John Piper on Not Neglecting Spiritual Refreshment through Nature

God’s Creation is a gift, not merely a resource but a means of our refreshment. In John Piper’s sermon-biography of David Brainerd he briefly compares Brainerd and Jonathan Edwards. He does so in the context of discussing the sufferings Brainerd endured, including regular bouts with depression. While not suggesting a walk removes depression, Piper draws on Edwards and Charles Spurgeon to suggest Brainerd’s neglect of nature likely restricted him from one means of God’s grace to us in our weakness and darkness. Below is an extended quote. With Spring knocking on our doors and with today’s temptation to always reach for our smartphone or the remote, I hope this encourages us to take advantage of God’s Creation for our good and His glory.

Brainerd Struggled with a Bleak Outlook on Nature

We will forgive him for this quickly because none of us has suffered physically what he suffered or endured the hardships he did in the wilderness. It is hard to relish the beauty of a rose when you are coughing up blood.

But we have to see this as part of Brainerd’s struggle because an eye for beauty instead of bleakness might have lightened some of his load…He seemed to see nothing in nature but a “howling wilderness” and a bleak enemy. There was nothing in his diaries like the transports of Jonathan Edwards as he walked in the woods and saw images of divine glory and echoes of God’s excellence everywhere.

Norman Pettit is basically right it seems to me when he says, “Where Edwards saw mountains and waste places as the setting for divine disclosure, Brainerd saw only a ‘howling desert.’ Where Edwards would take spiritual delight ‘in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees,’ Brainerd never mentioned natural beauty. In contrast to Edwards’ joy in summer is Brainerd’s fear of winter.” Brainerd never mentioned an attractive landscape or sunset. He did at one place say he had discovered the need for diversions in his labor for the sake of maximizing his usefulness (292). But he never once described such a diversion or any impact on him that it had.

It is a sad thing that Brainerd was blinded (perhaps by his suffering) to one of God’s antidotes to depression. Spurgeon described this as well as anyone:

“To sit long in one posture, pouring over a book, or driving a quill, is in itself a taxing of nature; but add to this a badly ventilated chamber, a body which has long been without muscular exercise, and a heart burdened with many cares, and we have all the elements for preparing a seething cauldron of despair, especially in the dim months of fog . . . Nature outside his window is calling him to health and beckoning him to joy. He who forgets the humming of the bees among the heather, the cooing of the wood-pigeons in the forest, the song of the birds in the woods, the rippling of rills among the rushes, and the sighing of the wind among the pines, needs not wonder if his heart forgets to sing and his soul grows heavy.” (Lectures to My Students, 158)

I say we will forgive Brainerd quickly for not drawing strength and refreshment from God’s gallery of joy, because his suffering made it so hard for him to see. But we must make every effort not to succumb with him here. Spurgeon and Edwards are the models for us on ministerial uses of nature. And, of course, an even greater authority said, “Consider the lilies.”

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