Why should we think to earn a great reward?

This past month, our Relief Society was able to do a chapel session with the temple matron. This was my first time going to the temple after the birth of my son over a year ago, and the first time doing an endowment session since before that pregnancy. Sitting stagnant for a couple of hours while pregnant? No, thank you.

So it had been a while. I was nervous about some of the feminist issues that have been brought up here in the past, but decided to go with an open mind. At one point the temple matron, emphasized that we were queens and priestesses and that in the temple endowment and sealing ordinances we are promised great blessings. She went over the specifics of those blessings, and suddenly, I didn’t want any of it. None of my original worries were ever addressed in her talk, and while that was unsettling, none of that mattered: I didn’t want these promised blessings.

I should clarify: it’s not that I don’t want the blessings, it’s that I don’t want blessings to be a reward for “good” behavior, a carrot on a stick. I spent the entire endowment session with my mind reeling with frustration. What does it mean about God’s view of us if rewards, and even threats, are used to keep us on the straight and narrow?

The way we talk about the Celestial Kingdom, we use words and phrases like gold, glory of the sun, highest of allwealth untold. Why resort to afterlife bribery? Does God think so little of us? I’m leaning towards shelving the afterlife altogether and just focusing on here and now because I really can’t handle how degraded I feel when I think that God might see me as a puppy who will get a rawhide bone when this is all over.

I don’t think God bribes us to do good. I think that the reward in heaven mindset is a product of our culture (thousands of years of it!) and does not appropriately reflect our relationship with Diety. But then what? How am I supposed to reframe this? So much of Mormonism and Christianity is this promise of the glittering shininess of glory in the end.

So I want to ask you, have you run into this dilemma? Have you had to reframe your entire religious framework and how did you tackle that? Are there scriptures that discuss the afterlife without using it as a pat on the head?


TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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45 Responses

  1. Stephanie L says:

    Over time, I slowly let go of my notions of a “great reward” involving a shiny heaven for really good people, a kinda shiny heaven for okay people, and a crappy heaven for murderers. It just didn’t make sense to me anymore, and I am not sure why. I think it is because I believe that the “reward” system, in life, and with deity, sets participants up to fail. If we aren’t good because we want to be good, but because we want the shiny heaven, we aren’t progressing and we aren’t learning, and we fail in our purpose for having earthly bodies. Isn’t that why we are here? To learn and to progress? What does checking off a list of behaviors have to do with that process?

    I also think the levels of heaven idea negates my belief in loving Heavenly Parents who want us to return to their presence, no matter what, regardless of our ability to reach the carrot.

    I also struggle with the idea of a just and merciful God. I understand the need for justice on earth (I want bad guys in jail, and a safe place for my family,) but I’m not sure I understand the need for a penal system in the afterlife. (What the heck, “spirit prison.”) Essentially, I think that everyone will end up with God. I’m willing to accept that the return to God is personal, and may take more time for some, but eventually, we get there. Not through a series of hoops and rewards, but because our relationship with God progresses.

    Lastly, because the more I write the more confused I get, I do like the description of heaven and God in “Come, come Ye Saints.” I interpret it to mean that we shouldn’t be looking for a great reward in the first place. Heaven is simply a place where God does not “forsake” us, “where none shall come to hurt or make afraid,” and where “all is well.”

    • TopHat says:

      Lastly, because the more I write the more confused I get.

      I was having that exact same experience when I was writing this post! Maybe it’s a stupor of thought and we’re all wrong! 🙂

  2. Jacob M says:

    I look at the rewards in heaven as a compensation for all the crappy stuff we are put through in this life, kind of God saying “sorry I put you through all this, here is some of the rest that you didn’t get on earth.” The word compensation does seem a little too close to reward, but at the moment I can’t think of a better one. I hope you see what I mean, though.

  3. KG says:

    The whole carrot on a stick approach is a cultural construct that works for some people but offends others’ sense of justice. I don’t think that treating life like a checklist without learning how to be genuinely good and Christlike for pure reasons gets you exalted. In a just paradigm, the student who copies the right answers without learning the material does not advance. I think a lot of people are going to be very surprised when they find out how the universe actually works.

    • TopHat says:

      For some reason, when I was reading your comment, the parable of the workers in the field- where the last get the same wage as the ones there all day- came to mind. Don’t exactly know how to connect that here, but for some reason, it popped up.

  4. HokieKate says:

    That’s where my issues really began. Why do I want to live forever? Eternal life “the greatest of all the gifts of God” just does not appeal to me. I still want to be a good person, but I’m ok with ceasing to exist when I die.

  5. jd says:

    I think of that glory in the afterlife as having the knowledge and character close to God’s- which is more like the sum of your efforts and desires, not possible without God’s help and giving, rather than a reward handed to you. When teaching my beehives I emphasize that we do good things to move closer to God- not just to be on his good side. It’s too easy to feel like you’re never going to be on his good side, once you realize how imperfect you are.

    After reading the history behind the Doctrine and Covenants this year- I can see how the poverty stricken and persecuted saints would feel secure in the promise of expanse and wealth and favor compared to their earthly circumstances.

    • TopHat says:

      After reading the history behind the Doctrine and Covenants this year- I can see how the poverty stricken and persecuted saints would feel secure in the promise of expanse and wealth and favor compared to their earthly circumstances.

      This is exactly what I was trying to refer to when I said, “I think that the reward in heaven mindset is a product of our culture.” I also wondered how someone coming from a different background that wasn’t so capitalist/acquiring wealth and things-minded would look at this. For example, if you practiced Buddhism and didn’t have a strong attachment to the things around you, what would be enticing about streets of gold?

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    I’ve never really seen “our” version of the afterlife as a reward system other than “I promise you won’t be bored.”

    The reward system framed in terms of material temporal wealth here is, in my experience, an entirely Protestant construct, which I had the good fortune to be able to reject when I was very young. The dichotomy between heaven and hell was nonexistent:

    Heaven = an eternity spent praising god, living in a mansion on a street of gold, while wearing a jewel encrusted gold crown.

    Hell = writhing in an eternal lake of fire, and on top of that, all your regrets and separation from God.

    I’ve never been able to decide which would be more hellish.

    So “our” afterlife always suited my sensibilities. God promises, “You won’t be sitting around twiddling your thumbs. You might be mucking horse stalls and cleaning cat boxes, but you’ll have something to do.” Awesome.

  7. James says:

    Sometimes I feel like we talk very cheaply about blessings, almost like they’re part of some cosmic eternal video game we are all playing. Don’t get me wrong, I think whatever eternal “reward” is will not actually be cheap, but I feel like we don’t often grapple deeply what it will mean. Ultimately, I’m not sure we actually can given the lack of information. (Of course, who doesn’t want to want to wander around in white clothes speaking in hushed reverent voice for eternity?)

    That said, the general conference address by Dallin H. Oaks called “The Challenge to Become” gave me some fairly profound insights on this topic.

    • TopHat says:

      I’ll look into the Oaks talk, thanks! And your wandering around in white clothes reminded me of this:

      (am I allowed to derail my own thread?)

  8. Zenia says:

    Some good comments here.
    You asked for scriptures. There are some scriptures that portray post mortal glory different from the conventional “earned reward” notion on glory in the life after this one, painting it more as an extension of who we are and what we have become and what we love combined with the immense grace and power of God:

    “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection” is a start. Doc & Cov 130:18

    And you can combine that with Doc and Cov 88 verses 14-40 which speak of resurrection and glory according to what we love and understand and wish to live by. It includes the well known verse: “For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own; justice continueth its course and claimeth its own; judgment goeth before the face of him who sitteth upon the throne and governeth and executeth all things.” but the whole section is worth perusal. And it speaks of a myriad of kinds of glory, not just the three usually thought of, each according to the law one embraces, internalizes and becomes one with. In this section, glory is not a carrot-like reward, it is a natural consequence of what you have become and what you love (which process enfolds in this life and in the pre-final judgment life after death), combined with the mercy and grace of God and the power of his resurrection and atonement.

    There’s also a passage in Moses 6 that speaks about this as well, though a bit more obliquely.

  9. “I really can’t handle how degraded I feel when I think that God might see me as a puppy who will get a rawhide bone when this is all over.”

    Great phrase–you’ve summed up my feelings about the reward system!

    • TopHat says:

      Thanks! The reward system just all-over bothers so much I try not to use it ever- even with my kids and the nursery class I teach. We are people, not animals.

  10. Ann says:

    If I tell my kid not to touch the stove because it will burn him, and he doesn’t and gets to keep his skin intact, that’s not bribery. It’s my opinion that God, benevolent and all-wise, points out these kinds of things to us. Sleeping around? Won’t make you happy. Serving others? That brings peace. It’s not arbitrary, like offering my kid a candy if he cleans his room. God’s rewards are the clean room, the unscarred hand. Yes, if we do bad things, we make ourselves filthy and unable to physically stand in his presence (he’s pretty bright). If we’re faithful, we’ll have the ability to endure his presence, to live with Him and enjoy everything He has. God’s not bribing us, He’s letting us know how the universe works, because He wants us to live with Him.

    • TopHat says:

      I think I understand what you’re trying to say. I feel that way about the Spirit: that when we are peaceful and kind, the Spirit can’t help but be with us. But the rhetoric around the celestial kingdom and the highest degree of glory within it is very reward-centric and it’s hard to consciously re-frame every Plan of Salvation lesson and scripture. Maybe I’m just out of practice, though.

    • Rob says:

      Well said, Ann. I was going to post those thoughts (roughly) but you nailed it. In my interactions with my kids, sometimes I have to motivate with fear of punishment and sometimes with hope of reward, but ultimately what I want is character, competence and happiness for them. If we focus on these individual snapshots of God’s interactions with his children, we can lose sight of the fact that it’s about becoming something, not landing a prize.

    • Diane says:

      Not to be the wet towel, but,serving others in my experience does not bring happiness. All it did for me was being used and then tossed out on the curb like yesterday’s garbage.

      I think that’s the price you pay for a reward system. Do everything you do according to scripture, still not good enough and then get treated like crap after that, Yes, its a great reward system we have

      • Mike H. says:

        Do everything you do according to scripture, still not good enough and then get treated like crap after that, Yes, its a great reward system we have

        Wow, that sounds like what happened on my mission on a number of times.

        Serving others has been a mixed bag for me in the Church. Sometimes, I feel really good after some service, especially if it really helped someone. But, some service made me feel used afterward, especially if I’m treated with a lot of apathy about what I did, or I feel that a robot could have done it. I very, very rarely have had those “wow, Mike’s service made all the difference in the world to me” types of experiences, that often are told in General Priesthood Meetings.

        It’s too bad that “rewards” so often have to wait until Judgment to obtain. Some of us are discouraged long before that. And, for those of us dealing with depression, the wait is even more difficult to bear.

        But, it may not be “rewards” as much as developing attributes needed in the hereafter.

  11. Corktree says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever really had that view of heavenly reward that involves gold and riches in my own head. But I do think I understand the feeling of not wanting to play into the game of “if you do A, then you’ll be rewarded with B” and wanting to reject all the grading and nitpicking and punishing for not meeting expectations that comes with this view of God. Natural consequences? Sure, but it doesn’t jive with my own experience and perspective of the divine, so I just throw it out. I do think the language that has been used in the Church is a product of culture and history, but it’s never been an idea that I felt compelled to buy into.

  12. Jessawhy says:

    Every time I hear some one in RS talk about the blessings we get from this or that commandment I reply that I don’t think God is a vending machine for the righteous.
    Perhaps God’s blessings come in the form of our changing for the better, becoming something better by doing good things.

    I don’t like how the church rhetoric revolves around eternal blessings like a carrot and not seeing your family members in the CK like a stick.

    • spunky says:

      “I don’t think God is a vending machine for the righteous”

      LOVE this! So want to steal it– if only I actually attended RS… I’ll use it in VTing!! 😉

    • Mike H. says:

      I don’t think God is a vending machine for the righteous.

      That one of the statements that come up on the Feminist Mormon Housewives site! It does deserve to be thought about.

      A good example of this is a family in our Ward that is having to have the wife & mother go out & work outside their home. Yet, about 15 years ago, the husband was insistent that the financial trouble we were having was due to us doing “something wrong” with our tithing, yet we tithed on our gross income. My wife was not working outside the home at that time. I’m so tempted to ask him what he’s doing wrong with their tithing.

      Turnabout can be a real bummer.

  13. spunky says:

    Brilliant post, TopHat!
    I agree– to focus on the reward ideology is damaging on so many levels. It seems even selfish to me; “If I do A then I get B reward, and neener neener for those of you who didn’t do A.” That isn’t the atonement.

    It also isn’t spiritual or service based– if we really want to serve God and do what our Heavenly Parents ask of us, then it seems misguided to me to focus on the reward.

    Maybe the matron really didn’t have a comprehension of the temple ritual; but rather had a memorization of the temple routine. I think comprehension is much better when applying gospel ideology.

  14. MJK says:

    For me the idea of what our reward will be in the next life is more the idea of graduating to the next level of being rather than material wealth. I haven’t thought about the trope of sitting around on clouds in mansions with gold crowns since I was a kid.

    No, the idea of exaltation the way I always absorbed it was more like learning what your parents taught you about how the world works, followed advice on how to grow up responsibly and become a productive member of society. And the “reward” is that you get to move out on your own and learn and grow more and gain experience as an adult and all the stuff that you only understood in principle before. (Budgeting? Meal planning? Balancing the checkbook? Crap my mom was right all these years.)

    As Moriah said, I don’t think boredom will be a problem.

  15. Patricia says:

    I think we are wrong if we think of anything in heaven other than God as our reward. There can be nothing better than being with him. That said, being with him is certainly not something I can earn. No matter how hard I try. I don’t think it is so much of a reward for our great accomplishments as it is God chosing to share himself out of his great grace and mercy and his great love. It is because of who he is and not what we’ve done.
    are there scriptures to back that up?
    “We are already in heaven And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” Eph 2:6
    what do you think about that?

    • TopHat says:

      About that particular scripture, I remember in my New Testament class that the early Christians were expecting the Second Coming any day and it wasn’t coming, so Paul was reassuring the Ephesians that it was ok if they didn’t see the Second Coming in this life. Any New Testament scholars want to pipe in? It is a lovely verse.

  16. The whole world shifted for me when I realized that “eternity” is all time. It is not something in the future, it includes the past and even more importantly “now”. I think about that with my “eternal family” or my “eternal marriage”. It is now. Do I have a happy family now, or a happy marriage now? Because if I don’t now – it’s not going to happen later.

    The great reward we “earn” is realizing that God’s consistent encouragement to choose love over fear brings us a fullness of joy – not someday in the future, but NOW.

    It is cause and effect. If we love we will discover great riches in the relationships we have – even if we’re broke, or sick or dealing with what sometimes feel like insurmountable obstacles. God loves ALL of his children and wants ALL of us to be truly happy, grow and learn. We will be happy, grow and learn if we choose to live the law of charity.

  17. LovelyLauren says:

    I read about this on your personal blog, TopHat, and I can’t say I understand this viewpoint at all. Rewards are very motivational for me when I have to do things I don’t want. I even reward myself for doing my homework. I don’t think it takes away from the intrinsic value of something. Obviously, homework is important because it helps me gain a better understanding of what I’m studying. That, however, does not make it enjoyable. The idea that my suffering will be worthwhile in the end is a lot better than, “life sucks and you don’t get anything out of it.”

    I think it comes down to how you view rewards. I don’t see exaltation as the reward necessarily, but as the goal I will achieve if I endure to the end.

    • TopHat says:

      Well, I don’t think rewards are a black and white “this is always manipulative” concept. Rewarding yourself is still intrinsic- yes you are putting a carrot up there, but it’s a conscious choice on your part, not something that is from outside of you. And I do agree that homework can be rewarding even if it is difficult and hard. But I won’t lie- for the classes I wasn’t really interested in but were required, I was pretty much going through the motions to get a grade. I don’t think all rewards are bad, but I don’t think they are all good either.

  18. Moriah Jovan says:

    Because if I don’t now – it’s not going to happen later.


  19. Alisa says:

    It’s hard to see why so many women who don’t want the priesthood power of a twelve year old would want to have endless principalities and dominions, to eternally dominate others. I wonder if some of our not wanting those marriage ceremony blessings of eternal dominion come from a lifetime of indoctrination against women wanting even the smallest bit of power in the Church.

    I think everything has its own reward in the here and now. Serving in leadership callings has its own immediate rewards and drawbacks. Living righteously has its own rewards and drawbacks that we don’t have to wait for eternity to discover. For me, trying to live the most moral life I can is its own reward–right now.

    • Maureen says:

      “Living righteously has its own rewards and drawbacks…” Yes. In this same vein, I do not think that God and Goddess themselves are sitting back in luxury simply enjoying all their rewards. If they are all knowing and perfectly loving (which for me entails pure empathy) then they have to know and feel ALL their children’s suffering. And I imagine it is only their omnipotence that allows them to endure, but it does not make suffering anything other than suffering (even as their children suffer).

      So they have joy that exceeds any we could ever conceive of, but they also have suffering beyond which we could conceive. It is not a contradiction to feel joy and pain at the same time. So it is not just about the reward (joy), it is about whether one wants to be the kind of being that will do that for others.

  20. Alisa says:

    Also, doctrinally speaking, I don’t think we are all clear on the afterlife. Several hymns and songs speak of living with Father in Heaven again if we are good, but I don’t think that is at all doctrinal. Doctrinally speaking, God lives on a planet near a star called Kolob, where He is to stay. For those of us who will enter the Celestial Kingdom, that will be here on the Earth, after the Earth has been transformed a few times and we have been resurrected with Celestial bodies. So instead of living with God, we get to be Gods and Goddesses. But as I understand it, I’m afraid we have left our Kolob home for good, never to return…

    • Maureen says:

      I think as all powerful Gods and Goddesses we could go anywhere we wanted. But I also have never been fond of the concept of “living with God” as many others put forth, as if as eternal youth. I would prefer being as God and Goddess with perhaps occasional visits to and interactions with Heavenly Father and Mother. I am a grown woman now, mother of my own family. I do not live with my mortal father, but I do visit (and him, me) occasionally. Why should I not hope for that in eternity?

  21. Caroline says:

    I think of eternity and progression in this sense: God wants us to progress, so that we will become God’s equals and in a position to eternally empower and uplift others. I’m far more comfortable of thinking of the CK in those terms, rather than in terms of blessings and glory. That kind of paradigm revolving around blessings and rewards has never resonated with me, either, TopHat.

  22. CatherineWO says:

    Your post struck a chord with me, TopHat. Thirty years ago my husband was serving as bishop and also working two jobs (so that I could be a SAHM, because that was what we were told to do), we had four children under the age of ten, and a small acreage with a large garden and a number of animals to care for. As time wore on, my health deteriorated with the stress, and life became little more than a drudgery. I once dared to complain to a close friend and she only berated me, telling me that I would have it so good in the next life because of all we were going through for the Lord that I had no right to complain and should rejoice in my suffering. I came out of that experience with the same feelings expressed in this post. Though I hope for an eternity of ease and time with my family, I have no sure knowledge that will ever happen. I am impatient and want my happiness here and now, thank you very much.
    I think too often we justify and tolerate suffering with the promise of a great reward in heaven, when really we should be doing all that is possible to aleviate suffering right now in the lives of others and in our own lives as well, even if that means doing less of the things (that list of good behaviors) that would bring us that heavenly reward.

  23. Maureen says:

    “Have you had to reframe your entire religious framework and how did you tackle that?”

    I did that when I converted, and I don’t think it was so much of a tackle as just given to me by God. Since then… well I think in the initial reframing it wasn’t a solid structure (that perhaps some members would have preferred I had). It was an open ended project that allowed for acceptance of further truth and rejection of falsehood. So since then I have thought on and accepted a lot of things that the Church really doesn’t teach about (like concerning afterlife) while remaining open to rejecting them should further truth reveal them false. While I have rejected other things even though they came from members of the Church. The proud idea that the Celestial Kingdom is absolutely the “richest” reward and therefore most desirable, being one of them. I agree more with others that where we end up in eternity will just follow from natural consequences.

  24. Jasie says:

    I stopped caring about going to the Celestial Kingdom when I heard of an acquaintance whose family was destroyed by the thought that their gay daughter wouldn’t be in the CK with them. How dare they assume that’s where they’ll end up and she wouldn’t? It infuriated me. I’ve decided that I’ll go wherever God wants me to go. My only concern is staying close to Them in this life and returning to Them in the next, whatever that means.

    On the other hand, I felt the spirit most strongly while in the temple contemplating one particularly elegant celestial room, and I was reminded of the promise to Israel “I will make thy windows of agates, and they gates of carbuncles, and all of thy borders of pleasant stones” Maybe deep down I am an ardent materialist (despite my socialist, anti-consumerist rants), but for some reason that gave me a tremendous amount of comfort and I left the temple feeling strengthened to face the dreary world.

    Maybe we can look beyond what sounds like bribes and see it symbolically. What waits for us is comfort and love and home and peace, and the fact that we have the idea of several levels of kingdoms gives me even greater hope that ALL will feel that comfort, love, home, and peace. I look forward to that.

  25. Melanie H says:

    I haven’t read all of the comments, but here are a few thoughts….

    I don’t think Heaven is just a reward for good behavior. It’s more like…you’ve become the kind of person that can understand and accept this level of light and truth, so this is where you will be comfortable and happy. Afterall, people even in the telestial and terrestrial kingdoms will be very happy there. It is where they will be most comfortable and happy because of the characters they have developed.

    Another thing I’ve been taught is that Heavenly Father ….presides… (not sure if that’s the best word, but I think that fits) over the Celestial Kingdom, Christ presides over the Terrestrial Kingdom, and the Holy Ghost presides over the Telestial Kingdom. Meaning that those in the Telestial world will be walking, talking, living with the Holy Ghost, and so on. A person in the Telestial world cannot go and visit people in the ‘higher’ realms (like people without temple recommends aren’t worthy to go to the temple, they wouldn’t be worthy of visiting a higher realm), but people (including Heavenly Father and Jesus) can visit people in the ‘lower’ realms. We already know They can do this – as all 3 members of the Godhead have visited this telestial world and shown themselves to various prophets, etc. So even if a person “only” makes it to the Telestial kingdom, they will not be 100% without Heavenly Father and Jesus forever. They just won’t abide Their presence constantly.

  26. JakeHalford says:

    Great post and comments that really resonates with me. I think that the heaven as a reward undermines human agency. Why would a God want a people who are only good out of fear of punishment, or self-gratification through rewards? If I was God I would want people to chose to do good because it is good, not because they get a carrot in return or it gives them a get out of jail free card.

    I often ask people what difference would it make if they knew the church wasn’t true, or if their religion was wrong. I like to think it would make little difference to what I actually do. As I hope that goodness transcends religion and theology. If there was no celestial kingdom, then who cares as I will still want to help the poor and afflicted.

    It just seems wrong to think that people are serving not because its a good thing to do, or out of love for them, but because they are earning some credits for blessings from God. I think its morally bankrupt to do good that is motivated by the reward. Do good because it is a good thing to do not to get brownie points from God.

  1. September 6, 2011

    […] question (and sure enough, it isn’t in the old manual). Reading this I immediately thought of this comment from this recent post. It said: The whole world shifted for me when I realized that “eternity” […]

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