noted evolutionist J.B.S. Haldane, when asked what could be inferred about the Creator from the works of nature, is reported to have replied, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” So far, over 350,000 variants have been identified.

Amazing Adaptability. Charles Darwin used his observation of finches on the Galapagos Islands to formulate the theory that the capacity of the birds in that isolated region to adapt to a great variety of food sources is the function that “created” all life forms. Such adaptation (“natural selection”) is the origin of all species, he concluded. His observations were truly significant, as are the thousands of similar observations made by other biologists since that time. It is obvious that God gave His creatures the capacity to change in this manner.

This capacity is often called “microevolution,” a highfalutin term that simply means “small changes.” We can see small changes like this in many similar animal and plant groups. Such changes, however, are noted only in creatures that retain their primary basic life functions and form. Hence, we could logically conclude that natural adaptation is more of an evidence of God’s design than proof of Darwin’s conjecture—that all living things had their source in one simple life form, and that without direction or purpose through the course of minute changes, this natural adaptation created all the diversity and complexity we see in life.

Overwhelming Beauty. In the Genesis creation account, the first fact mentioned about the trees of the garden was that they were “pleasant to the sight” (Gen. 2:9). Because of this, I’m convinced that the beauty we see and sense in the natural world is one of the most important evidences of God’s divine nature.

Nineteenth-century American historian George Bancroft expressed it like this: “Beauty is but the sensible image of the Infinite. Like truth and justice, it lives within us; like virtue and the moral law, it is a companion of the soul.” 5

In commenting on William Cullen Bryant’s beliefs about beauty in nature, theologian Augustus Strong observes: “The external world is beautiful, because unfallen. It shares with man the effects of sin; but whenever we retreat from the regions which man’s folly has despoiled, we may find something that reminds us of our lost paradise.” 6

John Muir believed that “everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” 7

The value of natural beauty to the human soul was what inspired the masterful landscape painter Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of painting. With his paintings, he wanted to put people back in touch with the Creator. He hoped his paintings would give a citydwelling admirer a yearning for the outdoors where he too could discover what he had—that “in gazing on the pure creations of the Almighty, he feels a calm religious tone steal through his mind, and when he has turned to mingle [again] with his fellow men, the chords which have been struck in that sweet communion cease not to vibrate.” 8 Maybe that’s why I admire Cole’s paintings and not Picasso’s. If we saw something like a Picasso in nature, we’d know at once it did not come from God’s hands! Beauty may be nature’s most profound apologist for God.

Extravagant Fruitfulness. It’s hard to find a more exuberant expression of praise for God’s abundance than the one penned by the Hebrew psalmist David:

You visit the earth and water it, You greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; You provide their grain, for so You have prepared it. You water its ridges abundantly, You settle its furrows; You make it soft with showers, You bless its growth. You crown the year with Your goodness, and Your paths drip with abundance. They drop on the pastures of the wilderness, and the little hills rejoice on every side. The pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered with grain; they shout for joy, they also sing (Ps. 65:9-13).

The fruitfulness of the earth and all its creatures is a major theme both of the biblical creation story and the repopulation of the earth after the Genesis flood. In both instances, the Creator’s mandate was that the nonhuman creatures and mankind should “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:22,28; 8:17; 9:1,7). We all have the capacity to multiply because the earth produces enough food for us to live and thrive.

All the creatures of the earth are taken care of by God. The Psalms speak of the wilderness as God’s great larder where “the young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God” and where God gives the sea creatures “their food in due season” (Ps. 104:21,27). Psalm 145 affirms the same: “The eyes of all look to You, and You give them their food at the proper time. You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (vv.15- 16 niv). And God does that because He “is gracious and full of compassion. . . . And His tender mercies are over all His works” (vv.8-9). The amazing fruitfulness of the earth that provides both for us and for all the creatures of the wilderness is a gift from a righteous, gracious, merciful, and loving Creator.

Sacrificial Nurture. When I was about 10, I came across a baby bird called a killdeer, and my instinct was to save it by capturing it. Being naturally endowed with long legs, the little bird made a successful run for shelter. As I was trying to lay my hands on it, my eye was distracted by another bird—a larger one flapping helplessly on the ground only a few feet away. So I quickly went off in pursuit of this new prey. After about a 50-yard scamper, however, I called off the chase. The “injured” bird suddenly took flight. I watched it fly without any handicap over to the spot where I first saw the baby bird, which was now far from my reach. I’d been fooled by the mother killdeer, which had merely feigned injury to draw me away from her fledgling. She had risked capture and death to save her young, just as countless other creatures commonly do. Many other examples of this sort of natural devotion and self-sacrifice can remind us of the ultimate sacrifice the Son of God made on our behalf (Eph. 5:2) and encourage us to sacrifice on behalf of others (Col. 1:24; Heb. 13:16).

Limitless Sensory Stimulation. While vision is the sense we consider most important in experiencing nature, the other senses also add immeasurable delight to wild things and places. The flavors, odors, textures, and sounds we most enjoy are almost always natural ones: the taste of a wild raspberry, the fragrance of a clump of spring violets, the feel of a cool mountain stream, the sound of pebbles tumbling after a receding wave. A pristine wilderness offers us an unending supply of “candy for the senses.”

I’m reminded of the great sensory Psalm about God: “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). The implication of that invitation is that one needs to have a relationship with the Creator to truly learn of His goodness. Likewise, when we use all our senses to experience what the Creator has made, we learn of His goodness and greatness more profoundly.

Complex Interrelationships. When Cal DeWitt, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, was advocating for wetlands conservation and restoration in his township, he came across a couple of residents who told him they didn’t see much value in preserving wetlands. Dr. DeWitt knew they were both avid pike fishermen. When he explained to them that pike fingerlings depended on wetlands for their survival, he won their support.

The truth is that all natural systems are important in God’s scheme of things, but the value of most of them is not so quickly grasped. That God would care for a sparrow, the humblest and most ordinary of birds, ought to be a sign to us that we should not see anything in nature’s community as being valueless or unnecessary. All things in nature are interrelated. And the pristine wilderness provides us the best of laboratories in which to learn about these connections. This may have been what Thoreau had in mind when he said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” 9

Modern science often gives us the impression that we understand the complexity of wild nature. The truth, however, was stated well by ecologist Frank Egler: “[Wilderness ecosystems] are not only more complex than we think, they are more complex than we can think.” 10 It’s because of such complex interconnectedness that the wilderness makes us humble—which is the right attitude to have in the presence of our Creator.

Models For Efficiency. The man who invented Velcro received his inspiration when, after a walk in the wilds, he found cockleburs hooked to the thread loops of his shirt. Hundreds of inventions beneficial to people are modeled after natural structures and systems. Untold numbers of natural constructions and arrangements likely remain in the wild for us to learn from.

We moderns think of ourselves as masters of efficiency, but our accomplishments in that area are mocked by the honeycomb, the anthill, and the tree. If we were to leave wild areas untouched for no other reason than this, we would be blessed to have the opportunity to learn again and again from the handiwork of our Creator.

Christian farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry challenges us:

We need wilderness also because wildness— nature—is one of our indispensable studies. We need to understand it as our source and preserver, as an essential measure of our history and behavior, and as the ultimate definer of our possibilities.11

The Uniqueness Of Mankind. Finally, we get a glimpse of God’s eternal power and divine nature in the natural world as we observe the unbridgeable gap between people and the other created things. This difference—and the reason for the difference—has been immortalized by David:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor. You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen— even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea that pass through the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth! (Ps. 8:3-9).

In spite of secular humanism’s claim that people are merely the most evolved animal and morally little different from the ape, we believe instead that we are God’s special creation. We are, as the Bible declares, made in the likeness of our Creator and given the awesome privilege and responsibility to be stewards of the natural world (Gen. 1:27-28). That we have dominion over nature cannot be denied. But Francis Schaeffer makes clear what that means for the follower of Christ:

Man was given dominion over creation. This is true. But since the Fall, man has exercised this dominion wrongly. He is a rebel who has set himself at the center of the universe. . . . Because he is fallen, he exploits created things as though they were nothing in themselves, and as though he has an autonomous right to them. Surely then, Christians, who have returned through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ to fellowship with God, and have a proper place of reference to the God who is there, should demonstrate a proper use of nature. We are to have dominion over it, but we are not going to act as though it were nothing in itself or as though we will do to nature everything we can do.12

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