Of Whales & Hippos: Caring For Creation Without Worshipping Nature
There is something about the human race which always has seemed strange to me. It’s this: we never seem to notice or appreciate something until it is taken away from us. For example, we never notice how good it is to have a sense of taste until we have a cold and can’t taste a thing. Or the only time we really talk about the sun is when it isn’t shining. That’s the way we are. We tend not to become concerned about things, or even to appreciate them, until we are in danger of losing them. Such is the case with nature, with the created world around us. For centuries, we as human beings have blithely taken for granted the bounties and the beauties of the world around us. However, recently we have become quite concerned about nature—and it is simply because we are suddenly conscious of the fact that something is happening to it. Today then I would like to focus the light of Scripture and the light of our Christian faith upon this issue in the hope that it might illumine the way we relate to the world which God made and gave to us. To guide our thinking let me pose three questions for our consideration…
Question Number One: Is there any word from the Lord on the subject of nature?
Yes, the Scriptures abound with information and guidance about the created world. Let me start with the hippopotamus. I do that for good reason. You see, the Word of God speaks quite specifically about the hippopotamus. Nine verses in the Book of Job, chapter 40, are dedicated specifically to the hippopotamus. We are told that he eats grass, that he is very strong, that he has a tail like the branch of a tree, that his bones are like iron or bronze, that he doesn’t fear anyone armed only with a sword, that he sleeps beneath lotus blossoms floating on the water, that he is stronger than the swiftest river current, and that though he swims in the water no one will ever pull him out with a fishhook! And it all begins with the marvelous affirmation from God who says: “Behold the hippopotamus, which I made as I made you.”
I think it’s important to notice in Psalm 104, verse 26, a most intriguing suggestion is offered. It says there that God made whales in order to play with them. Think of that, will you. We sometimes make little toys for our children to play with. But here we are told that when God wanted a plaything for Himself, what did He do? He made a whale—an immense toy in the great loving hands of God, bringing infinite joy to the Creator Himself.
I think it’s important to notice that after the flood, God delivered a promise to Noah that He would not again send the destructive waters. And God said to Noah: “I will make this covenant with you and your descendents and with every living creature…”
I think it’s important to notice that Hosea makes it clear that God’s covenant includes nature. In the Psalms we are commanded to never molest a beast. In Deuteronomy we are forbidden to take the eggs of a wild bird from the nest. In Exodus we are told to let the land lie fallow every seven years for the benefit of the land and the animals. Also, in Deuteronomy we are told that the ox is never to be mistreated as he treads out and threshes the grain.
The Scriptures emphasize again and again that God made nature, that nature belongs principally to Him and that it is never to be treated casually or carelessly. And frankly, I don’t think the awesome weight of the Scriptures on this point can be easily dismissed. Let me hasten to add here that this issue of caring for creation will be one of the most critical issues we face in the years ahead. Furthermore, our young people, the generation coming behind us, are demanding that we address this issue and clean up the earth. When you add to that that the Bible calls us to be good stewards of the earth, it is clear that we as Christians must take the lead in this matter. If we do not, then rest assured that the pagans and the charlatans of the New Age Movement will step into the breach. Their approach of encouraging a worship of nature is not only absurd and un-Biblical, it is doomed to ultimate failure. But we as Christians have the saving answer—we are not to worship nature but God, and because we love God, we are to take care of the work of His hands. You begin to catch a sense of that belief when you read His word in the Book of Job: “Behold the hippopotamus, which I made as I made you.”
Now Question Number Two: What is it that we are doing to God’s created world?
You know what we’re doing to this fragile little planet of ours. You read the papers. You know how we are destroying the land that gives us food, polluting the air we breathe and contaminating the rivers from which we drink. You know about the arrogance and the ignorance with which we have so casually defaced, ravaged and destroyed the very fruit of the mind and the heart and the hand of God. I don’t have to bombard you with an unending stream of statistics. But let me share just two to make the point.
First, the trees. You can’t say the word “trees” without smiling. Try it. Trees. You smile as soon as you say it. But dead trees are nothing to smile about. Fifty years ago, America had 15 1/2 billion acres of trees. One third of them are now gone. The tree-planting efforts of the lumber industry are to be applauded but those efforts are not enough. We are destroying 15% more trees than we replace each year. That does not bode well for the future. Not long ago, I stood atop Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. It used to offer a splendid view of God’s creation . Not anymore. Now, as far as your eye can see, dead trees—nothing but dead trees, killed by acid rain. It reminded me of some words spoken by Dr. Paul Brand, the famous medical missionary who spent his life treating the lepers in India. He said: “The world will die from lack of soil, water, and vegetation long before it will die from lack of antibiotics and surgical skill and knowledge.” This brother in Christ is right and I have seen it with my own eyes.
Second, the animals. In the last 2000 years, 106 different animals have become extinct. But what’s truly alarming about that is that more than half of those—67 to be exact—have become extinct in this century. Fifty have become extinct in the last 50 years—and there are 112 different animals on the endangered list right now. Among those is the whale—this great plaything which God in His love made for His own entertainment. Also, the unnecessary suffering and death of animals ought to be stopped. Notice I said “unnecessary.” I believe that using animals in certain medical experiments is a necessary evil which can be justified—but I cannot begin to justify torturing and killing animals for the development of beauty aids and toiletries. By the way, the Avon Company which used to kill 24,000 animals a year in its experiments has now developed a new procedure for testing its products which does not require the slaughter of animals. They are to be commended, and other companies ought to be encouraged to do the same.
But do you see what’s happening? We as human beings are overstepping our bounds. Loren Eiseley has a scene in one of his books which has underscored the point for me. There was a certain large crow who lived near Eiseley’s home, but just far enough away so that Eiseley could not observe him up close. One morning there was a dense fog in the area and Eiseley was out walking through his fields, straining to find his way. Suddenly, right out of the fog, on a level with Eiseley’s face there came the great black wings and yellow beak of the crow. Thecrow let out a terrified cry and swerved away from Eiseley, bearly missing him. Eiseley said that the sound of the great bird’s cry was full of fear. Eiseley came to realize that he wasn’t afraid of the fog—he had seen a lot of that. What obviously frightened him was the fact that he always flew high above the heads of people, far away from them. But the fog had confused the border between the world of people and the world of crows, so that this crow, thinking he was flying high, when in fact he was flying low, suddenly encountered a man. He must have thought to himself: “This man has invaded the airy space which used to be mine.” No wonder, Eiseley says, that the cry of that crow was one of great fear.
That should speak with great power to us as Christians. God created the natural order of things. He made it and it all belongs to Him. I believe He weeps over what we have done to what He made. I believe we ought to be weeping as well. Remember that verse from the Book of Job: “Behold the hippopotamus, which I made just as I made you.”
Then Question Number Three: so what is our response to be in obedience to Jesus Christ?
This is one person’s opinion, but I offer it to you for what it’s worth. I think we need to do two things.
One thing we need to do is to re-think our faith. We need to come to understand that God has made the world for His enjoyment and for our benefit. Therefore we don’t have the right or the prerogative to tread upon it, however we will. In fact, I think it is heresy to teach that God’s only concern is humankind. You see, I believe it is a sin to climb upon a hillside and paint on the sides of a rock the words “Jesus Saves!” I think it is a sin to cover the earth with litter and refuse. I think it is a sin to cut down trees just for the fun of it. I think it is a sin to hunt and fish with no intention of eating the catch or the kill. God calls us to use wisely the natural resources He has given us—not to misuse or abuse them. God calls us to work in partnership with His created world.
I think here of Jim and Jack. Jim and Jack were friends. Jim worked for the railroad. One day a tragic accident on the job severed both of Jim’s legs. In an effort to help Jim, the railroad company gave him a job at a remote switching station 150 miles from any center of civilization. He was given a little cottage in which to live and the cottage was very close to the tracks. He had a little hand-cart on which he could move himself about. Four times each day, it was his responsibility to go out and change the switches in order to direct and re-direct the passing trains. Jim’s friend, Jack, went along with him to the new job. And Jack took care of the cottage. Jack drew the water. Jack tended the vegetable garden. As time passed and as Jim grew older, it became harder and harder for him to wheel himself out to take care of the switches. So Jack ultimately took on that job, too. For nine years, Jack took care of everything, including Jim—and in those years, he never failed to do what he needed to do, he never got tired of the effort, he never made a mistake on the switches. Then Jack contracted tuberculosis and died. Great mourning swept through the whole region. If you go to Cape Colony today in South Africa, you will find very near the cottage, Jack’s grave. It is marked by a magnificent stone. People travel to see it, because as far as anyone knows it’s the only gravestone ever to be raised for a baboon. Jack was a baboon. You see, the story of Jack and Jim is a parable of the kind of partnership and cooperation God wants to exist between His people and His created world. And we need to make that an article of our faith.
Another thing we need to do is to repent of our sin. We must get on our knees and with our words and with our deeds tell God that we are sorry, and want to begin again. And please, please don’t pray to God to change the world unless you pray first that He will begin the change with you.
The great Tony Campolo, one of the leading evangelical thinkers of our time, has a book on this subject. In that book he reminds us that the most often quoted verse in the Bible, John 3:16, tells us that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” to rescue it from the effects of sin and corruption. We all know the verse, but what we may not know, Campolo says, is that in the original Greek the word we translate “world” is the Greek word “cosmos”—and that word refers to anything and everything on planet earth, including animals, fish, insects, flowers and trees—God loves them all. Of course, God loves us as human beings most of all, but as Campolo contends, we must not allow His great love for us to obliterate the fact that He loves all of His creation as well. To be a Christian then, is to be concerned about this planet and for the creatures great and small who share it with us, to be deeply troubled by and deeply sorry for the abuses which we have brought upon this world, and to be committed to rescuing this world, this “cosmos” which God so loves.
I suppose that’s all I want to say to you today, except to remind you that all I have tried to say to you today can be summed up in that one verse from the Book of Job where God says:
“Behold the hippopotamus, which I made just as I made you.”
My beloved in Christ, we need to be remembering that…