Reward and Punishment
When I was in Junior High my English teacher taught our class how to write a “precis”. A precis is a shortened version of an essay or article that maintains the meaning of the original piece of writing. He would do this by assigning us a 500-word essay on a particular topic and once completed would require the class to rewrite that same essay in 250 words, then 100 words, and finally 50 words. This exercise trained us to convey information in a more precise way.
At the time, I didn’t see the usefulness of this exercise other than the fact that if you did it correctly you were rewarded with a good grade and if you didn’t you were punished with more homework. Later on, however, in my work as a preacher and Bible teacher tasked with writing weekly lessons and sermons limited by time and space constraints, I saw the wisdom of this discipline.
I mention this training because many times in our spiritual lives we only look at the reward or punishment aspect of certain disciplines without actually seeing the final benefit that the reward ultimately leads us to. Take sexual purity for example. There are numerous commands in the Bible that forbid any number of immoral sexual practices. The punishments for these are certain condemnation and loss of our participation in the kingdom of God (I Corinthians 6:9). Obedience, on the other hand, results in more than simply avoiding punishment. There are definite rewards that come with an effort at sexual purity which is experienced in the here and now.
For example, sexual purity leads to peace of mind. In a world that is saturated with sexual images and enticements, sexual purity is a shining path of sure behavior that never fails. One who pursues sexual purity has a clearer spiritual vision more able to discern the presence of the Spirit in his life as well as an ever-growing sense of personal worth. People who are sexually pure experience true freedom having been liberated from the bondage that sexual sin creates. Those who seek personal freedom through sexual emancipation only enslave themselves to their sexual passions that in turn destroy their souls.
Another reward that is seldom understood is that which results from generous giving or liberality. We are familiar with the destructive power of greed and the many warnings against worldliness, but the reward for those that give generously is not simply that they make God happy. The personal benefit of giving generously is that the givers protect themselves against being possessed by their possessions. A sure sign that you are being possessed by your things is if you spend more money on your “toys” (whatever those may be) than you give to the Lord.
Another benefit for the liberal giver is that he becomes like God in his giving because generosity is part of God’s nature. It is proof that the Spirit of Christ dwells richly in him and this evidence creates joy in one’s soul. This is the practical reason why it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Finally, there is the matter of church attendance. I believe this issue is most often seen in terms of a reward/punishment framework, “I go to church, I’ve done the right thing. I don’t go, I’m not a good Christian and may even lose my soul.” This type of myopic thinking leads to a legalistic attitude that produces resentment, the very opposite of what worship is supposed to create in the heart of the believer. I say resentment because the one who “has” to attend worship comes with the wrong attitude, to begin with, and leaves with nothing more than the satisfaction that he has denied himself other things (sleep, play, etc.) in order to do the right thing.
This type of exchange naturally breeds resentment in the long run because continually doing one’s duty is never a substitute for doing one’s natural desire.
We should attend worship regularly because we love God, and the method necessary to cultivate our love for God is to practice loving God’s people. God dwells in people through His Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), and I desire to be with and before God in worship often because I love Him and love being with His people often. Those who don’t attend church regularly are usually those who don’t have many loving relationships with the people in the church. The true reward for regular church attendance is our growth in the knowledge of our God and the joy that Christian fellowship produces. Things that are motivated by love not the fear of punishment.
As a Christian, I only have rewards to look forward to in the future because the punishment for my sins has been paid for by Jesus Christ once and for all on the cross.