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Looking for Rewards in All the Wrong Places

by Pierce Hibbs • July 13, 2015 •

The songbirds always manage to get up before I do, so by the time I start my morning run they have already been carrying on their lyrical dialogues, mostly the robins, but the song sparrows and Carolina wrens fill in the background. Their songs seem to be so thickly spun through the morning air that it feels as if I’m running through them. Their beauty envelopes me, as it does everyone else who wakes up later in the morning. They sing before an audience.

The bats that I saw one morning, on the other hand, live most of their lives in secret, under the cover of darkness. This phenomenon has its own beauty, I think, a biblical beauty, though I admit it takes some effort to notice; bats have quite a caricature to break through before we find beauty in their behavior. Their flight patterns resemble something of a blindfolded drunkard trying to make his way down a dirt road. Compound that with a diet of bug blood, and you’re left with something that seems . . . well, not exactly beautiful.

But as I stood on my porch watching what seemed like giant black butterflies dive and twirl in the moonlight, it occurred to me that their work would literally never come to light. People who woke up later that morning would never see them (and be all the happier for it!). And perhaps that is where I started to perceive their beauty. There is, after all, beauty beyond measure in secrecy.

We bear little resemblance to our nocturnal chiroptera. Besides the difference in diet, bats live naturally in seclusion; they have been crafted by God to do their work in secret. We who can choose when and where we do our work often find it difficult to do anything without being noticed by others.

Maintaining a life in secret is no small task for us. We crave recognition; we want the world to observe us doing something beautiful for those around us. Had we not had this desire, then Jesus would not have spent his time telling his disciples about doing their work in secret. Why would he repeatedly tell them to do good in secret, to pray in secret, and to fast in secret (Matt 6:4, 6, 18)? He follows these calls to secrecy with a command to seek heavenly treasure (Matt 6:19–21). So it would seem, at first glance, that this is a matter of reward. But Scripture is deep. Reward is undoubtedly in focus, but there is more to that word than we tend to appreciate.

A reward is a token expression of gratitude and value. To give a reward is to express thanks and to confirm the importance of someone’s actions. But a reward takes into account more than action itself. It highlights a person’s motives. “Motive” is legal-speak for “heart.” The reward follows not simply from what has been done but from why it has been done.

Take the hypocrites from Matt 6, for example. They sound trumpets before giving to the needy. For such a self-glorifying act, we might expect that Jesus would say that they receive no reward. But he does not say this. He says, “They have received their reward.” In other words, they were still given a token expression of gratitude and value, but the giver of that token is what Jesus calls our attention to in this passage. What did the hypocrites truly want? They wanted to be observed by others for their “selfless” humanitarian (or, in their context, “lawful”) actions. And so they get just that: they receive a reward of praise from their peers. But the moment the praise dies down, the desire for recognition creeps back into the human heart, and the hunt for self-glory begins again. Hypocrites claim to do what God requires, but they want to be seen for it. Their motive, in other words, does not match their profession and thus undercuts the authenticity of their actions. As a result, they are given a reward as fleeting as it is enticing.

The same occurs with prayer (Matt 6:5). Speaking to the very God who spoke us into being comes with rewards!? What reward should we receive for speaking to the one who has reset the bones of our broken souls, mended the lacerations of our conscience, and given us new life? That alone is cause for reflection. But the hypocrites whom Jesus mentions are not concerned with this. Instead, they already know the reward they want, and that reward, yet again, matches the motive of their heart. God says to them, in effect, “If you would like to receive praise and observance for your prayer, you can have it.” At this point, our minds are itching to see what the true reward is for those who do their work in secret, both their giving and their praying.

Lastly, we have the hypocritical fasters (Matt 6:16)—those who want to be recognized for the anguish they willingly experience. They want people to observe their suffering and pay their respects. They, too, receive a fitting reward in the praise of men; such praise, in other words, is a reward of sorts, but it is more pestilent than gratifying. The well of longing for self-glory never runs dry. It breeds a sickness that goes often unchecked.

In all of these situations, it is important to note that God is not in the business of giving people what they do not want. It is just the opposite, which is both telling and terrifying. It is telling because it brings us again and again to ask ourselves what we are really after. What do we really desire? It is terrifying because it reveals that life is not about having or doing the right things; it is about wanting the right things. Life is a matter of motive, a matter of the heart. And the heart can only be changed by the Spirit. Prayerfully relying on the Spirit for a changed heart certainly brings with it a healthy dose of fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). But it should also be encouraging. To change a human heart is a great work, but God never leaves his work unfinished (Phil 1:6).

Now, what is the reward we are holding out for, the reward we will be given for doing our good works in secret, for praying in secret, for fasting in secret? The true reward, the token expression of gratitude and value, is God himself! We have no greater desire than to commune with the Trinitarian God who made us. That is the greatest reward, and it matches our hearts motives. When we do good works without being seen, we grow closer to the God who does more secret good than we could ever imagine. We are enabled, by the Spirit, to see through the fleeting satisfaction of temporary acts to the lasting satisfaction of eternal relationship. Likewise, when we pray in secret (not announcing to everyone we come across that we had our devotions that morning), our desire is an unhindered relationship with God. Fasting in secret, too, reflects our desire to suffer physically in God’s presence, reminding ourselves that he is the bread of life and the living water (John 6:35; 7:38). Fasting reminds us of the relationship that sustains us.

All this is to say that the more we do in secret, the closer we will grow in eternal fellowship with the Trinity. This is not so surprising when we consider the nature of the God who has made us in his image. The persons of the Godhead have always existed in loving relationship with one another, long before there were any creatures who could take notice. God loves alone, we might say. And Fred Sanders has noted that “God is the only one who can love alone, for Trinitarian reasons: God the Father loves God the Son in the love of God the Holy Spirit.”[1] God, by himself, is the only being capable of pure secrecy—of existing only for himself. So the greatest reward for us as his creatures is not anything we can find on this earth: it is only him. When we are given such a reward by the one who sees in secret, we are invited into fellowship with the God who has always existed in loving relationship with himself, apart from outside recognition.

I am not making a comparison between bats and the life of the Trinity. I am, however, saying that because all of reality is revelational of God, we should not be surprised to find clues all around us pointing to the only reward worth seeking. There is, in other words, a “right place” to look for rewards, and that place is not in the eyes of men; it is in the all-pervasive vision of God, who has called us into relationship with himself.

[1] Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 63.

Pierce T. Hibbs (MAR) serves as the Assistant Director of the Center for Theological Writing at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is currently enrolled in the Th.M. program and studying the language theory of Kenneth L. Pike. Pierce, his wife, Christina, and their son, Isaac, reside in Telford, PA.

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