John Chrysostom delighted in the wonder and beauty of the natural world. In his work, On the Providence of God, he invites people who view skeptically the goodness of creation to take a closer look. He believes that God’s providential ordering of nature is plain for all to see. All Chrysostom asks of his audience is a willingness to look and listen.

“For God’s providence is as plain as the sun and its rays. In each situation and place, in the wilderness, in inhabited regions and uninhabited, on earth or sea or wherever you might go, you will observe the clear and sufficient, ancient and new, reminders of this providence; voices which speak more clearly than our rational voice and are conveyed from all places, teaching those willing to listen about his constant concern.”

Chrysostom first points to the “visible elements of creation.” He notes that “this praiseworthy and all-harmonious creation was created for no one else but you.” Angels had no need for the visible, created order. They existed before it ever came into being. Instead, God created for the sake of humanity, and nature’s characteristics were specifically designed to meet humanity’s varied needs and to elicit our praise for its creator.

John turns to the stars, sun, and moon. They are both beautiful and useful, serving as faithful guides for those who travel on land and sea, and useful for determining the time of day and the changes of the seasons. As they mark off the significant cycles of the year, people are enabled to organize their lives in a prudent fashion. Utility and delight flow together. The sun opens the day with the beauty of the sunrise and provides the light and heat needed for almost every aspect of nature’s function and health.

Other aspects of God’s providence in the natural world catch Chrysostom’s attention. In a single sentence, he blends together the benefits of both animate and inanimate aspects of creation, and unhesitatingly groups together readily identifiable goods with characteristics of the natural world one would likely view as harmful.

“One learns of God’s providence from tamed and untamed animals, from savage beasts and those accustomed to human touch, from both small animals and large, from the birds which appear in the winter, summer, and autumn, from four-footed creatures, fish, plants and herbs, from those which are active in the night and those which are lively during the day, from the passing of time, from death, from life, from the hard work which is our lot, from despondency, from relaxation …”

What is at first glance puzzling and surprising is Chrysostom’s insistence that the dark or rough elements of nature are created by God and not simply the result of post-Fall distortion. While we can learn of God’s providence from certain post-Fall characteristics, such as death or despondency, Chrysostom teaches that the created order God designates as good in its pre-Fall state contained darkness as well as light, ravines as well as plains, poisonous reptiles as well as God’s image-bearers, sea monsters as well as fish. Nature in its pre-Fall state demonstrates a wildness that God considers good, an untamed face that can be dangerous, much as a live wire can be lethal if handled carelessly.

In what way, though, are these characteristics “good”? God, Chrysostom writes, demonstrates a certain “prodigality” in creation, creating some things for the benefit of humanity, and others simply so that his power might be proclaimed and glorified. Reptiles and wild beasts are the products of this prodigality, aspects of the abundance of God’s creation divinely designed to “overwhelm” us and teach us “that all these things were produced by a certain wisdom and ineffable love out of regard for the human being that was destined to come into being.”

God has created the world that is most appropriate for the spiritual and material well-being of humanity. We can readily identify certain aspects of creation as beneficial. The benefits of other aspects will remain beyond our grasp.

Even poisonous snakes are a gift of divine love! “I mean, physicians get from them many things which they employ as medications capable of promoting the health of our bodies.” Still, Chrysostom reminds his hearers that “when reasoning fails and the intellect proves inadequate, call to your mind the greatness of the Lord, especially from the fact that his power is such that we fail to understand precisely the meaning of the things made by him. This is the attitude of sensible minds and sober hearts.”

Now Underway: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? First, choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

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