As the season of Advent dawns, we joyfully await the coming of the Lord. Provided we can take the time to reflect, it is useful to do so, even amid the traffic, the noise, the stress, the heat, the crowds and so on.
In the lead up to Christmas, many of us take a lot of trouble to buy gifts for others. And to compose Christmas greetings, whether it be by old-fashioned cards or in some sort of electronic form.
While we may not always expect to get gifts in return – the recipient may not be in a position to reciprocate – we do expect expressions of gratitude. We expect that our Christmas best wishes will be returned. We are put out when they are not.
This subject came to light for me recently when I was clearing out some boxes of books, and I came across my old Philosophy of Religion notebook from my seminary days.
I flipped open a page, and I gazed on one sentence – “To seek a reward from God is not to seek a reward at all.”
The text went on to explore reward-seeking behaviour. Exhibitionism is a key characteristic. Our good deeds are sometimes done from a desire for approval. This requires an audience. Is God relegated to the role of an audience?
Earlier, the text had referenced St Thomas Aquinas, in that there is no such thing as “discovering” God, in the sense of something that can be brought forth and produced. Whatever one “discovers” is not God. “God is totally other from what you might expect to find. God is transcendent, outside the discoverable.” God’s “absence”, in the sense of what can be produced and brought forth, is not a failed “presence”. Rather, it is essential – as it provides an antidote to the worship of that which can be seen, i.e. idolatry.
This leads on to the subject of rewards – our goodness should not truly be done with the intent of reward-seeking, even if the one who gives the reward is God. That is merely to transfer a type of acquisitiveness from the earthly realm to the heavenly one.
My activity in seeking a “heavenly reward” does not actually aim at a reward at all, in this sense. If we want to give, we must lose all sense of what we are going to get. In that sense, we must lose any sense of “God as an audience” – a God who can be “produced”, so as to satisfy my needs for a reward.
The logic of grace, the text continued, is that we don’t calculate results. Rather, we respond to others’ needs. I don’t see myself as in need of a reward. I don’t see myself at all. Rather, the “beggar” in front of me is the “sole” object of concern.
When I act, I must value the action itself – virtue is its own reward, as the saying goes.
“That one seeks rewards,” the text continued, “shows something about the sort of person one is. Rather, the virtuous person is happy in doing whatever their good activity is.”
“If we want to give, we must lose all sense of what we are going to get.”
The text went on to state: “There is, in a sense, a convergence between reward and grace. My concern should be wholly on the person in need. I should see the person before me as needy, not myself as generous. I do not consider myself as generous; I do not consider myself at all. What I get from God – grace – I cannot see as being merited. Rather, it must be seen as a gift – so I am disposed to be grateful for it.”
Elsewhere, the text spoke of the transcendent good standing over against us and defining us and asking for a response from us. Many of the problems of our modern society can be traced back to the abandonment of such a notion, or its replacement by a lesser good of our own choosing.
May we all have a good time of reflection as we wait during Advent.