This post was originally published on April 14, 2016 at the Intersect Project website.
I grew up in rural Mississippi, an area rich in agriculture. My grandfather, a cattle farmer, lived right across the road from my home, so I was raised knowing the smell of freshly cut hay and the sounds of cows mooing as my grandfather’s tractor motored towards the pasture.
As I have studied more about the intersection of faith and work, my mind has often roamed back to those rolling pastures in southern Mississippi, and I ask myself, “How would this impact all of the farmers at home?”
This article is an effort to answer that question. To practice his vocation in accordance with God’s righteous will, the farmer carries out his work as a servant of God, of creation, and of his neighbors.
The Farmer Serves God
Throughout the pages of Scripture, God’s character and nature are revealed by His many acts. But one of the first characteristics that we see in the Bible about God is His creativity. All things that spring from the earth, whether a chicken or a stalk of corn, come from the sovereign creative act of God, and this truth indicates His ownership of all things. Therefore, the wise farmer seeks to bring all of the ways of his work under the lordship of the triune God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things.
This truth even affects the farmer’s motivation in work. Many men and women labor tirelessly on homesteads as means to feed their families, while others toil simply as a way to inherit wealth and prosperity. The testimony of Scripture is clear that God’s ultimate purpose in all of His actions is His own glory. The farmer, then, must match God’s highest desire, having His glory as the fuel that powers all of his work.
You may think it’s odd to speak of God’s glory in relation to the mundane activities of agriculture. After all, does motivation ultimately affect the way you shovel out the horses’ stables or dig a posthole? It is true that an onlooker may not observe a marked difference between the everyday practices of the Christian and non-believing farmers, but that is far from saying there is no difference at all. A difference in motivation is huge in the eyes of the Lord. The farmer who labors for years, driven by the glory of God, is pleasing to God, even if his practices are only slightly different than the atheist farmer who owns the cattle pasture across the road.
King David exclaimed, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork (Ps. 19:1).” God fashioned the universe so that from the slow-flowing brook to the soft hum of the horsefly, creation is united in singing the chorus of God’s glory. The farmer joins in by using the earth to display the glory that God has bound into its essence. For instance, God’s glory in the earth is displayed when a small pack of seeds produces a bountiful harvest of butternut squash. The harvester or rancher has an obligation, therefore, to use all of God’s resources in a way that displays God’s glory, and this obligation influences how farmers steward the resources with which they have been entrusted.
The Farmer Serves Creation
Few vocations are as observably connected to creation as farming. The farmer literally experiences the curse that God first pronounced in Genesis 3:17b–18, working in the cursed soil to produce food and goods for themselves and their neighbors. As a result of this intense labor, some farmers choose to use the land without consideration of its good. Wendell Berry explains in The Unsettling of America,
The standards of cheapness and convenience, which are irresistibly simplifying and therefore inevitably exploitive, have been substituted for the standards of health (of both people and land).
It is this “standard of cheapness and convenience,” as Berry puts it, that drives much of the farming practices which dominate American agriculture. Godly farmers must examine the Scriptures and critically reflect on how its truths might inform their use and treatment of the land that the Lord has entrusted to their care.
This reality of dependence upon the land should drive the farmer to practice sustainability in food production. Though God has filled the earth with vast amounts of workable land, it is not unlimited in its resources, and farming practices can do great harm to God’s land if the farmer only views the land as a means to profit, not as a resource entrusted by God. This truth drives farmers to truly value their property and resources, along with considering how to make the wisest use of them. To state it another way, the way of wisdom in farming is to consider the long-term health of the land, working to unlock the life-giving and nourishing potential of the land.
Scripture depicts this concept of caring for the health of the land; God made provisions for the welfare of the land, such as allowing fields to have a Sabbath rest every seven years (Lev. 25:3–4). This command is a gracious act of God on the part of His creation, where He guards it from being overworked. This wise care is also extended to livestock. There is a temptation to view farm animals, such as cattle and chickens, as a mere instrument of production, no different than a hammer, but whether the animals are involved in food production or they are the food being produced, they possess an inherent worth. Proverbs 12 characterizes a righteous man as caring for the life of animals, and Deuteronomy 25:4 forbids farmers from muzzling an ox while it is treading wheat. God cares about the welfare of His creations, regardless of whether they are headed for the slaughtering line or not.
The Farmer Serves His Neighbor
We may be tempted to view the vocation of farming in a romanticized manner, picturing the farmer as a lone laborer providing food for himself and his family. While that may be the case, his farming practices and crops will likely have a much wider impact, whether it is a customer or the farm’s hired workers. Therefore, the godly farmer must consider how his faith impacts the treatment of others.
The guiding principle in a farmer’s interaction with customers and co-laborers is love. After all, Jesus told His listeners the second greatest commandment was to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). This application of love to farming is simple, yet far-reaching in its implications. For instance, love for one’s customer will drive the farmer to strive for excellence in his or her production quality, while also keeping the farmer from charging an outrageous price for the product. Love for neighbor, then, is the characteristic that governs every decision that the farmer makes, from crop selection to produce packaging.
Love is not only reserved for those who have money in their pockets, though. God has prescribed in His Word that care and grace should be given to those who have nothing. Consider, for example, the neighborly love demonstrated in the gleaning laws of Leviticus 19. Business practices of our time would tell farmers that this approach is unwise, costing the man potential profit. But the Lord tells the farmer otherwise. The farmer who experiences the blessing of plentiful harvest should act graciously to those who are experiencing the difficult situation of destitution.
Love for neighbor need not be limited to the present neighbor, either. As one’s sin can have a profound impact on future generations, such as dysfunctional relationships or poor reputations, so can a farmer’s production methods have significant effects on those who will live after him. For instance, overworking the land can and has led to the desertification of large pieces of earth, which will cause future generations in that area to look elsewhere for food. The world population is growing, and with it the demand for food. Thus, farmers find themselves in a difficult situation, seeking to fill the world’s stomachs while not destroying the earth in the process.
Farmers, then, must be wise in their use of resources, allowing their love for present and future neighbors to drive their methods. This should compel farmers to use innovation and creativity in discovering how to use limited resources in a world with an ever-growing population.
The modern-day farmer, like any other worker in the contemporary world, must use godly wisdom to navigate the changing landscape. After all, technological advances constantly promise greater harvests and productivity, and farmers in this globalized agricultural market now must compete with farmers around the world, not just with the farm across town.
While this article doesn’t answer all the questions, it is a first step in helping farmers see their work in light of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. And it is the servant-mindedness of Jesus that farmers must imbibe. Though they may spend the majority of their work surrounded only by livestock and crops, farmers must see this solitary labor as a loving act of service to God, His creation and His children.