Longing for the Divine

Leaves for Healing: Peace and Plants

Much has been said about the benefits of a plant-based diet. The health and vitality I have experienced from plant-based living has been tremendously helpful. I can honestly say that removing animal products from my diet has proven the most beneficial thing I have done for myself. It began as a health decision, and it still is, but it also addresses some sustainability concerns. Better still, it has become a diet of hope for the coming kingdom. 

Though mankind’s diet has changed since the garden, the Bible identifies good and life-giving food for all creation was plant based (Genesis 1:29–30). In the beginning God did not love only human creatures; His love was also directed towards fish, rivers, and fountains of water; towards birds and the cloud-covered sky; towards the beasts of the earth; and towards the fields where trees, shrubs, and flowers grew. Every part of creation—all of it—was the material manifestation of God’s love. It was the place where humanity fully saw, tasted, and experienced God’s grace. It was where humans would learn to become the benefactors of God’s goodness. How might this vision change the way we view the world? 

Within the biblical narrative, eating good and pleasing food is about going somewhere, moving participants towards the garden restored, and the tree of life, whose fruit ripens each month and whose leaves heal the nations (Revelation 22:1–2). While the tree of life provides a glimpse of the master plan that will one day be actualized, I see it offering hope in the present. 

Whatever you believe about the future—heaven, paradise, some glorious utopia—it should cultivate your sensitivity to how we live here and now. Scholar Abraham Heschel captures this sentiment wonderfully: “Eternity is not perpetual future but perpetual presence. He has planted in us the seed of eternal life. The world to come is not only a hereafter but also a here now” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Authority, 1996, p. 378). Indeed, if we cease to apply the reality of eternal life, we are in grave danger. The Genesis story shows us the result of failing to follow the perfect plan—all creation paid the price. We live in a world marked by lust, greed, and the desire for a corrupting and dominating power over creation. 

In the Bible, there is an interesting connection between trees and righteous people, those who take the time to experience God’s presence and become sustained and fortified in frightening moments (Psalm 1:1–3; 92:12; Isaiah 61:3; Jeremiah 17:8). Adam and Eve, Abraham, the Israelites, and Elijah all looked to trees—taking shelter under their shadows and filling their mouths with their fruit—while always remembering that a tree’s life is drawn from the shared soil of “dependence on the divine power that animates all living things” (Genesis 12:6–7; 1 Kings 19; Colossians 1:16–17; Hebrews 1:3; Norman Wirzba, This Sacred Life, 2021, p. 67). Trees, one could say, are not only essential to life but members of a self-sacrificing community that share and exchange with one another through their roots within a ground that is saturated by the water of life. Like trees, we have been created to grow into mediators of giving, which in turn blesses everyone in our families and communities and everything around us (Proverbs 11:30). 

The story of the fall tells us that we cannot construct or master life on our own. Life is a gift. God planted trees in the garden to bear fruit and to manifest aspects of the self-giving essence of His character, but when we removed ourselves from the true presence of life, our paradise was lost (Genesis 1:11–13). This curse does not represent God’s cruelty but man’s. Amid the new creation, the tree of life alerts us to God’s awareness of our bruises and brokenness as it offers nurturance and healing. The only solution is to return to the garden.

The book of Genesis describes how every tree that sprang up was “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9, ESV). These depictions of the delightful trees in paradise are not less pleasing or beautiful because there is suffering in our world—in fact, today’s context makes them more attractive and lovely. We taste joy and we yearn for more of it. As Proverbs 13:12 say’s “a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (NIV). The tree that spans the river of life flowing from God grows up from the soil of the hereafter, its flourishing branches reaching towards us to offer healing and relief amid the reality of our brokenness. We can aim for the best possible world here, one in which the glory of the better land is in view and God’s love is the only animating power. 

Jesus, the great healer, promises the “right to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). What does this permission mean? Is eating from the tree of life something we must do, or do Jesus’ words suggest it is a gift from which we can partake and receive—a daily feast that will delight us and become a way to forever celebrate love and life? Returning to the tree of life within a new and better world indicates returning to the presence of God. Describing heaven as Eden’s tree of life extending its delectable fruit and offering its leaves to heal the nations suggests that it not only will satisfy and sustain by feeding all but will provide the antidote that heals all wounds. There will be no end to the supply of healing. God will then bestow a magnified healing power upon all creation. This healing will continue in the hereafter, but it can happen here.  

I like to think that we can experience a foretaste of this healing in the plant-based foods that boost our immune system and provide nutrition, energy, and well-being. The prophet Ezekiel says that the leaves of the tree heal all manner of illness and disease (Ezekiel 47:12). Might we call the tree of life a plant-based approach to preventing and reversing sickness and disease? Might it also mediate healing for this world through a theology of hope, abundance, nurturance, and provision for everyone?

Through the tree of life, we learn that we are all dependent on God and made to be benefactors of His self-giving love. Such attractive signs and forms of God’s love are important. My point here is less about the power of plant-based eating and more about beginning heaven here and now by planting seeds of peace and kindness that will grow into a garden. More important than promoting health, wholeness, and longevity is learning to participate in the way of life that heals and repairs the world. Seeds of kindness and compassion planted now will be shared by future generations. Loving actions in this world will reappear as lasting harvests in the next. Divine love is the only attractive form of power that heals and restores. Creation tends to thrive when such love is present, causing the trees of the garden to spring up and grow, as it were.  

For me, the tree of life planted in the fertile soil of the hereafter makes clear that we are not destined to float around disembodied for all eternity but to live in a paradise that is Eden restored. When we curl our toes in the green grass, drink from a cool spring of water, or sink our teeth into a delicious piece of fruit, we can know that paradise is real. In this world, we have the sweetness of the apple, pear, peach and mango and the beauty of their blossoms. God intends for us to see these as acts of love—to taste them and to care for them as they instruct us about the true source of life that nurtures us and their connection to our joy and healing.

The tree of life reveals not only that healing lies ahead but also the means by which God will heal and fulfill our lives. The tree, with it leaves mediating “healing to the nations,” is our mission (Revelation 22:2). It helps us choose how we orient our hearts and live our lives here and now.

As I face the difficult and barbaric events happening in our world today, I realize that such healing for our broken world is essential. How can God turn a self-seeking world toward the garden of self-giving love? How can a common act like eating from a tree contribute to the extraordinary notion of healing the nations? I think the answers are grounded in the ways we reflect God’s form of love. Most importantly, the tree of life conveys God’s nearness and presence as attractive, and beautiful (Genesis 2:9). If every tree is lovely to look at, then it must also be true about God. This is the feature that most invites participation. This is what brings hope to a broken world.

Craig Ashton Jr.

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