A Sheltering God
“What is the purpose of the giant sequoia tree? The purpose of the giant sequoia tree is to provide shade for the tiny titmouse.” (Edward Abbey, naturalist and author, 1927-1989)
At first reading, this statement seems silly. Come on! The only reason for a huge tree to exist is to provide comfort for an insignificant little creature? Surely there must be more to it than that—more reason for the giant sequoia to take up space on this earth.
Of course there is. At the same time the sequoia is providing shade for the titmouse it is also providing shade for many other creatures. It aids the ecology of the planet by removing carbon dioxide from the air and supplying needed oxygen. Its root system helps keep the soil in place. Added to its practical purposes is its aesthetic value. It is beautiful to look at and provides nurture for our souls as well as our bodies.
Could Abbey have been short-sighted? Why would he reduce the value of such a glory of nature to so small a purpose? Could he not see the big picture? Did he value the titmouse so much that all other usages of the sequoia paled in comparison? Or was Abbey a visionary who saw more than the little things—or, perhaps, saw big things in the little things?
Metaphors are always imperfect. Every metaphor breaks down at some point. It must, or it is not a metaphor but a perfect replica of the thing it is supposed to represent. This is our problem with understanding God. We come up with all sorts of metaphors for God, but every one falls far, far short of explaining the divine Being. How could they not?
The psalmists frequently use metaphoric language to try to explain God. They say God is powerful enough to make mountains skip and trees dance. We know these things don’t really happen, but we understand why the writers of psalms speak metaphorically. They are trying to explain the unexplainable, to describe the indescribable. When we ask the question, “What is God like?” we need someone to give us an answer. That is what the psalmists attempt to do.
Psalm 91 is a good example of metaphoric language. We know that much of what we read here is hyperbole, but we also understand that this is an attempt to help us see God and God’s care for us. In this way it’s like Abbey’s statement about the sequoia and the titmouse.
Perhaps the most accurate statement about God comes from John’s first letter: “God is love.” This is a simple statement, to be sure, but as accurate a one as we can make about God. God is love, and because God is love, God cares for us.
Is God’s care for us like the care of the sequoia for the titmouse? Not really. The tree is, after all, a tree. It is difficult to imagine the sequoia loving the titmouse. Still, the tree’s protection of the bird is important, for without it, the bird perishes. And the bird, though not consciously aware, trusts the tree to give it shade and a home in its branches.
Yes, God is love, and because God is love, God cares for us. God offers us protection from the one danger that can cause us irreparable harm, that of losing our souls. When we trust in God with the same unwavering faith that the titmouse has in the sequoia, God will care for us, and keep us safe until the day of redemption.
What is the purpose of the giant sequoia tree? The purpose of the giant sequoia tree is to provide shade for the tiny titmouse.
What is the purpose of God? God is love, and the purpose of God is to provide the care we need; protection from the dangers that threaten our souls.