Unbeknownst to them, my wife wanted to surprise our kids with small toys the other day—just because. There was no special occasion, nor was it a reward for good behavior. Rather, it was just a simple kindness for children who already have enough. Mom just wanted to give them a gift because she’s a good mom, and she loves them. Yet my children will never see what could have been because of disobedience that day. Granted, this is a rather insignificant thing in the grand scheme of things. It is simply a toy—but there have been plenty of times where something of greater delight was stripped away as a result of their disobedience. My wife is one who gives gifts freely, which is one of her most admirable qualities to her—one I look to her as an example in simply because my natural bent is not that. For the simple reason that she delights to give, it is particularly saddening to her when we’ve had to cancel plans or withhold a gift, whether large or small.
It does make me wonder what gifts we miss out on simply because of our own petulant attitudes. One has to stop and think, “What good things have I missed out on that my Father wished to give me, freely and joyfully out of His love, which I did not receive because of my own stubbornness and rebellion?” Furthermore, knowing we have a heavenly reward that awaits us, we must ask what we stand to lose in this, if anything at all. As adults, we often think of ourselves more highly than children, yet children are a continual reminder to me that I am often childish myself before my heavenly Father. While I have learned to exhibit self-control and maintain my outward appearance before man, the Lord knows my heart better than I do. He knows when I am disappointed, malcontent, and in essence, throwing a tantrum of the heart. He knows when I have questioned His goodness in the small and mundane, and like a petulant child, dug in my heels when I have contrived a “better way” than He.
In all of this though, it leads me to see the incredible patience the Lord has, and likewise how often I can be impatient with my own children. Do not misunderstand me so as to say that this is cause to stop from disciplining a child. Folly is bound within the heart of a child, yet the rod of discipline will drive it from them (Pro. 22:15). He who withholds the rod hates his son, but the one who disciplines him diligently loves him (Pro. 13:24). In both instances, the “rod” truly means “rod,” yet to “discipline diligently” involves more than simply a punitive aspect; it involves instruction, more clearly an instruction on the shameful behavior of the child so as to lead them to righteous behavior. It is therefore a “both/and” proposition rather than an “either/or” one, when it comes to disciplining children. Parents are to discipline corporally, yet never without proper instruction of the righteous behavior they are to be exhibiting. In much the same way, the Lord disciplines the one He loves, as a father the son in whom he delights (Pro. 3:12).
In Hebrews 12:6 we find the same principle carry through; the Lord disciplines those whom He loves and scourges His own children. The two terms here are synonymous with the examples above from the book of proverbs, in that the usage of παιδεύω (discipline) and μαστιγόω (scourge) carries both the corporal and instructional component. Again, παιδεύω carries with it the idea that instruction is rooted intrinsically in how to live in a proper manner before God and man. The usage of μαστιγόω here is a bit more violent than most Evangelicals would like, but it literally means to “beat, whip, or flog” physically. In essence then, what the author of Hebrews is telling us is that God will punish our disobedience in rather harsh ways. He will “use the rod” just as the loving father in the book of Proverbs instructs. Like before, it is a “both/and” proposition rather than an “either/or” one. Both components are present and designed to work with an explicitly good purpose in mind, which is that those trained by discipline will experience the harvest of righteousness and peace yielded by and through it at a later time (12:10-11).
It may be peculiar in our day and age to some simply because of the push against proper discipline in the home—but this prospect of both corporal and instructional discipline is seen as a loving thing in the eye of God. The author of Hebrews relates the punishment of God to the punishment of our own fathers simply because this type of punishment is an assumed thing (12:7-10). It is, therefore, the lack of punishment that is seen as an altogether foreign, and unloving thing. The one who does not receive the punishment of their father, earthly or heavenly, is an illegitimate child. They are the one who isn’t loved. They are not “true children” in any meaningful sense. This should give you a small indication of just how backwards people have it today. Nonetheless, it is the one who does not get punished that has every cause to worry if they are a legitimate child of God, and this is made all the clearer as we contemplate the significance of the outcome produced through discipline (12:10-11). The one who is not loved by God and does not experience the rod of His discipline is not one in whom righteousness and peace will be produced. The trade-off, of course, is that no one enjoys discipline; it is immensely painful by design (12:11a).
For some, their choices have immediately disastrous consequences which bring down terrible punishments upon them. Some Christians have committed egregious acts and found themselves forfeiting their lives, losing their marriage, being maimed for the rest of their life, losing their livelihood, among other things. Some pay for their decisions with long-lasting consequences that simply never go away. In all of this, the Lord’s love is still upon them if they are in Christ. While they may bear similar earthly consequences as the one who does not love God, their ends are to two different aims. For the one God hates, such punishment is a great mercy designed to lead them to repentance, as it is an infinitely small foretaste of the eternal torment that awaits them if they do not repent. For the one God loves, such punishment is restorative and instructional, even though they still stand to lose much. Is it not better to lose the whole world rather than one’s own soul?
To turn our attention back to the original proposition of this piece though: what heavenly reward do we miss out on in our disobedience? I don’t fully know. We don’t know the secret will of the Lord, so it naturally follows that we will not know what God would have done had we obeyed, rather than turned aside and gone our own way. I don’t believe that knowledge is ever ours to know, for the secret things belong to the Lord—but I do know we suffer loss in some capacity in the here and now, and in eternity. For one, we stand to lose out on the blessing of obedience to God. We miss out on the privilege to do what is right for our Beloved; we miss out on the opportunity to honor the Christ who shed His blood for us; we miss out on the joy that is bound up in the simple pleasures of what the Lord has declared is good. God has given us an entire world of freedom to be had and godly pleasures to be enjoyed—yet so often, we imbibe the sentiments of the ever-quotable C.S. Lewis:
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
We tend to believe, even though many of us claim to know better, that the short-term gains of our sinful choices are better than the rewards of obedience. The tug of our hearts is pulled toward the pleasures of sin because we don’t take God at His Word when He says something of sin is of infinitely lesser value than pleasing Him. As Jerry Bridges notes, “The lure of momentary pleasure is stronger than our desire to please God.” Another way to put it is that we believe the immediate gratification found in sinful “rewards” is better than the immediate gratification of pleasing our Lord. If this weren’t true, we wouldn’t choose sin over obedience. We wouldn’t choose earthly bobbles and trinkets in favor of our heavenly reward.
Perhaps the more sobering thought is that as a result of our disobedience, we will suffer loss of our potential, eternal reward (1 Cor. 3:15; 2 Jn. 1:8). We know there are treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:19-21), there are degrees of authority in heaven (Matt. 25:21-23; Lk. 19:17-26), and there seems to be an indication of various types of crowns one receives as part of our heavenly reward as well (see Ja. 1:12; 1 Cor. 9:24-25; 1 Thess. 2:19). We likewise know that God rewards us for our good works (Eph. 6:8; Matt. 19:21), endurance (Heb. 10:34-36; Matt. 5:12; Lk. 6:22-23), living righteously before God (Mt. 6:1), our faithfulness in laboring for the gospel (1 Cor. 3:8-14), and more.
In the same manner we stand to lose part of our heavenly reward as a result of our actions in this life. We know that God will bring everything hidden to light (1 Cor. 4:5), judge every idle word (Matt. 12:36), and while we do not know precisely what these heavenly rewards will look like, we do know some Christians will shrink back in shame at Christ’s arrival (1 Jn. 2:28). Undoubtedly, no one who is in Christ will lose their eternal reward, which is given freely (Jn. 10:28-29; Eph. 2:8-9). However, there is the prospect to lose what we stand to gain in heaven, which is imperishable and cannot be stolen or destroyed. What that demonstrates to us is that the freedom from the condemnation we deserve is not the determining factor of these heavenly rewards. To put it another way: we are totally and fully forgiven, yet that does not mean there are no longer consequences to our actions now that we are in Christ. It does mean, however, that we will not forfeit eternal life if Christ has redeemed us by His blood.
God has given us this knowledge as a means of motivation, which very simply means it isn’t a bad thing for you and I to be motivated by the prospect of our heavenly reward. That God has designed things this way gives us an even greater understanding of the liberality with which He seeks to bless His children. Knowing that His gifts are greater than the best gifts any earthly father can give, we ought to strive all the more to earn such treasures. If you are like me though, this has to be at the forefront of your mind at all times, and even then you still fail. Like a child caught unawares of the good gifts God had in store for you, only to lose them in fits of disobedience, you’re perhaps recognizing now that you’ve already lost more than you can possibly know. In other cases, you know precisely what good, temporal gift you have forfeited because it has been stripped from you now. It is alright to grieve this loss. It is o.k. to weep over what may have been or what should have been. It is o.k. to recognize the forfeiture of a heavenly reward that was attached to the loss of that temporal gift. Likewise, it is wise for us to be motivated by this sense of loss, and a desire to avoid the discipline of the Lord in this manner in the future.
Once you have grieved your loss, wipe your face and look to Christ, and set out this day to right your path. Embrace your shame and sorrow in this, namely, because godly sorrow produces repentance that leads to salvation (2 Cor. 7:10). Then, give thanks that God has graciously spared your life so there is still time for you to earn your heavenly reward, bearing in mind that the most precious of which that has already been freely given to you, is the crowning jewel of all treasures: Christ Himself. It is only when we see that having Christ is of unsurpassable value and being found in Him gives us insurmountable wealth that we will have a rightful eye on the bounty He so freely gives us in our obedience to Him. It is only when we see and treasure Christ for who He is that we will find true, lasting motivation to hold out in obedience, so that we might obtain our heavenly reward. To put it more clearly: not only will seeing and savoring Christ produce a desire in us to earn our heavenly reward, it will produced a desire in us to obey His commands rather than sin, because we will truly see that these things are of infinitely greater value than the sin that so easily ensnares us.