Everywhere you look today you will find positive references to environmentalism. It is taken for granted that amongst the greatest virtues is a concern for “Mother Earth.” Terms like “eco-friendly”, “carbon-neutral”, “bio-degradable”, and – most poignant – “sustainable” are found on packaging, magazines, billboards, business plans, car fenders, posters and trash trucks. Our culture likes the idea of living cleanly and in-sync with nature. This is partially admirable at its core; certainly it is not commendable to be destructive for destruction’s sake, nor is there anything laudable about wasting resources unnecessarily. Indeed, conservation is a wonderful thing simply because it follows God’s plan for individuals to maintain spiritual, mental and physical purity (“As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way [to] … purity” [2 Cor 6:4,6, NIV]).
I plan on getting into the spiritual aspects of this in a moment, but for now I want to focus on one of the words that I mentioned above and how insidiously it slithers into the psyche and corrupts the focus of the spiritually-minded person. You see, agreeing that conservation is creditable in a small way toward a healthy life is not the same as agreeing that life must subordinate itself to its environment. The crux of the environmental care issue for Christians is not whether cleanliness and care of God’s creation is something good. It is whether that issue then subordinates the issues of eternity.
It is for that reason that the word “sustainable” – used in the environmental way – drives me crazy. Billions of dollars are spent every year to attain “sustainable” agriculture, energy and economies. Millions of little kids are harangued by their teachers to start compost or recycling piles in their backyards and thousands of new laws and regulations are imposed on communities, businesses and individuals … all in the name of “sustainability.” Each of these actions requires an imposition on the lives of people perfectly content otherwise (all things considered). In other words, the subscription, by the individual or the community, to “sustainability” means a sacrifice. Sacrifice is necessary when you consider the simple payment of time for the essentials of life. But when done for an unnecessary reason (in this case, some single, unobservable effect to an environment which is much bigger than even any scientist [or group of scientists] can properly conceive), that means that the person has placed an importance on it bigger than themselves.
To illustrate my point, think about Jesus’ simple statement, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt 6:21, NIV). I believe that Jesus was speaking specifically about money in that passage, however (if I might be so bold as to parse this simple statement a bit) money is gained through the investment of time and opportunity. Essentially, the money/treasure we have is simply a measurement of how valuable our time and opportunity is to other people. This does not at all mean that rich people are more valuable than poor people, nor does it mean that rich people have more time than poor people (that would be rather a silly thought). It simply means that we all have a finite resource of time and opportunity given to us by God and the value placed on that time by people differs from person to person. Ironically for those of us trapped in the physical realm, that means that we have no clue just what we are worth (physically speaking)! It means that a rich man may die in the next hour while a poor man might live for decades. The value of the time of the rich man will have been very high to man and very low to God and vice versa for the poor man. All of this means that the true treasure is the time and opportunity – given by God – that we have at our disposal, the here and now in which we actually have some measure of control.
So when an individual chooses to invest his time in taking care of orphans, it means that he is placing more value on the orphans’ needs than his own. He is sacrificing his time and opportunity, or to put it another way, spending his treasure on the orphans rather than himself. In a perfect world, we would all have lots of time to care for the orphans and the widows, to feed the sick, clothe the poor and bring the gospel to the nations. But we live in a fallen world, we means that we 1) must work hard simply to care for ourselves, 2) we are not constantly in contact with needy people, so part of our time is “our own”, and 3) we have finite resources which cannot meet the needs of everyone.
In saying this I am not attempting to make excuses for us our neglect of the needy. I am simply attempting to make it clear that there is a large amount of time allotted to us by God that is what we might term “border time”: Time that is not allotted directly to the service of God or those in need on one side, nor is it allotted to our work in order to simply meet our need for food, clothing and shelter on the other side. It is where this treasure is exercised that determines the position our heart. If we find ourselves constantly on our smart phone, our hearts are invested in our smart phone. If we find ourselves constantly reading the exciting lives of entertainment stars, our hearts are invested in the lives of entertainment stars. If we find ourselves constantly drawn to video gaming, movie watching, playing, drawing, painting, dancing, driving, hiking, running, picnicking, cooking, scrapbooking, swimming, reading, or eating, those are the things which hold our hearts and suck out the value of our lives.
Now you might ask, “Okay, so what makes serving environmental ‘sustainability’ more of a concern than drawing, hiking or eating?” Which is a very fair question. My answer is that all of them can be detrimental to spiritual health, but the sustainability issue is sinister because it relaxes the defenses of even the careful spiritual person by promising a false redemption and a false philosophy.
The false redemption and philosophy arises from the idea that if everyone simply became “carbon-neutral”, more “eco-friendly” or lived more “sustainably”, then the earth would be a more lovely place and a lot of (maybe even all?) conflict would be unnecessary. Moreover, the person who lived in this way would find harmony with his own conscience and remove from themselves the filth that they introduce through their requirements of life.
To illustrate this insidious sustainability philosophy more clearly, have you ever viewed a house that has not been lived in for a while? It inevitably falls apart. The roof caves in, the floors and walls rot and the structure just inexplicably breaks. Even if no vandalism is present the windows break, the paint peels and the counters and cupboards collapse. But even the most ill-kempt home that is lived in will not just fall apart … not as quickly at least. This is an example of the silliness of the idea of sustainability. The natural follow-on from the idea of environmental sustainability is not simply living in a way that replenishes part of what you use (or even simply reining in your waste), but rather that you strive for self-sustainability in your environment. This corollary is why the concern about by-products from agriculture or power generation is such a large industry amongst the environmentalists. It necessarily requires a philosophy that says we are caught in an impersonal, evolutionary, upward trajectory which is bigger than ourselves, more valuable than ourselves and more all-encompassing than anything else. This means that it actively undermines the observable effects of natural entropy on organized structures that are a requirement for man (such as a house), but more importantly it undermines such biblical principles as:
- Man is subject to God and nature is subject to man (Gen 1:26-29)
- Man was made in the image of God but messed things up through disobedience (Gen 2:6,7)
- Creation was perfectly created by God but has been caught in the rot introduced by man (Gen 1:31; 2:23)
- Nothing can exist apart from God (Acts 17:28)
- Redemption is necessary due to disobedience to God, not due to sin against nature (Rom 1:25)
- Redemption is found through the grace of God, not through any action of man (Eph 2:8,9)
And by undermining these biblical principles an alternate reality and an alternate faith is introduced in a sly, underhanded, devious way. I wrote at the beginning of this post about how conservation has some value morally, specifically as a rejection of waste and destruction; which seems to be the key to the whole discussion. By re-shuffling the order of import from God > Man > Creation to Mother Earth > Man, we foul up a lot of very important theology, do we not?
Now I could spend a lot of time on the sacraments and main tenets of the environmentalist faith, but all of it simply does not matter if you are a Christian attempting to live in the way prescribed by God. To understand the truth is to see the lie. Our focus should be on the truth in God’s word so that we can see the insidious work of the enemy in whatever form it takes – whether through environmentalism, self-service or false doctrine.
Going back to the illustration: Is it not interesting that the house not lived in falls apart? It shows that self-sustainability is an impossible ideology simply due to the second law of thermodynamics. But it also illustrates the most elementary parables of Jesus that are sung about in Sunday School or seen on a pastel-colored painting. He speaks of the houses built on sand and on the rock in Matthew 7:24-27 and in His message to the church in Laodicea He says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Rev 3:20, NIV). The illustration is God’s, the message is from Jesus, and the principle is the necessary consequence of the fall of man. If your heart is not in order, the house (soul, mind and body) collapses. But if your heart is lived in by the One who breathed life into you, not only will it never see decay, it will gain sustainability of a true kind – given by the God who predates creation and who holds it in the palm of His hand.