Blog - Grasping Vocation
Turning Work into Ministry: Part 9--Stewarding the EarthThursday, March 21, 2013
God’s "to do” list for us, seen in Genesis 1 and 2, includes communing with him, building community, and stewarding the earth. This series of blogs explores how we can carry these out in our daily work. For Part 8, click here.
In my early teens Dad delegated to me the care of a half-acre of his 31-acre farm. The land was still his, but on "my” plot I did the work of plowing, discing, harrowing, planting, irrigating, weeding, harvesting, and marketing. The crop: Marblehead squash. Why did I feel so honored? Because Dad had entrusted something of his own into my care. I experienced the dignity of manhood as I managed what belonged to my father. That introduced me to stewardship.
Stewarding the earth is another of the "good works” God assigned us from the beginning. Many of us, though, tend to associate stewardship not with earth but with money. In church we talk about stewardship Sundays and stewardship campaigns. We often link the word with tithing. But stewardship extends far beyond our pocketbooks.
In his book, Stewardship, Peter Block defines the term as, ". . .to hold something in trust for another. Historically, stewardship was a means to protect a kingdom while those rightfully in charge were away, or, more often, to govern for the sake of an underage king.” A house just across the street from ours belongs to a couple who live more than 2,500 miles away. To look after the home in their absence, the owners employ a property manager (a steward).
God owns real estate. Even after the Fall, God says, "the whole earth is mine” (Ex. 19:5). And, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it” (I Cor. 10:26). The earth exists as a result of God’s "very good” work of creation. From the dust of that earth, and in his own likeness, God made human beings to serve as his property managers. After planting a garden, God put Adam there "to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15). But the original assignment reached well beyond the borders of that garden. We were made to "rule over . . . all the earth” (Gen. 1:26).
Today, we carry out that ruling-the-earth assignment by means of an amazing variety of work, both paid and unpaid. Stewarding the earth is an honor. To have God entrust us with the work of caring for his property gives us dignity. In his "Sermon 51: The Good Steward,” John Wesley said, "The relation which man bears to God, the creature to his Creator, is exhibited to us in the oracles of God under various representations. Considered as a sinner, a fallen creature, he is there represented as a debtor to his Creator. He is also frequently represented as a servant, which indeed is essential to him as a creature. . . .But no character more exactly agrees with the present state of man, than that of a steward.”
Sin, though, can lead to destructive ways of relating to God’s earth-property. We can take a pietistic approach that has little or no concern for the physical earth but cares only for spiritual matters. Behind this may lurk the idea that the present earth will be annihilated and God will create the new earth from scratch. But according to Rom. 8:21, "the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.” Liberated, not obliterated. F. F. Bruce holds that, "if words mean anything, these words of Paul denote not the annihilation of the present material universe on the day of revelation, to be replaced by a universe completely new, but the transformation of the present universe so that it will fulfill the purpose for which God created it.” The pietistic position downplays God’s original command to work as his property managers.
We can take a pragmatic/consumeristic approach, in which we misuse—even abuse—the earth for our own selfish purposes. God made the earth and its treasures to be tapped and used creatively for human flourishing. But in our work we are to rule, not ruin, the earth. The prophet Isaiah saw the results of mistreating God’s real estate: "The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the exalted of the earth languish. The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant” (Isa 24:4, 5).
Or in our work we can take the stewardship approach. Here, even though sin has invaded God’s earth making work frustrating and difficult, we aim to reclaim God’s property to serve his original purposes. As new creations in Christ, we now have access to the resources we need to do that. In assigning me the care of that half-acre patch of ground, Dad expected that I would manage it in ways he himself would care for it. Poisoning the soil, eroding it through careless irrigation, or letting weeds take it over would not have been good stewardship.
As Christians in the work world, we need to examine our work and that of the organizations that employ us. Are we using the earth and its resources as responsible property managers answerable to earth’s owner?