One of the most common questions I get before a trip abroad in my work with Floresta is whether I am going to teach the local people how to farm better and more sustainably.

On the surface it is a perfectly reasonable question – Floresta is an organization dedicated to helping poor farmers improve their lives. However, if you give it a little thought, the absurdity of the question comes through. I am from Southern California, studied political science in college, and was nearly fired from my only farming job. On the other hand, the farmers we work with have been farmers their entire lives and have developed generations of specialized local knowledge.

Dominican farmers with no formal education have given me more eloquent descriptions of how a watershed functions and the importance of trees than I have ever heard from a biology teacher. The farmers know the importance of trees: that they purify the water and prevent soil erosion. Even in Haiti, where people are vilified for cutting down their trees and turning their land into a desert, the farmers know what is happening but are forced, by desperation, to do desperate things.

We, on the other hand, are often tempted to respond with our own shortsighted and obvious solutions. After all, if the poor knew what they were doing, the land wouldn’t be in such bad shape in the first place.

One of our particular cultural blind spots is arrogance. We often don’t realize it, but we carry an assumption that we have the answers, and that it is up to us to be heroes and fix the world’s problems.

This arrogance may seem harmless at first, but when viewed through the lens of the New Testament, its dangers become more obvious. Jesus extends plenty of grace to those who recognize their own weakness and sin, but his tone is remarkably different towards those who are self-sufficient, self righteous, and too healthy to need a doctor. In fact, a lack of humility may be one of the most dangerous sins of all, because it blinds us to our own need to repent.

Arrogance makes it very hard to do community development work. This work is fundamentally about empowering others to solve their own problems and develop the self-confidence to change their own situations. It means seeking and giving value to local knowledge, patiently encouraging local leaders, and developing those leaders rather than supplanting them. It even involves the occasional figurative washing of others’ feet.

The blind spot of arrogance extends to our attitude towards creation. The Bible clearly says that we are here as stewards of God’s creation. The earth is the Lord’s, not ours, and it gives glory to God. Colossians explains that the earth was created by Christ and for Christ. Creation exists as a giant arrow pointing us to the Creator, as Paul says in Romans 1:20, so that we will be without excuse, understanding the divine nature of God.

But since Adam and Eve were first tempted in the garden, the steward’s temptation is always to supplant the King, to be like God. We begin to believe that the creation serves us. It becomes a giant arrow pointing to our achievements and our glory. Through our science we seek to improve it. To satisfy our egos and give ourselves self-worth and purpose, we conquer its highest peaks and broadest oceans. Our televisions and computers supplant the outdoors as a place of recreation and restoration. We swap the wonder and awe of the Psalmist and hymn-writer for a tawdry imitation. We divorce ourselves from creation and believe we can discard it.

Ultimately this is fiction, of course. We cannot live apart from creation. It is our life support system, and no one knows this more intimately than the African farmer trying to survive on a denuded, eroded hillside, and struggling with drought, malaria, and water-borne illness.

I made a presentation in Africa once, where I showed slides of the deforestation taking place around Mt. Kilimanjaro, and talked about deforestation’s impact on that region. A pastor came up to me afterwards and, wincing with embarrassment, told me he recognized where the photo was taken. He said, “That is our land. God gave us that land to take care of, and we need to get busy.”

From his initiative hundreds of thousands of trees have been planted, and every church in the area has a tree nursery and reforestation project. Far from detracting from the witness of the church, it has dramatically increased the church’s visibility and attendance as people come to find out who is making a difference in their community. International tourists who come to climb the mountain are helping to plant trees with these churches and hearing the gospel afresh.

When humility is involved, development becomes a two-way street. We learn how to develop as we help others develop. We see our blind spots, and as brothers and sister in Christ, we grow more Christ-like together. But all the lessons aren’t so heavy. We also have the opportunity to learn some fun things, as Doug Satre shares in the accompanying note on making a bag garden

Truly we have a lot to learn about creation care. And when we humble ourselves to God’s wisdom, he heals our blind spots and teaches us much.