A few weeks ago, at the end of a punishing week of depressing headlines and sigh-inducing social media, I went to a park with my wife and son. While Chet, my 1-year-old, collected sticks and looked for bugs, I laid on the grass and looked up at the branches of a towering California Sycamore. Its upward-lifted, leafy arms looked to me like a host of hands lifted up in praise.
Reminded of the imagery in Isaiah 55:12 (“all the trees of the field shall clap their hands”), it struck me that this tree was joyfully being what it was created to be. Wholly unaware of the ceaseless clangor of digital life, this tree was simply, quietly bearing witness to God by embracing its simple calling: to sprout leaves, provide shade, produce oxygen, and grow upward, toward the light that gives it life. In that moment of appreciating the treeness of this tree, I was at once full of peace, wonder, and worship. How many billions of other trees across the world have this exact posture, with branches lifted up, as if in constant praise of their Creator? Why are we humans—who, as image-bearers of this God, have even more reason to constantly praise him—too busy to be bothered with the simplicity of joyful gratitude and worship?
Perhaps you’ve had moments like this when you’re in God’s creation—moments of perspective and orientation in a disoriented world; if not from laying under a tree, then maybe from looking at a river, coastline, or majestic mountain range. God’s creation speaks to us (Ps. 19) and summons us to acknowledge, honor, and give thanks to him (Rom. 1:19–21). Nature is always right there: clarifying reality in the confusion of our virtual world—a welcome balm for the trauma and exhaustion we endure online.
Nature is clarifying reality in the confusion of our virtual world—a welcome balm for the trauma and exhaustion we endure online.
This is why I place nature in a prominent spot in my Wisdom Pyramid. I’m convinced time spent outside in God’s creation is almost always more life-giving and wisdom-enhancing than time spent surfing the web or scrolling through social media. Here are a few reasons why.
Nature Is Objective
Facts and truth have fallen on hard times. Our increasing illiberal discourse—fueled by postmodernity and “objectivity is impossible” critical theory on the left, and “expertise is elitist!” skepticism on the right—has politicized “facts” to the point of near uselessness. But if anything can make claims on objectivity, it’s nature.
A few years ago I saw a headline in the Los Angeles Times that sums it up well: “We may live in a post-truth era, but nature does not.” Nature doesn’t care about our politics. Try as we might to politicize the weather or dismiss its purported objectivity as a tool of the hegemony, it’s either raining or it isn’t. Full stop. Snow falls, and the sun shines, on Democrats and Republicans alike. Nature does not discriminate. It is not compromised by bias. Every human is subject to gravity. Even if you “identify” as Superman, you can’t fly. Even if a human felt they were born in the wrong body and were really a fish, they would still die if held in an underwater tank for longer than a few minutes. Nature isn’t subject to our subjective wishes about what it is or is not. This is the tragedy of Timothy Treadwell—the subject of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man—whose fantasies about living in a familial community with Alaskan grizzlies ended when one of them ate him.
Nature does not discriminate. It is not compromised by bias.
Nature is what it is, not what we want it to be. What a gift! There is a givenness to nature that is sanity in an insane world—that is, if we are willing to accept its givenness as a given (rather than pretending biological sex doesn’t exist, or that there is no such thing as male or female bodies, for example). This is why science—the study of nature—should be embraced and loved by Christians. If a person of faith laments the erosion of truth in society, and the increasing difficulty to truly know anything with certainty, then science should be an ally, not an enemy.
So get out in nature, study it, observe it, and let its objectivity bring boundaries and sanity to the amorphous insanity of our age.
Nature Calms Our Burdened Minds and Souls
Another gift of nature in our overstimulated age is that it slows us down, gives breathing room to our souls, our lungs, and our brains. In The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Florence Williams cites studies that show urban living is literally changing our brains, increasing our odds of schizophrenia, anxiety, and mood disorders. Further, today’s excess of digital stimuli causes our brains to become overwhelmed as they filter and sort through the glut. Being in nature, by contrast, gives us fewer choices, allowing the brain’s attentional system to function better in higher order things like deep thinking and reflection. Two South Korean studies sent technology-addicted children on trips to forests and found that they came back with lowered cortisol levels and reported feeling happier and less anxious. The empirical proof of nature’s calming power is leading countries like Korea and Japan to designate “healing forests” where over-mediated digital ghosts can escape cities, go on a walk, breath oxygen, and recalibrate. The “forest therapy” trend is spreading in the United States as well, where some doctors are writing “nature prescriptions” and instructing patients to spend more time outdoors.
Why does it work like this? Researchers are trying to figure it out using empirical methods, but the spiritual reality seems obvious: we feel more at peace when we are in God’s creation because that is what we are, too: God’s creation. When we feel our createdness more directly (as we do in nature, whether huffing and puffing in altitude or sweating in a humid field), we naturally feel closer to our Creator and thus happier. We are in our proper place.
Nature Puts Things in Perspective
One of my favorite poems is Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” which captures well the gift of nature in a mentally anxious world:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The “peace of wild things” is what I experienced in the park, looking up at the sycamore tree’s branches. It’s a perspective-altering reminder that whatever is happening in our hectic world or frenzied minds, the natural world carries on. From new morning birdsong to twilight crickets, the cold winds of winter to a humid summer thunderstorm, a baby’s first cries to an aging man’s dying breaths, the cycles and rhythms of nature remind us, “For everything there is a season” (Eccles. 3:1).
Nature also brings peace—paradoxically—by reminding us how small we are in the grand scheme of creation. Stand at the edge of a cliff, or before a roaring waterfall, or simply look up at the starry sky, and consider how little your life—and its manifold problems—really are. But far from rendering our humanity meaningless, these sublime encounters with awesome nature should inspire in us the sort of worship and wonder David expressed in Psalm 8: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (vv. 3–6).
More than our smallness, nature should remind us of God’s bigness. And that’s ultimately where the “peace” is found—resting in the sovereignty of a God who designed the anthill as well as the Andes, the delicate petals of a rose as well as the sturdy structure of a sycamore tree.