Three little children left the Dollar Tree clutching their rewards with two contented parents. A rare moment of parenting success – or at least it felt more like success than other moments do. We had challenged each of our children in an area that they needed to improve in a behavior, and then we had drawn 3 squares for each of them on a white board and put a check, or a heart, or a star, or a dinosaur, or a unicorn (their desires got more outlandish as the days went on!) in the box when they completed their challenge each day. When all 3 children had filled all 3 of their boxes, they each got to pick something out at the Dollar Tree (where everything is a dollar, or sometimes even less!) $3 plus tax bought us 3 days of improved behavior. A tub of tiny dinosaurs (Lily), a nerf dart blow gun (Josh), and a pink balloon (Luella) were small prices for us to pay. How great was their joy over such a small reward!
Being at that stage where we are parenting “littles”, we knew we needed to keep the challenge short and the reward immediate. The juice had to be worth the squeeze for our little ones, and a month long challenge would have exceeded their attention span. We also knew that there needed to be a reward to keep them motivated and engaged. For me, the days of being motivated by a dollar are pretty far gone. I joke that it costs me $50 every time I leave the house. But I was happy for my kids because I didn’t want them to be disappointed. I wanted them to think that their effort was well rewarded.
There’s nothing worse in life than a poor reward – working extra hard at something only to receive the equivalent of a used trophy purchased from some flea market with your name written in sharpie over the last recipient’s name. But as my kids get older, I know they are going to have to come to terms with some disappointing rewards. They will do the right thing and no one will notice. They will expend more effort than others but come up short. They will fight the good fight and the only thing that will change will be them.
Part of the disappointment we sometimes feel springs not from our righteousness, but from our depravity. Our values are messed up. We want the applause, not the personal improvement. We want the salary, not the satisfaction of a job well done. We aspire for glory, but not the glory that comes from God. Our misshapen hearts are often exposed by our disappointment.
As Christians, we are promised rewards, but we sometimes think of them as the worst kind of reward. You give God the look your teenage son gives you when you say, “You learned a valuable lesson today, son, and even though you don’t think so right now, one day you’ll look back and appreciate it.” Yeah, right dad. But perhaps what’s even harder in the Christian life is that we are promised future rewards. Jesus said of those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake that their rewards is great…in heaven (Luke 6:23). Concerning the religious hypocrites who prayed loudly on street corners to be seen of men, Jesus said that they had already received their reward. Their reward was the applause of men. The rich man (in the story of Lazarus the beggar) had received his good things in this life. And to Jesus, that was a pretty worthless reward compared to a heavenly reward. It was the worst reward.
Would you trade your immediate rewards for future rewards? Could you suffer for God without complaint and without acknowledgement knowing that these sufferings will turn into future glory? Could you labor without praise so that some other might one day enter into your harvest – and receive the accolades!
Over the course of the last few days one of my children’s precious rewards has floated up into the heavens, lost forever. The dinosaurs are being depleted as they are lost amongst the crowd of other plastic possessions. And the blow dart just doesn’t work. Fun rewards, but not lasting rewards. Let us learn to love the rewards to come. The rewards that last. Let us not confuse the worst rewards with the best rewards.