The Things of Earth (Book Review)
by Stephen Yuille on January 14, 2020
The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts
235 pp., paperback
Several decades ago, John Piper coined a phrase that has become the impetus for many churches and ministries throughout the world. It’s simply this: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” According to Piper, our problem isn’t that we desire pleasure, but that we don’t desire it enough. The Psalmist declares, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). Simply put, God is our greatest pleasure. When we delight in him, we demonstrate his excellence and, in so doing, declare his glory.
By his own admission, Piper drinks from a stream that extends all the way back to Augustine: “How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose ... You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure.”
Over the centuries, many others have stooped to drink from this same stream. Among them, the Puritans are particularly noteworthy, for they embraced Augustine’s concept of “sovereign joy” in a fashion unlike any group in the history of the church. “God is that supreme good in the enjoyment of whom all true happiness lies” (John Flavel). “It is not every good that makes man blessed, but it must be the supreme good, and that is God” (Thomas Watson). “Man’s happiness stands in his likeness to God and his fruition of God” (William Gurnall).
Now, Joe Rigney kneels to drink from the same stream. His goal in writing isn’t to lay down an already well-established foundation, but to speak directly to those who struggle with some of the implications of “sovereign joy.” Specifically, he addresses those who struggle to harmonize their delight in God with their delight in God’s gifts. How are we to approach earthly delights? Should we view them with a hint of suspicion? Should we enjoy them with a twinge of guilt? How do we resolve the apparent tension between embracing earthly delights and eschewing earthly delights? Rigney’s aim is to resolve this tension for those “who sincerely want to glorify God in all they do but find themselves wrestling with what the God-centered life actually looks like in practice” (p. 20). He organizes his approach around two major sections.
In the first (chs. 1–5), Rigney establishes the theological foundation for honoring God through the enjoyment of his gifts. In eternity, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit know each other, love each other, and rejoice in each other. This is God’s glory. He extends his glory to us by inviting us to fellowship with him in knowing him, loving him, and rejoicing in him.
As the Creator of the world, he reveals and communicates himself in every part of it. As creatures, we’re perfectly suited to receive God’s goodness through his creation. The problem is that our sin separates the gifts from their source, thereby turning them into idols. “Idolatry,” says Rigney, “begins with a false separation of gift and giver” (p. 103).
In Christ, however, God restores our love for him whereby we enjoy his good gifts for his glory and our joy. Rigney explains, “Supreme love for God orients our affections and orders our desires and integrates our lives. When we love God supremely, we are free to love creation as creation (and not as God) ... God’s gifts become avenues for enjoying him, because of glory that we chase back to the source. We don’t set God and his gifts in opposition to each other, as though they are rivals” (p. 99).
In the second section (chs. 6–12), Rigney considers what a God-glorifying, gospel-affirming, gift-receiving life looks like. In sum, it’s marked by “godwardness” – “the movement of the soul toward God such that our thoughts, affections, and actions ultimately terminate upon Him” (p. 118). According to Rigney, this God-ward “movement of the soul” occurs in two ways. At times, it’s “direct,” meaning we’re consciously and intentionally focused on God. At other times, it’s “indirect,” meaning we’re subconsciously and unintentionally focused on God while engaging in other activities.
All of this means that we’re to structure our lives around “regular rhythms” of “direct” and “indirect” godwardness (p. 123). That is to say, we’re to establish times for focusing our thoughts and affections on God in a “direct” way – e.g., private prayer, corporate worship, etc. These times establish “a habitual intention deep in our heart,” which then governs our thoughts and affections as we seek to enjoy God’s good gifts (p. 124). In this way, “direct and indirect godwardness haunt one another so that the experience of each illuminates the other” (p. 132).
In the rest of this section, Rigney explains how “godwardness” relates to engaging culture, pursing self-denial, suffering loss, and facing death.
Why did God fill this world with so many pleasures? How are we to view laughter, friends, sports, hobbies, gardens, sunsets, coastlines, ice cream, or marital love? And how are we to harmonize these earthly delights with our consummate calling to find our satisfaction in God? In The Things of Earth, Rigney’s thesis is simple: we aren’t to choose between a love for God and a love for his gifts; rather, we’re to take God as our inheritance and then enjoy whatever he gives.
The balance between delighting in God and delighting in God’s gifts is a path fraught with many hazards, but Rigney keeps his footing throughout, and proves himself a very safe guide. The result is an edifying book, which will prove useful to all – whether in the pulpit or the pew.
January 03, 2020