I once heard a story – I don’t recall where – of a builder who was commissioned by his employer to build a house. The builder’s employer gave specific instructions regarding the quality of the house. He wanted it to be excellent, but the builder tried to save money and effort for himself by cutting corners. The builder knew that he could hide his below-par craftsmanship so that it wouldn’t be discovered until years later. In the end, the house looked good, but the low quality of the building left much to be desired. When the house was completed, the employer who owned the house handed the keys to the builder, and explained that he wanted to give the house to the builder as a show of gratitude for many years of service. Of course, the builder instantly regretted his laziness and poor workmanship.
The moral of that story seems to be that we should do excellent work because we never know when we might personally benefit. In a way, there is some truth to that, because the Bible does present that the expectation of reward is a legitimate motivation for good work. The worker is worthy of his wages (Lk 10:7, 1 Tim 5:18). God is a rewarder of those who seek Him (Heb 11:6). Jesus even uses the concept of reward in one of His final Scriptural exhortations (Rev 22:12). Paul explains that those who are working for others should always remember that they are, in fact, working for the Lord, and that the ultimate reward comes from Him:
“Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Col 3:23-24).
Reward is certainly a legitimate motivation, but there is perhaps a greater motivation still. We are reminded that “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col 3:17). There is something special about working in the name of Jesus – meaning that we are working as if directly for Him, accomplishing what He would want accomplished. Paul identifies the significance of this in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” We should be seeking His glorification.
The motivation comes from loving Him because He first loved us (1 Jn 4:19). If His purpose is to glorify Himself (or to express His character through His creation, much like artists express themselves through their craft), then our own loving response to Him would be to serve that purpose. We should want Him to be glorified, and should find gratification when He is glorified.
Notice also how desiring to glorify Him is related to gratitude. Psalm 86:12 says, “I will give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with all my heart, and will glorify Your name forever.” We see the same thing in Colossians 3:17. In these contexts, we are glorifying Him because of what He has already done for us, not simply because of something He will do in the future (i.e., future rewards).
Ultimately, we ought to want Him to be glorified because “to Him belong glory and dominion” (1 Pet 4:11). It is rightfully His, and if we love Him we ought to want for Him what is rightfully His.
Our work matters to God. What we do can and should result in His glory: with our good behavior (1 Pet 2:12), with our obedience (2 Cor 9:12), with our bodies (1 Cor 6:20), and with our work (Col 3:23-24). Of course we can never work to earn good standing with God – He has already provided that by grace through faith in Christ (Eph 2:8-9), but “we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works which He prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10). He has laid before us a path of excellence in all that we do. Being committed to excellence in our labor should be more than a slogan to us, because we have significant reasons to be excellent.
“Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more” (1 Thes 4:1).