A Plea for Pastors to Get Outdoors
Researchers are taking notice of a disturbing trend: children are spending less and less time outdoors. A recent survey of two thousand parents and children in the United Kingdom found that ‘the average child between 6 and 16 years old spends only an hour a day outside.’ The summary of the study says, ‘Believe it or not, some adolescents even preferred doing homework (10 percent) and doing chores (three percent) over enjoying the wilderness.’1 Authors such as Richard Louv and Anthony Esolen have raised the warning flag about children’s spending too much indoors.2
I want to raise the warning flag about another group of people who aren’t spending enough time outdoors. Known for our love of learning and study, pastors—particularly Reformed pastors—can easily spend successive days in sermon preparation, meetings, and pastoral counseling with our skin never feeling the sun and our eyes rarely beholding the spectacle of God’s creation. What free time we do have, we often spend watching TV shows and sports or engaging blogs and social media—all of which can be well and good but which at the same time keep us indoors. Yet as with children, so with pastors: it’s essential to our well-being to delight ourselves in God’s creation. The best among us have told us so.
John Calvin (1509–64) described creation as ‘the theatre of God’s glory.’3 Accordingly, Calvin writes, ‘There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world, that is not intended to make us rejoice.’4 While Calvin made few references to the beauties of Lake Geneva and its surrounding mountains in his writings, he enticed his friend, Pierre Viret, to visit him with the prospect that ‘we’ll take a visit to Monsier de Falais; then, crossing the lake, we’ll enjoy the pleasures of the country together at the home of our friends Pommier and Delisle, and we shan’t return until Thursday.’5 Preaching on Job 39:22–25, Calvin said, ‘If a small portion of God’s works [in nature] ought to ravish us and amaze us, what ought all his works to do when we come to the full numbering of them?’6
The purpose of nature is not only to ‘ravish and amaze us,’ but also to refresh our minds and bodies. Lambert Daneau, a second-generation French Reformer who served as a pastor and professor in Geneva for a time, advocated for the legitimacy, even the necessity, of entertainment and refreshment. He wrote:
When we entertain ourselves lawfully in order to take care of and conserve our health and strength, to recover our physical powers and refresh our spirits, so that we might the better carry out more cheerfully and efficiently the work to which it has pleased God to call us, this activity also redounds to the glory of God. In this way, we can serve Him more faithfully and serve the good of our neighbor, whom we can more easily help according to our means, being ourselves refreshed and well-disposed in mind.7
In essence, Daneau understood that ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup.’
Charles Spurgeon (1834–92) knew firsthand the toll that pastoral ministry can take on a man, especially the ease with which a weary pastor can slip into depression. Spurgeon addressed this in a lecture to his students called ‘A Minister’s Fainting Fits.’ What would Spurgeon counsel the depressed minister to do? In essence, he should lift his head from his books — Spurgeon says the study can become like a prison and books the wardens of the jail — and see that ‘nature lies outside his window calling him to health and beckoning him to joy.’ Spurgeon warns that the minister who spends too much of his life in study and indoors ‘needs not wonder if his heart forgets to sing and his soul grows heavy.’8 For that reason, Spurgeon instructs his ministerial students to make it a practice to get outdoors: ‘A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours’ ramble in the beech woods’ umbrageous [spotted with shadows] calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive.’ The reader envisions Spurgeon himself trekking through the English countryside in the encouragement that follows: ‘The ferns and the rabbits, the streams and the trouts, the fir trees and the squirrels, and primroses and the violets, the farm-yard, the new-mown hay, and the fragrant hops — these are. . . the best refreshments for the weary. For lack of opportunity, or inclination, these great remedies are neglected.’9
It would be hard to claim that the prodigious labors of Calvin and Spurgeon are second to those of any man, unless that man is Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). As a pastor, theologian, churchman, university founder, prime minister, and indefatigable opponent of modernism, did he ever rest from his titanic efforts? Just how did he do it all? One clue is found in a practice recorded by one of his biographers, Jan de Bruijn, who reports that Kuyper ‘saw to it that he took a two-hour walk every day, a habit he maintained until he was quite old.’10 We need hardly wonder whether this part of his day supported all the other parts.
We come to the twentieth century with the great American theologian, J. Gresham Machen. Like Kuyper, Machen’s life was an unceasing theological and ecclesiastical battle, for which Machen never seemed to lack the requisite strength. But Machen, the author of Christianity and Liberalism (1923), penned two pieces in which he disclosed a prized source of refreshment: ‘Mountains and Why We Love Them’ and ‘The Benefits of Walking.’
It’s essential to our well-being to delight ourselves in God’s creation. The best among us have told us so. In ‘Mountains and Why We Love Them,’ Machen recounts in beautiful detail his recent climbing trip in the Swiss Alps. In the closing paragraphs, he explains that in times of personal difficulty, he will draw strength from recalling the words of Scripture laid up in his heart, but also from remembering the scenes of creation forever impressed in his mind by that trip and others like it:
What have I from my visits to the mountains, not only from those in the Alps, but also, for example from that delightful twenty-four-mile walk which I took one day last summer in the White Mountains over the whole Twin Mountain range?. . . In hours of darkness and discouragement I love to think of that sharp summit ridge of the Matterhorn piercing the blue or the majesty and the beauty of that world spread out at my feet when I stood at the summit of the Dent Blanche.11
Writing elsewhere of the same memory, he says, “What a wonderful help it is in all discouragements, what a blessed gift of God, to be able to bring before the mind’s eye such a vision as that.”12
For those who cannot climb the high mountains, Machen writes ‘The Benefits of Walking,’ in which he heartily commends ‘that cheapest and simplest of all forms of exercise.’13 Like Kuyper, Machen attests to having been ‘a walker all my life. . . the more I see of the high mountains, the more I love the simple beauty of the woods and hills, and the more I love to walk.’14 With characteristic bullishness, Machen leans into his friend:
So when you say you do not love to walk, I do wish I could just get you to try. I do wish I could persuade you to use the old Ford this summer just to get to the edge of the woods. If you did choose that kind of a holiday it would not cost you much. . . . And the wholesome exercise you would get, and the close contact with the beauties of nature, would be a wonderful thing ‘as well for the body as for the soul.’15
Machen seems to echo the counsel of Ecclesiastes, which warns that ‘much study is a weariness of the flesh,’ whereas ‘light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun’ (Eccl. 12:12; 11:7).
What pastor could justify ignoring the witness of Calvin, the counsel of Spurgeon and Machen, and the example of Kuyper? These men dug deep into the Holy Scriptures, carried great burdens and fought great battles, and they knew firsthand how discouragement can take the wind from one’s sails. But they commended to their own generation, and through their writings commend to ours, the great benefits of getting outdoors, of taking in the sights and sounds of God’s creation, and doing so regularly.
If we would imitate their labors of study and ministry, let us learn to imitate their means of refreshment as well. For, indeed, ‘close contact with the beauties of nature, would be a wonderful thing “as well for the body as for the soul.”‘16
This article first appeared on the Tabletalk Magazine website and has been reproduced with permission.
- Daniel Steingold, ‘The Great Indoors: Today’s Screen-Hungry Kids Have Little Interest In Being Outside,’ Study Finds, July 23, 2018, https://www.studyfinds.org/great-indoors-screen-hungry-kids-video-games-going-outside.
- See Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 2008), and Anthony Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (Wilmington, Del.: ISI, 2010).
- Quoted in Stephen J. Nichols, ‘More Than Metaphors: Jonathan Edwards and the Beauty of Nature,’ SBJT 14.4 (2010): 48.
- Quoted in William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1988), 134–35.
- ‘Les Amitiés de Calvin,’ Bulletin de la Société de L’Histoire du Protestantisme Français (Paris, 1864): 93, quoted in R.A. Sheats, ‘Calvin’s Love and Dependence on Viret,’ Pierre Viret Association, accessed September 24, 2018, http://www.pierreviret.org/calvin.php.
- Quoted in Nichols, ‘More Than Metaphors,’ 52.
- Lambert Daneau, A Brief Remonstrance on Gambling (1579), quoted in Pierre Courthial, ‘The Golden Age of Calvinism in France, 1533–1633,’ in John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World, ed. W. Stanford Reid (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1982), 84.
- C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1969), 158.
- Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 158.
- Jan de Bruijn, Abraham Kuyper: A Pictorial Biography, trans. Dagmare Houniet (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014), 139.
- J. Gresham Machen, ‘Mountains and Why We Love Them,’ in What Is Christianity? And Other Addresses, ed. Ned Bernard Stonehouse (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1951), 313–14.
- J. Gresham Machen, ‘The Benefits of Walking,’ in What Is Christianity?, ed. Stonehouse, 316.
- Machen, ‘The Benefits of Walking,’ 316.
- Machen, ‘The Benefits of Walking,’ 316–17.
- Machen, ‘The Benefits of Walking,’ 317.
- Machen, ‘The Benefits of Walking,’ 317.
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