I have heard many definitions of worship over the years – not all of them helpful, but Psalm 29:1-2 defines it very simply, namely giving God the honour he deserves. Rick Warren says: Anything you do that brings pleasure to God is an act of worship.[i] So, worship is not so much a “Bless me” exercise as a “Bless God” exercise. Nature is tailor-made for any “Bless God” activity. It is both a place for, and participant in, worship.
For many years I wondered why I didn’t connect with God very much through corporate worship within the confines of a church building like other people experienced. I thought there must be something wrong with me or with my relationship with God.
Then I read John Walton, who sees the entire cosmos as an enormous temple. He writes: “God not only sets up the cosmos so that people will have a place; he also sets up the cosmos to serve as his temple” .[ii] Walton helped me to view God’s world as his cathedral where he wants to meet with me and others. All of it is worship space.
Gary Thomas’ 1996 book Sacred Pathways further answered my confusion. He identifies nine ways that people connect with God. In God language terms, I am a naturalist. Naturalists are most inspired to love God out-of-doors. God communicates most deeply to my heart through the beauty, grandeur, space, silence, symbolism and parable of the natural world.
I am in good company. David says that God’s green pastures and quiet waters restore his soul (Psalm 23:2-3). And Jesus sought lonely places to pray and be replenished. He taught his disciples to do the same.
Of course, we must be wary of idolising nature, This is the heresy of pantheism – the worship of what is made rather than its Maker. It is not true that God is in all of nature, or that nature is God.
Nature is also a participant in worship. It’s not an activity confined to humans. There is a cosmic praise imperative. All nature was apparently created for this end. Psalm 96:13 (NIV) says, “Let all creation rejoice before the Lord” – including animal, vegetable and mineral elements.
Throughout Scripture we see praise to God coming from trees, fields, the heavens, the seas, the sun, the moon, the stars, the clouds, ocean creatures, lightning, hail, snow, rivers, mountains, hills, wild animals, cattle, birds, small creatures, and much more (I Chronicles 16:29-34; Nehemiah 9:6; Isaiah 55:12-13; Revelation 5:13).“Everything that breathes” joins in (Psalm 150:6).
Creation’s praise of its Maker is sometimes difficult to discern, being largely inanimate and inarticulate, but it is nonetheless real. Frederick Buechner astutely comments:
The way the 148th psalm describes it, praising God is…about as measured as a volcanic eruption…The whole of creation is in on the act…Their praise is not chiefly a matter of saying anything because most of creation doesn’t deal in words…Their praise is not something that at their most complimentary they say but something that at their truest they are.[iii]
Creation, then, is both temple and choir, a place for worship as well as a participant in worship. As such, it is a key reason why I want to preserve and protect the natural world. The way we treat nature either facilitates or frustrates, helps or hinders worship. When we damage the environment, we harm not only a context for worship, and a source of inspiration for worship, but also some of the very phenomena that God created to render worship.
I actually regard caring for nature itself as an act of worship because those caring actions bring God honour, bless him, fulfil his purposes, align with his heart’s desire, and give him pleasure. One purpose of our environmental stewardship is to help the cosmic choir sing the heavenly song in the temple of creation. We can not only celebrate God as Creator but also infuse his people with the desire and the wherewithal to heal and guard his creation. Care for creation should become an integral expression of worship, a natural outworking of our love for God, love for others, and love of nature. Conversely, when we fail to care for creation we may well be dishonouring God, and causing God displeasure.
[i] The Purpose Driven Life, 2002: 64
[ii] The Lost World of Genesis One, 2001: 148 The idea that God has made the world his sanctuary finds Scriptural support in Acts 7:48 and 17:24.
[iii] Wishful Thinking, 1993: 85
- Rev Phillip Donnell is the director of New Creation New Zealand, which seeks to assist churches in their pursuit of creation care, including seminars on the environmental situation both nationally and globally. Read more about the seminars and other resources they offer to support churches to respond to the issue of caring for creation.