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1/7/2017: Reward and Punishment

· 10 min read
Patrick Pace

(08/30/2023: I never published this for some reason.)

“Reward on earth is more dangerous for men than punishment! The Fall is achieved by the cunning of Sauron in exploiting this weakness.” –Tolkien, apparently.

If this is true, it seems more reasonable to fear that I succeed in my more ambitious desires, that my writing reaches many people well, than that I fail or am punished for some sin. In correlation with reward would I lose my attachment to God.

This is of course not to say that I should seek punishment. Indeed, seeking punishment and achieving it would be another form of reward—to get what you want. It’s better that we get what we don’t want than it is we get what we want. And it seems to follow that not getting what we want surpasses us getting what we don’t want. At the very least (and probably more correct now that I think about it), the two are close friends, for it is in feeling our inadequacies that we are reminded of our dependence upon God.

I have spoken mostly, so far, about punishment from God. But what about concerning punishment from society? I think the binary “What you want/what you don’t want” still applies.

I want to be accepted for my writing (reward). I don’t want to be rejected or ignored (lack of reward). If I am rewarded, beware! I will be in danger of the temptation to independ from God.

I do not know of an imminent punishment, except perhaps my headlight that’s out. But the threat of that punishment should cause less fear than the threat of the temptations within succeeding in my writing (weighing them proportionally). That is, if I desire to know and enjoy God and to help others do the same above all other things, then because the reward poses the greatest threat to these goals, it should cause the greatest fear. It doesn’t currently. I currently desire to be known and praised for my writing.

But what if some punishment could come as a result of my writing? What if I wrote with the equal chance that I would be rewarded or punished as a result of it? Of course, the fear of danger of being rewarded should surpass the fear of danger of being punished.

And in both cases, I am dependent upon the love and sovereignty of God for the outcome. Whatever happens will fall under the dual pillars of 1) God loves me, through Christ, infinitely; he died for me and now intercedes for me and 2) all things work according to God’s will. So if I am rewarded, it is my Lover’s work. If I am punished, it is my Lover’s work.

Likewise, if I am rewarded or punished, the effects it has on those in my life—say I become a money-worshiper or a philanderer or something—fall under these same premises. God loves us infinitely (may God’s grace extend to my kids!!!!!!!), and he oversees all things, including the fate of my kids’ father and the fate of my wife’s husband. God loves us.

Thus, if I deserve punishment from my peers, God decides whether those natural consequences will come or not, and he does so while loving me and my family. He may decide that such would be best for us.

But punishments and reward-rejections aren’t limited to natural consequences. Like he did this past year, he could present the threat of death—in this case, my dad’s cancer—as what is best for us. War, persecution, financial loss, social rejection—all things God decides to give or not within his love for us—and us not knowing at any time whether he will give them, when he will give them, and what he will give exactly (even when the threat of one thing seems greater than another). The entire point is that these things are things we don’t want. If we wanted them, they wouldn’t have the same effect (indeed, as noted, they would endanger our dependence upon him). They grieve us. And God allows these things to happen for good, in his love for us. I suspect this is what Paul means in Romans 8 when he says that the sword can’t separate us from Christ’s love and then quotes a passage in which the psalmist and his peers are being slaughtered by others (I should really go study this before relying on my from-the-hip-interpretation, but I’m not going to right now) (8/30/2023: Coincidentally, I am studying it now. I should have studied it then.). God loved them and allowed them to be slaughtered because of some surpassing good that would result from such. Them being slaughtered was not a sign that God had stopped loving them.

But again, God could also put us into greater danger of falling away from him within his love for us. He does this all the time, like whenever he allows us to have what we want (that draws us from him). Thus he could allow me to succeed in my writing even though it would endanger my relationship with him and could lead me into sin for a time or times (so could punishment, though).

Now, Job and Lazarus. In both cases, God explicitly allows them to suffer (death is suffering!) while still loving them. In their cases, they were rewarded afterwards—Job with a new life, and Lazarus with new life. But this isn’t always the case. My friend, DJ Roberts, one of the godliest guys I have known, died in a ridiculous car accident that wasn’t even his fault. And he was what, 24? But it was within God’s love for him and those around him.

So what are some points? God loves us. God is in charge. And there are worse things to fear than suffering—indeed, it seems like the fear of suffering should be overwhelmed with trust in God’s sovereignty. “Yes, it will hurt to get the shot. But because it’s so much better that I get it, I’m willing to go through with the pain I know will come.” And to the degree that pain will come, it seems only reasonable that we are conflicted with a desire to avoid pain and a trust in God (to the degree that God gives us the grace to trust in him). It seems like Jesus did this when he sweated blood (I need to study this again, post seminary). But Jesus went through with it, and he trusted the Father to make the best decision, and he wanted to please the Father through it.

When the likeliness of suffering increases, or I perceive it to increase, my tendency is to do whatever it takes to either 1) reduce the chances of the suffering from occurring or 2) determine that the chances of it occurring are less than I fear they are. I fixate on it. This happened during the beginning of Fox’s birth, with him being well, with Mysti being well, and with us finding a house and having enough money—primarily. And I think that my fixation—almost all waking thoughts, all of my energy and motivation, go toward it—is evidence of me not trusting God (at least not enough to have the willingness to face the possible suffering). But maybe this isn’t nuanced enough. I think I have gone too far with the idea that trust will reduce my fear of suffering, that to the degree that I trust, I won’t fear. I don’t know. And perhaps I do not possess the faculty or mastery of the subject to understand as much of the nuances of motivations as I think I do. But it seems reasonable that if my fear leads to me not loving others and to depression and to constant fixation that I am not trusting God enough to bear up and face suffering—in essence, to be courageous. For courage is facing suffering while loving God and man (or for loving God and man—it depends on the reason for suffering, whether in order to love or as a result of something else).

God, please increase my faith. You deserve more from me. And I cannot love as long as I fear more than I trust you.

I think this needs more expansion.

It is not the lack of fear of suffering (or the lack of suffering, itself) that’s the good goal of these thoughts. I think I desire this because of the pain of fear and probably also because of my desire for character perfection. Love is the goal. Or, rather, good for God and good for others is the goal (for desiring love and desiring the good of others isn’t necessarily the same thing, any more than saying “I praise you” is the same as saying “You are wonderful! Look at how wonderful he is!” Desiring the idea or concept or character trait or action of love isn’t the same as desiring that which love is [like the aspiring writer who finds that he dislikes actually writing]). A godly person desires these things, for God desires these things.  Again, God doesn’t just desire to love. He desires things that happen to be loving. He loves. Thus what he desires is relationship and the good of others. The desire to love requires motivations connected with corollaries of love (like being a holy person, or, perhaps like being like God or who God wants us to be) rather than what love actually is (and these aren’t all bad, like wanting to be who God wants us to be). And what he desires is what I should desire. Thus, good for God and for others is the goal—whether as a result of suffering or in spite of suffering OR as a result of reward or in spite of reward. Though I could also add that being who God wants me to be is a good goal as well—i.e., wanting to love for this reason.

Thank you Lord for revealing these things to me—the things above that are, in fact, true and not just products of my own flawed logic.

And this stuff is so complex, I can’t help but respond with “There’s no way I can do this thing right.” But I was reminded that such things require 1) grace, 2) effort (Phil 2:13-14), and 3) practice (which means try-failure-try again-failure-try again…success-failure-try again…success more and more often).

It seems to me that the most efficient means of reminding us of our dependence on God would be letting death either seep in or letting us recognize what death already is there in us. We don’t recognize our need for Life until we feel our death. Thus the woman who washed Jesus’ feet loved him more—because as a result of knowing her great sin, she felt great death. And knowing how much death God’s love for her removed, she loved back.

It's worth noting that gaming reward--attempting to control one's search for reward in hopes of remainign in God--has its own reward dynamic. If you succeed, you achieve the reward you desire. Though God is the singular reward to be desired, there's something to be said about the sinful heart that always gets its way. Surely there are cases in which even thwarting this desire can be used to help a person depend upon God more.

Furthermore, if the above is correct, "success" might be a better term. As a result of its purifying reflects, there is merit in our failure, such that our plans are often better off being thwarted.