The Reward of the Righteous
What does it mean to be blessed by the Lord? I suspect that many – perhaps most – thoughtful Christians struggle with this question at some level. We are naturally inclined to think of God’s blessing as being demonstrated toward us when we get more of the things we want. If we want a bigger bank account and get a bigger bank account, that’s the blessing of God. If we want a career in a particular field and we get a career in that field, that’s the blessing of God. If we want a happy marriage and get one, that’s the blessing of God. If we have smart, talented and well-behaved kids, that’s the blessing of God.
Far be it from me to suggest that these things are not the blessing of God. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17a). But is it just as simple as this – that there is a one-to-one relationship between experiencing the blessing of God and getting the things we want? It doesn’t take much biblically-informed thought to realize that it is not that simple. There is something deeper – something more fundamental – than this and we have to press in further to find it.
We actually see it frequently in the narratives and the characters of Scripture. For instance, in the “rescue” stories. Who was more blessed by God in his generation than Noah? But what did his life look like? One hundred years building an ark, then months on end out on a raging sea with thousands of animals. Finally deposited on a mountain overlooking a devastated world. Or what about Lot? Holy Scripture describes him as “righteous” Lot. What did he get? Residence in a cave looking out on the smoke ascending from the plain that had once been his home. And what of the Israelites, rescued from slavery in Egypt only to find themselves in a wilderness without water, and without the leeks and cucumbers and melons and garlic of the land from which they had been freed? All of these were blessed by God, but for none of them did blessing come in the form of more of what they wanted.
What about Moses? He had long since reconciled himself to life as a shepherd in Midian, no doubt expecting to live out a quiet life so employed. But God loved Moses and had chosen him and intended to give him a place of service unequalled in the Old Testament. What did it look like? Leaving his quiet life for a showdown with the most powerful ruler of his day. Then leading a stubborn, complaining people through a barren wilderness – for forty years – and only to the border of the Promised Land that he so longed to enter. And then he died.
What of the apostle Paul, who devoted his life after his conversion to bond service to Christ? So much so that he could describe himself as experiencing “far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” (2 Corinthians 11:23b-27)
What is the reward of the righteous? Fundamentally it is not more of the little, petty things that we typically so much want and that make us momentarily happy, good as they may be in themselves. The reward of the righteous is…God himself. Nearly the whole generation of Israelites who were led out of Egypt did not want that reward, and perished in the wilderness. But consider again Moses. At a point of utter disappointment and desperation following the people’s sin with the golden calf, Moses implores the Lord, “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). The Lord replies to him, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim my name the Lord” (v. 19a). Or consider Paul, who was caught up to heaven and saw things that could not be uttered. Or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, cast into the fiery furnace, but joined there by one “like a son of the gods.” Do the hard things in your life make you wonder why God will not bless you? Even when you are giving your heart and soul to righteousness? Make sure you are looking for the right reward.
Yes, I know. It’s quite possible for the examples of Moses and Paul and the three Hebrews in the furnace to seem painfully unhelpful when you yourself are in the midst of unrelenting trial. You are unlikely to be caught up to the third heaven like the Apostle, after all. But that reasonable objection misses the point. All of Scripture is pressing home this truth for those who believe: God is with you in your suffering now. Look for him there. The world says, “Seeing is believing.” Scripture says, “Believe and you will see” (cf. John 11:40). And if you are looking and believing and still don’t see, steel your heart and mind for patient endurance. You are in good company: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus….” (Hebrews 12:1-2)