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Rewards in Heaven: Is It Okay to Give to Get from God?

Some things seem absolutely crazy—at first.

Harvey is a play written by Mary Chase (also a movie starring Jimmy Stewart) about Elwood P. Dowd, a friendly man who has a strange problem: He really thinks he can see a six foot, three-and-a-half inch-tall rabbit named Harvey. To his family’s embarrassment, the friendly Elwood will introduce Harvey to everybody he meets. Eventually, his high society sister has him committed to a hospital where he will be given an injection to make him normal. But behind the scenes, someone intervenes and keeps this from happening. Guess who it is? The one who intervenes is actually Harvey the rabbit. As it turns out, the invisible rabbit is very real and Elwood isn’t crazy at all. He’s the sane one.

In Matthew 6, Jesus invites his disciples to three actions that seem fairly crazy—at first.

They are giving, praying, and fasting. But they’re more than just that: they’re giving, praying, and fasting in secret. Which means taking the time to do these things—but not in such a way that people will ever know about it. People won’t see and say, “What a great person!” These actions are being done in secret, so any benefit we would have gotten from doing them in public (or on social media) is gone. Here’s how Jesus put it:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1, NIV)

Giving, praying, and fasting in secret sounds a little crazy, right?

Unless what?

Doing these in secret is crazy unless we have a Father in heaven who is watching us, delighting in us, and rewarding us.


Rewards in Heaven: “Doing these in secret is crazy unless we have a Father in heaven who is watching us, delighting in us, and rewarding us.”


When we do these things in secret, Jesus says, “Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:4b, NIV). These aren’t crazy if we have a Father in heaven watching us. Do you believe that we have a Father in heaven who watches us, delights in us, and will reward us?

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, NIV)

Spiritual Disciplines

In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus says, “When you give…when you pray…when you fast…” In other words, Jesus assumes we’ll be doing what? Giving, praying, and fasting.

These activities, especially praying and fasting, fall under what people have called “spiritual disciplines.” What is a spiritual discipline?

  • “Discipline” – an activity that helps me develop a skill
  • Spiritual discipline – these are activities that help us grow spiritually, in our inner life

So, Matthew 6:1-18 tells us that Jesus affirms the spiritual disciplines. He sees these as habits and rhythms we need to develop in our lives, and that the results will be rewarding.

So, what spiritual disciplines are there for us to do? Here are a couple classic categorizations of spiritual disciplines:

  • Richard Foster’s classification (author of Celebration of Discipline):
    • Inward disciplines – prayer, fasting, study, meditation (what Foster calls the “listening side” of our interactive relationship with God)
    • Outward disciplines – simplicity, solitude, submission, service
    • Corporate disciplines – confession, worship, guidance, celebration
  • Dallas Willard’s classification (author The Spirit of the Disciplines):
    • Disciplines of abstinence – solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, sacrifice
    • Disciplines of engagement – study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission

Let’s look more closely at the three spiritual disciplines Jesus focuses on in his Sermon on the Mount.

Giving & Rewards in Heaven

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:2-4, NIV)

Some observations:

  • Giving to the needy was a prominent theme in the Old Testament.
  • According to Jesus, just giving is not enough. Our motive matters.
  • “In the synagogues and on the streets” meant very public places.
  • “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” tells us that self-forgetfulness is healthy. Being in a state of self-congratulation isn’t healthy.

The idea is that you write the check or make the donation and then don’t dwell on it. You basically send it and forget that you’ve done it. Why do something like that? Well, it doesn’t make sense—unless we have a Father in heaven who is watching us, delighting in us, and rewarding us.


“Self-forgetfulness is healthy. Being in a state of self-congratulation isn’t healthy.”


Praying & Rewards in Heaven

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’” (Matthew 6:5-13, NIV)

Here are some observations:

  • The Greek word for “room” (tameion), as in “go into your room,” is used for an inner room, often a storeroom where treasures are kept.
  • Jesus isn’t saying we can’t do public prayers, repeat the same prayers, or pray long prayers (e.g., consider the parable of the persistent widow). Again, what matters is motive.
  • Do we really believe that God hears us, or are we just trying to impress people?

“Jesus isn’t saying we can’t do public prayers, repeat the same prayers, or pray long prayers. Again, what matters is motive.”


Notice how the “Lord’s Prayer” in Matthew 6:9-13 expands the scope of what we pray about:

  • Worship – “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” (vs. 9b)
  • God’s Kingdom – “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” (vs. 10)
  • Physical Help – “Give us today our daily bread…” (vs. 11). And notice how this isn’t just a prayer for me, but for us. We’re praying for him to meet the wider needs of the Christian community around us.
  • Confession – “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…” (v. 12)
  • Spiritual Help – “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” (vs. 13)

Fasting & Rewards in Heaven

It is easy to assume fasting is an Old Testament thing or a “high church” thing. (Evangelicals tend to minimize outward church traditions.) However, Jesus said that “after the bridegroom is taken away,” his disciples will fast (see Matthew 9:15).

Fasting isn’t just an Old Testament thing:

  • Matthew 4:2 – Jesus fasted for 40 days.
  • Matthew 6:16-18 – Jesus told us that when we fast, we should do it in secret.
  • Acts 9:9 – Blind Paul went 3 days without food or drink.
  • Acts 13:2-3 – When the church at Syrian Antioch worshiped and fasted, the Holy Spirit set apart Paul and Barnabas for a trip to spread the gospel.
  • Acts 14:23 – Paul and Barnabas revisited the churches, appointed elders, and committed them to the Lord with prayer and fasting.

“When the church at Syrian Antioch worshiped and fasted, the Holy Spirit set apart Paul and Barnabas for a trip to spread the gospel.”


In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott describes the following reasons to fast:[1]

  • To repent (e.g., Nineveh)
  • To depend (i.e., on God)
    • Why did Jesus fast for 40 days prior to launching his ministry?
    • Prayer and fasting often go together; you’re praying for something, and fasting fortifies our prayers.
  • To self-control
    • Fasting helps make our bodies our slaves—not the other way around (see 1 Corinthians 9:27).
  • To share
    • “Is this not the fast I choose? . . . Is it not to share your food with the hungry?” (Isaiah 58:6-8, NIV)

And, if Jesus is to be believed, we can add to these reasons a fifth: to receive rewards in heaven.

Is It Okay to Work for Rewards in Heaven?

Doing these spiritual disciplines just to look good is a counterfeit for real righteousness. So, Jesus tells us to do them in secret—and God rewards us. But isn’t it wrong to do things for rewards?

C.S. Lewis, in the The Weight of Glory, talks about two types of rewards. There’s the kind of reward which has no natural connection to the thing you’re doing (like marrying a woman for her money or getting good grades so you can go to the amusement park). There’s also the kind of reward which is naturally connected to the thing you’re doing (like marrying a woman and looking forward to spending the rest of your life with her or getting good grades because you like to learn). The first kind of reward is tacked-on to the action, whereas the second kind of reward is internal to the action (what Lewis calls “the activity itself in consummation”).

When I give, pray, or fast in secret, and I believe that God will reward me for it, is that a tacked-on reward or a reward that’s internal to the action? What are the “treasures in heaven” God promises to reward us with?

The kinds of rewards God gives us are part of his nature and his presence that he’s sharing with us. They’re not just tacked-on to the action; they’re the natural end result of being in closer relationship with God.


“The kinds of rewards God gives us are part of his nature and his presence that he’s sharing with us. They’re not just tacked-on to the action; they’re the natural end result of being in closer relationship with God.”


So, is there anything wrong with me doing everything that I do for God’s sake? All for what he can get out of it? This actually turns me into God’s benefactor. This makes me act as though he needs me, rather than the other way around. The truth is that everything good comes from God, and we should “believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Which Reward Will We Seek?

The Greek word hupokrites (“hypocrite”) meant “actor.” For a hypocrite/actor, the world is a stage. What happens to our faith when we see the world as our stage—but basically forget the One we’ll ultimately stand before?

The book The Prince was a how-to for emerging political leaders, written by Niccolo Machiavelli in the 16th century. He famously argued that it wasn’t as important for people to be good—as much as to appear good. Here’s a quote from The Prince:

“It is not, therefore, necessary for a prince to have all the above-named qualities [faithfulness, integrity, loyalty], but it is very necessary to seem to have them.”

We’ve got to resist the temptation to become actors when it comes to our faith.

When we do our “acts of righteousness” in order for people to watch us and come away thinking we’re amazing, we totally miss the point. God is the center of reality, not us. Life falls back into place when we acknowledge him. And something else very sad happens when we make it about looking good to others: “They have received their reward” (Matt. 6:2b). What a sad reward to settle for.

In light of what God wants to offer us, turning our faith into an act for a few seconds of applause down here is what’s truly crazy.


Rewards in Heaven: “In light of what God wants to offer us, turning our faith into an act for a few seconds of applause down here is what’s truly crazy.”


Let’s pray that God would increase our faith in him! Let’s give, pray, and fast not because we’re seeking human applause, but because we’re seeking him. By seeking “treasures in heaven,” we’re investing in eternity.

In “Sermon on the Mount: Treasures in Heaven,” Jeremy Bacon explains that we need to ask, “What survives?” Here are three things that survive: You survive into eternity. Your relationship with God survives into eternity. Other people survive into eternity. Therefore, these are what it makes sense to invest in. Here’s how Bacon puts it:

“Bringing eternity into our practical, strategic calculations radically alters the balance sheet, but Jesus challenges us that it would be ludicrous to leave it out. There are things that crumble into dust, and there are things that don’t. The purely rational conclusion is that the things that survive into eternity are the only things worth investing in: ‘But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal’ (Matthew 6:20 ESV).”

It may seem crazy to invest in eternity. But since we have a Father in heaven, it’s actually crazy not to.


[1] John R.W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 136-138.

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