This past winter break was so hard. For reasons that are multilayered and impossible to explain in text, January was one of the worst months I’ve gone through since coming to college. Definitely not the way I planned to start the new decade.
Perhaps the worst dimension of my struggles was the volatile anger I began to feel towards God. He felt extremely absent for most of break, and this absence brought a deluge of doubts and frustration. I had (and still have) so many questions about what it looks like to relate to God when He isn’t physically present. What does it even mean to encounter God’s love or to draw near to Him? What the heck do those phrases even mean and why do Christians toss them around so much? Does the presence of God become clear through feeling? Or does it exist in the realm of intellectual truth only? Perhaps it is something different altogether?
There have been times when my relationship with Jesus has been intensely filling, when His presence has had striking and inexplicable clarity. I don’t want to take those seasons for granted. Yet most often, God’s movement in my life– His “presence”– has always seemed hard to understand and gain more of. Most often, knowledge of how to actually relate to God seems obfuscated by my limited self-awareness and my sin. In this lack of clarity, I frequently find myself feeling like God demands we find answers in Him alone but then dangles them in front of us as perpetually elusive spiritual destinations. Over break, I read The Imperfect Disciple by Jared Wilson. One of Wilson’s early arguments is that the antidote to anxiety and insecurity is to “behold God’s glory,” a concept I was really struggling to understand on a practical level. To “behold God’s glory” felt like just another carrot on a stick, an answer I could vaguely make out but couldn’t see clearly through the veil of my humanity. And this made me indignant.
I don’t have complete answers to these frustrations. This post isn’t meant to offer all solutions, to be “A three step guide to understanding how you can relate to the infinite, all-powerful, omniscient and loving Lord of the Universe.” But I did get one step closer to an answer (of infinitely many), and that step came after a simple suggestion from my Dad:
“Let’s go on a walk.”
I had been stewing in my anger all morning, and at his suggestion I begrudgingly pulled on layer upon layer to trudge through the outdoor concoction that is New England winter. My family walked first on the side of our street, which is basically just a strip of pavement running through forest. After a while, we cut a hard right and my Dad led us straight into the woods, on a small trail winding through the land next to our neighborhood. As my boots crunched through freshly fallen snow and I gazed at the sunlight falling through the branches of the pine trees all around me, I began to understand a little more.
God’s glory was there, in that forest. With the blue sky above and bare tree branches stretching up into it, with our neighborhood pond frozen over, with the punctuated warmth of red berries clinging to wispy bushes. All of the immense beauty in that forest was screaming of glory, as if asking me, “See how the light makes the pine branches glow bright green? Notice how the ice covering the stream is filled with air bubbles tessellated just so? How the moss on each fallen trunk is vibrant and alive despite winter? See how when you walk, the sunshine falls through sheltering branches to perfectly illuminate the frozen flora? “
“Yes! I see it!” I wanted to scream back in delight. And I began to feel more whole than I had felt in months.
I returned to that forest every day for the next week. I spent my mornings alone, wandering around in the woods, skating on our pond, lying down to stare at the sky. I was out there for hours every day, to the point where the “outdoors” no longer felt distinct from indoors. It just felt like the place I was perfectly comfortable to inhabit. I often brought poetry with me, and would periodically stop walking to chew on words by some of my favorite writers. At one point, I came across this poem by Wendell Berry:
The incarnate Word is with us,
Is still speaking, is present
Always, yet leaves no sign
But everything that is.
If there was one truth that cut through my anger, it was exactly what this short verse communicates. God isn’t physically absent like I thought He was. He is present with us in Creation. He is intangible and incomprehensible, but fragments of Him are made tangible by the beauty of the natural world.
Contemporary Christian culture focuses a lot on the emotional dimension of faith. It also spends a lot of time warning against the danger of idolatry, of loving earthly things more than we love God. Combined, these messages point to the assumption that relationship with God takes place in some sort of ambiguous emotional realm that transcends and is divorced from the physical world. I’ve certainly thought of nearness to God this way, and in retrospect I see that part of my frustration was due to the expectation that God’s nearness would involve a continual and powerful spiritual “encounter” in the obscurity of my own psyche.
Relating to God requires that we see Him in nature, in other people. It means grounding Him in the physical, material world… and loving it with abandon. Most moments of relating to God occur not in some elusive psycho-emotional encounter but through everything that exists around us. When we love the created world, we grow in love for God, who made it all. When we delight in those around us, we are delighting in those who bear God’s image.
Before you decry this notion and call it a slippery slope to idolatry (“but we aren’t supposed to love God more than earthly things?”), consider this: when God created the world in Genesis, He deemed His masterpiece “very good.” So good, in fact, that He rested and enjoyed it on the seventh day. God loves the created world. And as His image-bearers, so should we. To do so is to fulfill a major part of our purpose and position within creation.
In Romans 1, Paul talks about two kinds of revelation, or ways that God shows Himself to us. There’s general revelation (through the created world) and special revelation (through Scripture). While general revelation points clearly to the existence of a Creator God, only special revelation has salvific power through the Gospel. So love for creation cannot supercede commitment to studying Scripture. But both are valid ways to encounter the Lord tangibly, and there must be room to say that God can speak through nature, through poetry, or through others in a powerful and transformative way.
The Fall (Genesis 3) wreaked havoc on creation, and no horizontal thing by itself can fill the deep longings of the human heart. Only the vertical (knowing God) can do that. But perhaps accessing the vertical requires that we engage with the horizontal and love it as a window through which we see more of Him.
I still feel angry and indignant at times, but I do know that God lent me some clarity in those hours I spent wandering around my forest. I still have a lot of questions to wrestle with, for sure, but I am comforted by the knowledge that there is an entire world of beauty He created just so that we could know Him better. So that we could see His glory. For now, my job is to simply pay attention to it, to love it deeply.
I’m beginning to believe that poetry is a better mode of communicating ideas about God than any expository genre of writing. Here are several poems that I love that have helped me think about loving creation as a form of worship:
“At the River Clarion” by Mary Oliver
“On Meditating, Sort Of” by Mary Oliver
“Six Recognitions of the Lord” by Mary Oliver
“To Live in the Mercy of God” by Denise Levertov
“In Whom We Live And Move And Have Our Being” by Denise Levertov
“Flickering Mind” by Denise Levertov
“The Grandeur of God” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
“As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins