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Should I Desire a Reward?

Sometimes I struggle with motives. I struggle with the idea that we are to be motivated to obedience in this world by the promise of reward in the next. This is particularly true when it comes to money. We are to store up treasures in heaven instead of on earth; we are to obey God not just out of a desire to obey him, but out of a desire to increase our reward in heaven. That has always struck me as wrong, as something that is just a little bit less than noble. A truly God-honoring Christian would take obedience as his only motive, wouldn’t he?

Is it wrong to be motivated by rewards? This has often confused me. Somehow in my mind it seems like the reward must negate the joy or the purity of obedience. The fact that I would seek an eternal reward for a temporal good deed concerns me. Shouldn’t I want to give out of the joy of obedience? Shouldn’t I want to give simply because I love the God who commands me to give generously?

Randy Alcorn has helped correct my thinking. In his book Managing God’s Money, he calls the doctrine of God granting eternal rewards for faithful obedience “the negelcted key to unlocking our motivation.” He offers Hebrews 11:26 as a simple example: “He [Moses] considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” And, of course, we know that the Apostle Paul was also running with his eye on the prize—the crown that would last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25). Even Christ endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). He humbled himself knowing that he would soon be exalted. He, too, found his motivation in the eternal reward that would await him—in this case the glory of his Father as he is worshiped by a church washed and redeemed.

If we maintain that it is wrong to be motivated by rewards, we bring an accusation against Christ, suggesting that he was wrongly motivated. We also essentially say that Christ is wrongly tempting us when he holds out a reward for our obedience.

Alcorn goes on to point out that in other areas of life we are routinely motivated by reward. This is true in home, school and business. “Every effective manager and every wise leader knows the importance of incentives. These are motivators that may be personal, social, spiritual, physical, or financial. Unfortunately, countless Christians consider incentives to be ‘secular,’ ‘carnal,’ or ‘unspiritual.’” We even use rewards to movitate our own children; so why should we be surprised that God uses rewards to motivate his children? Says Alcorn,

To say “I don’t do anything for the reward—I do it only because it’s right,” may appear to take the spiritual high ground. But, in fact, it’s pseudospiritual. Saying that there’s only one good reason to do something denies the other ways God himself uses to moviate us. It contradicts all the passages of Scripture that unmistakably attempt to motivate us by our desire for rewards.

This all leads to an interesting question: Whose idea is it to grant rewards to faithful stewards? Alcorn offers a metaphor. Suppose that I offer my son a reward if he spends his whole Saturday working outside with me. “Put in a day’s work and I’ll pay you $50 and take you out for dinner.” Is it wrong for my son to desire that reward? Is it wrong for him to want to be rewarded with the $50 and with the dinner? Not at all. And, of course, I want my son to desire this reward. It would be wrong for my son to refuse to do anything unless I offered him this kind of reward—he ought to obey me regardless; it would be wrong for my son to demand a reward. But the fact is that I am the one who has offered the reward and it will be my joy to give it to him. I want him to want it, and I want him to have it. I even want it to motivate him to joyful work based on joyful expectation.

In the same way, it was God’s idea to tie reward into our stewardship; it was his joy to tie reward into our obedience. God designed us in such a way that we are motivated by incentive. This would be true even in a sinless world. It’s just who we are.

The fact is, God does not have to reward us for what we do. Instead, he chooses to. And he delights to. At the end of the long day’s work, it is my joy to hand my son his reward and to take him out to dinner. He would not honor his father if he refused the reward. At the end of the long day’s work, his motivator has been my joy and delight. Why should I grant God any less?