In my church growing up, we didn’t talk much about the environment, perhaps because we were focused on going to heaven. Dr. Matthew Sleeth’s book, Serving God, Saving the Planet, offers a different perspective, drawing on the Bible to make a compelling case for caring for the world we live in, created by God just as we are.
Dr. Sleeth’s advocacy work also extends to Blessed Earth, a nonprofit that works to educate people about creation care.
I caught up with Dr. Sleeth to talk about his book, and what he’s learned in the years since it was published. Read below or listen here.
Cara Strickland: Hi, Dr. Sleeth. It’s so good to talk with you today. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your book?
Dr Matthew Sleeth: Serve God, Save the Planet was the first book I wrote and it was me as a brand new Christian really, trying to figure out the theology of taking care of creation, and trying to live that out. And it turns out it was successful in several ways.
CS: So, it’s been a bit of time since the book was originally published. What are ways you’ve been convicted about use of energy, or ways that you’re interacting with the created world?
DMS: I think that one of the things that’s really grown in my mind is the connection between creation care and Sabbath. And I talk about it in Serve God, Save the Planet, but now I’ve lived it for a decade and a half, really. And it happens to be the one thing that Christians can contribute to caring for creation, which no other group can have. There’s no scientific group who is going to come up with the Sabbath, no political organization who is going to recommend it. And so that’s why I lean into Sabbath harder now than I used to when I’m teaching, because it is unique to Jews and Christians; it’s unique to people who believe in God.
CS: I think many have experienced faith communities that didn’t prioritize creation care. I know I did. Would you talk a little about your journey on that path?
DMS: There was certainly resistance to it. My family and I came to faith about 15 years ago and my wife was from a Jewish background. My children had never been in a church. My son said he read an encyclopedia article once on Jesus, and that was his entire knowledge of it.
We were coming into this brand new, and Christianity challenges everything in your life. It tells you to give up things that you hold dear and hold dear things you didn’t even know existed before. It’s been an interesting journey to adopt these practices into our faith. And initially the church that I went to would not let me talk about this.
I became a Christian because I picked up a Bible, which I think is a little unusual. I was introduced to Christ, and the Bible has always been the compass for me on how to find and understand Christ. There are many other streams that people are in as they seek the Lord. There’s liturgical and meditation, and all of those things, and they’re all lovely. But without Scripture you quickly wander off on to a path that’s not biblical in a generation or two.
So for me, Scripture brings us back to God’s intent. And reading through Scripture is how I found out that God really wants us to care for creation. We were put on this planet to do that. Our first instructions in Genesis 2:15 are to dress and keep the garden, it says in the King James. I like that translation because we’re naked, and God told us to dress and keep the earth. And when we fall and we have sin, the first thing we do is undress the trees and hide behind them. So really, understanding man’s disconnect with creation is understanding the fall. And believing that you should have a right relationship with the Lord and with what we were charged to take care of, is accepting the responsibilities that God initially gave man.
CS: What are some of the things that you say in response to arguments that Christians don’t need to care about the earth?
DMS: Well, I think that’s not biblical first of all. Anyone can go through Scripture and pick a few lines to challenge anything. But the Scripture in its entirety tells us to be faithful in little things and we’ll be given more.
The analogy most people can get their heads around most easily is if God lent you a car, how would you bring the car back? Would you bring it back with dents in it, ashtrays full, gas tank empty, etc.? Or would you run it through the car wash and fill the tank up?
I believe the earth is something that has been lent to us. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it as the 24th Psalm says, and we have charge over it now. Will the earth be renewed? Yes, I believe it is. I’m going to get a new body too, but it doesn’t mean I don’t floss my teeth before I go to bed. It’s interesting that someone who has an “it’s all gonna burn” [philosophy], does not apply that to themselves and their own home, usually. So generally that kind of thinking is flawed in that it’s not biblical, and it doesn’t reflect the care that Christians should give, and the respect that Christians should give to anything that God has given us. It’s not a dichotomy where you either have to care about the environment or you have to care about Scripture and church. Fortunately we’re not given a one or the other, it’s both/and.
CS: You and your family have chosen a downwardly mobile lifestyle, in your words. Would you talks a little about that?
DMS: Well we went from me being a doctor and chief of staff at a hospital, and I got a calling. I wasn’t making any money and we started living more lightly.
My children were just coming into the teen years when I became a Christian and they went through this process with me. They went through the process of learning Sabbath and that type of thing, so our attention was focused not on the getting and spending and that type of thing, but trying to put God first.
Now this will quickly work you to grace. Scripture says that if we gave our body to be burned and everything away, if we don’t have love, it doesn’t matter. So you know there’s this element of love that needs to be done in everything we’re doing. As far as whether we’re trying to be good stewards of our creation bodies, etc., the whole point is to show God’s love.
The one question that I put to people who believe that the earth is useless and it’s all going to burn when they tell me they believe their Bible is, if you believe in an all powerful God, which I do and they generally do, and you believe God wants to bring you into right relationship with himself and he needed to send Jesus to do that, the question was, why weren’t you just born in heaven? Why did God have you born here? And that usually stops people because it’s a question they haven’t considered, and the answer I think that you will work to as a believer is that this life is a gift.
God was not trying to make hothouse plants, he was trying to make beings in his image that he could have a relationship with and he knew that part of that was having us care for the earth and that’s why it’s our first instruction. If you just go through Genesis 1-2, everything single important thing practically, is assigned to a tree. It is the source of beauty, it’s the first and only real aesthetic you find in Scripture from God. Trees are what we’re supposed to get our work from, we’re to tend and protect them. It’s where all the calories come from. I’ve given this to you and everything for food and it happened to be where every calorie comes from on the planet. That anything that’s ever moved, that’s ever used comes from photosynthesis.
God gives us a relationship. He puts the tree of life in the center of the garden. And then he puts the tree of the knowledge of good and evil right there in the middle. It’s not a trick it’s not anything. And gives us a choice. And so he gives us human agency. And all of these things are God’s plan to assign them to us. He didn’t assign human agency to a rock. He didn’t assign beauty to a fish, for instance. The tree of life is a symbol of the whole kit and caboodle.
So before people dismiss trees and that sort of thing as useless and garbage, they need to go to Scripture. “And the trees shout for joy when God comes to judge the earth,” as Scripture says. Because they get their day in court and they know how the verdict’s going down. The question is, what about us? How’s the verdict going to go for us? To me Scripture, just from one end to the other, is telling us to value what God values.
CS: With issues as big as care of the environment I think it’s easy to think our individual actions are too small to have an effect. Clearly, after reading your book, it seems that you believe that small actions make a large difference. Can you talk a little about that?
DMS: Yes in our post-modern world, I think that we view things primarily through a scientific or political view, and I believe that Christ is calling us to look at things differently. We’re first supposed to seek the kingdom of heaven then all the other stuff falls behind it. If I get up and I pray in the morning, what difference does that make on the world? I believe it makes a huge difference in this world he’s telling us to seek. And I think it’s the same thing when I am quiet for a moment, how big a difference does that make on the planet? But in my city on Sunday, when everyone is quiet, an entire city knows a kind of peace that it hasn’t had before.
When we do something and the intent of our heart is to honor the Lord, whether it’s recycling a bottle, planting a tree, or giving somebody a Bible for the first time, we aren’t asked to figure out the economics of that so much as we’re asked to be faithful, and faithful in little things.
CS: What are your hopes for both the readers of your book, as well as the future of the earth?
DMS: My first hope is that a reader of my book will have a better knowledge of God and come to understand how magnificent and beautiful our Creator is. Secondly, I want them to step back and take a bit of a historical look at things and just imagine if God were to step into your church on Sunday and say, “I’ve come back and I want to see how you’ve done with things. How are my passenger pigeons doing? How is the most numerous bird I left you?” And there’d be silence in the room. “Well how about the Blue Pike? That was the most numerous fish I left in the Great Lakes.” Oops, gone. How about the chestnuts on Chestnut Street. Gone. Elms on Elm Street? Gone. Caribou in Caribou, Maine? Gone. Buffalo in Buffalo, New York? You get it.
We have messed up. And that should give us a humbleness, a contrite spirit, not an arrogant spirit toward the Lord, but a humbleness to say we haven’t been good stewards and we need to work hard on it and not specialize. You can’t just give out Bibles to people in countries where they don’t have any trees and expect it to go well. You need to give them trees as well. It is a holistic approach that I hope that people get from Serve God, Save the Planet, and the other books I’ve written.