Most discussions of environmental stewardship in Christian circles these days begin with some discussion about travesties being perpetrated on the environment and then define Christian stewardship as a list of actions done to end or reverse those travesties. At the individual level we are encouraged to live more simply and be in tune with the environment. These are important issues but I think we do ourselves a disservice if don’t address this from the larger view of what it means to be steward of God in the world.
There is no escaping the siren call of our age to define ourselves by what we own. Conspicuous consumption is ubiquitous in our culture. It is the compulsion to buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, in order to impress people we don’t like. Some of us may not be conspicuous consumers, but we are convinced that if we just had the right house, the right car and the right income, we would be truly happy. Others of us buy things because of the endorphin high that comes with getting something new. Too often this is merely a way to medicate some pain or emptiness in our lives. Our consumerist culture thrives on, and even encourages, these types of buying motives.
Some have rebelled against consumerist culture. They will not become captive to the consumerism of the age. They have decided to live “simply.” Purchasing and financial decisions are processed through a matrix of perceptions of what it means to live the simple life (insert Green Acres soundtrack). The nagging problem is that you can always find someone who has taken the simplicity thing one step further than you have. Then you find yourself in a game of conspicuous non-consumption, or not buying things you might enjoy, with money God has provided, in order to impress people who make you feel less holy.
Not surprisingly, neither consumerism nor simplicity, as presented here, give us peace. Why? They are mirror reflections of the same problem. They are attempts to find spiritual peace by how we relate to the material world rather than finding peace in a relationship with the eternal God.
Richard Foster, in Freedom of Simplicity, invites us to imagine dropping a length of string on a table and then using our fingers to arrange the string in a perfectly straight line. It is hard to do. However, if you put one finger on one end of the string and begin to draw it across the table, all the kinks come out of the string and eventually you have a perfectly straight line. The same is true with our priorities. When we focus on God and follow God, all the other priorities line up behind in their proper order. Simplicity is not about quantities of possessions. It is about singularity of focus.
One of my favorite Proverbs is Proverbs 30:8-9 (NRSV):
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that I need,
or I shall be full, and deny you,
and say, "Who is the LORD?"
or I shall be poor, and steal,
and profane the name of my God.
As Christians there are only two relationships to material possessions. One is to be a steward for God and the other is to forgo material possessions altogether. There may be some who are called by God to forgo material possessions in pursuit of some unique call. That is always a small minority. The rest of us are stewards. The only choice we have is whether or not to be good ones or bad ones. Will we use them with the mind and heart of God or will we use them toward our own satisfaction? (Not that the two necessarily are always, or even frequently, in conflict. It is a question of ultimate loyalty.) I hear church folk boast about being good stewards because they tithe 10%. That is all good and well but what are they doing with the other 90% of God’s resources?
Becoming good stewards requires that we be transformed into Christ’s image. Robert Mulholland defines spiritual formation as, “The process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” I have always appreciated this description and the way Mulholland breaks it into four pieces in his book Invitation to a Journey.
First, it is a “process.” God doesn’t zap people out of brokenness. There can be great leaps of growth and there can be agonizing failures. But the process does not end until Christ returns and makes a new creation. Spiritual formation is not optional! We are all in a process of spiritual formation. There is only one question. Are we making ourselves available to God for transformation or are we allowing our environment to form us? Those are the choices.
Second, “…of being conformed…” We are to live lives that are full of worship, prayer, Bible study, reflection, meditation, confession, fasting, giving and service. Spiritual formation happens through the practice of spiritual disciplines privately and in community. However, it is not the disciplines that transform us. God works transformation. Notice that Mulholland wrote “…of being conformed…” not “conforming ourselves.” The disciplines are ways of placing ourselves before God to do his work. (It has been my experience that God is never working on the same timetable with the same priorities I am.)
Third, “…into the image of Christ…” We are to become God’s eikons. Formation is about confronting who we are in all our glory and all of our shame. It is about coming to see Christ for who Christ is. When we do this, we come to a clear appreciation of our value in God’s eyes and the pleasure he takes in the way he has created us. It also means owning just how much our brokenness is integral to who we are. It is about undergoing the often agonizing and disorienting process of letting go of that which God never intended to be part of us.
Fourth, “…for the sake of others.” As Mulholland observes, too many Christians in our consumerist society define spiritual formation “The process of being conformed to the image of Christ…” The part about “…for the sake of others” is absent. God is making us into Christ’s image (i.e., making us eikons) so that we may reflect God’s image in the world and in community. Spiritual formation isn’t an exercise in self-actualization. It is about becoming active animated reflections of God’s presence to others in the world.
The materialistic dichotomy of trying to find our identity through what we own or what we deny ourselves springs from an unhealthy identification with one pole of a polarity where both poles must be fully embraced. One reality is that God has given each of us certain gifts and passions. God takes immense pleasure in the pleasure we get from using our gifts and entering our passions. I often think of the movie Chariots of Fire where missionary Eric Liddle ran in the 1924 Olympics. There is a wonderful scene of him in the race where his head goes back, his mouth drops wide open, and he explodes toward the finish line. The voice over has a flashback of him telling his sister, “When I run, I fell God’s pleasure!” There is absolutely nothing wrong with using resources on those things that bring us pleasure. God takes pleasure in our taking pleasure. In fact, playing a game of golf, going shopping with a friend, owning and decorating a house, restoring an old car or watching a movie on a big screen TV, can be ways of deepening our appreciation of God and of who God created us to be. Doubly blessed is one who finds employment that directly coincides with his or her passion. The danger is that we begin to worship the gift instead of the giver; we elevate our enjoyment and pleasures out of proportion to other priorities. That is one of the reasons I think we it is so critical that we give away at least 10% of all we earn. Not just because of the benefit it brings to others but because of the check it places on covetous self-centered wills.
The other reality is that we live in community with others. God calls us to be priest, prophet and king in the world to those around us. We have obligations to family first and foremost, but also to friends and the larger community. Focusing on the needs and concerns of others around us takes us out of ourselves and reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. The ability to deny our wants and needs at any given moment makes the fulfillment of those needs and wants all the richer when we indulge them. We know that we have been able to accept fulfillment of those needs and wants with joyous thanksgiving rather than slavish compulsion. The danger here is that some come to believe that any gratification of their desires is selfish. They think everyone else’s concerns always come first. They rarely experience the joy God intended for them by engaging the gifts and passions God placed within them. Some become overwhelmed by the need they see around them and any personal indulgence seems sinful. Yet the gospels record several occasions of Jesus leaving the crowds and leaving his disciples to be alone and recreate with God. We can’t give out of an empty well and some of us need permission not to own every care of the world.
Many people are looking for a formula. There is none! God has not called us to libertinism or to asceticism. He has called us to a relationship, to community and to stewardship. When we feel the urge to self indulge and recreate, it can be an opportunity to converse with God. We can determine if we are trying to avoid problems or whether it is just God saying “Let’s go have fun together!” When we feel the urge to deny ourselves and do things for others, it is an opportunity to converse with God and discover if we are trying to solve problems on our own or whether there is a genuine need that calls us to personal denial. I think the reality is that in a great many cases there is no right and wrong decision. We have equally good choices before us. It is the cumulative effect of the choices we make over time that shapes who we become. As the picture of who God is calling us to be becomes clearer, some questions about daily decisions begin to answer themselves.
With this larger perspective on stewardship and spiritual formation in mind we can then begin to factor in the impact our personal decisions will have on our environment. Some people chose to ignore the impact of their decisions on the environment while others seem to treat humanity as a parasite. How do we deal responsibly with environmental stewardship issues?