Reward-based motivational methods have been around for a long time. Whether patches and bars for children who learn verses or plaques and certificates for hard-working adults, we line people up and applaud them. But some believers are uncomfortable with these traditions. Shouldn’t we serve the Lord out of love? Doesn’t the applause of men rob God of His glory and encourage pride?
Though the reward method of motivation is not without risks, it is not a method we should reject. Here’s why.
1. God uses reward motivation all the time.
Throughout the pages of Scripture, God appeals to our desire to enjoy reward and to avoid suffering in order to motivate us to do what He desires. Jesus used this type of motivation in the Sermon on the Mount. Urging a joyful response to persecution, He said, “Great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:12. Scripture quotations are from The New King James Version, Thomas Nelson, 1982). Later, He warned His hearers not to serve merely in order to be seen because the result would be “no reward” from the Father (Matt. 6:1). But, of humble good works, He said “your Father … will Himself reward you openly” (6:4). Jesus clearly appealed to the desire for reward as a reason to do right.
The epistles use reward motivation as well. They anticipate the crowns God will give to His faithful, obedient children (James 1:12; 1 Cor. 9:25; 1 Pet. 5:4). And they speak of reward at the judgment, where we will receive what is consistent with our works “whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). If our work endures, we “will receive a reward” (1 Cor. 3:13).
If God appeals to our desire for reward so frequently and frankly, we should hesitate to reject reward motivation in ministry.
2. Desire for reward is not hostile to our love for God.
If God appeals to rewards so regularly, the desire for rewards cannot be inherently bad. The evidence suggests this desire is simply a feature of human nature, not necessarily fallen human nature. Even before the Fall, God used reward motivation when He warned Adam and Eve that eating the forbidden fruit would result in suffering.
Apparently, we have a basic form of self-love that is neither sinful nor hostile to our love for God. Scripture never condemns this kind of concern for self but rather assumes it uncritically. “No one ever hated his own flesh but nourishes it and cherishes it” (Eph. 5:29). “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Read more about Should We Use Reward Motivation?