Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Is Christianity Mercenary?

When Augustine said his heart was not at rest until it came to rest in God, was he simply saying that we are selfish and coming to God makes us happy? That we use God for our own ends? Is the reward system of the Bible — “do this and you will live” — a mercenary system of doing things so we will get a prize at the end? Julie Clawson, over at Emerging Women, weighed in recently on how educational systems frame learning with rewards and she calls that into question. This question — how moral is a reward system for morals? — is a question worth thinking about.
Brief note: I’ve got a new “doo-hickey” on the side called “Blom Me” It is an Instant Message kind of thing. I’m not all that sure how it works, but if you sign up and we are on the computer at the same time, I think we can chat directly. I want to give this a chance.
Are you troubled by evangelism for the sake of a reward (heaven) or the elimination of a punishment (hell)? Are you bothered by motivating others by what they will get if they do what you say? Is this nothing more than warrants? How do we deal with the regular presence of reward/punishment language in the Bible? What is our motivation? And, to be honest, how often can we realize what we think should be our motivation? Does the altruistic system — do what is right because it is right — depersonalize our behavior and turn into learning to live in the only real objective reality?
Now we get practical: How do we motivate others? Does a reward system of immediate results or less-than-final results create superficiality?
I stumbled upon Gilbert Meilaender’s new book with a gorgeous evocative cover: The Way That Leads There. His first chapter converses with Augustine the issue of desire and he virtually leads us through this discussion to a nice place — at least he does for me. I loved his first chapter. There are six chapters in this elegantly written and ruminating study of the Christian life. I’m savoring it.
“On the face of it, then, our desire for God seems selfish” (9). But, we are not to seek God for the sake of our own happiness for that makes ourselves the final end. And self-denial can be seen as the alternative, but self-denial is never an end in itself in the Bible and it too makes us the final end of our motivation. The biblical moral basis is neither mercenary nor disinterested altruism.
For some finding God is about possessing God; for others it is about praising God; for others it is about the presence of God. Augustine, Meilaender argues, “does not seek God in order that he may thereby live a happy life; he seeks God in order to delight in his presence” (11). Perhaps this puts it all in pleasing perspective: “The point is not to have joy but to rest in God’s presence, which will of course bring joy to one who loves God” (12). “We can call this a loss of self (in the praise of God) or an expansion of self (as one flourishes in God)” (12).
Is this an ethic of relational love?
He critiques Luther for thinking he was thinking correctly in saying he wanted God’s glory so much that he’d go to hell if that meant glorifying God. Meilaender: “To renounce even desire for the vision of God,” which is what Luther in effect was doing, “is to renounce our creatureliness — which is the primal sin” (22). Later: “It would be prideful self-sufficiency for one who is God’s creature to repress the heart’s desire for God” (36).
I come to this reflection: Christianity is not in the end mercenary and it is not an ethic of disinterestedness. Instead, it is a relationship with God, it is delight in God that motivates. The reward is not the point; the reward is God and relation with God. Our motivation, if we are to hold our a reward, is to know God and to gaze at God in God’s presence. Motivations of our behaviors with fellow Eikons, then, can be framed in the same way: It it is about delight in their presence, about relationship, about love.
Any thoughts?

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Sam Carr

posted June 28, 2007 at 1:53 am

As empty or at least incomplete beings the desire or need to find completeness or fulfilment does not correspond to seeking a reward.
The gospel is unashamedly relational and it does ineed promise that we will find our fulfilment as we give of ourselves in love.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 2:38 am

Does anyone ever wonder whether perhaps God needs us as much as we need him – that the relationship is not entirely one-sided? I was flipping through the old testament last night and while I see much of the old testament as metaphorical we are certainly presented with the picture of God as either a frustrated parent or a jealous spouse – as a God who rages at our betrayals and waywardness, but like a lover who can’t stop loving the one who causes so much pain, keeps forgiving us and calling us back to him. Sorry if I sound blasphemous to anyone. I don’t intend to.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 3:06 am

Sometimes for me it is simply a matter of curiosity. And I don’t mean to disrespect by using a “trivial” term. I guess in the same way as most humans “search” through all the vehicles we have available to us. Part of the relational need for God is driven by the simple desire to know, in that I cannot bear to not know. . . I guess you could call that a fear motivator – fear of the unknown . . . but I’m sure scientific enquiry wouldn’t allow that label so why should I?

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Greg Laughery

posted June 28, 2007 at 3:45 am

Thanks for this thoughtful post and for tip on Meilaender’s book.
Rewards without being in community with God would constantly fail to bring about true life and true love for God, world, self and other. Pragmatism dies a thousand deaths and then some.
On, “We can call this a loss of self (in the praise of God) or an expansion of self (as one flourishes in God)” (12). I prefer the latter as I’m not sure God wants us to be losing self, in praise of God, or otherwise. I wonder if this ties in with losing our creatureliness, which Meilaender seems to see as pejorative?
“It would be prideful self-sufficiency for one who is God’s creature to repress the heart’s desire for God” (36).
True. My thought is that perhaps it might also go something like: God desires that God’s creatures have some self-sufficiency, and therfore God created a world and other humans so that we might have right desires for both God and the created. To repress these desires for the latter, and to only have desires for God might not be Godly. Relationship or community would then include, God, the world, self and other.

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Jim Martin

posted June 28, 2007 at 5:11 am

It helps me some to think of God himself as being the end rather than God’s blessings.
I like what you say at the end regarding the reward being God himself and being able to know him and gaze or “behold” God while being in his presence.
When God is not the point, it is very easy to make his blessings the point. In the end, I can get overly focused on “what I am getting out of this” instead of being captivated by a relationship with God–regardless of what else might be happening or not happening.
Perhaps this is somewhat like a marriage. There is something wonderful about simply enjoying the presence of a wife/husband–which can be very satisfying and joyful. At the same time, we can get into trouble as we become focused on what I might be getting out of this relationship.

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Matt Adair

posted June 28, 2007 at 5:20 am

Jonathan Edwards addressed this question in his work, ‘A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World'; CS Lewis and living theologians like John Piper have written about it as well; Piper pretty much writes everything he writes addressing this question and his response (which I believe is thoroughly biblical) is that we exist to glorify God and that ‘God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in God.’ In other words, our desire to be happy/joyful (the Bible is indiscriminate in its use of the language of satisfaction) and God’s passion for his glory aren’t antithetical but are, in fact, one and the same.

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Brandon Jones

posted June 28, 2007 at 6:25 am

Good morning Scot,
It’s nice to see someone else enjoying the writings of Gilbert Meilaender. I highly recommend his collection of essays published by Brazos called “The Freedom of a Christian.” He has a few essays one vocation in there that talk of God Himself as our rest. I’ve always enjoyed his writing style because he often draws from his Lutheran tradition, Augustine, C. S. Lewis, Homer, and Dante all in one essay.

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Peg Bowman

posted June 28, 2007 at 7:41 am

As I was reading your post I was reminded of something my pastor said years ago when he was speaking of God’s love: “It is the nature of love to want to be loved in return.” This isn’t a selfish thing on His part — it’s a desire to share something that is wonderful, and it requires two willing participants. Both will give, both will receive, and both will enjoy.
As for the loss of self — I tend to think of this in terms of “losing oneself in order to find oneself” — it’s a temporary passage even though it may not appear so at the beginning. We see ourselves most clearly in surrender to Him Who knows us best.
I agree, to reduce all this to mere “rewards” comes off as really crass. Perhaps the Bible speaks in these terms because fallen humanity sometimes can’t handle the higher call, at least not right away, and that’s how God initially gets us to notice Him? “Come with Me and live forever” — I have to admit that grabs my attention! — “ummm… do tell me more… what exactly do You have in mind?” — and the relationship begins.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 8:57 am

Matt in #6 names Piper and Jonathon Edwards. In reading the post I, also, was reminded of “Christian Hedonism.” I think Piper stretches the point at points, but I think he makes a good point (sorry). One of his points is that self-interest isn’t necessary selfishness. I think you could say he claims it is good to seek God because it is good for us. This is informed and godly self-interest. I tend to agree with that part of it.
Mariam #2,
I don’t think you are blaspheming, but I don’t think that God needs us at all like we need him. I think he created us and loves us because he is creative and loving. I think the Trinity would be completely sufficient and happy without humans. We don’t fill a need for God; we exist because of God’s creative and loving nature. I don’t mean this at all as a retort – just weighing in with my opinion.

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John W Frye

posted June 28, 2007 at 9:22 am

“What’s in it for us?” is basically Peter’s question in Matt 19:27. While “rewards” is a concept that teaches truth by analogy I don’t think “reward/punishment” is mere accomodation to our fallenness. Jesus takes Peter’s question seriously and answers it. Can the idea of rewards be used in a crass way? Yes, but that’s not the idea’s fault.
At the relational level, the perichoretic dance of the Trinity is an open dance. God wants us to join the deep joy and meaning of Trinitarian love. That’s what we were made for…and what we forfeited in the rebellion. We are not just longing for Eden, but for the billows of love enjoyed there. “O the deep, deep love of Jesus…”

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posted June 28, 2007 at 9:25 am

Mariam #2,
I don’t think there’s warrant in Scripture for saying God “needs” us. I would say instead that God desires relationship with us far more than we desire relationship with him. God created humanity out of the fullness, the completeness of the relationship of the Trinity, not out of any lack, need, or insufficiency.
Your larger point, that the relationship between God and humanity is not onesided, is an important one. Here on JesusCreed that point might almost go without saying to many. But I’ve known many faith communities where that insight would be, sadly, surprising.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 9:41 am

A couple of commenters have mentioned C. S. Lewis. Here’s a quotation specifically about this issue. (I’m sure you are already familiar with it.)
“Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to” (C. S. Lewis).

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posted June 28, 2007 at 10:27 am

To Mariam (#2) I can’t see that God “needs” us supported in any explicit way in either scripture or philosophy. However, it seems to me that the principle difference between human and divine can be stated in terms of need. To put it simply, humans need, God provides. God has abundance while we have deficits. If God has any “need” of us it is simply that He needs to love.
More to the original point from Scot, it seems that this is a matter of maturity. While immature, human beings are best motivated by reward and punishment systems. Children seem to understand little else at times. Perhaps in a larger, spiritual sense, the same is true. There is a time when the desire for heaven and the fear of hell are all it takes to win one over. Upon maturation, the desire for relationship with God, regardless of the cost involved or the path it takes, is overwhelming and the knowledge of that relationship is all the reward we require.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 10:50 am

I think that it is hard to motivate people to invest for a long period of time, which is what Christianity does. We want instant gratification, quick fixes and replaceable parts. A relationship requires time, sacrifice and commitment. Sometimes, the glory of heaven and the wrath of hell are used more as a pick up line. It focuses not on God loving and wanting to be in relation with his creation and instead “where would you go if you died tonight?” Fortunately, grace and mercy through the Spirit intercede on our behalf even when we are witnessing or remaining silent. This probably goes back a little to the missional Jesus…

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posted June 28, 2007 at 12:17 pm

Merit-based religion seems very dangerous to me. Much like a marriage with a pre-nup. I’ll love you as long as.. and if you …
But aren’t we a culture that defines success by rewards earned? Good grades for study. Trophies for excelling at sports. Crowsn for the most beautiful. Certificates for the most bible verses learned.
I think God isn’t impressed with our doing, because it takes away from our being. Especially our being with Him.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 12:18 pm

Augustine, Meilaender argues, “does not seek God in order that he may thereby live a happy life; he seeks God in order to delight in his presence” (11). Perhaps this puts it all in pleasing perspective: “The point is not to have joy but to rest in God’s presence, which will of course bring joy to one who loves God” (12). “We can call this a loss of self (in the praise of God) or an expansion of self (as one flourishes in God)” (12).
I love this. It is an ethic of relational love I think, and once again, akin to a marriage. In a good marriage, I believe what you most want is to be with the person.
I think when we try to show God to people we want others to share our delight.

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Bob Postiff

posted June 28, 2007 at 12:37 pm

A rich summary to a fine book.
Are we moving beyond a reward/punishment type of God of the New Testament more so in the OT to a more mature mystical love relaltionship? I became a Christian 20 years ago with the reward/punishment God and now enjoy a good love relationship with him. My theology at that time was very exclusive now borders on universalism. Also God seemed “out there”, now it is more of a kingdom of God within, less future oriented and more “present moment”.

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John W Frye

posted June 28, 2007 at 12:51 pm

How is that we can so cavalierly move on pass the reward-punishment reality when it was an emphasis in the very teachings of the Christ?

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posted June 28, 2007 at 1:00 pm

Mercenary: 1. Motivated solely by a desire for monetary or material gain.
2. Hired for service in a foreign army.
n. pl. mer·ce·nar·ies
1. One who serves or works merely for monetary gain; a hireling.
2. A professional soldier hired for service in a foreign army.

I think Christianity isn’t mercenary as much as it is confused about whether or not it is a merit based system. W wouldn’t say that school is mercenary, yet it is a rewards based system, yet that system exists supposedly to promote learning.
On the one hand, we are converted (in most traditions) through forgiveness of sin and the desire to avoid eternal punishment or to gain heaven. But once “in,” we’re told that shouldn’t be motive for loving/serving God. But then what is the consequence of having that motive? Punishment? Loss? Pain?
And rewards are promised in many parts of Scripture. But to work towards a reward that you aren’t supposed to want creates crazy people. :)
What is tangible about the love of God? Scripture tries to make God’s love tangible through the identification of blessings. But if we aren’t experiencing blessings, thenw e are supposed to count it all joy anyway, not criticize God and trust we are blessed despite what we see. If we suffer, some say we are experiencing punishment, but then others will claim that that is a wrong way to see pain and suffering.
If we eliminate the idea of reward/punishment, then on what grounds does one *have* a relationship that can be measured? That’s what the ancients thought about it, anyway, since sin wasn’t so much about personal error as about community suffering or blessing.
So is it more that we are no longer in need of blessing and punishment since we do a better job of controlling our reality through hard work, science, material security, credit and the like? Therefore we can see God more mystically?

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posted June 28, 2007 at 1:30 pm

I’m with Karen (#15),
A strictly reward-punishment, merit based religion disturbs me. I think what Augustine was getting at is closer to what you say in your last few lines Scot… God/relationship with God is the true reward. When the Bible speaks of reward it is more in this way… eternal life is “knowing God,” reward is not imediate, but only when one faithfully completes the journey…
My concern is that we have allowed any reward-punishment language in the Bible to be co-opted by consumer-capitolist American culture…This has turned some Christians into consumers of God/the spiritual life, always asking ‘what do I get out of it?’ In ministry one often sees this in the ‘church hoppers.’ I fear our theology has helped create this.

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Bob Postiff

posted June 28, 2007 at 2:20 pm

Maybe reward are blessings by living a forgiving,peaceful,loving life as opposed to a hate,anger,cynicism filled life is my punishment. Heaven all the way to heaven and hell all the way to hell. That puts reward/punishment into our volitional control. Maybe God acts as a dieist in this case. Then in the New Testament God takes an active role in punishment. Jesus is loving and demanding and un-domesticated. This is quite a conudrum or paradox. Praise seems to follow paradox.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 2:59 pm

I believe God chooses to need us. He chooses to love us simply because He is God. I believe God made a choice to run after His creation and intentionally chasen us to Himself. We, in no way, deserve God’s chasening after us but as we continue to accept it, He shows Himself to us in a greater way.
I am not all too in favor of this rewards/punishment deal. We are not dogs. That does not mean that God does not allow us to go through tribulations and trials. We do and He does allow it. It is not for ourselves though. It is so we will look to God for our strength and for guidence. It is a beautiful thing. Just thought I would share that.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 4:07 pm

“When Augustine said his heart was not at rest until it came to rest in God, was he simply saying that we are selfish and coming to God makes us happy?”
Interesting question.
First, I think it demonstrates how poorly so many of us understand the nature of our humanity and desire. I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating: desire is not a bad thing. I think way too many Christians behave (in reaction to the way our culture has run amok with all sorts of pursuit of desires) that desire is something to be denied or surpressed or bad.
Good luck living if that’s the case.
Instead I think Augustine is expressing something far deeper. First, he is identifying that at the core of our desire is something more than the superficial crap that we all, from day to day, think will satisfy us. His statement (and the story of his life) is a testimony to learning from experience that what man truly desires is not some thing, and not something he can obtain for himself, but Someone, the Infinite, who must give Himself to us if we are to reach Him. It also expresses how desire is not merely preference. That the core ones, the ones we don’t generate for ourselves, are a gift and rooted in our being. The only thing we can truly do is look to where they point. See what (or Who) answers them. It’s an expression about the nature of our being and not some moral code.
And that’s the way in which a Christian’s attention to his core desires, of his heart, and his recognition of God as its Answer isn’t some utilitarian selfishness, but a realistic and humble recognition of who he is.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a person being first pulled to recognize God by a fear of hell and the loss of heaven. That’s always been recognized as an early stage of the love of the Lord by traditional Christianity. But an incomplete one. Maturation will move beyond this to a fuller love of God.
“If we eliminate the idea of reward/punishment, then on what grounds does one *have* a relationship that can be measured?”
I doubt, Julie, that you really believe this. I mean, when I think of my true friendships and romantic relationships over my life. I know for a fact that this is the last basis on which I measured whether a relationship existed. And I’d suggest that we all have experience with relationships on the human level. So examine them and reflect on them. Are they seriously just elaborate reward/punishment systems? Is that really the reasonable explanation for what makes them tick?

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Heidi Renee

posted June 28, 2007 at 4:13 pm

I love what Bernard of Clairvaux teaches on this – four stages of love – love of the self, for the self, love of the neighbor because God instructs us to, then love of God for God’s sake, and eventually love of the self for God’s sake.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 4:33 pm

Jack, I just think God is a special case. I can see my human relationships and have conversations and the reciprocity that all that involves. With God, we don’t have tangible evidence of God’s existence, let alone this “relationship” and so the ancients looked for evidence of that relationship in those tangibles, in direct communication (Abraham, Moses, Jesus) and in how God provides for communities. The love David felt for God had as much to do with how God blessed and punished David as anything.
In today’s world, we have recast the relationship to this ideal of “intimacy” and I just don’t know what it means. Ideas?

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posted June 28, 2007 at 6:09 pm

Have we recast the relationship in today’s world? Wasn’t intimacy a hallmark of Jesus’s relationship with God? I agree that we don’t have direct, touch and feel, face-to-face contact with God, so the intimacy is different from a human relationship.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 6:19 pm

John Frye,
I think that we in the First World are uncomfortable with Jesus’ assertions of reward and punishment. You are right that there is no getting around them, though we perhaps think that if we can find a way to deny this, we won’t be held accountable for not doing what we’re told to do. So I think we need to rest more than we do in that discomfort zone. But I think, as we have discussed before, there are so many dimensions to our faith and we are too quick to allow critics to zone in narrowly on a limited definition of Christianity (eg, reward and punishment) and reject (a caricature of) the faith without ever seeing its richness and fullness. I know we think the same on this. At least I believe we do!

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Every Square Inch

posted June 28, 2007 at 10:13 pm

Meilaender makes the point that Augustine “does not seek God in order that he may thereby live a happy life; he seeks God in order to delight in his presence”
I do not know what Augustine might have been thinking but…
Is one more pleasing to God than another? When we seek God [not simply His blessings] to live a happy life, we are expressing faith and satisfaction in God. This pleases Him. Seeking God to delight in His presence is no more virtuous, it is simply enlightened self interest. That’s the essence of the good news that our pursuit of happiness and our pursuit for God is one and the same.
Someone earlier mentioned Piper – I think the title of his book “God is the Gospel” captures this perfectly.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 10:41 pm

In response to the post and in particular John (#18)…we don’t cavelierly move beyond the reward punishment ‘system’ of things. Those are consequences for our choices. That goes for all of life really. It’s cause and effect. It’s a natural part of the way things are and perhaps you could even call it a truth. God sets a standard. Sometimes we hit the mark, but most of the time we miss it.
But here’s something that blows the whole system apart…Grace. Unmerited favor. Undeserved. We screw up but God gives grace and forgiveness. The religiously pious Jesus condemns, but the searching adulteress, whore, greedy person…he shows them grace.
Grace is something the ‘pious religious’ folk don’t understand. Grace is what actually allows us to “delight in their presence and love.” Think about it in human relationships as well. It is grace that enables the relationship to move past difference and failure.

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Scott Watson

posted June 29, 2007 at 7:52 am

Fact:Jesus and Paul believed in final justification by works.It’s there for all to read in the NT.And they also were proponents of radical grace,in their own ways.These are not mutually exclusive;they actually go hand in hand.. The problem is vertain theologies which form the interpretive grid on how many read the NT causes a lot of the misunderstanding and angst.Augustine and Luther were both towering figures who struggled mightily in coming to terms with reconciliation to God in their contexts, psychologically and spiritually but as doctrinal grids for reading the Bible, there are problems.

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posted June 30, 2007 at 12:20 am

I’m actually a little surprised by the belittlement of God’s reward system that I’m seeing here. Why would Jesus talk so much about rewards if they weren’t important? A simple word study by a computer search will turn up a lot of references where rewards are promised. These are not given for the “immature” as some of you seem to think. Here are some principles of Biblical reward:
1) They are chiefly for the hereafter. They are not to be confused with earthly “blessings.” This means we look forward to them with faith which pleases God. If we are not looking forward to receiving His promised rewards, where is our faith?
2) Our success as Christians depends much more on what we can receive from God than what we give Him. We must come as children. Surely, we should want to be rewarded if we come as children come. They love rewards. And as children, our preciousness is assigned to us because God can lavish His myriad gifts upon us and we can appreciate it. We are as useless to God as a toddler is to his mother, and that’s a good place to be.
3) Reward is not “merit.” It is all grace. We are only unprofitable servants doing what we are supposed to do.
4) To be extravegant with rewards is God’s pleasure. A prophet’s reward is promised for a cup of cold water given to a prophet. If we are not enthusistic about His rewards, what kind of gratitude is that?
In my view this an area where the Western church needs to repent. We may not understand the nature of the rewards promised to us in the hereafter, but that is no excuse for discounting their importance. If Jesus thinks these rewards are important, we ought to agree with him.

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Elizabeth Chapin

posted June 30, 2007 at 2:47 am

This topic is interesting and reminds me of teaching my kids about obedience. I heard early on about stages of obedience – at first kids obey out of fear of punishment, then as they get a little older out of hope of reward, but the goal is for them to be responsible and do what’s right because it is right. Perhaps our relationship with God is not something that we have because we fear hell, or hope for heaven, but we ultimately desire relationship with God because it is what we were created for. If we view our relationship in some other way, perhaps we are just stuck at that stage of development where we are primarily motivated by external factors and have yet to experience fully or clearly understand the “rightness” of our relationship with God and with others.

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Julie Clawson

posted June 30, 2007 at 10:15 am

hi – Thanks for the link. I’ve been out of town (and internet deprived) and just saw this. I look forward to reading the comments.

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