Rewarding the Effort

In God’s eyes, the effort is equal to the achievement.

Our bishop said that last week, and it’s been on my mind ever since.

Our Lord rewards our efforts regardless of whether they are effective. Whether or not we achieve our worthy goals, God sees and rewards the effort.

It’s a good message for Lent, as we begin to see whether we’re accomplishing the goals we set out for ourselves. We probably began the fast thinking we’d curb our passions, become better people and grow closer to God. After weeks of fasting and prayer and spiritual effort, we may or may not see fruit — it’s surely possible that some of us have done all the work, and yet we don’t feel different. We may not seem much holier.

As we get to know the Saints of the Church, we find that many of them finish out their lives declaring their own sinfulness and wishing for time to repent more thoroughly. They are saintly, of course, and their sins and weaknesses much slighter than ours — and yet, having seen some amount of God’s glory, they are more aware of all the ways in which they fall short of it.

It makes me think of Isaiah:

In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up. The house was full of His glory. Around Him stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” The lintel was lifted up by the voice of those who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. So I said, “Woe is me, because I am pierced to the heart, for being a man and having unclean lips, I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips; for I saw the King, the Lord of hosts, with my eyes!”  (Isaiah 6:1-5)

Being a man and having unclean lips, and dwelling in the midst of a people with unclean lips, Isaiah knew that he was not worthy to see the Lord of Hosts.  Human beings don’t measure up; we are not worthy of God’s glory, even under the best of circumstances.

When we approach the holy chalice, we know that we are unworthy. We pray that our Lord, “make me worthy without condemnation to partake of Your pure Mysteries”.  We ask, “How shall I, who am unworthy, enter into the splendor of Your saints?”  We know that we are not worthy and that we cannot really ever become worthy, and yet we have hope that Our Lord Jesus Christ will “let not these holy Gifts be to my condemnation because of my unworthiness, but for the cleansing and sanctification of soul and body and the pledge of the future life and kingdom.”  Why?  Because “it is good for me to cling to God and to place in Him the hope of my salvation.”  Because the effort is equal to the achievement. We cannot hope to actually become worthy of His gifts, but we trust that He sees our efforts to become worthy and that He’ll make up the difference.  He’ll count us worthy, somehow, though we’ll never deserve it.

If you make the effort, God will reward you as if you had achieved your goal, even if you don’t.

As I have lived through this week, considering my bishop’s message, I’ve begun to understand why God would be so generous:  achievement in this fallen world is somewhat random.

Let’s say there’s a man flailing around, drowning in icy water, and you try to save him. You put your life on the line, you thrust your arms into the icy water, you grab on as hard as you can, risking your own life so that his might be saved. You may succeed and you may not. You may well pull him alive from the water, or perhaps he will slip from your grasp. The water is very cold and he is heavy and slippery. Maybe you’ll manage to pull him from the water but it will have been too late — perhaps he was under for too long and he could not be saved.  You may or may not achieve your goal. Some of this is outside of your control. You can only do what you can do, and hope for the best.

Imagine mean and hard-hearted parents. In their later years, as their health declines, they may need help. Perhaps the children forgive their offenses, set aside their own resentment, and become loving caregivers. During those years they serve cheerfully and tirelessly, physically caring for and emotionally supporting their suffering parents. They may very well hope to bring their parents to Christ, that the parent might show mercy and love – and maybe it will work. Maybe the combination of the parents’ physical humbling and the sacrificial love of their children will soften their hearts, and perhaps by the end, the parents will ask for forgiveness and see God’s mercy and heal old wounds. Or maybe not. Maybe the children will offer themselves sacrificially, as Christ did for us, and in the end perhaps their parent will not soften. Perhaps their parents will not turn onto the tap that flows from God, accepting God’s mercy and pouring it onto their own children. Sometimes, a parent doesn’t offer any sweetness in return, and goes to the grave with a hard heart. Is that the children’s fault? Of course not. The effort was the effort, and God saw it. The struggle has inherent rewards: by fighting to be patient and merciful, by picking up our cross and following Christ, our own hearts are transformed into organs that can feel the grace of God — and that is its own reward. God rewards our struggles in heaven; He rewards with the treasure that moths and rust will not corrupt. The reward is given freely regardless of whether the aim was ever achieved.

As parents, we struggle to raise children with hearts for God. We hope to be good parents, giving them what they need to function well in this world. Their lives may or may not be what we hope for them — but know that the effort is equal to the achievement. You and I cannot guarantee anything for our children’s lives, but we can do our best and we can make the effort. God will see the effort, and He will make up the difference. He may grant us the gift of that achievement or He may not; but He will reward the effort as if we had achieved our ends.

It’s a liberating idea. In this world, we are so focused on whether our efforts are effective. We don’t want to waste our efforts — we want to keep trying if we’re effective, and to change course if we’re not.  But with God, nothing is ever wasted.  We may feel discouraged when we work selflessly toward a goal and cannot achieve it, but God knows. He knows better than we do that we are powerless, that we can make the best effort and still fall short.  This is just part of the nature of human existence in this fallen world.

It’s not just that here in the world, success is about money and God doesn’t care about money.  He tells us not to worry about success because it really doesn’t matter.  We cannot succeed by our own efforts, period.  We don’t have that kind of power.  We can only make the effort and hope for the best.  We must content ourselves to know that He sees the struggle and He rewards it.  Regardless.

Keep fighting the good fight.  God sees you and He loves you.

Elissa Bjeletich

About Elissa Bjeletich

Elissa Bjeletich hosts three popular Ancient Faith Radio podcasts: Raising Saints, Everyday Orthodox, and together with Kristina Wenger, Tending the Garden of Our Hearts. She is the co-author of Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home and author of Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent, and In God’s Hands: A Mother’s Journey through Her Infant’s Critical Illness. She serves as the Sunday school director at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. Elissa lives near Austin, Texas, with her husband, Marko, and their five daughters. You'll find more information on her website: elissabjeletich.com

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