Heavenly rewards. Are they gems on a crown? People? A motivation to do good? Or are they simply a metaphor for the goodness of knowing God. What we do know is this:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
2 Corinthians 5:10
Two different factors can make the topic of heavenly rewards controversial. First, no one has gone before the judgment seat of Christ and come back to tell us what happened. And second, the question of rewards draws up a fundamental question in the modern psyche of the nature of good works and altruism. As many people understand, a person working for reward does less good a person acting without self-interest. Consequently, the promise of heavenly rewards seems dissonant with the greatest good.
The Modern Dissonance About Rewards
There is a point here. Is it not worth it just to love people? Does someone have to be my crown in heaven for me to seek their salvation or help? Why would I seek both humility and a crown anyway? The base purposes of the Christian life can seem at a cross with rewards. The pursuit of reward seems self-serving, self-congratulatory, in-egalitarian, and even childish.
But in Philippians, Paul, suffering in captivity, relates that his purpose is to press on to win the prize. The prize was, perhaps, several things in Paul’s mind, but the crown of his service to the people, his ministry which he endured in conducting until his death, is certainly among them. With our modern sensibilities, we pity Paul, working for intangible spiritual rewards. But Paul would pity us, because to him these rewards were the substance of his labor.
If that seems crude or distant to us, it is because we have inherited an understanding of good deeds that postdated Paul by over a thousand years. During the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century, a thinker named Immanuel Kant revolutionized moral thinking in the West. His basic moral proposition was something that would feel familiar to us: deeds that are good are deeds that are done altruistically. To do good, one must act without self-interest. This idea seems right, even Christian. After all, Jesus Himself came to give all of Himself for us, for nothing in return from us.
Therefore what we think of as a good deed is a deed done self-sacrificially, with no self-interest involved. Jesus dies for the people. One neighbor sacrificially helps another. The rich man gives anonymously to charity. Everything is right.
But what if the neighbor acts to gain a friend? Or the rich person gives to a cause that affects her own family. Does that change their actions?
An Ancient Perspective
But the Bible says even Jesus sought a reward at the Cross, saying that He endured it for the joy set before Him. He came to win people to God, and God Himself gained through Jesus’ sacrificed (if God, who has everything, can be said to gain anything). The ancients knew that reward doesn’t tarnish a good deed, but that it in fact reflects a deeper understanding of its goodness.
After all, we use rewards with children to teach them what behavior is good. It happens that adults learn what is good the same way, and never fully graduate. To do so would be to know intrinsically what is good from our very being, in other words to be God. Rewards help us know what is good at a human level, without it we would be clueless. The question isn’t whether we will act for personal gain or not, but what we will seek to gain.
For Paul, the difference between saints and sinners was not altruism versus self-gain, but the place they sought to get their rewards. Sinners look to the world and to the flesh, to find in sin, in power, money, vice, and earthly security the reward that the saints look to find in Jesus. When we invest a system with the power to reward us, we give that system the authority to determine the good in our life. If we seek reward from the world, the world will determine our good. If we seek reward from God, He will determine our good. But if we refuse to seek reward at all, we will have no clear direction of what good is.
Consequently, to seek reward doesn’t lessen goodness, but rather instructs us in it. It doesn’t promote pride, but the humility to admit that God must reinforce what is good to us through reward. That is how we are wired. Finally, we can recognize that it is actually best that we seek reward from God, because in doing that we make a powerful statement: “You, God, determine my good, and I will seek it.”