Human society operates in such a way that rewards behaviour favourable to its ends and penalizes actions detrimental to its cause. Under the State, in civil society, and even in the family, we are taught that behaving in a manner which is good reaps good things in return. Respectively, bad actions yield bad returns. Respect, good grades, stocks, votes, allowances: these are given and withheld from others depending on whether or not they are worthy of it. We are made to believe that the good things in life, as well as the bad things, are earned and deserved.
Perhaps this is the natural state of things, and with regards to how we view God and religion, we may even think that this manner of affairs is divinely ordained. Thus, we find the predicament of Job problematic: if disaster and suffering comes even to those who are righteous and obedient, why should we still do good things? If the sun rises and sets over all men, righteous and evil, and it is even possible for evil men to thrive while good men suffer, why not be evil? In fact, why not go beyond good and evil? Why not do whatever it is that yields good or favourable outcomes, and do away with the labels which distinguish righteous actions from vile ones?
Of course, these questions may be answered by saying that good actions, contrary to what the question suggests, are indeed rewarded, only not in the manner by which us humans expect. Christians, for example, believe in a real heaven and a real hell. The fact that one gets away in doing evil things in order to pursue their own benefit may be true in the physical, “sinful” world, but this is not the case in the afterlife. The rewards for good behaviour are in fact reaped in the afterlife, as well as the punishment for bad actions.
This answer has a large amount of divine truth in it, perhaps, but even as a Christian I find it hard to accept this as the final answer. Even in Scripture we find that doing good acts, even in the name of God: baptizing, exorcising demons, et cetera, do not get people into heaven. The Apostle Paul even says further that it is not good works which justify us, but faith in the Lord. This is proven further in the example of Hestas who was hung on the cross with Jesus, to whom Christ promised Paradise although he was a thief.
So not only it is possible for evil people to thrive materially, they may also gain entrance to heaven! The question remains then: why be good? Why not live an immoral and pleasing life and just repent and be baptized in your deathbed?
I do not reject of course, the doctrine of heaven and hell. I am only inquiring on our beliefs about heaven and hell. Perhaps how we approach these truths are tainted still by the conviction that a comfortable life comes from righteousness and obedience. I personally do not believe it to be so. For in the faith I have seen and read of people who have suffered much in obedience and have had their lives, friends and family taken from them in their faith. I think, that in answering the question, like I think what God had suggested in the Book of Job, we must inquire beyond our personal knowledge and experience. For often do they blind us of significant truths.
First, what is righteousness? In Job we are taught that righteousness is doing God’s will. Job is righteous not because he is rich or popular, but because he did what God commanded. This is what made the suffering and loss unbearable for him. Righteousness did not make him invulnerable to pain and suffering. Yet I think it should be considered that even if this were so, his vulnerability did not make him less righteous. Even when God had come to scold him for his nagging, God praised Job for “speaking truly of Him.” Perhaps good works and righteousness, even if it does not save us from suffering and pain, bring us closer to knowing God and His wisdom. And this is given proof by Christ: “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” He said. There is a strict correlation between doing God’s will and knowing God.
But why do we need to know God? St. Augustine said that God has made us for Himself and unless we rest in Him, we will be restless. The knowledge of God is totally alien to us because we are separated from Him. In Christianity, we call this sin. And this need to find rest, to find peace, is not something which cannot be ignored, just as hunger cannot be ignored. Man, says Christ, does not live on bread alone. Man is also sustained by the words which come from God. God’s Wisdom, His Word, is our Food. And doing His will brings us closer to that Food. Knowledge of goodness brings us closer to Him, and enables us to properly appreciate Him. Even if you were handed a cake, if you do not know what it is, you wouldn’t eat it. But how would you know that it is to be eaten if you’ve never tasted it? Doing good gives us that taste of the divine. It reveals to us what we are capable of, if we surrender our will to be more like His. In a sense we are prepared for the feast which awaits us in heaven, by acquiring a taste for them here on Earth.
Of course this does not solve why we must still suffer while doing good things. If doing good things is good for us, why does it not feel good? I think this will be resolved in answering another question, namely: what are we here on earth for? Are we here to feel good, or to be one with God? If the former, then perhaps goodness should be thrown out of the window: for it means nothing to alter our present affairs. Pleasure, like pain, comes without our consent, though we may pursue actions that might possibly increase their chances of coming to us. But if the latter, then we must do good, regardless of whether it makes us richer or poorer, regardless if it will cost us our lives. Because in doing good we are brought closer to oneness with God. We cannot do whatever it is that we want simply because all we ever really need and want is Christ, but we can’t get to Him. It is the world’s lies which lead us to confuse the itch we feel for Him for lesser things which are easier to acquire as they do not require any effort of goodness and humility from our part.
In conclusion, I am brought back to the simple yet profound answer I have iterated earlier: good actions, contrary to what the question suggests, are indeed rewarded, only not in the manner by which we humans expect. Unlike the rewards given to us by the State, society and our earthly parents, God’s reward for us in doing good is not a payment for a job well done. His reward for us is Himself: His will and face revealed, for it is the only thing that will truly satisfy us. Doing good does not exempt us from pain, but it makes pain meaningful. For even if we do not do good we receive it, but at least in doing good it makes us better.