Yesterday morning, like every Tuesday morning, my alarm went off at 5:20 – long before the sun appears in the eastern Maine sky these days (about an hour before, actually). I quietly creeped down our creaky stairs, took a shower, and then hopped into my frost-covered car, setting out for my church.

About twelve minutes later, I pulled into an empty parking lot – something I fully expected – and walked into the dark building. Finding the front row of seats in the sanctuary, I plopped down to my knees and proceeded to pray for my church for the next 40 minutes.

This is nothing new. For the last four or five months, it has been a weekly routine (except there used to be a larger crowd who joined me). Inspired by success stories I read in Melody Mason’s Daring to Ask for Moredetailing how churches were turned around when they made prayer a focal point, I initiated a weekly early-morning hour of prayer at my church. Initially, we would get a dozen or so who showed up. Then it dwindled to five or six; then just me and two of my elders. The last few weeks it’s been just my head elder and me.

Until, finally, yesterday morning, it was just me.

All this has led to a theological epiphany for me though: last week, when it was just my head elder and me, a new thought occurred. As the two of us chatted before prayer about whether we should discontinue the practice, lamenting about how we can’t seem to get people to attend, a question suddenly surfaced in my mind: is it possible that God might actually reward our humble actions?

Might God actually look down at us and honor our meager efforts to wake up early in the morning every week (my head elder has a 30-minute drive in order to attend, often in the opposite direction of where his work, as a plumber and electrician, is taking him), drive in our cold cars, pleading with Him on our knees for an hour in a cold church?

The truth is, many of us – myself especially included – are so sensitive to anything that might hint at what Ellen White calls “creature merit,” the idea that what I do might earn a reward from God, that we may have missed an important and heartening ingredient of relational Christianity. Indeed, as I’ve touched on before, there are whole systems of theological thought within Christianity that cannot even fathom the idea that God might actually respond to our behavior and change how He interacts with us based on the way we act.

And yet, I think we need to recognize an important biblical tension: what may look like a gift from God from our perspective may be a reward to us from God’s perspective.

That is, the person who is truly living by faith recognizes that every good thing in his or her life is a gift from God. It is “not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:9). Such a person would never boast or brag that God is rewarding him or her for good works done. This is what it means to live in light of the cross.

But God may operate from a different perspective. As a relational Being, He delights to honor and reward His children who are humbly seeking to do His will – just as any good parent does. After all, Scripture plainly declares that He is “a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6).

So this is, indeed, the paradox: what we consider to be a gift, God often looks at as a reward. To be sure, not everything good we receive from God is a reward (in fact, the vast majority is not); He, after all, “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Indeed, as I highlighted in a recent blog, John Peckham labels God’s love “foreconditional-reciprocal.” That is, God’s love exists prior to human action, but it is also dynamic and interacts with our actions, adjusting to the way we respond to it.

Thus, while our actions may not merit God’s love and actions toward us to begin with (or the constancy of that love going forward), those actions are indeed capable of changing and affecting the actions He carries out toward us.

This is, really, just fundamental to all relationships.

Ellen White, too, makes it very plain that God operates on this reciprocal model. She thus makes statements like:

If the servants of God keep faithfully the trust given to them, great will be their reward when the Master shall say, ‘Give an account of thy stewardship.’ [Luke 16:2] The earnest toil, the unselfish work, the patient, persevering effort, will be abundantly rewarded. Jesus will say, Henceforth, I call you not servants, but friends. [See John 15:15]. The approval of the Master is not given because of the greatness of the work performed, but because of fidelity in all that has been done. It is not the results we attain, but the motives from which we act, that weigh with God. He prizes goodness and faithfulness above all else.  (Gospel Workers, p. 267)

Among other relevant points, there is one critical nuance that I was intrigued by when I read this statement a couple days ago. She notes that the precise reason God rewards us is because He considers us to be friends rather than servants. A reward is something one gives volitionally rather than something that is owed.

It also touches on another paradox I’ve noticed in Scripture: God looks at us as friends, and yet we look at ourselves as servants (a favorite moniker Paul attached to himself – see Philippians 1:1, etc.). And the two paradoxes go wonderfully together: we look at ourselves as debtors to Christ, slaves to Him, and are thus grateful for anything He may give to us. Yet, precisely because Christ looks at us as friends, He delights to reward us for the faithful ways in which we have humbly honored Him.

The “reward” is thus given within a relational context rather than a legal one.

All this brings me back to my prayer time – though I feel ashamed for even mentioning it since, in light of what Christ did for me on the cross, getting up before dawn and spending an hour on my knees in a cold church seems trivial. I do it out of a grateful heart and an unrelenting faith that I cannot merit anything by my actions. In fact, prayer is the ultimate act of faith rather than works, since it demonstrates that the person praying has given up on his or her own abilities, realizing that God alone can accomplish anything.

And yet I rejoice that God, the great “Rewarder” of those who diligently seek Him, has delighted in the meager actions of His humble servants. Thus far, though we have been few in number at our times of prayer, we have seen some modest growth in our church – numerically, spiritually, missionally.

So we thus press on, saying with great rejoicing: “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

Postscript: such realizations have helped me recognize that pastors – more than, say academics – may often find themselves in circumstances that allow them to recognize theological realities otherwise inaccessible to those who aren’t “on the ground.” This gives me great rejoicing – since I long to be both a pastor and a “theologian” (a post for another day).