Short-Term Rewards vs. Living for the Audience of One
In the absence of a strong theology of Heaven and eternal rewards, the western church has been permeated by "prosperity theology," the gospel of health and wealth. We've been seduced to look only to short-term rewards of material gain, physical health and safety, and human approval.
The problem with short-term rewards is not that it's wrong to receive them, but that it's wrong for them to be our primary motivation for doing the work. If we take Matthew 6 seriously, when we offer people their name on a brick for giving to a building offering we're saying "Hope you enjoy this brick, because if this is why you're giving, the brick's all the reward you're going to get." What we're offering people is temptation—another wrong motive for doing something that God wants us to do for other reasons, for the applause of God, not the applause of men. (Winning a Gold Medallion may be a fine byproduct of serving God, but it is a terrible goal.)
But notice Jesus doesn't say it is wrong to have our accomplishments be seen or recognized by men, only that we are not to do them "in order to be seen by them." Why? Because then we're trying to please people rather than God, and we're putting them in God's place, which is idolatry. In that regard, there's a hard-to-find little book by Edward Welch I highly recommend called When People Are Big and God Is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man. It is very biblical and insightful about ascribing too much importance to people's approval, which all of us tend to do.
We are to live out our lives before the Audience of One. That doesn't mean if I get an award from men for writing a book I lose my reward from God, but it does mean that if I am writing that book in order to get an award from men, I won't get rewarded from God. It's a question not of inadvertent occurrences, but of motives, focus, and purpose.
It's definitely possible to think too much of what people think and say. What’s really important is God’s evaluation of our life, and He sees us just as we are. He’s the one we are to please. Colossians 3:22-24 says,
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.