How Becoming a ‘Tree-Hugger’ Can Change Your Faith

Dr. Matthew Sleeth loves trees. Not just because they are beautiful, but because he believes they can teach us a lot about God’s nature.

In his new book Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us, he unpacks the significance of one of the Bible’s most prevalent symbols.

We recently spoke with Dr. Sleeth about the book, the spiritual lessons we can learn from trees and the importance of protecting creation.

 

What drew you to these parallels between nature and deeper spiritual lessons?

It really began when I volunteered to plant trees around my church, and the pastor said I have the theology of a tree hugger. He didn’t mean it as a compliment.

I thought maybe my theology was wrong, so I went to scripture and read from Genesis to Revelation, and what I found astounded me. Trees are the most-mentioned living thing in scripture other than God and people.

There’s a tree on the first page of the Bible. We’re told to be a tree in the first Psalm. There’s a tree on the first page of the New Testament and on the last page of scripture. Every major event in scripture has a tree marking the spot. So what I found in scripture was different than what I was seeing and hearing in the church.

 

I’d like to start at the beginning, then. What can you tell me about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil mentioned in Genesis?

Well, the garden is filled with trees. If you highlighted every sentence that has a tree in it in the first three chapters of the Bible, you’ll highlight a third of scripture.

We’re told trees are beautiful in God’s sight. We’re told our place is among the trees. We are told our work was to dress and keep them or protect and tend them, and that’s where we started.

There are two particularly important trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we’re told not to eat from [the latter] and that’s God assigning human agency to us. We are allowed to choose right from wrong, and of course, we made the wrong choice.

When everything goes upside down and Adam and Eve realize they are naked, they go undress the tree and tear fig leaves off a fig tree. When they hear God’s voice, they run and they hide behind trees, so trees are absolutely pivotal to understanding why the world is as messed up as it is today.

 

Another reference is the time Jesus cursed the fig tree. It’s a hard parable to understand. Is that something you were able to wrestle with when writing the book?

I think there’s a couple things going on there. First of all, the ficus family of trees is the only tree Jesus ever says by name. A fig is the first mentioned tree in scripture that we can identify, and it is the symbol of the separation between us and God. We were in communion with the Lord, but after the first sin we tried to hide ourselves with the fig leaves, and so the fig becomes a symbol of that separation.

That story [of Jesus cursing the fig tree] has two meanings: One is that a tree should not only have leaves, but bear fruit. We’re told that with our lives, we’re to not just exist but be fruitful. [Secondly] in the story in which Jesus calls Nathaniel as His disciple, Jesus knows exactly who Nathaniel is because He saw him under the fig tree. That’s Jesus’ way of saying there’s no more hiding from the Lord behind fig trees. I’m here. I see you.

 

What’s the significance of the tree as it relates to the cross?

God wrote this Bible and the story of redemption using trees. The only thing that can kill Jesus is a tree. To really unpack that you have to look at how many times people tried to kill Jesus. They tried to stab him as an infant, that didn’t work; they tried to stone him; they tried to throw him off a cliff. The only way you can kill Jesus is with a tree and Jesus knows that.

He’s telling His disciples, ‘I must be raised up on a tree.’ As we look back in the book of Deuteronomy, we find this curious line that ‘He who hangs on a tree is cursed,’ and Jesus has to take the curse on Himself that you and I rightfully deserve. Trees are essential to telling the gospel.

 

What was one thing that surprised you most while you were researching and writing this book?

I think it was just the sheer number of trees and their use [in the Bible] from one end to the other. The Bible refers to itself as a tree. The only thing Jesus ever harms is a tree, and the only thing that can harm Jesus is a tree.

Great Christian writers like Tolkien and Lewis and George D. MacDonald always cast the good guys as those who would take care of the trees and the bad guys as those who would [cut them down].

I think the big surprise for me is how far from the Bible the Church is today, [to the point where it’s] subtracting trees from the text. Some words I counted up in the Bible—tree, seed, leaf, branch, root and fruit—occurred 967 times in the King James Bible, but in the ESB they’ve been subtracted 230 times and in the NIV translation, 267. Our bible translators have literally taken these words out of scripture.

I’ll give you an example: We just went by Palm Sunday, and if you look at Mark 11:8 it says in modern translations that people went and cut branches in the fields. That’s ridiculous, you go and cut branches off trees, and that’s what it says in the Greek. Our theologians and translators have literally subtracted trees from scripture.

 

There seems to be such hostility toward ideas like climate change or other environmental initiatives. What would you suggest more Christians advocate for?

We have to recognize, first of all, in the United States we have the oldest, biggest trees. Not every country has been blessed like we are and some countries have not been as kind to their forests as we may have been.

There is a link between poverty and trees. If you take the most deforested country in the Western hemisphere—Haiti—it also happens to be the poorest. If you take the second-most deforested country in the Western hemisphere—Honduras—it happens to be the second poorest. I think we need to help those around the world who cannot afford to plant trees, and we need to take care of our own trees.

 

When you write this much about the way God puts an emphasis on nature and trees, does it influence your own perspective on conservation?

I believe the world is facing a number of environmental challenges in my part of the country. I live in Kentucky; the ash trees are virtually all going to die here. The lodge pole pines in the west are under a lot of stress at the moment, too. All over the world trees need our advocacy.

The first thing God put us on the planet to do was take care of the trees, and I hope that one of the outcomes of this book is that we’ll ask how we do that in a responsible manner that glorifies God.

What is your favorite tree and what meaning does it hold to you?

Sugar maple, hands down. It’s as if God got together with a committee of kids and they designed the perfect tree. I’ve seen them in their best latitude—northern New England—and they grow to massive size. They give syrup, the leaves are perfect…there’s just nothing I don’t like about a sugar maple.

 

Jesse Carey is an editor at RELEVANT and a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.

 

 

This article originally appeared in Relevant Online. 

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The Bible talks about trees more than any living creation other than people. Perhaps you’ve missed the forest…and the trees.

In this groundbreaking walk through Scripture, former physician and carpenter Dr. Matthew Sleeth makes the convincing case why trees are essential to every Christian’s understanding of God.

Yet we’ve mostly missed how God has chosen to tell His story–and ours–through the lens of trees. There’s a tree on the first page of Genesis and the last page of Revelation. The Bible refers to its wisdom as a Tree of Life (Proverbs 3:18). Every major Biblical character has a tree associated with them. Jesus himself says he is the true vine (John 15:1). A tree was used to kill Jesus–and a tree is the only thing the Messiah ever harmed.

This is no accident. When we subtract trees from Scripture, we miss lessons of faith necessary for our growth.

This is the rare book that connects those who love the Creator with creation, and those who love creation with the Creator. It offers inspirational yet practical ways to express our love for God–and our neighbors–by planting spiritual trees and physical trees in the world.

Join Dr. Sleeth as he navigates the Bible’s trail of trees to explore the wonders of life, death, and rebirth. You’ll be amazed at how science is just beginning to catch up to the truths described in Scripture thousands of years ago. Once you discover the hidden language of trees, your walk through the woods–and through Scripture–will never be the same.

God’s Love, Written on the Walls: Nancy and Matthew’s New Home

Dear Blessed Earth family and friends,
Nancy and I are moving again.  We’ve relocated over a dozen times during our marriage–for school, for new jobs, to be closer to our adult children.  This time it’s only a short move: an apartment a few miles from our current townhouse.  We’re not getting any younger, and it seemed prudent to move to a place we could fix up now and not have to maintain much.
In the past, I’ve done a great deal of the work on our homes myself. This time around, we’re depending on others to do most of the remodeling. Electricians are running the wires, carpenters are hanging the doors, and painters are stripping away 35-year-old orange, metallic wallpaper.
But this is the first time we’ve had a crew volunteer to come and paint the place in love. A month ago, our life group from church came on a Wednesday evening. Stepping over the construction debris, working until they needed flashlights, they spread out in the apartment and covered walls and floors with scripture and prayers. Then they sat on folding chairs in the dining room and prayed for the ministry that will take place in our new home.
The scriptures they wrote were not random, or randomly placed. Verses on the floors remind us to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). The dining room walls remind us to show hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2).  Ezra 7:10 written in my office urges me to have diligence as I study the Bible and write.  These messages will be covered by new flooring, paneling, and paint when the renovations are completed, but Nancy and I will continued to be blessed by them just knowing they’re there.
Before leaving, we inscribed each of the workers’ names on the walls and prayed that God would bless their families and protect them as they worked. The following day, one of the carpenters wrote a message next to the kitchen door, summing up everything: “Dios es Amor!” (God is Love!)
This is my prayer for the new place: that God’s love will abound. I pray that our home will be an embassy used by Christ.  I pray that the Lord will equip our family to serve as winsome ambassadors for his Kingdom. I pray that it will be a place filled with God’s shalom.
To those of you who are reading this and will someday sit around the table with us, I hope that you will experience God’s love and grace. For those who follow our ministry, I ask that you pray that we are faithful to God’s calling in all that we say and do in our new home.
Thank you.
Love,
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        Prayers and scriptures written on the wall of Nancy and Matthew’s new home.