Everybody likes rewards — from free chicken sandwiches to free flights and hotel stays. Rewards are also used as incentives for recovering a lost pet or wallet.
But should we think of Christianity as being reward-based? Can one rightly embrace Jesus’ radical call to self-denial and then ask, “But what do I get out of it?”
And, if so, what does one seek to get?
Many are motivated by the particular hope of a good landing at the end. Promised payoffs include a crown, a mansion and, more importantly, an alternative destination to a torturous and overheated eternal residency.
Promoting Christianity as primarily a rewards-receiving experience is how those slimy proponents of the so-called “prosperity gospel” (which isn’t the gospel of Jesus) get the gullible to reward them.
Give a little and get a lot, they promise. But one only has to follow them home to see who ends up with a lot.
Are payoffs of any kind proper motivation for being Christian? Some would say the experiences of peace, comfort and hope in daily living — and the assurance of being in God’s presence beyond this life — make it worthwhile.
Good answer — but is such living something to be primarily endured with the expectation of delayed gratification or to be fully experienced with the focus on the here-and-now?
Even the familiar call of Jesus to “seek first the kingdom” includes a promise that the things we need will be given to us (Matthew 6:33).
And in the earlier verses of that chapter (6:1-18) — within what is deemed the Sermon on the Mount — Jesus talked specifically about rewards. He strongly urged his followers to be unlike the religious elite who practice their “acts of righteousness” in order to impress others.
The self-satisfaction that comes from making public displays of the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting or giving to those in need is one’s “reward in full,” Jesus said. God, who rewards unseen faithfulness over show-off religiosity, has nothing to add.
In our daily experiences, we encounter different types of rewards. Parents are mindful of this.
One type of reward is essentially a bribe. It is superimposed and completely unrelated to the desired action.
For example, a parent may tell a child: “If you make an A in math class, we will get you a new iPhone.”
Several years ago, the school board in the District of Columbia budgeted millions of dollars to pay students in cash to attend, behave and make good grades.
The reward is totally unrelated to the behavior — except for the fact there are little numbers on the phone’s keypad. But the gratification is immediate, and it often works.
A second type of reward, however, is tied directly to the desired behavior.
For example, a parent may say: “If you make an A in math, and master these important skills, then you will improve your educational and vocational options for the future.”
There is a direct correlation between the behavior and the reward — but the payoff is down the road. And it is often less effective than the immediacy of the new iPhone or a cash reward.
Following Jesus is based on the oddity that it is in giving that we get what matters most. Not in terms of bribes or reward points, but experientially through putting the interest of others above our own and seeking first the kingdom of God.
That doesn’t make good sense — which is exactly Jesus’ point in noting how those who perceive themselves to be first are actually last and vice versa.
It is understandable how the promises of escape from this world to a better one was and is attractive to those whose lives are filled with suffering.
For example, we hear such escapism in the lyrics of Appalachian bluegrass and Southern gospel — which I call “mansion music” — that yearn for leaving this old brutal world for the comforts of glory land.
Yet, the relative comfort in which many of us live makes the promises of some heavenly rewards of little interest. There’s nothing really motivating to me about a mansion or a crown or streets of gold. I’m happy with my current abode, a comfortable cap and a good seat at a ballgame.
So, what does motivate us in our commitments and expression of faith? Is it something more than endurance that leads to a good eternal payoff?
Isn’t the meaningful living out of Jesus’ teachings a reward within itself?
To ask, “What do I get out of being a Christian?” seems to frame the question in a self-serving way. Perhaps it is more consistent with our primary calling to ask:
“How does following Jesus give my life more meaning now, and how does living in that way better the lives of others — which is part of that meaning?”
Is that enough reward for now? And then trusting God that what comes will come.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.