In a material world people tend to behave based on what they physically experience. Scripture takes a decidedly different tact. Are there tangible rewards promised in the Bible? Yes. Perhaps the question would be better asked are these rewards promised in this life? Often, the answer is “no.”
Focus on rewards for the believer is often internal and eternal in nature.
“He who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward” (Prov 11:18). Those who follow biblical dictates gain favor from the Lord (8:35; 11:20; 12:2, 22; 15:9) as well as from other people (3:3-4; 11:16; 22:1). Wisdom (8:35; 9:12), joy (10:28; 29:6), love (14:22), and freedom (11:21) are intangible yet real effects of righteous living (10:6, 24; 13:21, 25; 29:18). Internal change is always the best change. Extrinsic rules of conformity only train people to gain that which is immediate. Rewards for good behavior in the classroom only teach children how to obtain rewards—little else.
Bribery—an external motivation for desired physical behavior—is a perversion of justice (17:23). If children in a classroom know that there is a “pay off” for certain types of behavior they work for the gift not right living. Bribery is said to destabilize a country because of greed (29:4). Greed for bribes is said to bring trouble to a family (15:27). If children are taught to reach for the carrot at the end of the stick it may produce a desire for more carrots rather than developing a righteous life. “Giving gifts” may be the way things are done (18:16) but that doesn’t make it right. Everyone wants to be friends with those who have gifts to give (19:6). But getting in good (“currying favor”) with the teacher may prompt the kind of undo influence all rail against in business and politics. Surely it is the poor who suffer most (19:7-8).
Proverbs mirrors the breadth of Scripture—intangible rewards last longest. Teachers bear the responsibility of doing good when they have the power to act (3:27). Children who accept instruction will be rewarded (13:13) turning from paths that lead to death (13:14) winning favor versus those calloused and indifferent to instruction (13:15). Faithfulness is rewarded (14:14), as is hard work (14:23). Physical payment may be forthcoming for some (it is not an absolute promise, cf. 3:1-2) though knowledge is said to be “a rare jewel” (20:15). A good reputation has worth beyond that which can be seen (10:7). The pursuit of righteousness and love brings honor in life (21:21).
Encouragement toward gaining knowledge, wisdom, and understanding is the focal point of Scripture (12:8). Gaining these intrinsic rewards is the chorus line in chapters two through four of Proverbs. It will be also noticed that good behavior is never coerced but prompted through exhortation and the modeling of those who lead. Kindness is key (16:24). Pleasant words heal helping children to grow in grace (cf. Prov 16:24). Though praise can possibly “go to a man’s head” (27:21) it is the best kind of “payment”. Indeed encouragement is to be the hallmark of The Church (1 Thess 2:11-12; 5:14).
Dr. Mark Eckel is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Bible Seminary, Washington, D.C. This statement was originally written for “School Wide Biblical Integration,” an ACSI enabler in 2002, having been used in various venues since.