I get up and go to the gym early each morning during the school year with a fitness group. One thing we do after our workout is we make sure we wipe down the machines with a sanitized rag to keep the equipment and the facility looking and smelling nice. Often we go over all the dumbells and even machines we did not use. Because we are there several days a week, we are ensuring that the gym will be regularly cleaned and accessible, not just for us but for everyone. One thing to understand about a gym, whether in an apartment complex like mine or a facility you pay for, is that no one expects you to really clean up after yourself. They might post signs saying something like that, but I have never seen someone kicked out of the gym for not re-racking a barbell or not catching their rebound on a paper towel ball they failed to toss into the trash can. And yet if no one cleans up the place, no one would want to work out in that place. No one sees us do this, nor are we thanked for doing it; yet we continue to do it because it is right, and it feels right. This was not an idea that originated with me. In fact, it didn’t even originate with our group.
“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.” Matthew 6:1
Let me ask you a question: how do you like to be rewarded? For most of us, simple recognition of good work or a good deed would be satisfactory. If we were simply compensated fairly for what we do, we would be content. This is a divine notion of justice. Yet we constantly seem to be unjustly repaid or rewarded, often on the lesser side of things than the greater. We feel what Asaph felt when he wrote Psalm 73 “As for me my feet almost slipped, for I envied the wicked…All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” This brings us to an intensely anxious theological question we must answer: Why do we do good when it is not rewarded? Certainly I can think of times where I felt my efforts were neglected, that my attempts failed, my work despised, my intentions all in vain in doing good because I was not rewarded the way I wanted to be.
What God wants us to recognize through the constant testimony of the Word is that this is not true. No matter how it appears, there is a reckoning and a recompense for all deeds. Everything, whether good or bad, will have a reward or punishment meted out by God both now and in the age to come. Consider for a moment the following samples of this doctrine – what I call the “full complement” of scriptural sourcing:
Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly. Deuteronomy 32:35
Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you will render to a man according to his work. Psalm 62:11-12
If the righteous is repaid on earth, how much more the wicked and the sinner! Proverbs 11:31
Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them, for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds. Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him, for what his hands have dealt out shall be done to him. Isaiah 3:10-11
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Matthew 16:27
He will render to each one 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 self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. Romans 2:6-8
“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” Revelation 22:12
A series of scripture that widespread across the bible can only lead us to the inescapable conclusion of the significance of the truth they hold. God sees every action, deed, thought, and intention, and will reward each according to what he sees. If then we have a God that surely repays us for what we do, both now and in the age to come, how are we to act to receive a blessing from a loving and powerful God?
I call this the double/secret blessing. It is not a secret in the sense of it has been kept for the privileged elite. It is as open and free as Wisdom crying aloud in the street, but as Christ said, “He who has ears, let him hear.”
To obtain God’s full blessing, we must do good. It will be rendered to us according to the nature of our deeds the reward we receive. If we do righteousness and good deeds, we will receive that reward, and likewise is true for evil and wickedness. However, not all blessings are equal. Some will receive a greater portion in the age to come. As Jesus said, “many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” What determines the greater blessing some receive? The double/secret blessing establishes the principles that will ensure that we receive the greater and not the lesser honor in the eyes of God. In order to do this, we must understand what God approves of and esteems highly – which is different from what man esteems highly (see Luke 16:15) – and then do it.
Go The Second Mile
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes several statements that must have been profoundly divisive to his audience. I can think of none more controversial than Matthew 5:41 “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” This referred to the prerogative of a Roman soldier to force any imperial subject to carry his shield one mile as he marched. This was a hated law, similar to the Quartering Act of the British empire imposed on the American colonists prior to the Revolutionary War. It stripped people of dignity and liberty. A noble might become a slave to a plebeian Gentile, an extreme indignity. But Jesus said “double what he asks, without him asking.” Take the law, he says, and break it by doing it too well. God’s formula for displaying righteousness is overcoming the evil of the world with good (see Romans 12:21). Instead of bellyaching about the small indignities of life, things too menial for us, do it better than it ever would be asked of you to do. Who can reward or repay you if you do such a thing? Only God. And therein you have a reward only he can give.
Hear me correctly though: God does not OWE you anything. No one has given a gift to God that he should repay him. Rather, a reward is for the things taken from your own expense that he reimburses you for. God already has laid a claim to every good deed done on the face of the earth. You are simply using his credit card. As humans (or Americans or sinners, whatever generalization you might make) we are naturally selfish, lazy, and hilariously over-entitled to God’s common graces that we have lost touch with the basic understanding that God himself shows this to us first. God loves to respond to our prayers for his favor, providence, blessing, happiness, and fulfillment with far greater levels of what we asked to begin with. Though he takes his circuitous or “mysterious” ways of doing this, he not only enriches us but grows our faith in the process. God goes above and beyond in everything he does, which displays his own incomparable glory and majesty in all things. We show our God to be praiseworthy when we do the same. The bible is replete with this notion: that which we see God do we ought to imitate.
The Secret Joy of the Godly
We live in an age where people are trying desperately hard to be noticed. This is a function of the advent of modern technologies sure, but is more deeply a function of human insecurity caused by the rift of sin against God. We struggle with a divided mind: on the one hand, we go through life perpetually worried that God is not watching over us, that he will not have our best interest at heart; and in the same breath we also view ourselves as the master of our own lives, and say with great haughtiness what the wicked say “What does God know?” they ask. “Does the Most High even know what’s happening?” (Psalm 73:11 NLT)
Be sure of one thing: nothing is hidden from God. No deed, whether good or ill, can be expunged from the records of what God sees and knows fully. This understanding would nearly crush us if we could fathom it at all. Our tendency is to do our daily tasks for what Paul calls “eye service,” trying to win the boss’s favor, impress a pretty girl, be seen doing great deeds. People often mistake outwardness and obviousness for sincerity, when indeed it is not so.
How do you know that your worship and actions are sincere to God? Do them in secret. Go to the place where no one sees and practice your righteousness there. Be sure that the God who sees will reward you. But also know this: if you desire the praise of men and the approval of their eyes, you have received your reward. Consider this passage:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:5-6
Jesus is saying here that if you do your deeds to be seen, you will not be commended by God. Why? Surely God wants us to be righteous among people, if for nothing else to be his witnesses: for why else does he say,
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16
The real question is why does doing something secretly, away from the eyes of other people, make it laudable to God? Answer: God delights in the intentions of the heart. Many people can summon up the superficial decency to be seen doing deeds they know will garner the praise of strangers (the hypocrites Jesus described were all out on street corners and synagogues); but where is the man of true integrity that does righteousness as its own reward? It is the person who loves the righteousness of God and the goodness of his works and practices them for nothing other than God’s pleasure that pleases God. This seems almost too simple to be worth saying, but when I think about my own life, but God calls us to think often about our righteousness. Whether we aim to please people or God with our lives, we will reap a reward.
Receiving the Greatest Blessing from God
God is by nature Creator, Provider, and Sustainer of all things. This is connected to the facets we have been discussing, namely that he will repay everyone for their deeds. He will measure and temper those rewards and punishments according to the manner in which they were done insofar as the manner reflects the spirit or intent of the actions (including thoughts and attitudes). But let me say this to avoid casting God as a starchy dispenser of analytical judgments: God LOVES to repay righteousness and good deeds done to please him.* Nothing exults God’s heart or gives him pleasure like a deed done to please him from the heart. That is why the double/secret blessing is so profound. It tells us the very nature of God’s heart. God is love, and he feels love received by our actions. Our actions do not merit us any greater benefit but they produce in him a great joy. It is this joy of God that is the believer’s portion and share in heaven with Jesus forever. It is our alignment under God’s Word and his joy that leads to our blessing. If we are out of sync with these, we cannot be blessed.
You have the power of choice. You choose what reward you want. You can either do the good and the right in secrecy and beyond what is called for to receive a sure reward from God, or you can do this merely for the profit that comes from being seen doing righteousness. I will not call it false righteousness that is approved by men, but I will call it hollow. Nothing is more satisfying than the righteousness that comes from God alone. Indeed, there is no other kind.
*To be sure, God is equally vehement and passionate at the judgment of the unrepentant, the ungodly, the wicked, and the sinners. It gives him no pleasure in the way he is pleased with righteousness. Rather the term we speak of here is vindication, which is a function of God’s vengeance and wrath upon sin. The two cannot be separated, though here we are focusing on the function of blessing.