Look at a River, Learn About God

by Brett McCracken October 30, 2020

If you’ve ever spent time near a river in a desert climate, refreshing yourself by its cool waters and verdant banks, the words of Psalm 126:4 make beautiful sense: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!”

Where there is flowing water, even the deadest of land comes alive. One of my favorite places on earth is Zion National Park in Utah, for this reason. The Virgin River flows through an otherwise dry, desert canyon, filling it with greenery and wildlife. The same goes for hundreds of other rivers and streams in the United States, and all over the world. Rivers nourish life wherever they meander. They refresh us physically and spiritually. That’s why this summer and every summer, people flock to rivers. Whether for recreation (swimming, tubing, fishing, rafting, camping) or contemplation (simply sitting beside a mountain-fed stream is among life’s greatest delights), rivers are beloved by humanity all over the world.

It’s no wonder, then, that river imagery figures prominently in Scripture. The psalmist famously envisions a river in one of the Bible’s most comforting passages, Psalm 46 (“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God”). John envisions “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” in the new creation (Rev. 22:1). When biblical writers use “river” imagery to convey God’s life-giving presence, they do so because it makes sense to almost everyone on this planet.

Three Lessons from Rivers

A river is a classic example of how God’s creation helps us understand truth about him, if our senses are unblocked enough to perceive it (e.g. Ps. 19, Rom. 1). The biblical writers use nature imagery often to reveal God’s character, and our relationship to him, because nature is God’s handiwork and naturally bears his signature. If we look close enough at nature we should understand God more, in the same way that spending hours of focused time in a museum’s Picasso retrospective should help us understand the famous abstract artist more. Incidentally, this is why time outside, in nature, away from screens and digital distraction, is good not only for our physical health, but also our spiritual health. 

The more time I spend around the rivers of God’s creation, the more theological lessons I glean. Here are just three.

1. We Thrive in Proximity to the River

Psalm 1 compares a man whose “delight is in the law of the LORD” to “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (1:3). This is in contrast to the wicked, who “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (v. 4). The imagery makes sense to those who have approached a river in a desert and seen the sudden change from barren, leafless trees to sturdy, leafy oaks and willow forests by a river. Riverside trees thrive because they are constantly fed with a waterway that never runs dry. This is why so many of the world’s great cities—London, Paris, Cairo, Rome—developed around rivers. Rivers create fertile farmland, vibrant ecosystems, and access to trade. They are sources of life. So it is for our spiritual lives. Our survival depends on our proximity to God, the River of Life, the source of the only “living water” (John 4:7–15) that can truly transform and sustain us.

2. The River’s Power Shapes Us

We shouldn’t think that since rivers are often places of serenity, they are safe. The pastoral peace of Zion’s Virgin River can become deadly in a heartbeat if a thunderstorm sets off a flash food. A river is a powerful thing; even a babbling brook can have a current too strong to swim against. One look at the Grand Canyon (or any canyon) and a river’s jaw-dropping power to shape and form is clear. It should inspire in us awestruck terror as much as soothing calm.

This is how we should view God. As C. S. Lewis suggests in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, God is not safe, but he’s good. Too often Christians domesticate God, seeing him as a picturesque river straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting—a peaceful water feature to adorn our personal paradise but not shape or disrupt it in any dangerous way. But God is a mighty and forceful river, and his followers should throw themselves into his current rather than standing safely along the banks. We are called not just to drink from this refreshing water when and how we want it, but to let its wild power move and mold us to be the “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:5) God wants us to be.

3. We Can Channel the River

Some of the world’s most fertile land is found in river deltas—the places where a main river branches off into numerous channels and distributaries, each bringing water and sediment to enrich the surrounding soil. To be a channel is to be a vessel through which the mighty river’s many blessings are distributed. This is what God’s people are to be in the world: vessels of the Holy Spirit, an ever-spreading alluvial fan of thriving life in a hostile land. Isaiah uses the “streams on the dry ground” imagery to show God’s intention to bless the world through Jacob’s many descendants, who “shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams” (Isa. 44:3–4). In John 7, Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water,’” referring to the Spirit they would receive (7:38–39).

Does the world around us experience us this way? In our communities, workplaces and on social media, do our neighbors see “rivers of living water” flowing from our hearts, or do they see trickles of toxic sewage? Does the presence of Christianity bring refreshment, life, and deposits of biblical sediment, or is our presence bringing polluted and poisonous water? 

Our fallen world is parched—dry, barren, hopeless as a dessert with no water in sight. It is desperately thirsty for Living Water. As Christians, we are not substitutes for the Living Water that only Jesus provides; but this water should so mark our lives that we, too, become refreshing streams wherever we are. Every Christian life and community should be a patch of green in its brown surroundings. Like a river delta, we should be a flourishing ecosystem that attracts the weary to its life-giving banks.

Our lives should be invitations for others to come to the waters. We should remember the song many of us sang as children, often in summer camps that took place near rivers: “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me . . . Spring up, O well (splish splash) / Within my soul / Spring up, O well (splish splash) / And make me whole. / Spring up, O well (splish splash) / And give to me / That life abundantly!”

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition website and is used with the author’s permission.