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Radishes at the children’s home garden
Mangoes growing at the children’s home

reward – noun 1. a thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement. 2. a fair return for good or bad behavior. verb 1. make a gift of something to someone in recognition of their services, efforts of achievements. 2. receive what one deserves.

The faithless will be fully repaid for their ways, and the good rewarded for theirs. Proverbs 14:14

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven…But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:1, 3,4

The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 1 Corinthians 3:8

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Hebrews 11:6

It seems that I can’t hardly open my Bible lately without reading about rewards. Here at the Home For Needy Children in Oaxaca, Mexico, we have been studying the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew chapter 6 is mostly about rewards from God and rewards from men. In chapter 10, Jesus talks about rewards for welcoming prophets and disciples, and in chapter 16 Jesus says he is going to come in his Father’s glory and will reward each person according to what they have done.

A Christian brother, here at the mission recently preached on Hebrews 11 and pointed out verse 6, “God rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

In my personal devotion time I frequently meditate on Proverbs. I just read Proverbs 14:14 about the good people being rewarded for their ways.

Honestly, all these verses that mention rewards make me a bit uneasy. They always have. Probably because of my Reformed Theology inclinations. One definition of “reward” that I used above is “receive what one deserves”. All I have to do is read Romans 1-3 and consider original sin, humans bent toward wickedness, and my own propensity to evil, to realize that what I “deserve” is a sound beating, a crown of thorns, some nails and a cross, followed by eternal punishment. All my “good works” that I might hope to earn a reward from are essentially dirty rags destined for the garbage heap. The idea that I may inherit a heavenly reward comes not from works of righteousness that I have done, but according to His mercy.

But considering all these verses about rewards, especially those from the lips of Jesus, has caused me to rethink my position on rewards. I have begun to think about the concept of rewards on three different levels: reap and sow level; brain level and divine level.

Let me elaborate. The reap what you sow level comes from Paul and nature. Paul writes in Galatians 6, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” This goes along with the 1 Corinthians 3 quote above. Of course this idea comes from the natural world. I am the gardener here at the children’s home. I recently planted some radishes. They are easy to plant and care for. After about 30-40 days they are ready to harvest and eat. I ate one today. I reaped what I sowed. Eating the radish was my reward for my labor. The same goes with mangoes. Except harder and longer. Eleven years ago I planted a little mango tree. Last year was the first year that I was rewarded with a mango to eat. Growing that mango tree was quite a struggle. I battled ant invasions and frost that set it back a lot, almost every year. After much diligent effort I am finally eating the fruit of my labors. Enjoying my reward. That type of reward in some way has got to be part of what the Bible is referring to when it mentions reward.

The second type of reward, what I call the “brain reward” I learned about a few months from an article in the Washington Post. This article was about what happens in our brains when we have a good idea and accomplish something because of that idea, whether it be putting a puzzle together or putting the finishing touches on an engineering design. Below are the “reward” parts of the article:

Carola Salvi, a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, said, “Having an insight involves the brain’s reward system, which is the same system that responds to food and to other basic pleasures.”

Salvi says that some people are more reward oriented than others, and when they accomplish something important to them, their brains produce more dopamine and they experience more pleasure. The dopamine buzz motivates some people and gives them energy for wanting to actually do an idea that comes to mind, like launching into a new artistic endeavor or putting an engineering design into action. That rush of pleasure could help facilitate this.

Philadelphia’s Drexel University studied students solving anagrams while researchers used EEG to record brain activity. Very soon after activity in their right middle frontal gyrus, located near the forehead, indicated a moment of insight, activity then occurred in the orbitofrontal cortex, above the eye, which is responsible for processing rewards. Generally, such activity is associated with wanting and liking.

Thus the Post information. We get a little or a lot of dopamine which gives us a feeling of pleasure when we get a good idea and follow up on that idea and complete a project associated with that idea. That is a reward. When God created humans he hardwired us, our brains, for pleasure and happiness when we are creative and accomplish things. When we are kind and compassionate, and forgive others as Christ forgave us (Ephesians 4:32), I think we get some dopamine.

Spiritually speaking, we can look at Matthew 6, which is primarily about rewards one gets from giving to the needy, praying and fasting. Jesus said we will receive one of two types of rewards when we practice these “acts of righteousness”. If our motivation is to be “seen by men”, then when someone gives us an “attaboy” for what we have done, perhaps we get a little shot of dopamine and that is our reward. If we do our “acts of righteousness” for the glory of God, perhaps we get a bigger shot of dopamine, I am not sure, but I think rewards from our heavenly Father involves more than that.

And that is where the third level of rewards comes in. The Divine Reward. That reward is something deeper, more spiritual, longer lasting, probably eternal in some respects, and mysterious. I don’t think we can really put our finger on it or grasp its significance. It is not heaven, because we can never earn heaven as a reward, but it might be something God will give us in heaven. Some parts of the New Testament talk about people receiving crowns in heaven, like the crown of life or the crown of righteousness. Part of this reward is related to the reaping and sowing, but on a more spiritual or divine level that we receive both now and in heaven. Part of the Divine Reward must be joy we can experience in the face of tribulation and a peace that surpasses understanding that we feel sometimes while we are going through the fire.

I certainly don’t understand all the in’s and out’s of God’s rewards, and I don’t focus on them as much as I focus on the grace of God which saved a wretch like me; that not only opened my blind eyes, but as Ephesians 2:5 says, “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.”

Ephesians 2:10 says we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works. I want to do the best job I can for God, but not so much for the reward aspect of the thing, as much as I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the love God has lavished on me. If I get some kind of divine reward for doing the job that God gave me, an unworthy servant, great. But anything more than the grace that I have through Jesus is gravy.

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