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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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What do you do in secret?  What do you do when nobody is looking?  In your private time when you are alone?  Jesus told his followers that our heavenly Father sees what is done in secret and that he will make it known (“For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” Luke 8:17).  How does this make you feel?  It makes me want to celebrate!

I have been reading Matthew 6 for the last week.  Jesus is teaching his disciples and the crowd in his famous Sermon on the Mount.  He talks a lot about our “secret time” in chapter 6.  He is talking about practicing righteousness.  He tells the people, “Don’t practice righteousness to be seen by people.  Do your acts of righteousness secretly.”  What are the acts of righteousness that he is referring to?  Giving to the needy, prayer and fasting.

Giving to the needy

There are many ways that we can give to the needy.  We can give money.  We can give of our time.  We can give our talents or skills.  Jesus said that when we give of our time, talents and treasure to help those in need, that our right hand should not know what our left hand is doing.  What did Jesus mean by this?  How can our right hand not know what our left hand is doing?  That’s easy.  It happens all the time.  When we sit down to eat a meal we don’t consciously tell our right hand to pick up the fork and stab a piece of broccoli and put it in our mouth.  It happens naturally without much, if any, thought.  And after eating the broccoli, we don’t proclaim to those around us what a good deed we have just done (unless we are little children who hate broccoli and want our parents to be proud of us for performing such a disagreeable task).  It should be just as natural for disciples of Christ to give money to the down and out, or to volunteer at a homeless shelter, or to change the oil in the car of a struggling single mother.  It’s nothing to boast or brag about, unless we have such a childish faith, that we crave the attention of people more than the reward of our heavenly Father.  Jesus tells us the Father, the Unseen See-er, sees what we give, and will reward us.  Those who boast about what they have given and receive praise from people have gotten their reward.

Prayer

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray … to be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”  Jesus was talking to the crowd about how to pray and how not to pray.  Here he  is telling people that when you pray to your Father, pray to HIM!  Talk to  HIM!  Don’t pray to  your ego.  Don’t pray to impress people.  Don’t pray to  preach at people.  Pray to  communicate to God.

How is this  best accomplished?  Jesus continues, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is  unseen.  Then  your Father, who  sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  If we want to be rewarded by our Father who is in  heaven, by answered prayers, intimacy with God, contentment, fulfillment, joy and peace, then we need to do our praying in secret; in silence and solitude.

Jesus says you don’t need to make long prayers, to inform God of your needs; to go into great detail about your aches and pains; your work situation; family matters; emotional turmoil; spiritual disappointments; struggles with sin and the like.  Jesus says in his introduction to the Lord’s Prayer, that God already knows our needs.  He is not in  the dark about your situation, just waiting for you to spill your guts so that he will understand what you are going  through.  When he gives us the Lord’s Prayer as a model prayer, he purposely kept it  short.  He knows our needs, and simply wants us to acknowledge our needs before him, and depend on him and trust him, believing that he is good and that his love endures forever.  Having confidence in him that he loves us and wants us to be happy, and that he will do the right  thing.  We do all this, if we are  obedient to Christ, in SECRET.

Fasting

I don’t fast a lot.  It’s not my strongest spiritual practice.  I’m somewhat relieved that Jesus didn’t tell us that we need to fast.  He just told people, that if they choose to fast, that they shouldn’t make a big deal about it.  It is easy to make a big deal about it in our culture.  If  you want to impress  people with your spirituality, tell them that you going without food for a meal, or two or three, in order to get closer to God.  That will get their attention.  We love our food.  We don’t just have three squares a day, but we usually graze in between meals with all manner of snacks.  So giving up food for a while,for spiritual growth,  is a big deal, worthy of a reward.

But where do you want  your reward to come from?  From the praises and adulation of people who are impressed with your spiritual practice?  That can be good for your ego, but what about your soul?  God gives you a choice, you can receive your reward for fasting from friends and family, by letting them know what you are doing, or you can receive a reward from the Unseen See-er, our heavenly Father, who wants to bless our socks off with  rewards, if  we keep fasting our little secret, a little secret between me  and God – between you and God.

So, do you have a secret?  Do you do things in secret that nobody knows about?  Things that you prefer to keep under wraps?  I hope so.  I hope it’s Giving to the needy, Prayer, and Fasting.  Sometimes the rewards for doing  things in secret are material, physical, or spiritual during our life here on earth.  Sometimes the rewards are out of this world!  I think that when we get to heaven, God will say, “Well done,  good and faithful servant.”  And then God will reveal to us, and to the multitudes in heaven, what we did for Him on earth, in secret, and how that made a difference in peoples lives.  What a reward that will be!

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The one who gives without regard to who  is looking and does not even notice it as anything special themselves, no “big deal”, is the very one who has God’s attention and becomes God’s creative partner in well-doing.  He or she will know the fellowship of God and see the effects of these deeds multiplied for good in the power of God.  Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

Sometimes kids think they have the worst parents in the world.  And then, when they go out into the world and live by themselves, all of a sudden, they realize, they have had the best parents in the world all along.  When I look back on my life, I realize I have the best parents.

Many are  the reasons I think I have the best parents, but one of the main reasons is that my parents were always making deposits of kindness into the Bank of Goodwill.  What I mean by this is that my parents were, and still are, very generous people.  Growing up, I remember, that when they saw a need, they tried to relieve that need.  They were always kind towards people in need, and sought to relieve those needs.  They were continually making deposits of kindness into the Bank of Goodwill.  In helping others they were storing up treasures for themselves in heaven.  Storing up treasures for themselves in heaven was not their motive, but it is a biblical principle.

An example:  When I was about ten years old, there was a poor family in our church that seemed to me like the most hard luck family that I had ever seen.  They suffered from a variety of health and economic issues.  I remember that they had an old, beat up, station wagon.  The engine died one day and there was nothing they could do about it.  My dad found out about the situation and towed the car it to our house.  He worked on it for about a week, rebuilding the engine at his own expense.  When he was done fixing the vehicle, it ran better than it had in a long time.  He returned the car to them at no  cost.  For the hard luck family, it was an awesome answer to prayer.  For my family, it was a deposit of kindness into the Bank of Goodwill.

Many times my father helped people in need with his mechanical skill or his skill in construction.  Neither one of these skills was his “profession”.  He taught himself most of what he knew in these areas and used this knowledge to benefit our family and many other families.  My parents have always, faithfully given to their local church and supported foreign missionaries.  On occasion I have had financial needs and they have been generous in helping me.  All, deposits of kindness into the Bank of Goodwill.

The Bank of Goodwill is run by God.  He faithfully takes care of the deposits and sees that they give a good return.  And the interest is out of this world!  He tells us that “we reap what we sow”.  We harvest what we plant.  We receive back what we put into the Bank of Goodwill.

God tells us that He is generous to those who help the poor; that when we give of our time, talents and treasure, He gives back in good measure, pressed down, shaken together and overflowing.  For me, those are all expressions of what happens when we make deposits of kindness into the Bank of Goodwill.

My parents are retired now, at least from jobs that give them a regular paycheck.  They live comfortably in a nice, little house on a nice little piece of land in Colorado.  They are ever thankful to God for the blessings that they enjoy, praising Him because He loves them and wants them to be happy.  They continue to glorify God and  enjoy Him by continuing to be faithful givers to their church and to missionaries abroad.  Dad continues to help others with  his construction skills.  If he had a business card, which he never had in his life, I think  it would read – Have Nailgun, Will Travel.  Mom helps “the least of these” in a hundred different ways.  In other words, there is never a time to quit making deposits of kindness into the Bank  of Goodwill.  I read a bumper sticker once that said Practice Random Acts of Kindness.  Perhaps it’s better to Practice Intentional Acts of Kindness.  Or, how about today, We All make a deposit of kindness  into the Bank of Goodwill.

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The truth is, those who flourish always bring blessing to others – and they can do so in the most unexpected and humble circumstances.  John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be – Becoming God’s Best Version of You

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Next blog – “I Am Thirsty”

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