The Glory of Obscure Work
The Bible is not shy about motivating us to do our daily work unto the Lord with the promise of future rewards.
“Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.” Eph. 6:7
You might call it the ultimate carrot on a stick. The “because” in this verse suggests that the promise of future reward is the primary motivator for serving the Lord in our ordinary work. Even if no one sees us faithful in the daily grind, God is watching. He will repay us. This is not a year-end bonus. It is a life-end bonus. Talk about delayed gratification! Verses like this make it sound as if one of the primary keys to serving God faithfully in daily work is hoping for a future return.
Does that sound like the wrong motivation for doing good — so that we will get something in return? Kant told us that a good work is only good if it is done for the goodness of the act itself — that we shouldn’t do things for mercenary reasons. He might say, “If helping someone is right, it should be done, because it is right, regardless of if there is a reward coming.”
This may be the teaching of Kant. It is certainly not the teaching consistently found throughout the Bible. The prophets, Paul, and Jesus Himself call attention to the fact that our work today will be rewarded later. We do not have space or time here to consider all the examples, but it is all over the Bible (Isaiah 40:10, 49:4; Jer. 17:10, 31:6; Matt. 16:27; 1 Cor. 3:8; Col. 3:24; Rev. 22:12).
This prompts an important question. What is the nature of these rewards? What is it that we are to hope for? A few trophies to place in our heavenly trophy case? A few golden crowns to wear on our head? Some extra square footage in our “mansion over the hilltop”? Many of the popular visions of heavenly reward leave much to be desired. I’m sorry, but golden crowns aren’t really my style. How could they possibly motivate us to worship God through our work?
On June 8, 1941, C.S. Lewis gave one of the most helpful sermons that helped answer these questions. The Weight of Glory, as it would be named, has stood as a pivotal work on the nature of heavenly rewards. His answer? There are many different kinds of rewards. For instance:
- What is the ultimate reward of love? Marriage.
- What is the ultimate reward of a General who trains the troops? Victory in battle.
- What is the ultimate reward of memorizing Greek verbs? Reading the great Greek poets.
In each case, the proper reward is the consummation and ultimate enjoyment of the thing practiced. For two lovers, a mere ring would serve as a paltry reward — but a lifelong covenant relationship is a valuable treasure. For a music student practicing endless scales, the ultimate reward is not a trinket but rather, being capable of playing beautiful music.
This suggests that one of the rewards of good, faithful work, even in obscure tasks, is that we will be rewarded with great, fulfilling, significant work later. The faithful yard maintenance worker in this life may rule over one of the great gardens in the new heavens and new earth. A poorly paid seamstress in this life may one day make garments of unparalleled beauty for extravagant banquets in the next life. Surely that is at least part of what Jesus is hinting at when he says, “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt. 25:23). The reward of faithful work in obscure tasks may one day be stunningly fulfilling, joyful work, of which meaningful work in this life is only a small approximation.
Lewis has a second answer to the question of reward. He believes that part of the reward we will receive for faithfulness in this life is eternal glory. It might seem sacrilegious to think that anyone but God will receive glory. But this concern is not necessarily shared by the New Testament writers. Romans 8:30 tells us that God will glorify his chosen people, and that creation itself will be brought into the glory of the children of God (8:21). Just before these promises, we are told that if we share in Christ’s sufferings, we will also share in his glory (8:17).
What can this mean? Glory may still be a fuzzy concept for many of us. I myself don’t entirely know what to make of it. But Lewis, in another place, imagines someone in the new heavens and new earth who experiences this sort of renown. He pictures a man with a guide, both of them watching a great procession, with a dignified woman in the center. The man asks the guide who she is:
“‘It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.’
“‘She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?’
“‘Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.’
“‘And who are all these young men and women on each side?’
“‘They are her sons and daughters.’
“‘She must have had a very large family, Sir.’
“‘Every young man or boy that met her became her son–even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.’
“‘Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?’
“‘No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.’”
On earth, her work was obscure — that of welcoming her neighbors with warm hospitality. No one beyond her block would have known her name. But in that country, she is one of the “great ones.” Lewis ends his sermon saying, “Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning.” Yes, it is. May God’s Spirit enliven us to do our work as unto Him, knowing that we will receive an inheritance from the LORD as our reward.Topics: Meaning in Our Work