As the Dad of three teenagers, I know the frustration of seeing them treat screens—usually a smartphone—as another appendage, a limb which, if severed from the rest of their body, would leave a traumatic wound.
Well, maybe it’s not that bad.
But, still, screen time has become for many, including children and young people, an unconscious habit. Unthinkingly, we pick up our phones first thing in the morning. We make sure they’re never too far from reach. We gravitate towards them without considering whether we should or need to do so. It’s spiritual formation by default.
Thankfully, our twin sons are still young enough to like playing outside—though we sometimes have to kick them out!
And that we sometimes have to tell them to go outside indicates the difference between an intentional activity and a passive activity. It takes no real effort to fall down a YouTube or TikTok rabbit hole. It just sort of happens. Before you know it, you’ve lost an entire hour (or more!) doing, literally, nothing of any real life-giving value.
But to go outside, take a hike, or work in the garden or yard requires a certain willingness to push ourselves in a specific direction. That’s what good, healthy spiritual habits involve: intent, effort, decision making. And doing so because it’s good for us. Because even if we dislike the initial beginning of such an activity, good activities almost always pay off.
Now, my wife is much more “outdoorsy” than I am. And there have been times when she’s adamantly insisted I go for a hike. While sometimes resistant at first, I’m almost always glad to have gone. Indeed, I usually feel better.
And when it comes to going outside, it means breathing fresh air and moving your body. It means feeling a breeze on your face or beach sand between your toes. It means hearing birdsong. It means sometimes running into other people.
It also means getting that much closer to God’s creation. In other words, one reason going outdoors is a spiritual practice is because it can be a way to experience the presence of God.
Consider the following passages:
But ask the animals, and they will instruct you; ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you. Or speak to the earth, and it will instruct you; let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? The life of every living thing is in his hand, as well as the breath of all mankind.Job 12:7-10
Hard to apply these verses while sitting in an office or on the couch watching TV.
Creation also points us to the Creator. In fact, this is what theologians refer to as “general revelation,” which is the way God has revealed his existence and nature to all people.
We this in the apostle Paul as well:
For his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse.Romans 1:20
And if you like gazing upwards towards the skies and the stars, the psalmist tells us the same thing is true of the heavens:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge.
There is no speech; there are no words; their voice is not heard.
Their message has gone out to the whole earth, and their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun.Psalm 19:1-4
And for Christians, spending time outside is an opportunity to contemplate the person of Christ and his role in the divine act of creation. The Word, who became flesh and blood in Jesus, is the one through whom God made the universe.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were created through him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created.John 1:1-3
A passage like this also highlights how through the person of Christ we see the purpose of all creation.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and by him all things hold together.Colossians 1:15-17
And spending time outside, away from our devices and machines and convenient luxuries, also reminds us of our connection to and responsibility for the world God has made.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.”Genesis 1:26-28
Ultimately, going outside is a spiritual practice because it reminds us of our Creator, invites us to contemplate our Saviour, and gives us a chance to participate in the world that exists because of the act of the triune God.