March 15, 1994
Once an old, but crafty, man found his new neighbors had very noisy children. Instead of yelling at them to be quiet, he decided to promise them money for making noise. At first the children were excited about his offer and happy to oblige. They whooped and hollered and at the end of each day, were paid for it.
After a few days, the old man told them he couldn’t quite afford as much as he had been paying but would still give them money. They still made noise, but not quite so much. Gradually he lowered the amount each day. Finally they got disgusted and quit. When he asked why, they said, “We won’t make noise for nothing.”
The article accompanying this story made the point; promises of reward for desired behavior eventually destroys incentive. If someone is going to consistently do a certain thing, a reward may be the worst way to make it happen.
Christians are promised a reward. One has to ask if that promise destroys our incentive? Or do we “work” for a different reason?
Part of the answer is in something my mother used to tell me. She said that being kind or doing good is its own reward. That is, knowing that we have done right gives satisfaction. We don’t need anything else.
But why then does God promise a reward? Is it to encourage us to keep doing right? Some people think so. In fact, many have the idea that God sets up a list of rules and if they obey them, they will earn eternal life and go to heaven. This same concept of “do good – be rewarded” is carried over to Santa Claus and parent-child relationships: “be a good boy and you will get that bike you want.”
But God doesn’t work like that. He knows a little bit more about human capacity for goodness in relation to His standard. No matter how “good” people are, everyone falls short. Instead of putting the onus on humanity, He took the initiative to offer us a relationship with Himself on a different basis.
In the Bible, this relationship is described as a covenant, a unilateral agreement that God initiates. His covenants have specific regulations or stipulations for those involved. God says, “If you do this... you will be blessed (rewarded), and if you do not, you will be cursed (lose your reward).
The rules do not establish the covenants. They just outline how the people were to behave because of the relationship they have with God. Doing the right things would bring them blessing but it would not establish or keep them in relationship; they already had that.
It was as if God told the noisy children He loved them no matter what. That would never change. However, God asked them to behave as an expression of their love for Him. In behaving, they would enjoy freedom from the consequences of sin and that would be a reward. If they did not behave, they would lose that reward and their failure would also indicate they failed to love Him.
Christians have a covenant relationship with God. It is not earned by what we do. He says, “This is the covenant I will make... I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people... for I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
In response to His law written in our hearts, we live to please Him. That life has rewards; some here, some in heaven, but the reward is not heaven itself.
Actually, incentive is destroyed by promised rewards in one way. Those who mistakenly think they can earn eternal life as a reward sometimes give up and quit trying.