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Seeking God’s First Book: Time in Nature

Can we be considered human without a connection to nature? We like to think of ourselves as independent and able to do what we want. Nature provides the air we breathe, the light we need to see, the water and food we consume, and the gravity that keeps us on earth. We are inescapably a part of nature and the environment. God could have made us self-contained and utterly independent from the sustenance of nature. Can we be considered human apart from nature? No. We are irrevocably tied to it. God chose to make us physically reliant on nature to demonstrate our reliance on him for physical and spiritual nourishment. God made man directly from nature, and to it we are bound. A second question follows, can one be considered a Christian without a connection to nature? 

Inextricably Connected to Nature

A connection to nature drastically improves our understanding of God. Ellen White writes in her book Education, “The constant contact with the mystery of life and the loveliness of nature, as well as the tenderness called forth in ministering to these beautiful objects of God’s creation, tends to quicken the mind and refine and elevate the character.” 

Nature deepens our appreciation for the sufferings Jesus endured. Wilderness experiences are central to many of the Bible’s most important stories. It is difficult for someone to truly appreciate the transforming power of a biblical style wilderness experience if they have never encountered the raw privation of nature. Many Christians have had emotional or spiritual wilderness experiences, and I would not diminish their power. But there is a reason God led so many people in the Bible to have a physical wilderness experience. We gain a deeper connection to God when we face an emotional and spiritual wilderness that is compounded by a physical wilderness.

Connection to nature makes the stories of the Bible more real. Jesus’ story centers around a cross, made from wood. It would be hard for you to appreciate what he went through if you had never seen a tree or felt how heavy wood is. How he must have staggered under the burden of that heavy beam after his beating. If you never felt the prick of a splinter, could you really comprehend how it felt as many splinters must have stabbed into his wounded back as he slid down when they raised the cross into place on Golgotha? Have you ever been poked or pierced by a thorn? Then perhaps you have some inclination how it felt as they jammed a crown of thorns on his head. Most importantly, if you have ever tried to move a large rock or stone, then you can appreciate the power that rolled the stone away from the grave of Jesus, calling Him back to life! I think it would be difficult indeed to be a Christian and never have some contact with nature, however small.

Ellen White writes in Desire of Ages, “The things of nature take up the parables of our Lord, and repeat His counsels. By communion with God in nature, the mind is uplifted, and the heart finds rest.” 

Nature and Spiritual Health

A routine connection to nature is key to good spiritual health. A recent study analyzed the impact of immersion in nature on the human spirit. The authors concluded from the evidence, “Immersion in nature nurtures aspects of the human spirit, through a sense of connection, awe, vibrancy, joy, gratitude, and compassion. These aspects serve as mediators between nature and spirit, which in turn promote spiritual well-being.” 

Our spiritual walk would benefit from regular contact with nature here in this life. It is God’s first book, his first revelation of himself. Few Christians are in the habit of seeking God in a natural setting. The most contact many Christians have with nature for spiritual purposes are flowers adorning the church. Nature provides more than adornment. The beauty of a natural, wild landscape reminds us of God’s majesty. It can humble and uplift our souls in the same instant. Wild nature sings the praises of our God. The more wild and unfettered by human hands, the more lush and fervent its melody.

Nature’s unpredictability reminds us we are not in control of everything. We must trust God. The discomfort reminds us we are not home yet. We are still in a battleground. The primary reason Jesus sought natural areas was to eliminate distraction in solitude while He connected with His father. Jesus made a habit of seeking such solitude.

Can We Be Christian Without Nature?

Our Christianity will suffer without a connection to nature. Our spiritual health may fall short of its full potential if we do not read from both of God’s books. If we want to live like Jesus, we will seek our Father in the seclusion of this original sanctuary. Next time you are struggling and feel lost in a metaphorical wilderness, try taking a leaf out of Jesus’ book and seek God in a natural setting. Find a garden or park nearby where you can spend an hour alone with God. Pray, read your Bible, or just talk to God. Over time you will come to extol these quiet hours as a vital spiritual vocation. You may find a prayer garden at a local church designed for this. 

It is only when we remove distractions and wait on God that we can hear him clearly. He waits for us. In turn, we must wait for Him to speak in his own time. There is no Wi-Fi in the woods, but I promise you will find a better connection there.

Arthur W. Spalding was a key figure in the establishment of Seventh-day Adventist summer camps in the United States. None were more instrumental than he in making camp ministry what it is today. In his book The Garden School Of God, He asked, “How shall we know Him except through his appointed means in the book of nature? He has, indeed, written for us another book, the Bible, to substitute for his personal presence, which is withdrawn behind the veil of His purity. Since men could no longer face Him, He sought to teach them through holy men, moved by the Holy Spirit, to be His mouthpieces to men. But the Bible is only the interpreter of the created word. Because we know little of that created word, we think there is little in it but much in the Bible. Yet, deep and profound as are the revelations of God in the Holy Scriptures, they are but a tithe of the riches of His knowledge and grace to be found in His handwriting on the face and in the substance of nature.”

Studying Nature

We are to study and learn of God in nature. “Make me understand the way of Your precepts; So shall I meditate on Your wonderful works.” Psalms 119:27 NKJV. In this verse the author asks God to help him understand God’s precepts or principles. He has learned that the more he knows God, the more he wants to think about God’s activities and less about worldly activities. He knows that as he meditates more on God’s wonderful works they will in turn help him understand God’s ways better. Many readers assume the wonderful works refer to miracles. These are indeed part of God’s wonderful works. However, Psalm 136 gives us a better picture of what God’s wonderful works include.

The psalmist outlines all the wonderful works God has done. He begins by mentioning the creation and specific creative acts (verse 5-9). Then he recounts God’s wonders done during the Exodus and proceeds to the conquering of the Promised Land. He ends by recognizing God’s wonderful works accomplished on a daily basis, providing food to “all flesh” (verse 25).

This helps us understand that miracles are not the only actions God uses to display His love. God’s wonderful works mentioned in Psalm 119:27 refer to the works of providence but also of redemption and creation. When was the last time you heard a sermon or Bible study that focused solely on God as revealed in creation?

We are often missing one of God’s most obvious works in our devotional studies. Perhaps you have experienced a dramatic miracle in your life, but those occurrences don’t happen every day. We can walk outside and experience God’s other wonderful works firsthand! 

Have you ever used nature as a source of study? I encourage you to occasionally set your Bible aside and go meditate in creation, God’s first book. This may ring of sacrilege at first. You can meditate on God’s wonders in nature as Isaac did. Or you can recite verses or sing to God in the fields as King David did while shepherding. You can also pray outside as Jesus frequently did. God’s people often seek him in the solitude of nature as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. Author Mark Stoll calls this “the true and original worship service.” In his book, Inherit the Holy Mountain.

Worship Outside

Worship outdoors is especially common during times of great turmoil. That is when people tend to look for God most keenly in the solitude of creation. Great Adventist leaders from William Miller to Doug Batchelor have found God in such places. St. Augustine put it this way: “Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead he set before your eyes the things that he had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?”

John Calvin viewed nature as the most important source of knowledge of God outside the Bible. “Consequently, we know the most perfect way of seeking God…[is] for us to contemplate him in his works whereby he renders himself near and familiar to us, and in some manner communicates himself.”

Churches serve an eminent role in our spiritual lives and are well suited to communal religious practices. They are not ideal for private spiritual practices. The problem with the church and also the home is that both are creations of man. They are bare and simplistic in structure when compared to nature. They are designed to cater to humans and elevate mankind. Modern buildings are not designed to reduce your focus on yourself or turn your attention to God. Nature is.

God wove lessons of himself into the very fabric of the universe. It is a living picture by which we catch glimpses of his majesty and character. The outdoor setting is an appropriate and meaningful worship venue, especially for the solitary worshiper. The closing line from American Scenery by famed artist Thomas Cole is one to ponder, “May we at times turn from the ordinary pursuits of life to the pure enjoyment of rural nature; which is in the soul like a fountain of cool waters to the way-worn traveler; and let us learn the laws by which the Eternal doth sublime and sanctify his works, that we may see the hidden glory veiled from vulgar eyes.” This is the deep experience many are missing in their spiritual lives. With the Bible in our mind and heart, we can seek closeness with the Father in his creation. God has profound revelations he is waiting to share with you and me in his creation if we would only place ourselves where we can receive them.

Teaching God’s First Book

A while back I conducted an online survey of 72 Christians where I asked “why do Christians spend time in nature?” The following trends appeared: Seventy-four percent indicated that it was rejuvenating, calming, or peaceful. Many specifically pointed out the fresh air or birdsong. Twenty-four percent specifically mentioned their goal was to meet or encounter God. The other 2 percent indicated fitness or other reasons. 

If we Christians value nature for our sanity and our spiritual walk, why do so many seem indifferent to the rapid destruction of nature across the globe? Surely, we want to protect God’s first book so that it will continue to direct others’ minds toward him. It stands as a witness to his creative power. Human greed constantly threatens to destroy creation and remake the world after its own selfish design. If we stand idly by, the worldly cycle of ever-increasing consumption and wealth chasing will destroy God’s creation. If we want to prevent that, we must teach others to read this book. Then admiration and a desire to protect it will follow.

We can teach our fellow church members about the spiritual lessons we find in nature. Better yet, we can make it a part of Bible study. Bring natural objects into the Bible lesson. Better still, take Sabbath School classes and prayer meetings outdoors. Have vespers outside as the sun sets. Study together how God expects us to care for and learn from his creation.

One of the best approaches is to instill a love for nature in our children and grandchildren from a young age. It is up to you to help them develop a passion for God’s creation. If you don’t have kids or grandkids, or they are grown, get involved in children’s ministry. Teach them to search for dandelions and dragonflies instead of digital devices. Let them discover God’s wonders wherever they exist. You don’t have to be in Yellowstone National Park to find beauty in nature. Unkempt fields are pockets of wild forests waiting to be investigated.

Take kids camping so they can experience nature up close and personal. Point out the similarities with how Jesus lived when he was here on earth. He slept under the stars and cooked over a fire. He left heaven, a place of endless joy, surrounded by dulcet angelic voices. He came to live on earth in the harsh and thorny realities of a sin-marred creation. Teach children how to read the character of God from his creation. Through instruction they will learn to recognize these teachings every time they step into God’s living revelation. Instruction is not necessary to find lessons of God. Yet, instruction and practice will condition the mind to see these lessons at every turn. 

For many Americans, their fondest memories of childhood are from a camping trip. It is the perfect place to make lifelong memories and learn lifelong spiritual lessons. Why else has the church summer camp been so successful? If primitive camping seems too rustic for you, go glamping in an RV or cabin. Send your kids to summer camp or sponsor a child in your church. Go for a week of family camp with your family. You will find as I have, that while seeking to train children, adults in turn receive instruction also.

Pastor Lloyd Mattson was the most prolific author of Christian camping instruction books. His titles such as Build Your Church Through Camping and Christian Camping Today have helped generations to discover the spiritual blessings of sleeping under the stars. He was a huge proponent of summer camp ministry even at 96 years old. He writes, “I am convinced a camping experience can move [anyone] closer to God’s purpose than whatever I might do in the [church] service they might miss to be in camp.” 

A few weeks ago, in a Bible study I attended, we considered John the Baptist’s wilderness experience. One of the most striking lessons I took away was that God called John to live in the wilderness. As Christians we talk often of the wilderness experiences God takes us through. We don’t like them, but we understand they are part of God’s spiritual refining process. The first question most Christians ask when they realize they are in a wilderness experience is: “how long will it last?” They want to know how quickly they can get back to a comfortable place. But as we studied John, I discovered that he learned to be at home in the wilderness. His confidence in God was so strong that his comfort zone existed wherever God was, even amid the wilderness. 

That is exactly what camping will do for you and for children. It will help them learn to be comfortable in a place that is uncomfortable. It teaches one to make the best of their current circumstances and to focus on the positives. Camping helps us turn our focus from the present discomforts to future luxuries. What better spiritual training could a parent or mentor ask for? 

The rustic blessings of camping are numerous. Camping reminds us that we are part of a larger creation and to live more simply. We are not just consumers; we are participants in God’s creation. Do you want to see joy in the face of a child? Take them camping. Evidence of God’s love is everywhere, should we take the time to look for it.

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