That’s what we do with God’s good gifts, writes Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung in her new book Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice (Eerdmans, 2014), 39–40:
In Augustine’s words, “My sin consisted in this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in God but in myself and in his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.”
You can do this with wealth, pretending that having enough stuff will give you self-sufficiency and the security you really need; or you can do this with sexual pleasure or the pleasures of eating and drinking, pretending such pleasures will satisfy your desire for love or your desire for your emptiness to be filled, and so on. Material possessions and security and pleasure are certainly good things. But our desire for them becomes excessive and corrupting when we forget that they are only created goods and not ultimate ones. Only God, the source of all created goodness, can have first place in our hearts. The good gifts of God are meant not to claim our ultimate loyalty but to turn our hearts to their Giver in gratitude.
In Augustine’s own memorable example, falling prey to a capital vice is like being a woman whose beloved proposes to her. A typical story, except for this twist: after he shows her the engagement ring, her delight in the ring he offers causes her to forget all about him. She doesn’t even hear his proposal, much less think to answer it. Can you imagine her taking the ring and walking away without another thought for anything but a piece of beautiful jewelry?
She has made a lamentably tragic mistake about what the ring is.
Her fiancé’s gift is not meant to be appreciated merely as a lovely diamond. It’s meant to signify his undying love for her and to bind them together in a lifelong relationship. The ring is not just a ring; it is a sign of their love. Accepting it is to accept that gift of love and to return it. The ring, like all good things, is not an object that can be comprehended or held in our possession without essential reference to the one who gave it to us and our relationship to him.
And if Augustine is right that only God himself can fulfill our deepest longings, this attempt to substitute love of created goods for the Creator’s love is a mistake that also dooms us to dissatisfaction.