Only if we grow in discernment, understanding what kind of God God is, understanding the meaning of actions and objects in God’s world, and therefore what kind of words, affections, or attitudes are appropriate to him, will we love what God loves. As Thomas Traherne said, “As nothing is easier than thinking, nothing is more difficult than thinking well.” So how do we get this discernment that will grow our love for what God loves? We can think of two actions that will strengthen the wise judgement that enables Christlike engagement with creation.
The first is obedient participation in judgement.
But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Heb 5:14)
We become skilled in discernment by working hard every day to understand the meaning of God, humanity, and the world around you. We live the examined life. We try to understand and weigh up the meaning of that practice, that music, that emotion, that activity. To understand how to love humans, you need to understand humanity. To understand how to love creation, you need to understand the meaning of things in creation, whether natural or constructed by man. You cannot apply Scriptures about the body to drugs unless you know the meaning of the drugs in question. You cannot apply Scriptures about reverence and awe to music, unless you know the meaning of that music, or the meaning of reverence. You cannot apply Scriptures about modesty to dress, unless you know the meaning of that dress, and the meaning of modesty. God calls us to exercise the faculty of discernment, and so grow it.
Meaning comes in at least four ways. Meanings can come through convention, that is, use. We understand the meaning of a suit and tie, or of a birthday cake, or of a tattoo, or of slang words, of Facebook through use. Second, meaning can be through association. We understand the meaning of death metal bands, of transcendental meditation, or of body-piercings, through associations. Who uses a certain thing, the way of life that goes with it, what behaviours typically accompany it – these contribute to its meaning. Third, meaning is sometimes simply assigned or stipulated. We assign certain meanings to road signs, or to hand signals. The meaning of some things is intrinsic, it is grounded in their very created nature. Certain sounds evoke certain emotions, certain colours, certain human body language and gestures and tone of voice are so rooted in the created order that their meanings are universal to all people.
This discipline habitually asks questions of the world such as, What does this reveal of God? Why was this made? Why was it made in this way? How does this activity reveal God? What is this like? Why does this exist? How does it reflect God? How can we be like God with this, as his image-bearers? Does this de-humanise us or ennoble us? What does it communicate or reflect?
We use the term obedient participation, because there are some professing Christians who shun the responsibility of discernment. Hiding under the excuse of sola Scriptura, they refuse to learn about the world they live in. Hiding under the claim that learning about meaning is legalism, they actually wish to live unexamined lives so that they can cherish and maintain their idols. They have decided in advance that if they love something in creation then God must love it too, so they cannot be bothered to find out what it actually means. Creation means what they wish it to mean, and besides, if they are sincere, then no one can judge them, they reason. This is not skilful engagement, it is merely reckless and thoughtless indulgence.
The second way our discernment grows is through humble observation of good judgement.
Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct. (Hebrews 13:7)
Judgement and discernment is so often caught more than taught. Children learn how to address their elders, sit at table, use courteous speech, host people graciously, eat politely, and dress modestly, by observing the behaviour of their parents. We observe the example of others with ordinate affection and it shapes us.
When we spend much time with people who love God appropriately, we learn what that means. The godlier the person, the more he loves what God loves, and hates what God hates. This is one of the many reasons why God gives us the church. In a community of believers, we are discipled not only by getting information from each other, but by absorbing the example of one another. The example of the church and its leaders goes a very long way towards shaping appropriate (or inappropriate) love for God.
We should be quick to add that when we speak of the church, we do not only refer to the church of the present moment. We include the church of Spurgeon, of Jonathan Edwards, of Calvin, of Augustine, of Irenaeus. We need the example not only of Christians today, but of Christians of the past. How did they worship? How did they deal with this ethical matter? What did they love? What did they make of this thing in creation, this practice, this attitude?
He who walks with wise men will be wise, But the companion of fools will be destroyed. (Pro 13:20)
Communing with God in thankful enjoyment, confessing our ingratitude and idolatries, consecrating what we experience and examining it thoughtfully to see more of God in it, conforming to the image of Christ by engaging with creation obediently and wisely – this will lead to greater communications of God’s beauty to us. And as this happens, we will beautify our God with adoration, loving what he loves, mirroring him in our desires.
Augustine’s famous statement summarises loving creation: “He loves thee too little, who loves anything with thee, which he loves not for thy sake.” Since our lives are surrounded by creation to be used, seen, experienced, shaped, tamed, or avoided, the substance of loving creation ordinately is loving creation for God’s sake. Whatever cannot be loved for his sake should not be loved at all. Whatever cannot be done for his glory should not be done at all. Conversely, all that can be loved for his sake, or performed for his glory, ought to become media that reveal his beauty, and altars upon which we offer our ultimate love for God’s glory.