If We Serve God For a Heavenly Reward, Is That Selfish?

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD

Many of my readers will know that I have the joy of being able to teach some classes in theology to undergraduates at Redeemer Pacific College in British Columbia, Canada, at the same time as I participate in the mission of The John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. This past week, something happened to me for the first time since I started working on this Q & A column: I received roughly the same question online that one of my students asked me in class - and practically on the same day, too!

Both questions went more or less like this: "If we serve our Lord by works of love, believing that doing good works is necessary for our salvation, and that we will be rewarded for them one day in heaven, then doesn't that taint all our good works with self-regard and self-seeking? It's not really love, is it, if we are only out to get a reward for ourselves."

Great question: twice!

The first thing we have to ask is: Who was it that told us that our eternal salvation depends upon living out our faith in works of love, as we have the opportunity (leaving aside for the moment the matter of "death-bed" conversions)? Actually, the two who said the most about this were none other than Jesus Christ our Savior, and his chosen "Apostle to the Gentiles," St. Paul.

Jesus taught us:

Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. ... Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. ... Not every one who says to me 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. ... For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done (Mt 5:11, 6:19, 7:21, 16:27; cf. Mt 25: 31-46, Lk 12: 8-9).

And look at what St. Paul writes in his letters:

For He will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. ... Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that will he also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. ... For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is if any avail, but faith working through love.... I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing (Rom 2:6-7; Gal 6:7-9, 5:6; II Tim 4:7-8).

These examples from Scripture could be multiplied, of course. What this means is that there must be nothing wrong with seeking an eternal reward, and knowing that we shall receive an eternal reward for our best service of our Lord here on earth. If there really was something about heavenly rewards that would "taint" our good works with self-interest and self-regard, Jesus and St. Paul would not have offered us any such rewards in the first place!

How can we understand this? Well, first of all, there is nothing wrong with rejoicing in the fact that God has made the world in such a way that ultimately, in the long run, justice is done, and those who serve him faithfully will be blessed. The knowledge of this leads us to glorify and praise the Lord for His fairness and justice. And there is nothing wrong with longing to hear those blessed words from His lips: "Well done, Thou good and faithful servant" (Lk 19:17), and to know that, with the help of His grace and forgiveness, we can have His eternal, kind regard. After all, we are commanded to love all the children of God, and YOU are a child of God too!

How wonderful He is that He has made it possible for us to do eternal good for ourselves at the same that we are seeking the good of others: Jesus said "Love your neighbor as yourself," not "Love your neighbor instead of yourself (Mk 12:31). You are a "self" that He loves, and wants you to love, too! Saint Bernard of Clairvaux taught us in his treatise "On Loving God" that the fourth and highest level of love is not refusing to love ourselves altogether, but in fact, to "love ourselves [only] for God's sake," because it glorifies God to do good to his children and each one of us is a child of God.

Most importantly, let's bear in mind what the "rewards" are that Jesus offers us for our faithful service of His kingdom. It is not that He offers us "pie-in-the-sky-when-we die" (like the Muslim "jihadists," who believe that for slaying the infidel, Allah offers them their own harem of virgins in heaven!). Eternal "rewards" like that would be mere "bribes" to entice us to do good works that we would otherwise have no desire to do.

But some rewards are not mere bribes. C.S. Lewis explained this in his book, The Problem of Pain:

We are afraid that heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to. There are rewards that do not sully motives.

Perhaps another way to explain it would be this: Sometimes offers of "rewards" are not bribes, because they are nothing more than the offer of the activity itself in consummation. For example, the "reward" offered to the suitor who seeks the prize of his beloved's hand in marriage is the really only the opportunity to go on loving her, in an ever deeper and fuller way, his whole life long. Similarly, the "reward" Jesus offers to those who serve Him with works of love here on earth is the opportunity to go on loving Him, in an ever deeper and more wonderful way, forever in heaven. Seeking a reward like that does not make you selfish - it just makes you a true lover! See if there is really any selfish self-seeking in St. Alphonsus' matchless description of heaven in his meditation entitled simply "Hope":

On the instant that a soul enters heaven, and sees by the light of glory the infinite beauty of God, face to face, she is at once seized and all consumed with love. The happy soul is then as it were lost and immersed in that boundless ocean of the goodness of God. Then it is that she quite forgets herself, and inebriated with divine love, thinks only of loving her God.... As an intoxicated person no longer thinks of himself, so the soul in bliss can only think of loving and affording delight to her beloved Lord; she desires to possess him entirely, and she does indeed possess him, for every moment she offers herself to God without reserve, and God receives her in his loving embraces, and so holds her, and shall hold her in the same fond embraces throughout eternity.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. Got a question? E-mail him at [email protected].

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