Jump directly to the Content

The Accidental Green Life

How Christian Piety Can Grace the Earth

When the apostle Paul wrote, "Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love," it's doubtful he intended any commentary on the state of garbage disposal in Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:13-14, NLT). Likewise, when Richard Foster first wrote Celebration of Discipline, he wasn't particularly addressing whether suburban families should buy an SUV versus a compact car. Even so, in urging us deeper into faith, both men seamlessly promote the accidental green life.

The accidental green life seeks to develop a strong and courageous faith, firmly rooted in Christ and love; but in so doing it affects the state of garbage disposal in Chicago and the purchase of SUVs in Boise. It's not a life focused on the environment but rather the Creator of all things; still, along the way, the accidental green life has a natural impact on how the Creator's world is viewed and handled. As Foster writes, "When the kingdom of God is genuinely placed first, ecological concerns, the poor … and many other things will be given their proper attention."

Today, many Christians have a renewed interest in placing the kingdom of God first by attending to their inner lives. Using resources such as Foster's classic work, Adele Calhoun's Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, or Ruth Haley Barton's Sacred Rhythms, they're exploring a number of spiritual practices. Here are just five that have the potential to give ecological concerns their proper attention.


"The invitation to solitude and silence," writes Barton, "is an invitation to enter more deeply into the intimacy of relationship with the One who waits just outside the noise and busyness of our lives." To enter into solitude, one must first find a quiet place.

Thomas Merton is well known for his journey into solitude. He lived the quiet life of a monk and later moved to a hermitage, where he could be more fully alone. Upon reading his journals, one immediately notices a rhythm to what might otherwise seem like meandering entries on literature, philosophy, spirituality, and so forth: many of the entries are punctuated by frequent observations of his natural surroundings.

Thus his solitude exudes a sort of gentle presence and activity. "Yesterday there were small deer tracks in the snow of the path," he writes. "Tonight the half moon is shining." Or as he observed one day, "This morning toward the end of my meditation the rain was pouring down on the roof of the hermitage with great force and the woods resounded with tons of water falling out of the sky."

Day after small day, Merton's journals—written in solitude—put flesh on the Psalmist's ancient song, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge …. Their voice goes out into all the earth" (Psalm 19:1-2, 4).

We're not surprised, then, to find that Merton eventually hears promise in the birds' heralding of spring. This promise "grows more and more definite" and causes him to reflect, "I look up at the morning star: in all this God takes His joy, and in me also, since I am His creation and His son, His redeemed, and member of His Christ."

If we, like Merton, accept the invitation of solitude, even for as little as 10 minutes a day as Barton suggests, and especially by retreating to an outdoors place, we might also experience such promise and joy. We might find ourselves saying, along with Wisdom who was with God at the dawn of creation, "I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world" (Proverbs 8:30-31).

What kind of wise craftsmen could we really be though? After all, the created world is already created, and our own powers have clear limitations. What could we do at God's side today besides rejoice in and love his work? Not that rejoicing and loving end in passivity. As Erik Reece, secular writer of Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness observes, "No one will fight to save something one does not love."


When Paul discusses the supremacy of Christ in Colossians, he begins with creation, telling us that "by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible …" We discover that God spoke creation into being through Christ. But Paul goes on to say, "in him all things hold together," so we see Christ's creative activity goes on through his acts of sustenance, day after day. Creation is still happening.

The Psalmist, speaking of the earth and all its creatures, expresses such creation this way, "When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die …. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth" (Psalm 104:29-30).

In other words, the Spirit of Christ holds us together, down to the atoms that are our building blocks and up to the daily bread we need to fill our bellies and the air we need to fill our lungs. Through him we continue to exist, to be created and renewed.

But sometimes we forget these daily graces and try to create and renew ourselves, particularly through the promise of ownership. As Foster wrote in Freedom of Simplicity, "Contemporary culture is plagued by the passion to possess. The unreasoned boast abounds that the good life is found in accumulation …. We often accept this notion without question, with the result that the lust for affluence in contemporary society has become psychotic: it has completely lost touch with reality."

In response to this psychosis, Foster suggests "unplugging from the consumptive society." Many of his ideas for an unplugged life, for acts of simplicity, sound similar to discussions about living green. Here are just a few:

* resist obsolescence
* stress quality of life over quantity of life
* make recreation healthy, happy, and gadget-free
* eschew food produced with poisonous chemicals
* compost kitchen scraps
* eat out less
* buy things for usefulness rather than status.

And the list goes on.

Such lists can begin to feel unwieldy, even disconnected from the work of faith. So it's perhaps helpful to revisit Colossians to remember the foundation that quietly suggests the list. "In him all things hold together." Thus to be at his side as a craftsman in a consumptive society means we affirm Christ's ongoing work of creation; our simplicity list is valuable inasmuch as it supports and shows gratitude for Christ's sustaining work.

If we have no simplicity list, we might begin to wonder, Are we grateful for his sustaining work? Or are we working against Christ, essentially tearing apart, through the spoils of our excess, the very creation he holds together? And if we're tearing apart the creation he holds together, how does that imply we're acting toward Christ himself?


Fasting can make us grateful that we're being held together and can help us appreciate the daily graces of simple food and water. Adele Calhoun adds that fasting "exposes how we try to keep empty hunger at bay and gain a sense of well-being by devouring creature comforts." Fasting, then, can be a sister practice to simplicity.

Like certain aspects of simplicity, fasting depends on embracing a limit, deciding to live with a particular hunger and putting aside the temptation to devour. Much of the dialog today about green living broaches the concept of limits. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, for instance, Barbara Kingsolver raises the issue. She is perhaps somewhat sensationalistic in expression, but her words nonetheless cleverly probe us.

In a chapter called "Waiting for Asparagus," for instance, she compares the act of eating non-seasonally with the act of not waiting until marriage for lovemaking. "We're raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket, ignoring how our sustenance is cheapened by wholesale desires," she writes.

Why abstain from promiscuous eating habits, as Kingsolver cheekily calls them? The act of eating whatever we want, whenever we want generally means we're not eating the produce of a local economy. This can hurt small farmers and rural communities, but as Lauren Winner explains in Mudhouse Sabbath, it also means we are "shipping food from greenhouses around the world," which is "America's second-largest expenditure of oil."

One is suddenly reminded of Andy Crouch's discussion of fossil fuels in his article, "Rx for Excess" (Books and Culture, May/June 2007). Therein, Crouch shares that he's just said grace at the gas pump because he's purchased a resource that will be burned for good. Conversely, he quips, "I can reasonably expect that the food I eat will be replaced by a fresh crop next season." This assumes that he is eating locally, living with the limit of seasonal eating, because non-seasonal eating is virtually the same as a trip to the gas pump.


In solitude, we can discover a promise and joy that overflows into rejoicing and love for God's created world. In simplicity and fasting, we can train ourselves to live with a sense of gratitude and limits that naturally attends our rejoicing and love. All three practices lead us to submission, which is characterized by humility that looks not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others. Our example is Christ, says Paul, who relinquished his equality with God.

Foster describes the freedom of humble submission like this: "It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way …. In the discipline of submission we are released to drop the matter, to forget it. Frankly, most things in life are not nearly so important as we think they are." Then he reminds us that submission has seven arenas: submission to God, Scripture, family, neighbor, believing community, the broken and despised, and the world.

Sometimes it's difficult to discern how to proceed, when submission in one arena seems to require confrontation in another. But many times we see how beginning at the top, with God, allows us to submit in at least several sub-arenas. In matters of green life, this is often how it goes.

Consider the case of Teri Blanton, discussed by Reece. Blanton is toward the end of the submission list. As a resident of Appalachia, living in one of the "poorest counties of one of the poorest states," she is easily classified among the broken and despised—despised, perhaps, for her social status and broken by chemical-dumping companies that have ruined her community. Blanton has seen most of her friends and family members die of cancer caused by polluted wells and land.

Simple submission to God by those in leadership could possibly have changed her experience, though it may have meant confrontation, non-submission to others. Besides showing concern for Blanton and her community, why might leaders submit to God in issues of land use?

Ken Gnanakan notes that God is "owner of the land" and thus first in line in these matters. In his book, Responsible Stewardship of God's Creation, Gnanakan bases this assertion about land on a number of Old Testament passages, including Leviticus 25:23: "The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants."

For those who prefer a New Testament discussion, the judgment of Revelation is strong motivation, in regards to this question of how we treat land. The 24 elders fall on their faces and say, "The time has come … for destroying those who destroy the earth" (Revelation 11:18). A quick look at the Bible lexicon severely limits wiggle room regarding the meaning of "earth." The term is used to refer to "arable land," "the ground," "the whole earth," "the inhabited earth" and is linked in concordances to other passages like, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).


Closely linked to submission is the practice of service. As Foster writes, "Submission and service function concurrently." Calhoun's thoughts build on this: "We will never really serve others unless we see that the needs of our neighbors are as real and important as our own."

It's difficult enough to see the needs of neighbors who live directly before us; how much more difficult it is to see the needs of those yet to come. Understanding this, the Amish have a proverb: "We did not inherit the land from our fathers; we are borrowing it from our children." In some cases we are also borrowing it from faraway neighbors like Teri Blanton, or farmers in Argentina, or future residents who will someday take our place.

Even in solitude, Merton seemed to understand this dynamic. On a cold March day, he wrote of his experience planting walnut trees in the hermitage field. Five pecan trees were also on the way, which he fully intended to plant, though he had stomach problems that precluded nut eating. "Some other hermit in future years may perhaps profit by them," he concluded. Then he went on to mention a booklet about Ford Abbey he had read at supper.

Anyone who has ever planted a tree knows it is sweaty, dirty, consuming work. But Merton seemed happy to do it, to serve the need of an unseen neighbor. In this way, he embodied the Martin Luther King Jr. quote Calhoun uses to discuss service: "Everybody can be great because anybody can serve …. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love."

It's just as Paul said: "Let everything you do be done in love." Maybe his ancient words had more to do with garbage disposal and tree planting than we were wont to think.

L. L. Barkat is the author of Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places (InterVarsity Press). She is also Managing Editor for HighCallingBlogs. Visit her at llbarkat.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Free CT Women Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: CT's weekly newsletter highlighting the voices of women writers. We report on news and give our opinion on topics such as church, family, sexuality, discipleship, pop culture, and more!

Read These Next


Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter

Follow Us

More Newsletters