“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” -James 1:12
“…from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” -Colossians 3:24
“Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.” -2 John 8
Throughout the New Testament there is talk of crowns, rewards, and other such things that God has in store for his people.
I’ll be honest, I’ve always had a little bit of a hard time with that concept, or at least with the way that we often talk about it in church world.
How do rewards work?
Because often in the past I’ve heard heavenly rewards talked about like they are some sort of payback for good behavior or exceptional service.
I like to joke with our junior high pastor and say that he will get more crowns in heaven because, well, he’s a junior high pastor. But when I do that I’m kidding (or am I?).
But when we’re not joking it quickly becomes not so funny.
And teaching about heavenly rewards can easily turn into manipulation:
“Give more money, after all, don’t you want to have treasure in heaven?”
“Go on that missions trip, after all, don’t you want a bigger reward in heaven?”
This sort of conception of heavenly rewards flies in the face of the notion of salvation by grace through faith. Worse than that, it teaches people to live in obedience not for its own sake, but rather for the sake of earning a payback.
And if someone is paying you back, they are, by definition, in your debt- which is, of course, ridiculous when that “someone” is God.
When these sorts of tactics are used they are essentially attempts to leverage human self-interest for Kingdom purposes, when the purpose of Kingdom living is heart transformation that gives us something more to live for than self-interest.
Recently I read Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (a phenomenal book, by the way), and he talks about heavenly rewards, and he addresses the concerns shared by me and so many others head on:
“There are several passages in the New Testament, not least in the words of Jesus himself, that speak of God’s future blessings in terms of reward. Many Christians find this uncomfortable. We have been taught that we are justified by faith, not works, and, somehow, the very idea of being a Christian for what we will get out of it is distasteful.
But the image of reward in the New Testament doesn’t work like that. It isn’t a matter of calculation, of doing a difficult job in order to be paid a wage. It is much more like working at a friendship or a marriage in order to enjoy the other person’s company more fully. It is more like practicing golf in order that we can go out on the course and hit the ball in the right direction. It is more like learning German or Greek so that we can read some of the great poets and philosophers who wrote in those languages. The “reward” is organically connected to the activity, not some kind of arbitrary pat on the back, otherwise unrelated to the work that was done. And it is always far in abundance beyond any sense of direct or equivalent payment.”
Now that’s a perspective I can get behind!
Obedience isn’t work we put in so we can get “paid”. It’s time spent on the driving range that prepares us to enjoy our time on the course even more. It’s time spent seeking to understand someone else so we can deepen our relationship.
Thus, the crowns of heaven are not carrots to be dangled in front of us the way a paycheck or a pension might be. They are, instead, the natural result of a life of obedience. They are the ability to enjoy the classics for a lifetime because we made the effort to learn Greek.
We don’t do things to earn God’s reward, and we surely don’t manipulate people into doing things with the promise of a heavenly reward. Ironically, doing this deprives people of what is most necessary to appreciate God’s real rewards, that being a transformed heart.
Instead, we are called to be transformed by God’s love. And when that transformation takes place it is our joy to “spend time on the driving range”, so to speak, so when it comes time to step onto the “course” we can enjoy it to its fullest.