In December, a dear woman in our church handed me a tin of Christmas treats she’d made for our family, and as I received them, I felt tears immediately welling up in my eyes.
She didn’t know and couldn’t have known, but I had been in need of encouragement—even something as simple as a tin of cookies, something that expressed I’d been thought of and that I was appreciated.
I’d actually been fighting against this desire for weeks, fighting against it because I felt it had crossed a line into craving approval and validation. Craving reward. Maybe even a little self-glory. The craving was strong in its temptation; my faith felt fragile and weak.
Is it so wrong to want reward? Sometimes I just want to know from God that what I’m doing for Him matters. Sometimes I want to see the fruit of my labor and get to rejoice at how the Lord is moving in and around me. But then sometimes a desire for reward is more sinister. I feel in my bones the lure of applause, money, worldly success, comfort, ease and self-glory. All temporary, all things that might provide immediate gratification. I know to seek after these as rewards for things I’ve done is wrong.
But reward also appears in Scripture as a positive, like in Hebrews 11:6: “He who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him,” and as displayed in the litany of characters whose faithfulness was rewarded.
So in regard to encouragement, which is it: right or wrong? I had to see for myself. Mid-morning on that ordinary Thursday, I set aside my work and began reading Hebrews 11 and 12 out loud—like really loud—as if preaching to myself.
The one person who stood out in my reading was not Abraham or Moses or Sarah or any of those who get the most play in those chapters. It was Esau. Esau, the twin who, on a whim, gave up his inheritance for a bowl of soup. His reward could have been a double inheritance from Isaac, but he settled for a quick bite to eat in order to satisfy his hunger. Temporary, immediate gratification.
And the tears just fell because I knew I was Esau. I wanted a reward but not the greater reward. I wanted to satisfy a hunger, and quickly.
The others mentioned in Hebrews 11 sought the greater reward. But to get it, they had to give up the immediate reward. They chose to go hungry, so to speak. Abraham, for example, moved to and stayed for the rest of his life in a foreign place. He raised his kids in a place where they were outsiders. He could do whatever God asked of him, because he staked everything on a future inheritance, a future satiation.
Did he receive reward in his lifetime? Certainly. He had children. He had wealth. He had influence. But his desire was for the heavenly country and all the rewards that his faith would win him in that place.
I’ve never noticed it before, but as I read Hebrews 12 aloud through my tears, I realized we’re actually given a description of our future reward. Verses 22-24 say our reward is the heavenly Jerusalem, an innumerable company of angels, joining in the assembly of the church, God Himself, the company of the spirits of men made perfect, Jesus our Mediator and the blood that is our redemption.
That’s so much more glorious than a temporary, passing reward.
We may receive success, money, applause and comfort as gifts from God in our lives, but the reward to crave is the reward that is yet to come.
If we stake everything on that future inheritance, we can do anything God asks of us.
When I realized that, my tears of unmet desire turned to tears of anticipation and joy.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. Hebrews 12:28