The Reward Trap
But Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, thought, "Behold, my master has spared this Naaman the Aramean, by not receiving from his hands what he brought. As the LORD lives, I will run after him and take something from him."
But he went in and stood before his master. And Elisha said to him, "Where have you been, Gehazi?" And he said, "Your servant went nowhere." Then he said to him, "Did not my heart go with you, when the man turned from his chariot to meet you? Is it a time to receive money and to receive clothes and olive groves and vineyards and sheep and oxen and male and female servants? "Therefore, the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and to your descendants forever." So he went out from his presence a leper as white as snow. (2 Kings 5:20, 25-27)
Gehazi had an opportunity like few others to share in the ministry of a mighty prophet. He enjoyed the opportunity to being mentored like his master had been under Elijah and could quite possibly have been the next in a line of significant prophets. But instead he found himself caught in the reward trap, a trap into which so many of us fall all to easily without realizing what we are doing.
The lesson here might be so subtle that it could be all too easy to miss in the excitement of the story. It is easy to condemn Gehazi as simply a greedy man who feel into sin because he wanted some compensation and then lied to his master a prophet. But that deception was only a desperate reaction of seeking to hide his screaming conscience telling him that he had already diverged from the road of integrity, and that is where we need to go to find how to avoid making a similar mistake ourselves in our own service for God.
Elisha seemed confident that the rewards offered him by Naaman involved a temptation of Satan to divert his attention and compromise his singular allegiance to God. It was not that Naaman had diabolical motives for offering those rewards – he was simply acting out what was normal in this world's way of thinking. If you want someone to do something special for you it is expected that they deserve something of value in return. This entire philosophy of economics permeates all of our thinking in this world. There is an assumed demand of equal compensation for work performed or goods received. We see nothing wrong with getting paid for our work or for goods and services offered to others. So why should it be wrong for Elisha to accept payment for the healing of a rich man?
At first glance most people might assume that the problem was that it was not really Elisha who did the healing but rather God. That is true, but it overlooks a much deeper issue behind it. What Elisha was guarding against was not just that God alone should be the focus of appreciation for the miraculous healing of Naaman, but allowing himself to be sucked into the system of reward and/or punishment set up by God's arch-enemy was an even greater danger, especially given the circumstances surrounding the background of this story.
Naaman had been instructed to take along these rewards by his heathen king who worshiped gods inferior to the true God of heaven. These notions about gods and sources of provision are not actually that much different from how most of us think and live today if the truth were to become clear. We think in our sophistication that we no longer worship false gods like the ancient heathen did; but in reality we depend on all sorts of gods but without calling them by that name. Yet anything or anyone that we depend on to provide for our needs without having a keen awareness that everything is organized for us and provided directly or indirectly by only One God in heaven, falls into the realm of false worship. But that is a separate topic of discussion.
What I find in this story is how the entire counterfeit system of economics attempts to undermine our loyalty to the original system of God that is imitated by this counterfeit. Economics is not just about money or material possessions but is just as much about underlying assumptions of relative value and the whole notion of our deserving things. The counterfeit system of earning rewards or deserving punishment is the point of divergence where Satan's philosophies deviate away from God's system that is based on freely offered love without any deserving involved. This is the truth that must be grasped to begin to appreciate what was really taking place in this story of Elisha and Gehazi.
Elisha appears to have understood the dangers inherent in the false economic system of this world. He knew the danger of allowing desires for reward to infect the heart and so he was keeping his distance from the influence of any compensation even if it might offend the one offering them. I am sure it must have seemed very strange and even rude to Naaman that such a poor prophet would refuse to accept the slightest benefit from helping a wealthy man in such a dramatic way. I'm sure Gehazi felt that way too. But the kingdom of heaven is not like the kingdom of Satan and Elisha kept that distinction very clear.
However, a look at the history of Gehazi reveals that even though he spent a number of years with the godly Elisha, he never fully adopted the same principles that governed the thinking and actions of his master. Apparently God was not able to get completely to Gehazi's heart as He wanted to do, for Gehazi may have wanted to mingle worldly principles in with what he was seeing in his master's life. An early indicator that God was not able to work through Gehazi is found in a previous story where Elisha sent him to place Elisha's staff on the face of a deceased boy but nothing resulted. I believe that this exposed that Gehazi had not embraced fully the same level of faith and commitment to God needed for God to use him in such a dramatic way. And although I am sure Elisha patiently worked with him to teach him the principles of heaven, Gehazi evidently resisted embracing fully the mindset of total trust in God and His principles; instead he wanted to keep one foot in the world's way of thinking.
The greed seen in the actions of Gehazi were only the tip of the iceberg that emerged in an especially potent temptation. The underlying problem however was one that many of us share and must guard against – that of thinking that we somehow should deserve to share in the glory of success even when we are serving God. We naturally assume that when gratitude and praise are awakened in those we bless because we are being used as channels of God's love and grace, that there is nothing wrong with getting a small cut of that gratitude for ourselves because we participated in the process and deserve to be rewarded at least a little bit.*
It is so difficult to wrap our mind around how we might fall into the same trap because we could well be just as blind to it as was Gehazi. We have been conditioned all of our lives to believe that we deserve rewards and this spills over into assuming we have a right to share in the profits of the kingdom if we work for the king. And while it is true that there is great rewards for those who join the generous king in saving others from sin and death, the nature of those rewards are very different than how we have always assumed reward systems should function.**
God's reward system operates as everything in His kingdom, on the principle of natural cause and effect. Earthly reward systems invented by the great deceiver are based on his design of artificial rewards and/or punishments based in turn around the idea of earning or deserving. This counterfeit system presupposes that we have inherent rights independent of God and that when we do something to benefit others (or conversely to bring harm to others) we have an irrefutable right to be rewarded. This is outside the natural principles of cause and effect that God has set up. In addition, those endorsing the earned reward/punishment systems of this world usually view the principles of cause and effect to be too weak to be an effective incentive for permanent change or to keep order. This was one of the core contentions of Lucifer when he began his revolt in heaven when he claimed that God's system based on love alone was dangerously flawed and too vulnerable and so needed revision to insulate it from potential exploitation. Sadly Lucifer himself became the one exploiting God's vulnerability and then insisted that the problem was with the way God ran His government rather than Satan's faulty fix.
Within this larger context, we can see in this story that Gehazi was simply acting out according to what would seem normal for a person living in this world. The problem was that relying on reason and logic will never bring us to appreciate the wisdom of God, for God's ways and principles are not found in the reasoning and assumptions in our fallen nature. To grasp the principles of the kingdom we have to get away completely from relying on anything from the knowledge in the Tree of Good and Evil and begin feeding solely from the Tree of Life. Elisha apparently had learned this lesson but Gehazi was still thinking with the mindset of reward and punishment as derived from the Tree of Knowledge.
Gehazi reasoned that Elisha was just being overly cautious when he refused to become tainted with any of the offers of Naaman. He reasoned that Elisha maybe had become a fanatic and had gone too far in turning down what could legitimately be viewed as just compensation. He could not perceive like Elisha could, the enormous danger of taking a first step into a kingdom based on counterfeit principles and he must have felt that if Elisha was too fanatical to live a little it should be alright if his servant acted more reasonably.
Notice that Gehazi was not going to go after all the rewards Naaman had offered but would simply settle for only a small token of appreciation, just what seemed fair and just as compensation for participation by one who had helped facilitate his healing. Gehazi may have rationalized that since he was part of the 'healing team' that had provided such valuable service to Naaman that it was only right that he should deserve a small percentage of the compensation rightfully due the team. Even if Elisha should demur from accepting anything that was rightfully his, Gehazi was not as ready to pass on what he believed would have been his share if his master had been more open. But to avoid irritating or embarrassing his master Gehazi decided to go quietly behind his back and just accept the cut that was due for his part of the process.
All of this may at first sound like pure conjecture on my part, but upon examining the underlying principles involved I believe it may not be far from what actually could have transpired in the mind of Gehazi. The bigger problem is that we are so similar in our own lines of logic that we don't want to be identified with Gehazi because he turns out to be the bad guy in the story and we don't want that label. But the truth is that all too many of us share in Gehazi's view about what should be considered fair because we still miss the awareness about the stark difference between God's ways and what seems normal or fair to us.
At first the story of Gehazi may appear like just crass greed, and maybe it had come to that point for him in the end. But the spirit of craving rewards is far more ubiquitous than simply going after monetary compensation offered to us. It goes much deeper including the temptation to siphon off for our own pleasure some of the awakened affections or credit that belongs to God alone as we help out in His work of saving other sinners.
As we come to appreciate more fully the true goodness of God, and then by contrast become aware of the total bankruptcy of our own fallen nature, it starts to become clear that there is no merit whatsoever inside of us whereby we might earn any sort of these kinds of reward. Yet we often become confused when we read of Jesus talking about having rewards for those who work for Him and assist Him in bringing others into His kingdom. How does heaven's system of reward fit into our suppositions about earning rewards?
The truth is, God's kind of rewards don't fit into our presuppositions about reward systems, for heaven's method of rewarding and heaven's kind of rewards are strikingly different than how we think of rewards here on earth. Gehazi failed to appreciate this distinction and consequently fell into a trap of indulging his selfish desire when a temptation came to acquire what he rationalized should be his as a legitimate part of what was earned by both he and his master.
The fact that Gehazi's logic led him to be viewed later as simply greedy obscures the fact that we are in just as great a danger of following the same path as he did. Because his line of logic is so similar to what seems just normal for most of us, we fail to see the steps in how he arrived at such a point. But if we are honest and put ourselves into his situation we might at least admit that we feel the 'punishment' he received seemed far out of proportion to the 'crime' he committed. It makes God appear to be rather severe and harsh in dealing with this servant by giving him leprosy, one who was just trying to find a little relief from living in such uncomfortable poverty and scarcity. Quite possibly Gehazi had become tired of living in what he felt was unreasonable destitution given the importance of his master's position. Most of the other important people of the world were recognized and compensated in one way or another for their roles in society. So why should a prophet have to live without monetary compensation for the great work he did for others?
I believe this is a concept seldom examined because it makes us uncomfortable with the implications it can have on our own situations. Because we have grown up immersed in the assumptions of this world's systems of reward and punishment based on what we earn and deserve, it seems illogical and even unfair to think that God may have us live entirely different based on other principles than what we have believed all our lives. We very often try to explain the ways of God by using our own logic and the practices with which we are familiar instead of allowing God to define and explain the principles He uses to run His business. Thus we find the ways of God often very confusing because they cannot be readily explained using the traditions and rules that make sense to us.
When engaging in work that we believe is for the advancement of God's kingdom, some struggle to know how to live in regards to their own needs as well as what to do with the reactions and offers from those being blessed by their efforts. Not only in the physical realm but in the social and emotional areas we are constantly faced with decisions as to how to relate to the awakened affections or even financial generosity of those we are seeking to serve. This is where it is vital that we learn what it means to be a true and faithful servant instead of a shrewd servant who believes he deserves to be paid for work performed. Again, this is an area where many are quite ignorant, for we have long supposed that the principles of this world apply equally in the service of God.
This reminds me of a very revealing passage where Jesus responded to His disciple's request for greater faith. When I pondered this a number of years ago it suddenly dawned on me that the answer by Jesus was much more expansive and deep than I have ever seen previously. In short, Jesus shared a scenario where a group of farm workers lived very happily in the service of the farmer with the attitude that they trusted completely the generosity of the farmer to take care of all their own needs so they were free to joyfully serve the farmer without any expectation of reward. (see Luke 17:5-10)
In essence what Jesus is saying here is that to live a life of real faith and total dependence on God as part of His family, one has to choose to live in joyful dependence and trust in just such a kind of master as Jesus described to the point that we have no concerns to look after our own needs but make the desires and needs of our master our highest priority without any feelings of resentment or unfairness. This is how Jesus presented the kingdom of heaven, not one where a king dictates and everyone obeys but where everyone lives in joyful fellowship and trust in the king who has everyone's best interest at heart.
This is a radically different scenario from our current perceptions we get about God's kingdom from mainstream religion. But I believe we must divorce ourselves completely from the contaminating lies of Satan about God and about how He relates to all of His subjects. We must see that every idea emanating from the wrong tree in the garden must be abandoned in favor of living by the principles represented in the Tree that only gives Life. Then we can escape the trap of thinking we deserve rewards like Gehazi fell into (or thinking that others deserve punishment) and can then begin to experience the life that measures with the life of God.
*(I don't preclude appreciation by others for our cooperation with God in His service. I just see a danger of blurring the line between what belongs to God and what we may legitimately accept ourselves.)