From Sustainability to Fruitfullness

Nick Spencer, June 2006

It is hard to turn on the television or open a newspaper today without reading something about sustainability or sustainable development. For over twenty years the idea that we are not living sustainably, and that we desperately need to be, has been growing in the public mind.

Sustainability – defined as our capacity for continuance into the long-term future – is a thoroughly modern concept. For the majority of human history, people had little sense of progress, as we understand it, and for the last two hundred years, little sense that such progress was fragile, exhaustible or reversible. It is only in the last few decades that we have come to understand that progress is not necessarily sustainable and have begun to clarify what precisely we mean by sustainable.

How, then, can we approach the topic biblically? How can we engage with biblical teaching when discussing a problem that would have been simply incomprehensible to early Israel and the early church?

For all generations

While researching for the Jubilee Centre’s forthcoming book on sustainable living, we have noticed an idea that runs through the biblical story that bears striking similarity to the modern idea of sustainability. It is that of preserving and celebrating God’s name and his blessings ‘through all generations’ or ‘to the next generation’, phrases that appear frequently in the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms.

Psalm 89 begins, ‘I will sing of the Lord’s great love for ever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.’ [1] Psalm 45:17 promises, ‘I will perpetuate your memory through all generations; therefore the nations will praise you for ever and ever.’ Psalm 71:18 declares the psalmist’s wish not to be forsaken by God ‘even when I am old and grey,’ at least ‘till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come.’ The writer of Psalm 78 echoes these sentiments when he promises on behalf of his people, ‘we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.’ (Psalm 78:4) [2] The very reason for Israel’s existence was to communicate the knowledge and blessings with which they had been entrusted by God to future generations.

In order to do this, Israel itself had to be preserved for future generations and so it is no surprise that the preservation of God’s name into and for future generations is mirrored by the desire to do the same for his people. The legislation in Deuteronomy chapter 25, for example, that if an Israelite dies without leaving an heir, his cohabiting brother must marry his widow and ‘fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law to her,’ was so that ‘the name of the dead brother… will not be blotted out from Israel.’ (Deuteronomy 25:5–10) In a similar fashion, one of the many things that the Jubilee land legislation was intended to achieve was the survival of all Israelite family lines.

Sustainability is relational

There was, however, more to the biblical idea of sustainability than simply ‘keeping going’. As the above quotations suggest, sustainability was first and foremost about God. It involved loving him, obeying him, and enjoying him, factors that edge us away from the modern concept of sustainability towards something subtly different.

The biblical concept of sustainability was relational. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the covenants that marked Israel’s history; those made with Noah (‘and with your descendants after you,’ Genesis 9:9–10); Abraham (‘an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you,’ Genesis 17); Moses (‘so that you and your children may live,’ Deuteronomy 29:29; 30:19–20); and David (‘make your throne firm through all generations,’ Psalm 89:3–4) are all explicitly inter-generational. For Israel, sustainability meant preserving the covenantal relationship with their creator God into and for the future.

The biblical concept of sustainability was also moral. Deuteronomy chapter 29 offers an extended vision of the personal, social and environmental devastation that would result if the people treated God and the covenant in a selfish and hypocritical way. The book of Lamentations tells us what happens when they did, in eerily modern terms: ‘We must buy the water we drink; our wood can be had only at a price… Our skin is hot as an oven, feverish from hunger.’ (Lamentations 5:4–14) As is being recognised with increasing frequency in modern debates, sustainability is ultimately a moral issue.

Hope and joy

Nowhere in the biblical story, however, is there the idea that living moral, God-directed, sustainable lives is a burden. Although the Torah, under the self-appointed guardianship of the Pharisees, had become a burden to many by the time of Christ, it was, in theory at least, a gift to the people for which they were grateful, guiding them in such a way as to make the most of their lives.

This is where the biggest gap between modern and biblical concepts of sustainability appears. The biblical concept was hopeful: not pessimistic, in the fashion of some modern environmental Jeremiads; nor optimistic, in the sense that things are bound to get better; but hopeful, in the belief that the creative, generous God who has equipped his creation with resources and his people with aptitude, is ultimately faithful and will not let his works amount to nothing. Thus in the context of failure, rejection and exile Jeremiah writes to the Israelites in Babylon reporting God’s ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ (Jeremiah 29:10–14)

Perhaps most importantly, the biblical concept is joyful. Creation is to be enjoyed, its fruits celebrated, God thanked, and his ‘instruction manual’ appreciated. The vision of Isaiah 40–66, perhaps the most extended, detailed and inspiring vision of a re-created order the Bible has to offer, is one of celebration, where ‘rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys.’ (Isaiah 41:18) Living in relationship with God, loving him and obeying his commands for life, is not supposed to be an intolerable encumbrance or constraint on our freedom. It is supposed to be enlightening, liberating and beneficial.


If this is all correct – and this article has been a rather breathless run through ideas and texts that will be explored in greater detail in the forthcoming Jubilee book – and the biblical vision of sustainability is marked out by being God-centred, relational, moral, hopeful and joyful, then the Bible itself offers a rather good way of encapsulating this: fruitfulness.

Fruitfulness begins with the creative genius and providential faithfulness of the creator God. It requires the careful stewardship of resources, obeying the ‘instructions on the packet’, as it were, in a committed, disciplined and patient way. It involves the hopeful expectation of growth, maturation, and ripening. It reaches a climax with the celebratory enjoyment of the harvest, but it concludes where it began, with thankfulness to the God who enables the whole process and with a response of obedient stewardship so that others may be integrated into and enjoy the same process.

Not by accident is the transformation of the desert into a garden central to Isaiah’s vision of the restored creation (Isaiah 41:18–19; 43:19–21); the ‘vineyard’ a popular image for Israel (Isaiah 5; Matthew 21:33–46); and ‘bearing fruit’ one of Christ’s favourite metaphors (Matthew 7:15–23; Luke 13:6–9; John 15:1–8).

The people of the Bible could not have imagined the technological developments that have done so much to ease our lives and threaten our future. Sustainability, as we now talk about, is a uniquely modern idea and one that we should welcome, in particular for its rediscovery of our relational obligations to future generations and the importance of the non-human creation.

But Christians might also take the opportunity to subvert it with the biblical idea of ‘fruitfulness’. We might wish to emphasise that obeying the moral commands that are woven into the very fabric of creation, and finding the God who put them there, is the only safe path towards a sustainable future.

But we might equally wish to stress that that path need not be bleak and unforgiving but that it is an exciting, rewarding and joyful one, in which creation is not simply a treadmill that we need to keep going but a vineyard or garden in which we may work and rest according to our maker’s wishes.

[1] All Bible quotations from the NIV.

[2] See also Pss. 33:11; 89:4; 90:1; 100:5; 102:12; 119:90; 135:13.


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Category: News and Reviews

June, 2006

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