My counseling professor's words sounded so crass in the ears of a room full of young twenty-somethings:
I remember thinking at the time, "Are humans that predictable? Are people really so selfish? Do we nearly always pursue some payoff or reward in every situation?"
As a twenty-one-year-old student, I thought his words were jaded, cynical, and pessimistic. However, over the course of forty-plus years of ministry, his words proved to be true time and again.
So, since the cost to truly follow Jesus is high (Luke 9:23-26, 14:33), what's the payoff in following Jesus? What's the reward of being the Lord's servant and faithful disciple? What is the proper motivation for my acts of love, piety, and grace?
Ouch! Forty-five years later, the motivations of most people seem so crass. Sometimes, however, Jesus directly addressed these kinds of troubling realities of human behaviors and the motivation that lies behind them. HE often addressed these realities when speaking to religious people, sometimes those considered the most devout in their culture (Matthew 23).
If we are honest, most of us admit we gravitate to the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10) when studying Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7). A few among us also emphasize the importance of obeying God that Jesus emphasizes in the closing verses of HIS famous sermon (Matthew 7:13-27). My perception is, however, that many of us simply ignore the crucial central part of Jesus' sermon that addresses how we live out our faith (Matthew 6:1-34). Yes, we sometimes do spend time on the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:5-15), but we forget the context in which Jesus taught us the prayer: the motivation for our behavior as worshippers of God and followers of Jesus (Matthew 6:1-24). A recent morning devotional time in Matthew 6 ripped away my defenses and called me to plunge into Jesus' challenging teaching.
What's the payoff we're looking to find by following Jesus?
What's our reward for being Jesus' disciple and a child of God?
What's the source of motivation for our spiritual lives and our acts of piety?
Jesus makes clear in the Sermon on the Mount that it should certainly not be the "4P earthly rewards" we so often chase in western culture, and sadly, all too frequently admire in our church leaders. What are these distorted "4P earthly rewards"? They are things we often chase in our secular worlds and bring into our discipleship: the yearning for...
Jesus reminded us that these four pursuits only offer short-term rewards unworthy of a disciple's passion.
Because Jesus never pursued them. He emphasized them as limited, short-sighted, and ultimately empty.
Yes, they are down-to-earth achievements easily recognizable as success in our culture — which is probably why so many of us chase the "4P earthly rewards" in the secular world and in our churches. The problem is that they are also limited-to-earth rewards. While we may get some limited rewards in this life from pursuing them, when our "life as a vapor" (James 2:16; James 4:14) is gone, so are these rewards. Poof! They don't even make it in the box we go into at the end of our lives. They are gone when the last echo of our eulogy has frittered itself out in the soon-emptied chapel.
Hear Jesus' chorus of warnings about these four pursuits unworthy of our lives:
"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" (Matthew 6:1 — Underline added for emphasis).
"So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full" (Matthew 6:2 — Underline added for emphasis).
"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full" (Matthew 6:5 — Underline added for emphasis).
"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full" (Matthew 6:16 — Underline added for emphasis).
We were made to connect with, and have a relationship with, God as our heavenly Father in our interior worlds (Psalm 139; Genesis 1:26-27, 3:8). These interior worlds are the deep recesses of the heart, soul, and mind. People can't see what happens there. Only God can. We don't gain earthly notoriety or feed our "4P earthly rewards" bank by focusing on this interior world.
However, our Abba in heaven sees what happens in these secret places of the heart, soul, and mind. The good things HE finds there, HE honors in HIS Kingdom bank of eternal rewards. In addition, those internal investments in godliness that we pursue in our interior worlds shape us. They transform us from the inside out. With the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, these investments in godliness re-fashion our values as we begin to treasure the things that connect us to, and shape us to become more like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18). These interior pursuits enable us to become more JesuShaped by the ONE who sculpted the universe and fashioned each of us, for HIS purposes, in our mothers' wombs (Genesis 1; Psalm 139:13-16).
Jesus said it very plainly and repeated it three times so we wouldn't miss it. Our character is who we are when no one else is looking, except our Father:
"...your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18).
Our Heavenly Father knows our interior worlds. He knows what is done in secret. He rewards those things done to reflect and give thanks to HIM. HE doesn't reward the mere outward displays that are so often used to garner attention for ourselves. Plus, our Father is the only ONE who provides eternally secure investments — his rewards last beyond the grave and into eternity. When we pursue godliness in our interior worlds, we have invested our treasure with the ONE WHOM we treasure. Moth, rust, and thieves cannot corrupt, decay, or steal (Matthew 6:19) what we have entrusted to God! What better place to put my investments and wait to see their ultimate rewards?
Even now, Abba Father wants me to know that as HIS child, all HE has is mine and it will be, forever. (Isn't that what the father said to the older son in the parable of the two prodigal sons? Luke 15:31) I am a co-heir with Christ of all that HE is and has promised (Romans 8:14-17). That reality makes the "4P earthly rewards" frail by comparison — those rewards are moth-eaten, rust-corrupted, and frequently stolen (Matthew 6:19-21).
I am trying to refuse the allure of the "4P earthly rewards" of prestige, position, power, and possessions. Now, I don't underestimate Satan's power to use their allure to become the weeds in my heart. I don't want them to choke out the Kingdom coming alive in me. I choose to pursue Jesus. I invite the Holy Spirit to work in me to make me more JesuShaped. I invite my Abba to look into my heart to correct and humble me with HIS gentle touch (Psalm 19:13-14, 139:23-24). Most of all, I choose for my payoff to be the Father's delight in me as I trust HE will do in me, and for me, more than I can ask or imagine to HIS glory (Ephesians 3:20-21).