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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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“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name”. John 12:27,28

After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.” John 13:21

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.” John 14:1

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

“In the world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

We are reading the book of John here at the Home For Needy Children in Oaxaca, Mexico. Our administrator thought that that would be a good thing to focus on while we are in this time of quarantine. I think it is a good idea as well. The adults and children read four or five chapters during the week, and on Friday mornings, during devotion time, we split into groups and discuss what we have been reading.

This last week we read chapters 12-17. Some people read one chapter a day while others, like my wife, daughters and I, normally read the whole thing out loud in one sitting. Doing the reading in one big chunk gives us a broader perspective of what the author is saying. More of a bird’s eye view on what is going on.

What jumped out at me during this last reading was the word “troubled” or “trouble“. I found it interesting, and somewhat confusing that in chapters 12 and 13 that Jesus’ soul and spirit are troubled, and then in chapter 14 Jesus tells his disciples to not let their hearts be troubled. Twice! That doesn’t make much sense and seems contradictory. The Divine Man, the Son of God, is troubled, yet he tells his disciples, mere mortals, to not be troubled. What’s going on here?

One of the rules to trying to figure out what the heck the Bible is saying, is to let scripture interpret scripture. So I went back and took a little bit closer look at what John is trying to communicate to us mere mortals who are so easily confused. At least I am.

There is a paragraph in chapter 16 that kinda helps me get a handle on what is going on. Jesus tells the disciples in verses 20-24 that they will weep and mourn when they will not see him anymore. Jesus goes on to say that they will grieve, but then their grief will turn to joy. Jesus tells his followers that it is kind of like a woman giving birth. She has a lot of pain during childbirth, but when the baby is finally born, “she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.”

Jesus tells the disciples that that is how it is with them. He tells them that now is their time to grieve, but later they will see him again and will rejoice and no one will take away their joy. Jesus mentions joy two more times in that passage.

Joy, or happiness is a great motivator. John 12 and 13 mentioned that Jesus was troubled in soul and spirit as he faced “his hour” of anguish and suffering that was soon to come. Hebrews 12:2 tells us that “for the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

These passages present us with three sets of troubled people – A woman in labor; the disciples grieving the death of Jesus; and Jesus enduring the cross.

We also see three triumphs. The woman brings a new life into the world. The disciples rejoice at the resurrected Lord standing before them. And Jesus sitting down at the right hand of the throne of God.

All three suffered a great deal, either physically, mentally or both. All three triumphed in the end and were filled with great joy.

Jesus was troubled in his soul and spirit, yet he tells his disciples to not let their hearts be troubled. He also tells his disciples they will experience anguish. Their hearts will be troubled! But the ultimate outcome will be triumph for Jesus and his disciples.

I think what God is trying to communicate to us is that in this world we will definitely experience trouble (covid 19 comes to mind). When Jesus tells his disciples (back then and present day) to not let our hearts be troubled, he is telling them, and us, to not live in a hopeless state of trouble, but to look forward to the time when we will be triumphant because we hope in God and in his love and power. We should always look forward to the joy, even while in the midst of pain and suffering.

Jesus said to his followers at the end of chapter 16 in the book of John, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

We will have trouble, but fear not. Trouble is not the last word. Victory is the last word, for we will be triumphant in the end through Jesus Christ our Lord!

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