Several years ago, my family had the opportunity to vacation at a friend’s home in the Rockies. When we unlocked the front door and walked inside, we let out a collective gasp; this house was more extravagant than any place we had ever stayed. Each day, our gratitude increased for the craftsmanship and the stunning views. When it came time to pack up, we cleaned with an unusual enthusiasm and thoroughness out of respect and appreciation for the owners.

According to the Creation account, God handed humanity the keys to a home even more beautiful and magnificent than the most gifted architect could ever design. Much like our vacation experience, when we receive permission to stay somewhere that we do not own, we must understand and accept the owner’s conditions. Genesis 1:28 spells out God’s terms:

Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.

These verses are essentially God’s first commandments to mankind. All of creation bears fruit, but only humans have the unique role of filling, governing, and reigning over everything on the earth. These days, it’s difficult for us not to associate reigning and governing with abuse and corruption, but remember, this command was issued pre-Fall. God intended for men and women to nurture and protect all of life on planet earth.

Despite the reality that these first commandments have been part of our spiritual legacy since the beginning, according to author Wendell Berry, “Modern Christianity has stood silently by while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its communities and households.” Rather than unifying Christians, stewardship of the environment has polarized us.

At one end of the spectrum are believers who interpret certain biblical passages as permission to exploit the earth since it’s all going to burn anyway (“For this world as we know it will soon pass away.” 1 Corinthians 7:31). On the other extreme, are passionate environmentalists, some of whom divinize the earth and promote strict population control and biological egalitarianism (perceiving the earth and humanity as equal). The former perspective often leads to apathy and disregard, while the latter leads to fear and despair. As time goes on, fruitful conversations are few and far between.

Leah Kostamo, author of Planted, believes, “Polemic arguments have a short shelf life as far as transformation is concerned. What lasts and what changes hearts is wonder: a wonder born of a first-hand experience of creation.” Far too many of us spend our days disconnected from both wonder and creation. We don’t need to get dirt under our fingernails in order to eat. We spend decreasing amounts of time in nature, leading author Richard Louv to coin the term “nature deficit disorder.” By losing our connection to creation, it’s all too easy to dismiss our sacred responsibility to care for and sustain this world.

Do we sin when we refuse to care for the earth?

Thankfully, in the past decade, increasing numbers of Christians seem to be responding to God’s call to action. Regardless of whether you are already meaningfully deployed or still standing on the sidelines, everyone of us must wrestle with the potentially threatening question: do we sin when we refuse to care for the earth? To respond to the spirit of this question, we must refrain from defining stewardship and sin too narrowly. If we equate good stewardship solely with eating organic, biking to work while wearing fair-trade clothing, and having solar panels on our roof, it feels pointless to even try—so many of us don’t.

And if we limit our understanding of sin to committing adultery or coveting our neighbor’s fuel-efficient hybrid, we refuse the redeeming—albeit painful—role of conviction. Richard Slimbach, Professor of Global Studies at Azusa Pacific University, expands the definition of sin: “We sin when we understand the moral obligations that come with our relationships and we ignore them.” That echoes the apostle James’ words, “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it” (James 4:17). For the vacation home where my family stayed, if we had driven off and left the doors unlocked, the windows open, and the jacuzzi running, we would have sinned against the owners because we understood the moral obligation, or terms, of using their house.

We don’t have to work for Sierra Club or live off the grid but we must all do something.

In the case of stewardship, I think it’s fair to say that we sin when we dismiss God’s obvious call to wisely and lovingly govern and reign over creation. We don’t have to work for Sierra Club or live off the grid but we must all do something. Something might mean installing a backyard composting bin which reduces household waste by twenty to thirty percent. It might mean refusing to bow down to the idol gods of consumerism which demand that we spend our resources on superfluous goods. For others, it might mean putting pressure on governmental officials to prioritize addressing global climate change.

According to an article in the Acton Institute, “Our stewardship under God implies that we are morally accountable to him for treating creation in a manner that best serves the objectives of the kingdom of God.” As with any of the commands in Scripture, we can view stewardship as an invitation to partner with God in bringing his kingdom to earth, or decline the invitation. All of creation awaits our response.

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Dorothy Littell Greco is the author of Marriage in the Middle and Making Marriage Beautiful. When she's not writing or making photos, Dorothy loves to go for long walks and lazy kayaks with her husband of 30 years. You can find more of her work on her website.