Rewards and the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount has an intriguing perspective on rewards. Christ encourages his listeners to abandon the way of the religious establishment. The folks who were part of the religious establishment did good deeds so that they would be noticed by people. In sharp contrast, Christ teaches that good deeds should not be done to be noticed by others. Notice Matthew 6:1:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

The balance of the chapter continues this theme of avoiding the praise of men when doing good things. There is an important application here for parenting. Let’s begin at the end of the chapter and work our way backwards, highlighting some key points. Jesus says that we are not to worry about what we will wear because God will provide what we need. However, one of the reasons both adults and children worry about clothing is that they want to please or impress others by being in style. So, it is not enough to have clothes, but we must have clothes that do not embarrass us. Next, Jesus urges his disciples to store up for themselves treasures in heaven. One characteristic of heavenly treasure is that it cannot be measured by the devices of man. There is no bank statement which can quantify the amount of heavenly treasure one has. Finally, as we continue to move backwards in the chapter, we come to the category of doing righteous things. Christ is explicit. Do not do good things with an eye to being rewarded by men. Rather, do them in secret, so that your reward will be from God alone. This is extraordinary!

If Christ is our model, then it is important that we do not look to earthly things as our reward. If we do, that is all the reward that we can expect. We must teach this same perspective to our children – God’s reward is what we must desire. As this chapter indicates (as well as other places in Scripture), if we live for the rewards of men, we will not know the rewards of heaven. It is important to train our children to think God’s way about true rewards.

Now, does this mean an existence of efficient, joyless boredom for children? Does it mean that you, as a parent, should never reward them for anything? Never show your own approval when they do well? No, not at all. Your children should be the cause of a life-long celebration of God’s gift to parents. Psalms 127 and 128 indicate that children are a blessing and a reward from God.

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward. Psalm 127:3

Children are a reward from God, and we should be careful to reflect this view of rewards in parenting. We should be exuberant and demonstrative in our enjoyment of our children. My point is that our children should not be encouraged to focus on earning the rewards of men, even from their parents. Rather, our children should be taught the truths of the Gospel; they should be trained to understand that knowing Christ is the greatest reward possible.

This God-centered focus is also the focus of Proverbs. In chapter one we read that the fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom. The first five verses of Proverbs 2 talk about a passionate search to find the rich treasure of God’s word. Chapter three boldly claims that nothing the human heart can desire can compare with knowing the wisdom of God. The biblical reality is that children are to be raised in an atmosphere true joy and gratitude, where the knowledge of God and his Word are the greatest of rewards. This can take place whether there is great wealth or poverty in the home.

The Word of God is more valuable than thousands of pieces of silver and gold (Psalm 119:72). Yes, life is often harsh and cruel–but the knowledge of God and his Word sustains us. Pleasant, life-giving words are to mark our instruction as parents (Proverbs 16:20-24). To the extent that parents are able, good things are to be given to children (Luke 11:11-13). It is against this backdrop that we must view Christ’s words of instruction in Matthew 6. It is vital that we teach our children not to live for earthly rewards. Grace is to underscore our relationship with our children.

Here is a practical example to consider. You hear your young son saying words that are foolish and unkind towards his sister. The language may even border on crudeness as your son was mimicking something he heard older children saying elsewhere. You administer the appropriate discipline. Now it is time to challenge your son with the right motivation so that he will build good speech habits that honor God when talking to his sister. Ephesians 5:3 addresses this issue exactly:

Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

Foolish talk is to be replaced with thanksgiving. Why? Because coarse, foolish speech is based upon arrogance and condescension toward others, as well as a spirit of rebellion against what God has ordered in life. This arrogant attitude is to be replaced with humility and gratitude that God has provided so much for his people and their families. Children can easily understand these concepts if you take the time to explain them at their level and in terms of their issues and struggles.

If children have not yet made professions of faith, then this call to gratitude shows the lack of their love for God and the hardness of their hearts. A call to faith and repentance is in order. On the other hand, if your children have professed faith, then call them to see the beauty of Christ in this situation and why gratitude is the response that will store up treasure in heaven.

This type of discipline will also expose the weakness of your own heart. That is why parents must speak to children about the things of God that have been etched in their own hearts. Are you gripped by the love in Christ in your own life? How much does gratitude characterize you? If you try to train your children in God-pleasing obedience by offering rewards–for example, giving a reward or treat for speaking kindly, or even for not speaking unkindly–you will miss the mark. Yes, they will learn good behavior. But anyone can learn to perform correct, acceptable behavior. Military training accomplishes that task admirably. But true gratitude for the love and mercy of God must be the goal of Christian parents, and it must be real to parents first, real enough that bringing honor to God is seen as a reward in itself. I know that in our own strength this is an impossible goal, for us as well as our children. That is why we pray for Christ’s strength to work in us. That is what the gospel is all about – making the impossible, possible.

Please think with me about this important area of motivation. God’s ways are radically different from the world around us. Let me know your thoughts.

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