Acton Institute Powerblog

God Has Set Eternity in the Human Heart

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

EcclesiastesThe Preacher says that God “has set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This is within the broader context of his discussion of the paradox of exploring the wonder of God’s creation and the vanity of human striving in a fallen world.

But the more immediate context is a discussion of work. In verse 9 he asks, “What do workers gain from their toil?” A bit earlier he discusses the meaningless of work, but concludes that “a person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil.”

The entire book of Ecclesiastes is an excellent primer on relating human happiness to material and spiritual goods. These sections on work and satisfaction are some of the most significant along these lines. For as the Preacher continues, such “satisfaction” in work “is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”

So work is both significant for our satisfaction but no substitute for eternal things. This resonates quite well with the picture of work we get in Lester DeKoster’s book on the subject. It also brings to mind some of Arthur Brooks’ work on the social science of happiness and “earned success.” One caveat, or at least necessary frame of reference for the discussion of earned success, it seems to me, is this idea that our enjoyment of things on this earth is to be properly oriented to and subjoined under the higher things of God.

If, as Augustine put it, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord,” then whatever happiness we derive from work, earned success, and everything else “under the sun” must be appreciated as the gifts of God that they are and properly valued as such. Such a perspective helps keep us from confusing heaven and earth, so to speak, and turning work, happiness, or anything else in the created order into an idol.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Pingback: More than a Moral Case for Free Enterprise | @ActonInstitute PowerBlog()

  • I think that the complaint we hear from some Christians about Arthur Brooks’ ethical argument that capitalism brings about happiness by making earned success available being humanistic or based on the Enlightenment is much misplaced. First, the argument is addressed to people whether they are religious or not and must be acceptable to those who refuse to believe that God exists. So of course the way of stating the argument must not side track the conversation about the morality of Capitalism. Second, Brooks’ Enlightenment perspective is simply the language of applied ethics of the professions as taught these days. His argument does not rely on an enlightenment perspective to the logical exclusion of other rational perspectives such as Aristotelianism or Thomism. That one may use scientific research to support earned success as a crucial source of happiness helps but also makes more rigorous something that was a matter of common sense. His argument combines empirical social science with rational egoism and rational contract theory and concludes that standardly, a free market is obligatory since we do not have a good reason for preventing others to achieve earned success and be happy. This argument is compatible with the self-evident duty to do good and eschew evil and the premise that human good is in exercising rational agency and one of its essential instruments is through work.

    Finally, it seems arguable that in this matter like in other matters the starting point of a biblical picture of re4demption and the higher ends beyond human potential is in something familiar, just as in the understanding of redemption Paul uses the picture of a certificate of debt (IOU) but nailed to the cross in Col 2. The ability to have any true sense of realities beyond what we could hope to see in this life depends on comparing them to things we see well enough in this life. In the case of our eternal life with God, we know that this is eschatologically projected from the Old Testament picture of peace and blessing that was promised for covenant faithfulness. But this picture is one of “every man sitting in the shade of his own vine and his own fig tree” which is to say that one is enjoying the fruit of what is essentially his own labor, which seems to be compatible with the idea of earned success and delay of gratification. Brooks’ research only confirms that human bei9ngs in general have or are able to have some idea of quintiessential happiness form the paradigmatic experience of success. Brooks’ humanism is not really different from the creational humanism that is presupposed by the plan of redemption.

    This also applies to the meritocratic and charitable elements in his presentation. We see in the book of Proverbs a distinction being made between not just wealth and poverty but within each as being either earned or unearned. Earned wealth and unearned poverty receive moral approbation as opposed to unearned wealth and earned poverty. And capitalism makes relief more likely for unearned poverty where redistribution ignores such distinctions in theory. This also helps us understand that the sinners condition apart from Christ is that of earned moral poverty.

    Finally, to say that Brooks fails because he does not refer to “God’s transcendent moral decrees” seems to assume a Divine Command Theory of ethics which Classical Christianity both Catholic and protestant has rejected – because it make4s the ethical totally arbitrary. Brooks may sublet his exegesis to professionals but his ethical argument for capitalism is still sufficient.

    • I largely agree with you, and think that Christians must “reject” Brooks’ argument is too strong of a conclusion. I would disagree with Fikkert there, for some of the reasons you outline, in part because I don’t see such fundamental incompatibility between some of the things Fikkert outlines and “biblical” morality. For that matter, “God’s transcendent moral decrees” need not take the form of capricious divine command over against a doctrine of natural law (which probably ought not be radically opposed over against one another anyway). It’s of course understandable to argue in terms that are broadly moral in a relatively secular sense. But at a certain point it becomes a matter of judgment. For instance, early in his speech Brooks spent a good deal of time outlining the necessity for a specifically “moral” case. But his defense, at least initially (related to the dog story) had to do with its utility. Again, I don’t mean to oppose utility and morality, but isn’t important also to make a moral case for the moral case for capitalism? And shouldn’t we understand morality in an ultimately thicker sense rather than some superficial pablum resulting from merely public reason?