Where Does Environmental Care Fit into the Christian Faith?
Environmentalism and environmental justice are at the forefront of many of our cultural conversations today. Christians are commanded by God to steward the Earth, but faith communities are frequently charged with environmental neglect. Is there a way to reconcile environmental concern with belief in God? If God is going to take care of it all in the end, why should we worry about it? This week, Jo and Vince discuss the biblical logic behind environmental justice as a form of love for God and love for neighbor.
Question Asked in this Episode: “Is there a way to bridge caring for the Earth with a belief in God?”
Check out Nathan Rittenhouse at our recent #TrendingQuestions event on environmental justice.
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Michael Davis: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. There can be no denying that environmentalism and politics have become intertwined in our modern culture. As Christians, the command to steward the earth is biblical, but often times we have a difficult time understanding to what degree. Complicating the matter further, is that the idea that the planet will die, and become uninhabitable to humans, is difficult to reconcile with the Bible.
Michael Davis: How concerned should Christians be about the environment? Is it even possible to be an environmentalist and have a foundation in Biblical Christianity? Before we get started, Jo, a ton is going on right now at RZIM. Can you give our listeners an update, and how they could be praying for us?
Jo Vitale: Yes, thank you so much to all of you out there who are praying for us. We know that your prayers, more than anything else, will make the biggest difference to this team and to what God is doing through this ministry. We really appreciate it. Obviously, we're all across the world in a very unique season at the moment. I think we really appreciate your prayers as a team. With so much change going on, every day you wake up in the morning and look at the news to see what's happened today.
Jo Vitale: Just that as a team, our eyes would really be fixed not on what's changing around us, but on God, who is eternal, and that we would be able to really carry a message of hope in this season, and actually so often throughout history, when it seems like God could do the least, and that things are so hard, and going so wrong, actually God has stepped in and done absolutely amazing things. We're really praying and asking that God would be powerfully at work in this season around the world, and also through this ministry and the message that we're carrying, and that people might see God as the one who has comfort to offer in a time of great anxiety.
Jo Vitale: Most importantly, we would really value your prayers for Ravi Zacharias. He's still recovering from back surgery, and is awaiting treatment for a cancerous tumor that they discovered while they were performing the surgery on his back. He's in quite a lot of pain at the moment while he's waiting, so please do be praying for him, and for his family who are taking care of him.
Michael Davis: Thank you so much for that. Okay, let's get to our question today. This one is from Johnny. “How do we engage in environmentalists who don't believe in God, and usually blame faith for the current environmental state? Is there a way to bridge caring for the earth with the belief in God?
Vince Vitale: Thank you, Michael. It's good to hear your voice, even though I can't see your face. Michael is not able to be with us today, but we knew that people would turn off as soon as they didn't hear Michael's wonderful voice, so we got him to record the intro, and also the outro to this episode. Thanks, Mike.
Vince Vitale: Johnny, I so appreciate this question, and yeah, it's really interesting isn't it, that often times it can be Christians in particular, or those of faith who are blamed for the current environmental state. In some ways you would think that that's not what you would expect because if you believe in a creator, then you might believe that we should take particular care of the creation, but that's something that we'll get into. I think you're right, that that is often times the assumption, or the position, or the disposition that people have.
Vince Vitale: I think behind it is that sometimes people either assume or some Christians would actually believe or say that we shouldn't care that much about creation because after all, God will take care of it in the end. God will renew all things. He will restore everything that's Acts 3. Some would even say, 2 Peter 3, "The elements will be destroyed by fire." In other words, it's all going to burn up in the end anyway, so why should we really care what we do to it now?
Vince Vitale: Now, John Piper and others believe that passage in 2 Peter shouldn't be interpreted as just burning up and destroying, but rather a burning in a type of refinement the way you might have a forest fire that actually renews the forest or the way that metal gets refined by fire, so I think that's probably a good interpretation of that passage. Someone still might say, "Look, God is going to take care of it in the end. He's going to renew all things, so it really doesn't matter what we do to the environment in the meantime."
Vince Vitale: We had a trending question not long ago here at the Zacharias Institute. An event where Nathan Rittenhouse and Xandra Carroll, two of our speakers, spoke and this question came in, a related question came in, in the context of that event. I thought Xandra had a really good response to it. She said, "I would never tell a friend that I wasn't going to offer them comfort because one day God will." In other words, there's something backwards about thinking that just because someone else is going to do something eventually, we shouldn't participate in it in the present.
Vince Vitale: I've given this analogy before, but I use it slightly differently here about raking leaves with and for my dad when I was a kid. Quite to the contrary of it being useless to do so because my dad was going to do it anyway, it was particularly valuable to play some part in what he was going to do. I can remember waiting for my dad to come home, knowing that he was going to be raking the leaves in the back yard in the evening. I can remember working particularly hard during the day to rake as many of those leaves as I could because I knew it was a burden for him to have to do that at the end of the day.
Vince Vitale: The more that I could do before he got home, was the less that he had to do once he got home, and I could give a greater gift to him by participating in what I knew he was going to do anyway. Even if I didn't rake a single leaf, he was going to do it, but it was precisely because he was going to have to do it that the more I could do, the greater the gift I could give him, and the more valuable it was to me to participate in that way.
Jo Vitale: I love that so much. It reminds me of words apparently Martin Luther once said, "If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I'd plant a tree today." I just think that speaks to the Christian calling that actually we want to align with the heart and actions of God, and what we do, in the light of eternity, actually means that everything now matches more not less because of what God's going to do ultimately.
Jo Vitale: I just love that vision you find within the Bible in Romans 8. It talks about creation waiting in eager expectation with the children of God to be revealed for the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one subjected it in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay, and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
Jo Vitale: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, we have the first fruits of the spirit groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” I just love that, that everything comes together, redemption of bodies and the redemption of the world.
Jo Vitale: I think maybe another reason why sometimes Christians can be perceived or come across as if they actually don't care that much about the environment is partly, I think, because of some of the culture we're in at the moment where language can be extremely strong when we're talking about the environment. Just towards the end of last year, certain statements were made in public news outlets. People saying things like, "Billions are going to die, but life on earth is dying, that the collapse of civilization may have already begun.”
Jo Vitale: Then you have certain politicians say things like, "The world is going to end in 12 years if we don't address climate change." Others making comments like, "It's going to be the end of our civilization as we know it." With those kind of statement going around, very apocalyptic, doomsday kind of statements, which I actually are having a real impact, even on the psychology of young children, who apparently are suffering from real anxiety because of the conversations going on around climate change.
Jo Vitale: I think sometimes what can happen, within communities in general, but also amongst the Christian community, is I think people have a sort of backlash reaction against this kind of extremist language, which is interesting to me because I read this fascinating article in Forbes Magazine by Michael Shellenberger, who himself is actually an environmental activist, and he's passionate about it, but he makes the point that actually we have to be so careful with language because no credible scientific body has ever said that climate change threatens the collapse of civilization, much less the extinction of human species.
Jo Vitale: We do ourselves a disservice when we talk about it in these terms because then it means people don't take it seriously because we're going so far beyond what the science is actually saying, when of course, there are major things to be worried about like the effect that environmental change can have on poor communities, for example, like those living in sub-Sahara in Africa who are particularly vulnerable to the change of weather, and seasons, and the environment around them.
Jo Vitale: Also the impact it will have on endangered species, and biodiversity, and potentially a million species globally who might be threatened by this, so it's not saying there isn't a threat, but we go so far that I think people then react against it, particular Christians perhaps, who say, "Well, this is extremist language, or as I believe in a God who...I have more hope than that.”
Jo Vitale: I think part of that means then Christians are driven, perhaps, to not take it seriously at all, which I don’t think was the right response either. I think what happens is we get very polarized and forced into different [inaudible 00:10:05] neither of which are necessarily very helpful.
Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's good. Johnny, I think you asked the right question. "Is there a way to build a bridge?" Some of the language is not particularly helpful, but some of the language within the environmental movement could be helpful and there really could be a bridge there to be built. I was thinking of the phrase, the sentence, "Save the planet," so often quoted. It's a really interesting claim from a Christian perspective.
Vince Vitale: I mean first of all it says that there's something implicit in there. It says that there's something unique about our planet. There's something valuable about our planet that it would be worth saving. That raises really interesting questions about why our planet would be particularly valuable and worth saving. Could that be because there is a designer that designed the planet and that bestowed value upon the planet?
Vince Vitale: Then, you think about the claim as a whole. "Save the planet." It's a moral claim. It's a moral imperative. It assumes that there is an objectivity to morality right in that statement, and again, that's really interesting from a Christian perspective, and a wonderful conversation to open up with someone who's saying, "Save the planet." That's a moral claim. You're asking me to act in a certain way that you think I ought to act.
Vince Vitale: You're thinking that there is a right and a wrong. What's the standard for that? If there is a moral reality, doesn't there have to be a moral standard by which we judge that, and where does that standard come from? How do we ground it? Then finally, I mean amazing the word “save” in that sentence. "Save the planet." There's an explicit claim here that the planet needs saving, and the person who makes that claim is part of the planet.
Vince Vitale: It raises the assumption that each one of us needs saving. Isn't that right at the heart of the gospel? I mean a great question to push further into and say, "Great. If the planet needs saving, and we're part of the planet, doesn't that mean that we need saving? If we need saving, who's going to save us? Then, you're really at the crux of the issue. Can we be our own saviors, saving the environment, saving the planet, saving ourselves as part of the planet, or do we need a savior from the outside?
Jo Vitale: That's so good. In fact, someone who's written a book, which is a great book on this subject, a guy called Matthew Sleeth wrote, Serve God, Save the Planet. That would be one worth checking out. I wonder if partly why the rhetoric rings true with us is because actually it's grounded in scripture, and I think the reason that it's so easy to build a bridge between caring for the environment and the planet and belief in God is actually because that's precisely what God himself has commanded us to do. In fact, it's the first thing in the whole Bible that we're commanded to do. When God creates human kind, what is the purpose, he says, to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, and to subdue it, to rule over the earth.
Jo Vitale: Sometimes people hear that and they think, "Oh well, this kind of dominion that we have over the earth, it sounds like a bit of a power trip. Maybe we can just abuse it. We can do whatever we want with it," but that's not the word that's used in the Hebrew here. The Hebrew word, it really means to make the ground to serve. The idea that you're making it more productive in line with what it's already called to do, but it certainly doesn't mean to abuse.
Jo Vitale: In fact, we're given an insight into what this means in Genesis Chapter 2 verse 15, when it says, "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it, and to take care of it." How interesting is that? The very first man created is a gardener who's called to look after creation, and help it just to be even more fruitful that it already is. That just makes sense doesn't it? If we're made in the image of God, and therefore our purpose is to represent God on earth, then how do you represent a creator who has lovingly created his creation. That means you need the same attitude towards it.
Jo Vitale: When we look at God's attitude towards the world, it's absolutely fascinating because while we're called to take care of it, the Bible is very clear, actually we don't own it. We don't own the planet. It still belongs to God, it says in Psalm 24. "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it. The world and all who live in it." It also says, "He's before all things, and in Him, all things hold together." If you really want to harm something that God himself is holding together, we want to take care of what belongs to God.
Jo Vitale: We even see elsewhere in scripture in Psalm 145, it talks about God's love towards His creation. I think we hear that, and we sometimes say, "Well, that just must mean human beings," but here it says, "You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing. The Lord is righteous in all His ways, and loving toward all that He has made." I just think that's an amazing statement about how God feels as creator about what He has made, and the totality and every intricate piece of his creation, and therefore, if we're made to be in his image, to represent Him, to care for the world He's given us, that should be our attitude as well.
Vince Vitale: That's really good. Always good, Jo, to have someone who understands Hebrew around.
Vince Vitale: It's difficult to argue with you though. You say [crosstalk 00:15:11] Hebrew meanings.
Jo Vitale: You're trusting my interpretations.
Vince Vitale: I'm like, "Okay, I'm argue and then I'm going to lose here." No, it's fantastic, and Johnny, it goes right back to your very good question. Again, "Is there a way to bridge caring for the earth with belief in God?" What Jo is saying is actually caring for the earth is the very first thing we're told to do in the Bible, so yes, there's a very explicit and early way to bridge caring for the earth with belief in God and what the Bible says.
Vince Vitale: The other thing, which I think is really significant here, is thinking about the earth as God's artwork. God is a divine artist. He has created, he has designed this incredibly beautiful universe, and beautiful planet. I find it really convicting to think about the way that I treat other people's artwork, and then to think about the way that I treat God's artwork.
Vince Vitale: That really pierces me because even if it's a pretty mediocre piece of artwork, if I have another person's artwork, especially if I'm in their presence as I'm handling it, think about how careful I would be with that piece of artwork. Think about how badly I would feel, how convicted I would be if I had damaged that piece of artwork, especially if I had done so intentionally. Then, I think about how I so often treat God's artwork, this earth, and I find the contrast there really convicting.
Jo Vitale: I don't know if Vince even remembers this, but actually that was one of the reasons I decided I really wanted to date him in the beginning because we were working down the street in Oxford, and we walked past some trash that someone had thrown on the ground, and Vince turned around and picked it back up, and then carried it down the street until we found a garbage can, and then threw it away. I had never seen anybody else bother to do anything like that.
Jo Vitale: That said something to me. What it said to me was that Vince didn't just talk about loving people, but actually he loved God to the degree that actually he wanted to show his care for God in a way that he treated the things around him. It told me about something about his heart.
Vince Vitale: The things that make a difference.
Jo Vitale: It said a lot to me.
Vince Vitale: If I hadn't picked up that piece of trash. Wow.
Jo Vitale: It's like, "Who does that? Who does that?" Think about artwork, it's so true. For our wedding, my sister painted me Vince's beautiful picture, and it meant so much more than some randomly chosen present off a registry could have ever have meant to me. It's in our bedroom so I can wake up and see it every day. I take delight in that. I think affectionately of her. I keep that high up on a shelf where our one-year-old can't get his grubby hands on it.
Jo Vitale: When we moved to America, I oversaw the movers as they were wrapping it up because I was so determined that this wasn't going to get broken on the way because that's how much it meant to me. Now, I think sometimes Christians get a bit worried about caring for the environment because I think they have this concern that we're going to wind up somehow worshiping nature rather than the creator. We think about Romans where it says that we exchanged the worship of the creator for creation. We get worried about maybe making an idol of the earth, but actually that's not the way I would treat that picture of my sisters.
Jo Vitale: I don't look at the picture and think it's so beautiful, and therefore tend all my gratitude and my affection towards the picture. No, I look at the picture, and it reminds me of my sister. It reminds me of our relationship. It reminds me of her creativity and her beauty. I think that's what we do with creation as well. Before we were every told to sing worship songs to God, or do the things you typically do in church.
Jo Vitale: Our first act of worship that God asked us to do was to take care of the world that He's made. That isn't replacing God with an idol, or the creator of creation, but it's through creation, choosing to look back at the artist and saying, "When I look at these things, in the glory of what you've made, and the wonderful works of your hands, I marvel at you, and I'm in awe of you, and I see your beauty, and I see something of your character, and how amazing you are.” When I see that incredible mountain, I think, "Oh my goodness, who made that, and how much more majestic, and powerful, and glorious, and creative, and awesome must they be?"
Vince Vitale: That reminds me, I thought it was really interesting when I was advertising for the Trending Questions Event, the title was, “Is Environmental Justice Possible?” A really interesting phrase, “environment justice.” On Facebook, someone replied and they said, "Justice is only possible between persons." I thought to myself, "Great point. That's a really incisive philosophical point." You can't have justice between a person and an inanimate object. It has to be relational for it genuinely to be justice that is at stake. I think that is why this is so important.
Vince Vitale: If you have a creator who had designed a creation, if that creation is a piece of art work, which is actually owned by and is significantly valuable belonging of a person, then you can say, "Yes, justice has to be between persons, but the reason you can have a question of environmental justice is because it's not just about our relation to the environment, it's about how our relationship to God himself who has created the environment, as we treat the environment as the artwork that belongs to Him.
Jo Vitale: That secondary level of justice between people is also played out because, of course, when we care for the environment well, that's also how we love our neighbor. There's a reason that we care about keeping the water clean and not polluting it because someone else has to drink from it. When we dump all our trash in the sea until there are trash heaps the size of islands floating in the oceans, then what are we doing to people's fishing supplies, and their livelihood, and what they're relying upon in other parts of the world?
Jo Vitale: It's not just our next door neighbors that's affected. It affects our neighbors globally. We share this planet, and therefore we need to care, not just for the people living beside us today, but what about our neighbors in future generations? What we do now will impact those who come to live in the future as well. There are implications not just in terms of creation itself, but in terms of the people who we live amongst. Really, caring for the environment well is actually a serious act of love, or neglect.
Vince Vitale: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Really, it's taken us about 20 minutes to get to what Jesus said much more concisely, that really this boils down to the greatest commandments. It's a matter of loving God because we want to support Him and what He is doing, what He's going to do, raking those leaves now, so that they can already be done for Him when He gets home. Renewing the earth to the extent that we can now so that when he comes to renew all things, we will have participated in that with Him. Also, revering and honoring His artwork, not just to the extent that we would for some human artist, but even more so than that.
Vince Vitale: Secondly, it's a matter of loving our neighbors. Yes, the car that I own right now might be destroyed one day, but if I want to pass it on to my son, then I'm going to take good care of it. I'm going to take good care of it because I care about the person who's going to enjoy it, and have to interact with it at some point in the future. Likewise, we want to take good care of the environment now because it's going to have an impact on people in the present, and in the future, and we should love our neighbors. Really, this boils down to loving God well, and to loving our neighbors well.
Vince Vitale: I think there is a lot we can affirm in environmental movements. There is at least one danger that when you take God out of the picture, there can be a temptation for some of this activism to be motivated by fear rather than love. I came across a quotation from Greta Thunberg to the World Economic Forum. This is just about a year ago, a little more, January 2019. She said, "Adults keep saying that we owe it to the young people to give them hope, but I don't want your hope. I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act."
Vince Vitale: Here I think we do have a difference. There's much we can affirm in environmental movements, but the Bible, although it asks us to care for the environment, I think it gives us an even stronger motivation of love to do so, rather than fear to be motivated out of love, which drives out fear, so it's a very different motivation, and I think what comes with that is a hope rather than a despair.
Jo Vitale: I think that's good. I think another difference that I also think gives us a stronger motivation as Christians to care about the environment is that there are certain environmentalists, particularly those within a deep ecology movement, who essentially see the earth as divine, and they really emphasize biological equalities of equal rights and value of all life forms across the planet.
Jo Vitale: Now, Christians actually say something distinct from that because when we look at Genesis, we're saying, "Yes, God made everything very good, every facet of the universe, the stars, the planets, the seas, the land, the vegetation, every kind of life form, all of it is celebrated.” And yet, Genesis is also clear that humans are in a unique category that they're uniquely made in the image of God, that they're different from all of creation.
Jo Vitale: I think one of the reasons certain environmental scientists, they would shy away from looking at it this way because they'd see that as a very anthropocentric world view. They think, "Well, if humans see ourselves that way, as if we're unique or special, then we'll be more inclined to disrespect nature because they'll think of it as less valuable," but actually, I think the opposite is true. If we're just one of many animals all the same, then why should we take any responsibility for how we treat our planet? Why shouldn't we if we're just competing species? Prioritize our survival, our comforts, our privileges over all the other animals if it's really just survival of the fittest?
Jo Vitale: Why should we care about the profound threat to eco diversity into the landscape if we're likely to pull through anyway as a human species or at least most of us are. I actually think the Bible challenges that, and it says something very different and much stronger. It says, "The [inaudible 00:25:15] we made in the image of God, who is creator, therefore we have been given a particular mandate and responsibility to take care of His creation, that we will be accountable to Him for what we do with His world."
Jo Vitale: There's no creature that's going to take responsibility or care for the planet like this. They don't have the rational capability or the moral reasoning to do so, but we do, and we should care about what God himself cares about, about the care for and the restoration of this planet. I would say that is a stronger challenge to the Christian that you really should be on the front lines of this issue.
Vince Vitale: Yeah. One other thing which really challenges me is just to see the passion and the commitment of someone like Greta or other environmentalists. If you believe strongly that the planet is perishing, and the people within it are perishing, and something needs to change in order for saving to take place, shouldn't you have the passion that they have, and the commitment that they have to getting that message out, and to persuading people to both agree with that message, and to act on it?
Vince Vitale: Wow, that's pretty challenging as a Christian when I think about evangelism, when I think about the mandate that I have to go and make disciples of all nations, and to share the good news of Jesus. That good news is not just about what we can see. It's not just about what temporarily needs saving, but is actually about eternal matters, and shouldn't my passion, and my commitment to proclaim the message, and to persuade people of the message, and to encourage people to act on the message of Jesus, be even stronger?
Jo Vitale: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What a beautiful message it is because of how holistic it is that Christ reconciles all of creation to Himself. I think that's such a beautiful promise and our hope for the future. I also think another thing in general that our posture towards environmentalists should be that we should be teachable, that we should be humble because they have so much to teach us about how to practically care for the world. I think sometimes in Christian circles the emphasis can be, "Well, if you really want to serve God, go into ministry," but maybe the application for some of you might be, "If you really want to serve God, go be a Christian conservationist. Become someone who's thinking deeply about these issues, and using your mind to worship God in that area."
Jo Vitale: For all of us, we're called to practically care. I think there are so many ways we can do that. All you have to do is go online, find different blogs, resources that talk about the basic, like top 10 things you can do as a starting point. Just as the small steps you can take in real life to make a difference. There are also some amazing Christian charities like A Rocha International, which is a Christian conservation charity, and they do some incredible projects around the world, and have been doing it for quite a long time already, so they really thought through in this area, and that would just be one example of various organizations that you can get involved with, and learn from as well.
Vince Vitale: That's really good. Sometimes we do need just some of that practical advice. I know that I'm tempted sometimes to think, "Oh, I'm doing well because I'm recycling so much." Someone might challenge me and say, "Well, actually that means you're using so much stuff, which is only single use, that you have to recycle that much." That's not necessarily the right gauge of how you can be caring for the environment well. Sometimes there's some counterintuitive things there, and we need to be challenged in the right ways.
Jo Vitale: I think just being mindful of how we're going to be perceived. It was interesting last Easter we took a close friend with us to church on Easter Sunday. He wasn't a Christian, but does care deeply about the environment. As they walked in the door to the service, the thing that they immediately noticed as we were going to get coffee was a styrofoam coffee cups. This was before they had even got in the door, and heard anything about the Easter Sunday message.
Jo Vitale: Immediately their first impression of the church was, "Oh these Christians obviously don't care much about the environment." That was their first impression as a millennial walking in the door, and seeing those coffee cups. Things that we might not even be aware of, but it's saying something to the world about where our values lie.
Vince Vitale: That's good, and you walk into an Easter service, and actually the first thing that was communicated was the opposite of redemption, not redeeming the environment, destroying the environment, and then you go hear a message about redemption, and you feel that there's a conflict internally. Yeah, that's really good. That is all that we have time for today, so I'm going to wrap this up, and Jo and I are going to head home, and I'm going to pick up some trash along the way.
Vince Vitale: Actually, I'll let Nathan Rittenhouse have the final thought here. He was our main speaker at the Trending Questions Event, “Is Environmental Justice Possible?” I hope you'll go to our website and check out that event, but he said something really interesting toward the end of the evening. He said, "Every time we put a bite of food in our mouths, we are reminded that something needs to die in order for us to live."
Vince Vitale: I thought that was really significant, and pointed to a deeper reality. I think reflecting on that, certainly, the next time that I take a bite of food, and enjoy a meal, hopefully that'll bring me to a place of deeper gratitude, a deeper humility, to a place of responsibility, in terms of how I care for God, for others, and for the environment that God has made, and also a place of praise and worship as I'm reminded of that deeper truth of a God who was willing to die that we might live.
Michael Davis: Vince, Jo, thank you guys for joining me. Thank you all for listening, and we'll catch you guys next time.
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