To Labor and Not to Seek Reward

In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we’ve invited our dotMagis bloggers to reflect on the individual lines of St. Ignatius’s Prayer for Generosity.
Prayer for Generosity - "To labor and not to seek reward" line highlighted
The Prayer for Generosity gives us words that assist us on a lifelong path of becoming more fully surrendered to God.

St. Ignatius’s words “to labor and not to seek reward” can include larger vocational decisions to seek God’s call for its own sake, and not for external rewards such as wealth, honor, or security. Instances are choosing to be a social worker, or starting a small business that can benefit my community, or beginning a family. However, this kind of decision is only a first step. As we encounter various obstacles in life, the question of our own motivation is continually challenged; our love purified; and our surrender to God deepened.

Students who undertake service projects at my university often constructively question their own motives: do they take up a service project for the sake of the others whom they serve? to increase their own learning? as a good resumé builder? to feel pleasure in helping another? Often our own motives are not clear even to ourselves until problems arise. For example, a person at a homeless shelter is angry because no more beds are available, and though this is not the student’s fault, she feels badly about the lack of gratitude and asks why she is there.

At such times, we confront not only a lack of “reward” but also a certain impurity in our own motives. Acknowledging that our own actions are not as other-centered as we thought can be humbling. Then we often have to choose how and why to continue. Ignatius’s words encourage us to take up these challenges as an opportunity for the purification of love.

We can also labor without seeking reward by letting go of the fruits of our own labors. Often, we do not know our actions’ effects. A small act of kindness to a stranger on the morning commute may encourage another to act more gently in the next part of her day at work. A student who sits in the back of a class with cap pulled down low may later tell his teacher that the class was transformative.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote of her desire to come to God at the end of her life with “empty hands,” so that God would take her not for her works, but only for herself. Like Ignatius she recognized that we are loved unconditionally. When we know of that love, then our gifts to God and others can then also be freer of self-concern. We can surrender ourselves into God’s hands in all our labors, trusting that God will use whatever we offer to bear fruit.


  1. Thank you for an excellent piece. I was especially struck with your example of St. Therese, wanting to come to God with “empty hands”. It struck me as profound, and prompted me to consider whether I want to come to God with empty hands. After wrestling with this question, I have to answer a resounding “No”. Not because I wish to entice His love through gifts (for there is nothing I can offer that He Himself did not first give to me), but rather, this internal debate drew me into the realization that gratitude is part of who I am, in fact, perhaps the single most defining aspect of who I am. Grateful for my life, grateful for Jesus, grateful for the Holy Spirit, for knowing God through Christ, for my family, etc, etc, etc, etc. Grateful for God’s unconditional love. And it is within the context of my gratitude that I wish to come to God with hands full of gifts representing my gratitude. I do not want Him to love me because of my works, but rather, want Him to love me because of who I am, which necessarily has to include gratitude, which necessarily produces works of gratitude. For me, coming to God with empty hands would be coming to God not as I am, but as someone I am not. I want to come to Him as I am, and for me, that’s with hands full of gifts of gratitude.

    • Thanks for your reflection. I love the centrality of gratitude and how gratitude can become part of one’s identity.

      • Marina,
        I started a gratitude journal recently, and entering short sentences in it daily about various things large and small that I felt grateful for has morphed into a formal part of my spiritual practice. I feel as if I’m rewiring my brain, becoming more grateful than ever for each and every little thing that flows my way. I started the journal four months ago; it now includes hundreds of items, some frivolous that make me laugh — and no doubt make God laugh. Others are deeply serious, even huge. It’s fun.
        Pat C
        Ann Arbor, MI

    • I am huge fan of St. Therese. She has been my “little sister” on my journey of faith and return to her words over and over again. It might be of interest to you that she said, “Jesus does not demand great deeds from us, he only asks for surrender and gratitude.” She also is well know for her “little way” of doing little deeds for the Kingdom of God, but she always stresses that “everything is grace.” We have no power of our own to transform ourselves (this is different from free will) and she is constantly reminded of that, of her weakness. Hence her empty hands. She goes to God asking for Him to give her what she needs and as the author stated, we trust in God to bring good fruit out of whatever little deeds we manage to do. 🙂


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