Christians & Climate Change

Obedience and Pragmatism don’t play well together. God calls us to obedience not results.

I did a crazy thing for a 72 year old emeritus Campus Pastor and Institute Director: I enrolled as an student to audit a college class. So now I find myself reading hundreds of pages of assigned reading each week and trying to keep up with both regular students and other auditors in discussion groups.

What class am I taking? Glad you asked and bet you would never guess it: my class is “God, Country and Climate Change”. It is live streamed weekly from the campus of Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college in upstate New York. The classes have been great, featuring lecturers who are climate scientists, environment activists, and theologians.

The classes are challenging, informative and sometimes discouraging. One week we compiled a list of things to personally do to lower our carbon footprints. On this list were things like buy less, create less waste, and be more mindful about how our choices impact the environment. I looked at the list and thought “If I did everything on this list I doubt it would contribute enough toward solving our ecological crisis to be noticed.” It was a discouraging thought.

That is when I had an epiphany. God doesn’t call us to results but to obedience. No good work done for the sake of Jesus is ever wasted. Even the smallest acts of goodness and love reflect Jesus to the world around us. Obedience and Pragmatism don’t play well together. God calls us to obedience not results.

Since I believe Christians are mandated to take care of this world, whether making lifestyle changes will solve the climate crisis, is really not the issue.  My obedience to God is the issue. Every small step toward a more sustainable lifestyle is a way for me to obey God’s mandate to take care of His creation.

This epiphany caused me to take off my environmental glasses and put on my Biblical glasses. Then it hit me: the whole human caused global warming crisis is not an environmental issue as much as it is a sin issue. Gus Speth, an environment lawyer and US advisor, was cited in Christianity Today as saying:

“I used to think that the top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Gus Speth

It is easy to attribute selfishness, greed, and apathy to industrial polluters and corporate greenhouse gas emitters. What is not so easy is to realize that they are all too often the reason for our lifestyle choices.  Can I have a positive impact on the world around me if my lifestyle choices are selfish, greedy, or apathetic?  For example:

  • How do I choose the clothes that I buy? Is price and style my only criteria? Or do I ask, “Does my low price come because they are made by overworked impoverished women in underdeveloped countries?
  • How do I choose the food I eat? By taste and price? Or do I ask, “How was this food produced and brought to my supermarket?”
  • How do I choose the snacks I munch on? By taste and convenience? Or do I ask, “What happens to the wrappers and packaging when I finish my snacks, are they destined to sit in a landfill forever?  

If you think I’ve gotten a little obsessed you are right, that is what happens when I turn my internal spotlight on my sin. I feel like I am directly polluting the oceans whenever I drink from a plastic cup or through a plastic straw. My choices are so often selfish, greedy and apathetic that I am consumed with guilt. Fortunately, I know that guilt is meant to alert me not overwhelm me. God loves me, sinner that I am! So when I feel guilty I go to Him and pray for forgiveness and the grace to be a better caretaker of the world in which He has placed me.

The solution to our climate change crisis isn’t just to buy secondhand clothes, or to become vegetarians, or to call our legislators and give them our top ten environmental reforms list. Those things are good things to do to protect and serve God’s creation, but they won’t fix the main problem: us. Our disregard for the environment is a heart issue. Most Christians are aware that sin broke humanity and that “selfishness, greed, and apathy” are symptoms of our individual fallenness.  What took me much longer to come to terms with is that sin broke not only humanity but all of creation. Evidence that sin broke both humanity and this world is all around us. If broken people living in a broken world was the end of the story then being consumed with guilt would be the least of our problems. But the story of the Fall is the beginning of the story of how our Redeemer God loved us and His creation so much that He provided One to set things right.  One who can transform our broken world into the world it was when He pronounced it “very good”.

Most believers are familiar with the words “For God so loved the world that…” He loved the world so much that he incarnated Himself into creation in order to redeem it back to himself. God saw our brokenness and loved us enough to pay the great price to restore it—the price of making His incarnate Son Jesus our Paschal Lamb.

I no longer believe that John 3:16 only refers to God’s love for humanity. God so loved us, yes, but He also loved all creation so much that he lovingly infused every animal and plant, down to their very cells and molecules with evidence of His character. The Psalmist wrote that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork”1 and “the Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it”2. In the book of Job, God tells Job how His sovereignty is on display throughout nature:

“Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is it that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the Earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone — while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?’”3.

The entire book of Job emphasizes the sovereignty of God over mankind and all the earth. But as the ultimate sovereign, God delegated to humans sovereignty over the rest of creation:

“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”4

He has delegated responsibility for caring for creation to us. This delegated responsibility is anything but permission to exploit, instead it is a mandate to care for this world so it can sustain us both physically and emotionally.  The climate crisis we are facing is proof of our failure to take God’s delegated sovereignty seriously.

Jesus, in His last monologue to his disciples before his crucifixion said:

“I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world”5.

Jesus

When I get discouraged over the the harm we have done to God’s creation and how this has made life so much harder for the impoverished, I feel so overwhelmed that, to my shame, I often do nothing. My inaction is my sinful nature controlling me. But I don’t have to be bullied by my old nature because Christ has defeated it. Jesus’ atoning death wiped the slate clean. The more I trust in Him the more His indwelling Holy Spirit empowers me to go into the world and love as He loves. As the Apostle John wrote, “by this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments… For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world”6

Right about now you are thinking “Nice sermon Tim but what does this have to do with climate change?” Don’t worry I’m not going to leave you hanging. One important thing is that looking at it through the lens of Scripture gives us the assurance that one day all of creation will be made whole again:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved.”7

Paul

All creation eagerly awaits the return of our Savior. Until then, he instructs us to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”8. Certainly as caretakers of creation and as followers of Jesus, justice, mercy and humility should characterize how we respond to the world around us. It also means that whenever natural disasters strike (and unless we control global warming we must expect more severe disasters), we Christians should be first responders, ready to get our hands dirty, humbly showing mercy and advocating justice for the vulnerable.  This is how we love the world as Jesus loves it.

Where you go from here is up to you. I suggest you start with some introspection. A good place to begin is to seriously consider the ways your lifestyle choices affect the environment. Be fearless, this is not a pledge to change everything at once. Once you’ve done an internal audit I challenge you to sit quietly, pray, repent, accept God’s forgiveness and love then write an action statement on how you will better love the world God created and the people in it.

Obedience and Pragmatism don’t play well together. God calls us to obedience not results.

Scripture references:

1 Psalm19:1ESV

2 Psalm 24:1 NIV

3Job 38:1-7 NIV

4Genesis 1:28 NIV

5John 16:33 NIV

6I John 5:2, 4 ESV

7Romans 8:18-24

8Micah 6:8

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