The Bible tells me I am to store up treasures in heaven. It tells me there are eternal rewards for decisions I make in this life and it tells me I should desire these rewards and act accordingly. And yet sometimes I feel the desire for reward is a sign of spiritual weakness rather than strength, like that is for lesser Christians and that I should grow beyond it. I struggle with the idea that I am to be motivated to obey God in this world by the promise of reward in the next. It has always struck me as wrong, as something a little bit less than noble, that I would obey God not purely and solely out of a desire to obey him, but out of a desire to increase my eternal reward. Have you ever wondered about that?
Is it wrong to be motivated by rewards? Somehow in my mind it seems like the reward must negate the joy or the purity of obedience, and especially when it comes to the way I handle money. 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 me as I’ve pondered this. In his book Managing God's Money, he refers to God granting eternal rewards for faithful obedience “the neglected key to unlocking our motivation” and digs up plenty of biblical proof that our Bible heroes were motivated by this kind of reward. 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). Both men were doing the obedient thing on earth with a view to eternal reward.
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. This challenged me. If I maintain that it is wrong to be motivated by rewards, I am bringing an accusation against Christ, suggesting that he was wrongly motivated. And I bring that same accusation against Paul and Moses and others.
Having made the argument from Scripture, Alcorn makes the argument from human experience, pointing 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 motivate 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 motivate us. It contradicts all the passages of Scripture that unmistakably attempt to motivate us by our desire for rewards.
This is convicting! I may feel like I am taking the moral high ground when I say, “I do it only it because it’s right,” but that is actually pride talking. It is pride telling me that I know better than God.
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 now desire the reward I have offered him? Of course not! That’s one side of the metaphor. Here is the other: As a father, I want my son to desire this reward. I want him to want it, and I want him to have it. It will be my joy to give it to him. I even want it to motivate him to joyful work based on joyful expectation. It would be wrong of my son to demand a reward for obedience, but it is not wrong for him to desire one if I have offered it.
In the same way, it is God’s idea that there should be this close relationship between obedience and reward. God designed me and all of us in such a way that we are motivated by incentive. It’s who we are. This gives me the joy and freedom of doing the right thing because it is the right thing and because I will receive God’s reward. The two are complementary, not in conflict.
The fact is, God does not have to reward me for what I do. Instead, he chooses to and 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. At the end of the long day's work, he honors me by accepting the reward I offer him. Why should I grant God any less?