Mr. Minderhoud is a teacher in Covenant Christian High School and a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, Walker, Michigan.
Article 12 of the Belgic Confession of Faith states that all creatures were created to serve the Creator. Each creature has its own place in the creation but only as it is organically connected in the one purpose of God—the glory of God in and through the salvation of His people. Therefore, to accomplish this purpose, as Article 12 also teaches, all creatures are upheld and governed by God’s eternal providence, so that we, His people, might be served in order to serve our God. In order for us properly to serve our God, we ought to recognize His providential care over us. Scripture speaks of God providing for the lily of the field, and it teaches us that if He cares for these creatures, will He not care for us? A beautiful physical example of this is seen in the nitrogen cycle and how God provides all creatures (the lily, the sparrow, and us included) with what they need to exist and function in this life. By such a physical example we clearly see God’s providence, our organic relationship to all creatures, and the comforting truth of God’s faithful provision for all that we need in both body and soul. To these truths we now turn our attention.
The Nitrogen Cycle—An Interdependent Relationship
We need nitrogen in its various forms in order to live. In fact, animals need nitrogen in similar ways, as do plants, for their proper existence and functions. By God’s design we cannot use the nitrogen as it is found in the air in order to form the protein molecules we need. In the counsel of God a “cycle” was ordained in which plants would transfer the nitrogen as found in the air into forms that they as well as the animals and man can use, and upon the death of the organism the nitrogen would then be returned to the form as it is found in the air. We call this the nitrogen cycle—a simple, yet amazingly complex relationship of interdependence where we see the handiwork of an all-wise God.
What mechanism did God create so that the nitrogen in the sky could be turned into the forms that plants could use? God placed and controls within the creation two main mechanisms, referred to as nitrogen fixation, to convert nitrogen gas as found in the sky into nitrate ions or ammonium ions that plants can use. The first mechanism involves lightning and rain. Nitrogen gas molecules have one of the strongest internal chemical bonds known to man. It is an extremely stable molecule and does not react easily with other molecules. However, during an electrical storm, lightning will flash, giving off tremendous amounts of energy — energy enough to cause the chemical bond in the nitrogen gas molecules to break, allowing its individual nitrogen atoms to combine with other atoms. During such a storm, these nitrogen atoms combine with oxygen atoms to form nitrate ions. These water-soluble molecules (capable of dissolving in water) fall to the earth in the raindrops. Thereby God nourishes the earth, not only with vital rain, but with “enriched-rain”—rain that contains a source of nitrogen for the plants. The plants take up the rain via their root systems and in the meantime also take up the dissolved nitrate ions. In this way nitrogen gas molecules in the air are converted to nitrate ions that plants can use directly.
The second mechanism God uses to convert nitrogen gas molecules in the air into forms plants can use is through bacteria that are found in little nodes on the roots of some plants. Crop farmers deal with this mechanism in a concrete way as a part of their labors. They recognize that some fields require more fertilizer than others and they know the wisdom of rotating crops in a particular field from year to year. What must they know about the creation that helps them recognize these things? The answer, in part, lies in understanding how some plants can convert nitrogen gas molecules into forms they need and how other plants need additional help in this regard. Plants of the legume family (peas, beans, clover, and alfalfa, for example) have tiny growths on their roots that contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria. God created and in His providence maintains and governs these bacteria for the purpose of converting nitrogen gas molecules from the air into ammonium ions. The ammonium ions are a form of nitrogen that the plant can use and are absorbed by the plant and then converted into the protein molecules that the plant needs for growth. Thus, these plants have built-in mechanisms for getting the nitrogen they need. In fact, more ammonium ions are produced by the plant than it can actually use.
Other plants, such as corn, wheat, rice, and potatoes, to name a few, do not have a built-in mechanism to convert nitrogen gas into forms they can use. They receive their nitrate ions from the nitrate ions that fall from the sky in the rain. However, this does not provide enough nitrate ions for all the plants that require them. Therefore, God provided a second kind of bacteria, found in the soil, that convert ammonium ions into nitrate ions. The excess ammonium ions left in the soil by the legume plants (beans, alfalfa, and so on) are converted by this second type of bacteria (nitrifying bacteria) into the nitrate ions. Yet, in many cases, the corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, and other plants could benefit from a supplementary source of nitrate ions. Thus, farmers will often add some form of fertilizer (usually in the form of ammonium ions) to the soil. The nitrifying bacteria convert these ammonium ions into the nitrate ions that the plant can absorb and convert into the proteinmolecules it needs. Farmers rotate crops—one year soybeans in a field, another year corn—because the beans will add a significant amount of ammonium ions to the soil, which the corn will use the following year. This minimizes the amount of additional fertilizer a farmer may need to add to a field and maintains a good balance of nutrients in the soil.
Thus, the nitrogen storehouse in the air is converted by lightning or bacteria into forms that plants can use. Plants use the nitrogen to make proteins. Animals and humans eat plants and when their bodies digest these proteins the nitrogen atoms are available for the animal or human to use as needed. We also eat animals and get the nitrogen they have. And so, the nitrogen atoms are passed along from plant to animal to human or directly from plant to human.
When the plant, animal, or human dies, the organisms are decomposed by bacteria and the component parts of the organisms are returned to the soil. In the soil there is another type of special bacteria, de-nitrifying bacteria, that break protein molecules down so that the nitrogen atoms are freed from their molecular bonds. As the nitrogen atoms are freed from their bonds, they join together again and return to the atmospheric air as nitrogen gas—the original storehouse of nitrogen. Thus, a cycle exists, created and maintained by God, so that all living organisms, mankind included, might receive from the very hand of God, the very substances they need to have physical life.
God’s Eternal Providence and Infinite Power
We, as Reformed believers, confess God’s providence. But, do we really understand that God directs, governs, and sustains all things? My hope is that through this complex science “lesson” we can much more clearly see God’s hand caring for us. How much more clearly can we see God’s hand providing for our physical needs, than to consider that the very molecules that nourish us are sewn together by God? Look at how many different creatures work together and are dependent on each other, such as, the lightning, rain, bacteria, plants, roots, soil, animals, people, and so on! Look at how nitrogen atoms must be changed to so many different forms before it is in the “shape” and “form” that man can use to live! In sharing all this science and factual information about the nitrogen cycle, it is my hope that you become as amazed as I am at how God, in His eternal counsel and wisdom, ordained such an amazing and complex system in order, literally, to provide us our daily bread and very existence from His hand. Do we appreciate this? Are we thankful to God for this? Truly to confess the eternal providence of God requires that we see and acknowledge that God’s hand is providing for us! We must recognize that we are of the earth, earthy and are completely dependent upon Him. Yet, how blind we are by nature! The unbeliever sees nothing of God in all of this! He goes about his daily tasks unthankful to God! He suppresses all that the creation clearly reveals and serves the creature rather than the Creator. And, to our shame, our sinful natures prevent us from seeing God’s hand as we ought! May God give us spiritual eyes to see and appreciate His work in creation!
And, people of God, if God so clearly, so faithfully, so powerfully provides us what we need for body, will He not all the more faithfully, all the more powerfully, provide us with what we need spiritually? Absolutely! God’s providence is that doctrine of Scripture that brings us “unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father, who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under His power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded that He so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without His will and permission, they cannot hurt us” (Belgic Confession, Article 13). May we worship God for all His works that clearly remind us of His fatherly care over us! Our Father is truly good to us, in not only providing us what we need, but in such an intimate and fatherly way, teaching us that He is our Father and will provide for us, in both body and soul, what we truly need!