The Bible affirms that the pursuit of rewards is good. It also teaches us that the desire for approval is a good and right motivation. We should desire to be approved of.
When Jesus said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom and all these things will be added unto you…” He was commanding you to pursue your own best interests. In Acts 20:35 the Apostle Paul said something similar when he said,
…remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’.
In other words, “do this”, it will make you more content than “doing that”.
The problem is not the pursuit or the desire. The problem is which rewards we value most and whose approval we are seeking.
In Matthew Chapter 6:1-8, the battle for your affections is fleshed out with two examples, and the need for caution. When it comes to your good works and your prayers—beware.
Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them… (Matthew 6:1)
We want to be noticed and in this passage, one of the ways to get noticed is in our generosity.
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets that they may be praised by others. (Matthew 6:2)
Here, the deed is genuinely righteous. Jesus calls it righteous. But the motive is suspect.
Jesus acknowledges the reward, “Truly, I say to you they have received their reward”, and goes on to say,
But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:3-4)
Now, here is a thought that has woken me up in the middle of the night. When I consider all the good deeds I have done and for which I have already received a reward, and, knowing deep down that I was looking for man’s approval, I have to consider the possibility that, come judgment day, I may be in for a very brief awards ceremony.
The second thing under discussion is prayer.
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners that they may be seen by others. (Matthew 6:5)
Again, the backdrop is approval and the reward approval brings. Perhaps these are the kinds of prayers where we are talking about ourselves when we are supposedly talking to God. Perhaps they are camouflage for gossip.
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Perhaps these are prayers in which you are quietly smuggling in a rebuke. A rebuke designed to be heard, but for which you don’t have the guts to do outright.
Perhaps you just want to blow your own trumpet. “Lord, I thank you for the 40 visions you gave me before breakfast today.”
On the other hand, we don’t want to get all weird and secretive about it. Jesus tells us to pray in secret (Matthew 6:6). But we have plenty of instances of public prayer in scripture. Paul told the churches he prayed for them continually and Jeremiah published his prayers in a book.
But, Jesus cautions us not to use prayer as a way of smuggling in our gossip, our boasting or our verbal diarrhoea.
How do we guard against these tar pits?
First, always remember that man’s reward is fickle and fleeting. One minute Jesus is inundated with applause and invitations to speak at the next convention, the next minute, the committee is trying to throw Him off a cliff.
Second, give to those who can’t repay you. Pay it forward and pass it on.
Third, be aware of your own weakness for applause. You do this by drawing near and staying near to God. By being conscious of His presence in life.
Instead of looking around for a show of jazz hands, look up.
Self-promotion in prayer is also a parade we want to avoid. That includes the spectacle of your awesome humility as you pray about how hopeless you and your prayers are.
Fourth, as the preacher once said: Keep your public prayers short and your private prayers long. Make private prayer and meditation part of your staple diet. Make it the bread and butter of your walk with Jesus.
Your only hope of escaping the depths of your own self-deceit is the ongoing transformation that comes through nearness to Him.
And, like Jesus, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, learn to love the rewards that your Father in Heaven promises more than the tainted rewards of this world.