I was part of a discussion of heavenly reward recently. The Bible speaks quite a bit about heavenly rewards for faithfulness here on earth, but most Christians don’t teach on the subject. Some skip it because they foolishly think only the faithful will be in heaven to start with, so they conflate conditional rewards with the gift of eternal life. Others skip it because it seems to debase obedience: “We ought to serve out of love,” they will say, “not to fill up some celestial piggy bank for ourselves.”
Jesus does not agree: He directly taught people to lay up treasure in heaven.
Paul does not agree: He encourages us to compete for “an imperishable crown.”
The author of Hebrews does not agree: he holds up Moses as an example to follow, “for he looked to the reward.”
Why, though? God could simply command our obedience: certainly we owe it to Him. Why does He bother to offer reward?
First of all, because rewards move us. This is basic to human nature; from the very beginning God built us to tend and keep the Garden; we’re supposed to notice what generates a return and what does not, and do more of the former. God wants us to know the good results that come from our labor, so the better we understand the rewards God has in store for us, the more we are moved to do what He has for us.
There’s more to it, though:
- People climb Everest every year; at this point enough people have done it that there’s little prospect of meaningful reward, but people keep doing it. It’s a magnificent achievement, and that’s enough.
- Soldiers run into enemy fire to drag a wounded buddy to safety; it’s not like they’re gonna get a Nike sponsorship out of that. Everybody I know who’s done that gives the same reason: “He’d do it for me.”
- Farmers work like nobody in the world at harvest time, to get the crop in ahead of the storms. Random people at the beach will dive into dangerous surf just to pull a total stranger out of the water. Why? In both cases, they say the same thing: “It had to be done.”
Rewards are not arbitrary; they’re coupled to God’s mission in the world. It’s a bit like a car salesman getting the “Salesman of the Year’ trophy for selling more cars than anybody else. There’s no point in false ‘humility’ about it (“I don’t want the trophy; I just want to sell cars.”) The trophy is happening because he just wants to sell cars; the bonus is happening because he made a ton of money for the boss; it’s a share in the spoils of victory.
God crafted our psyches; all our basic motivations come from His hands. We labor for a return. We attempt crazy, ridiculous, enormous tasks because He does, and we’re like Him that way. He likes it, and so do we. We risk ourselves for each other because He loves, and we love after Him; we risk ourselves for outsiders because Jesus did the same for us. We do difficult and necessary work because God does; when we fell; He set about the mending of the world because it needed to be done, and only He could do it. At our best, we’re like Him that way; we do it because someone has to, and we’re there. God loves all of that, and rewards are designed to ‘cut with the grain’ of the motivations He implanted in our natures to start with.