Article by Matthew Crocker
Something that we have heard a lot about over the last few years has been the climate crisis. I think by now we are all aware of the damage that has been done to the earth’s ecosphere as a result of human action. In particular, the actions of rapid industrialization throughout the world over the last two-hundred years. Industrialization, we must admit, that has brought about a dramatic increase in the standard of living. Yet, this does not negate the reality that we are facing a dramatic change in our planet’s stability and unfortunately, the coming instability is something that we are very much afraid of. For instance, I have heard stories of young people struggling to sleep at night because of the fear that the planet will literally burn as a result of global warming. This phenomenon has been best described as climate anxiety. A popular catch-all term for the fear, frustration, anger, and anxiety that people feel in response to the impending climate crisis. While I am suspicious of this term and the role genuine climate science plays into these feelings—is it not more likely that these fears result from media exaggerations and irresponsible journalism?—we must acknowledge that anxious responses to the climate crisis exist. And since they exist, as a Church it is something worth addressing.
What is the church’s response to the climate crisis?
Before we can address the specific feelings of climate anxiety, however, it is imperative that we offer a Christian response to climate change in general. Particularly, what is a Christian ethic of environmental care? While this short article is simply unable to cover all the bases, two resources I would recommend that speak to the issues of creation care from a larger biblical perspective are Seriously Dangerous Religion by Iain Provan and Old Testament Ethics for the People of God by Christopher Wright. Both of these resources cover environmental ethics and more, which in my opinion, makes them that much better.
The place we must start in order to develop a Christian ethic of creation care is with creation itself. Here, in the beginning, we learn that everything we see, taste, touch, feel, etc. was created by God and he has deemed it “very good” (Gen 1.31). Likewise, God does not create people as something completely distinct from creation, but as part of creation. While mankind is the “pinnacle” of God’s creation this does not mean the mankind has unhindered reign over the earth to do with it as he pleases. Simply because people are endowed with the image of God does not mean they are given the freedom to exploit and destroy the planet.
A common justification for humanities unchecked industrial activity has been Genesis 1.28 which reads, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” However, to read “subdue” and “dominion” as suggesting allowance for domination is clearly unacceptable in light of the wider Scriptural testimony. For instance, in Exodus 23:10 the Lord commands Moses, “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.” Clearly here we see an argument against the exploitation of the land. Though this passage does not cite environmental reasons for being the why behind this law, it nonetheless commands the land to lie fallow for important social reasons which no doubt had an ecological bent. In light of this—and other texts that we do not have space to cite—it is clear that “dominion” and “subdue” cannot be used as justification for domination of the land. I think it makes more sense to understand these terms as bringing order to a disordered state. We even see this in Genesis 2 when God put Adam in the Garden and tells him to “work it and keep it” (2:15). In other words, his duty is to continue the responsible order God had previously established in the Garden and further bring order as God’s representative to creation. Therefore, we have good scriptural support in arguing for humanities responsibility to care for creation. To put it more bluntly, the Bible is against those who treat God’s creation as their personal garbage bin.
From the above discussion it should be clear that the churches responsibility in light of climate change is to be a forerunner in creation care, against institutions or businesses which clearly do significant amount of harm to the environment, and to stand in agreement with those who call for environmental action.
But what about climate anxiety?
Clearly, the church has a responsibility to care for creation. However, what does this mean for people who are struggling with climate anxiety? Is our climate anxiety justified in light of what we see going on the world around us? The answer is a resounding no. The reason for this is one theological word which reminds us who is in control and what he does; providence.
The Westminster Confession of faith writes of providence, “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible fore-knowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.” To put it more succinctly; God is in control of everything. This is a concept we see throughout Scripture. For instance, we read that God is king over everything, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.” (Ps 103:19) God is in control of all created things, including the weather, “God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend. For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth,’ likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour” (Job 37:5-6). He oversees the growing of plants and all good things, “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate” (Ps 104:14). Even things that supposedly take place by chance are controlled by God, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov 16:33). Nothing falls out of God’s purview as if he were somehow unaware or surprised by it happening.
Which is precisely why our climate anxiety is not justified. This is not to belittle the feeling of climate anxiety that you may experience. It is not to say, “pull up your boot straps and stop being a little baby.” That is not at all what I am saying whem I say that your climate anxiety is not justified. Rather, I’m saying that your climate anxiety is not justified because ontologically there is a God who is in control. It’s not to say the experience isn’t real; it’s to say the experience isn’t warranted. Jesus makes this argument in Matthew 6.25-34 when he addresses the topic of more general anxiety over the needs of life.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
God is in control of your situation and my situation. God is in control of everything and everyone.
However, it is not just that he is in control. It is also that his control is fundamentally good. The Apostle Paul makes us aware of this when he writes, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28). God is moving, shaking, and allowing everything to take place for a specific purpose in his providence. That purpose is not something opposed to our ultimate good, but is directed toward our ultimate good. This is why the doctrine of God’s providence is so freeing, because it allows us to trust the good plans of God in a world that is hopelessly anxious about things outside of their control. One of my favourite theologians of the reformation—John Calvin—says it best, “But when once the light of divine providence has illumined the believer’s soul, he is relieved and set free, not only from the extreme fear and anxiety which formerly oppressed him, but from all care. For as he justly shudders at the idea of chance, so he can confidently commit himself to God.” (131) Providence sets us free.
Where do we go from here?
As Christians we hold the two things that we have discussed above in tension. We have a responsibility to care for the earth, a responsibility to avoid exploitation of its resources, and a responsibility to be a light to the nations by demonstrating our ethic of creation care. Yet, at the same time we do not need to be ultimately afraid of the climate crisis. We don’t need to suffer from climate anxiety because we know that God is in control. We know that his providential care extends to all things, places, and people and that he governs the creations moving it towards our good. More simply put, we are responsible and yet God is sovereign. A mystery I will not attempt to answer here.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily held by everyone at Christ City Church.