By Jordan Hillebert

There are some things which are to be enjoyed, some which are to be used, … Those which are to be enjoyed make us happy; those which are to be used assist us and give us a boost, so to speak, as we press on towards our happiness, so that we may reach and hold fast to the things which make us happy.[1]

As a simple depiction of how we navigate the world around us, Saint Augustine’s distinction between use and enjoyment is as elegant as it is perhaps obvious. We are constantly weighing the barrage of stuff that we encounter every day in terms of either their utility or their sheer delightfulness. A spoon is rarely an object of delight. It is useful when it connects me to the object of my desire — another mouthful of sticky toffee pudding. It is useless if it bends under the weight of all that caramel. The pudding is there to be enjoyed. However useful the pudding may or may not be for nourishing my body or satiating my hunger, I’m mostly interested in its capacity to make me happy.

The nearly instinctual set of judgments that go into something as simple as eating a dessert are repeated endlessly throughout the course of our lives. We pursue things that make us happy. We avoid things that make us unhappy. We make use of things that assist us in our pursuit of happiness. We disregard other things as useless to this pursuit. This is all just part and parcel of how we make our way through the world.

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But, of course, Augustine is not simply interested in the kinds of desires and decisions that propel us through the world. He is interested in the world as created by God. The universe is not just some raw material that I can manipulate for my use and enjoyment. It is purposive. It is shot through with meaning. All things are loved into existence by God, and all things find their raison d’être in God. It is necessary therefore that we use and enjoy things in the right way. It is vital, in other words, that our use and enjoyment correspond to the true order of things. This is what distinguishes use from abuse.

For Augustine (as indeed for most Christians throughout history), God is the supreme object of our enjoyment, the source and summit of humanity’s greatest joy. We do not use God in order to attain some higher good. God is the happiness we seek. We are thus liberated from the pain and disappointment of seeking our ultimate joy in something else, something infinitely incapable of satisfying our deepest desire. We are likewise freed from the temptation of coercing others into meeting all our needs.[2] Other people will let us down. Our possessions rarely hold our attention, let alone our affections. Too much sticky toffee pudding will inevitably rot our teeth. But the steadfast love of God endures forever (Ps. 136:1).

In locating our true enjoyment in God, we begin to learn what it means to use and enjoy the world around us aright, that is, for God’s sake. If God is the supreme object of our enjoyment, then everything else is useful insofar as it puts us in relation to him. The things we buy, and eat, and wear, and use all have the capacity to elicit thanksgiving, to spur us toward acts of generosity, and to deepen our sense of dependence upon our creator. In the mystery of the Eucharist we become especially aware of the real depth of creation’s holy usefulness. The gifts of bread and wine that we receive from God are offered to him and received anew as instruments of God’s sanctifying presence. We make use of wheat and grapes to make bread and wine; we make use of bread and wine as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; God in turn makes use of our handiwork to feed us with himself.

Far from evacuating the world of delight, the recognition that God is the supreme object of our enjoyment fills us with wonder at creation’s transparency to the love and goodness of God. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). Upon receiving a vision of the world as “a little thing, the size of a hazelnut nut” in the palm of her hand, Julian of Norwich wonders to herself how such a thing could last, “for it seemed to me so small that it might have disintegrated suddenly into nothingness.” The answer, she discovers, is that it lasts, “and always will, because God loves it; and in the same way everything has its being through the love of God.”[3] To enjoy the world aright is to love what God loves because he loves it — to participate in God’s delight for his creation.

We are therefore, as a fellow American expat living in Wales nicely puts it, “stewards of God’s delight.”[4] We use things aright when we use them for the love of God. We enjoy things aright when we come to see them as objects of God’s love. In this way, by the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), the desires and decisions that propel us through the world come to reflect the true order of God’s good creation.

 

An earlier version of this essay was posted at Convivium, a new initiative of Brecon Cathedral to support strong local communities that connect people with their heritage, the environment, and faith. 

Footnotes

[1] Augustine, On Christian Teaching (Oxford University Press, 2008), I.3; p. 9.

[2] Drawing upon Augustine’s distinction between use and enjoyment, Rowan Williams thus warns against “an attitude towards any finite person or object that terminates their meaning in their capacity to satisfy my desire, that treats them as the end of desire, conceiving my meaning in terms of them and theirs in terms of me” (“Language, Reality and Desire: The Nature of Christian Formation,” On Augustine [Bloomsbury, 2016], p. 44.

[3] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 7.

[4] Mark Clavier, Stewards of God’s Delight (Cascade Books, 2016).

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Jordan Hillebert is tutor in theology at St. Padarn’s Institute in Cardiff, Wales, and serves as assistant curate in the parish of Christ Church, Roath Park in the Diocese of Llandaff.

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