For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Romans 8.18-21)
There is a scene in Béla Zsolt’s Nine Suitcases: A Memoir, when the narrator wonders at how nature could be so blindingly beautiful in the midst of the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust. Tremendous natural beauty has often served as the backdrop to the worst of man’s inhumanity to man. Whether it be the savagery shown by the Seljuk Turks in the uplands of Asia Minor towards an Armenian nation emasculated by the Byzantines; or, the forced clearances of Scottish clansfolk against a backdrop of the picturesque Northwest Highlands; or, the brutalities of Spanish Conquest of the Inca Empire set against the dramatic Eastern Cordillera, nature adds a cruel poignancy to the cruelty that man has shown to his fellow man throughout human history. Regardless of any element of moral failing on behalf of the conquered community, the sense of poignancy that is evoked by the setting remains.
If natural beauty testifies to God’s constancy and blessing even as man is engaged in unspeakable evil, the question sometimes arises as to why God is not quicker to arrest the atrocities of men. This point is taken on by English preacher, Jacob Prasch who spoke recently of being challenged in the aftermath of the Dunblane massacre to justify God’s non-intervention. His response reminds us of the origin of human wickedness:
“… do not blame my God for what your god does. Your god was a murderer from the beginning. My God said Satan is the god of this world. My God is not of this world. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. This is your god. This is the god you serve. Don’t blame my God for what your god did. Now my God is indeed a God of love, and He is all powerful. And He is going to intervene and put an end to evil. But let me tell you why He hasn’t done it already: because he loves you. And if He put an end to evil, He would have to put an end to you. He’s giving you a chance to repent and believe the Gospel. He tarries because of His love.
What inspires awe or wonder in nature on a macroscale often disguises the death, killing, hunger, loss and fear that characterises nature on a microscale. We might marvel at the beauty of an insect one moment, and see it ripped to shreds by a stronger insect the next. A river flowing in crystalline beauty at the first light of dawn, might become a muddy torrent tearing up the landscape by the end of the self same day. There can even be beauty in destruction, as surely the Kilauea lava flows amply testify. Sometimes man stands in the path of this destruction: save that we became immortals, how could it be otherwise? And whether you see the hand of God in the specific or the general course of nature, a natural death comes to us all, as our bodies go the way of all other mortal creatures, passing one day from life to death.
Our capacity to appreciate beauty, however, surely sets us apart from other creatures! Although a case will be made for it by those who see naturalistic causes in everything, I don’t believe that our capacity for aesthetic appreciation is reduceable to utility. We derive no material benefit from admiring shafts of autumnal sunlight projected onto the leaf-strewn floor of a forest glade. How does the materialist comprehend the ignoble waste of space and carbon represented by a ‘viewpoint’ or an art gallery? What is the utility in the appreciation of birdsong, the clanking cords of fishing vessels, or peels of thunder?
For those who choose to reflect upon it, there is a challenge to humankind in the appreciation of nature. As Scripture puts it:
“… since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1.20)
In a sense, God provides us with both the questions and the answers.
When we observe the beauty of the natural world, we are given occasion to reflect upon the power of its Creator.
When we see acts of great cruelty or destruction wrought on earth, we have the chance to appreciate that creation itself is corrupted.
And when we search for an answer to moral corruption and its consequences, we find that Christ has borne the penalty already for our sin and is able to make us new.
But history also has a warning particular to Christians. (I write this as one who has without question also sinned grievously despite owning the name of Christ.) Did not the conquistadors bear the name of Christ – the one who was the perfect picture of self-sacrifice and love for humanity, the very image of the invisible God – in carrying out their acts of unspeakable barbarism? Were the Armenians not betrayed by a nominally Christian Byzantine Empire that emasculated, blinded and drowned the warriors who would otherwise have protected their people?
Merely taking the name of Christ is of no use, unless we seek to live as Christ lived, rich in love, compassion, hope and power.
Christ is returning for a ‘spotless bride’, for a church whose moral beauty will provide the worthy compliment to a restored creation. He is not coming merely for those who call themselves Christians, but those who reflect His nature.
Will you be ready when that day comes?
Picture by Martin St-Amant, CC BY-SA 3.0. Link.