Have you ever heard someone say, “What goes around comes around”? Perhaps it was the comment, “You get what you give.” Or maybe someone described how they released positivity into the world so that positive things would happen to them. Such sayings are common, each describing a mystical link between how we behave and what life throws back at us.
In a word: karma. Karma teaches that if we engage in good behavior, good things will happen. Engaging in wicked behavior, on the other hand, brings negativity upon us. The result of our behavior is unavoidable; we get what we deserve.
Is karma consistent with biblical teaching? Some believe it is. Just as karma teaches that “what goes around comes around” the Bible teaches that we reap what we sow. Proverbs 22:8 states “whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.” Similarly, the Apostle Paul writes, “God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap also” (Galatians 6:7).
Even Jesus appears to affirm this when he says, “Give and it will be given to you. . .for the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38). This seems cut and dry; we will inevitably experience the consequences of our actions.
But is the language of reaping and sowing really the same thing as karma? Did Jesus teach a system of divine tit-for-tat, a cosmic way of checks and balances that serve to govern our moral behavior? Did Jesus believe in karma?
Karma Condemns Us
The Bible does not teach the doctrine of karma. In fact, Jesus directly contradicts this teaching. Jesus came to seek and save, not mete out punishment for divine infractions (John 3:17). Life in the kingdom of God is one of freedom and grace; a life rooted in karma, on the other hand, is one of fear and condemnation.
The popular understanding of karma is often stripped from its authentic spiritual implications. We assume that karma speaks merely to the inevitable consequences of our behavior. The truth is karma, in its authentic form, is an integral part of both Hindu and Buddhist spirituality.
Important in these spiritualities is the belief in reincarnation, or in past and future lives. This is what makes karma so powerful; karma does not have to be experienced in this life — it may be rendered unto you in the next.
Karma teaches that the universe will render to us good for good and bad for bad. In other words, good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. Yet because we are imperfect people, karma will always pronounce condemnation.
Ultimately, our sins are never forgiven; they are just deferred for a while. This flies in the face of God’s desire to forgive. Psalm 130:3-4 states “if you Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord who could stand, but with you there is forgiveness.”
God keeps no record of sin; karma does. Whether karma comes by way of a divine being or “the universe” (for those who do not believe in a divine being) the result is the same: life will conspire to keep you mired in negative experiences until your moral balance begins to swing the other way.
Here is where we are inevitably condemned: we never really know where we are in the cosmic balance. If we believe that our moral persuasion is returned to us cosmically, then how do we know if we have stalked up enough good experiences to outweigh the bad?
Furthermore, if our present experiences of karma are but a reflection of a past life, then there is no way that we can address the wrongs we may have done.
What Does Jesus Teach?
It can be easy to believe that there is tie between suffering and sin. Jesus himself dealt with this belief in his day. Exodus 34:7, for example, declares that God does not leave the guilty unpunished, but “punishes the children and their children for the sins of the parents.”
Over time this verse became twisted into the belief that all instances of infirmity or tragedy testified to the sinfulness of the individual.
According to the wisdom of the day, anyone born blind (John 9:2), or those crushed by a falling tower (Luke 13:1-9), obviously deserved such a fate. Tragedy was simply part of God’s divine judgment. In other words, karma gets you in the end.
Jesus vehemently rejects the assumption that those who suffer do so because of sinfulness. Those who befall tragedy are not worse sinners than others. In fact, Jesus states that everyone is equally sinful before God!
When questioned about the sinfulness of those who died under the tower of Siloam, Jesus states that they were no worse than the very righteous people posing the question (Luke 13:2). For Jesus, it makes no sense to believe that tragedy befalls the sinful, for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
This may not seem like good news, but it is. Christ offers us salvation through the act of repentance. This call to repentance, though, is not because God is angry and longing to smite us. Jesus calls us to repentance so that we may meet the God who longs to forgive. God’s response to sin is not to condemn and destroy but to redeem and to save.
Karma speaks about eventually receiving the due punishment for our sin; Jesus, however, articulates God’s desire to forgive. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, for Jesus set us free from all death-producing laws (Romans 8:1-2). Any belief or doctrine that suggests that you get what is coming to you is rendered powerless by the cross of Christ.
Do We Reap What We Sow?
Does the gospel mean that there are no consequences in life? Does Christ’s loving disposition to us mean that we need not worry about following the ethical commands of the Kingdom? Or, as Paul put it, “shall we sin so that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). Surely not.
The biblical language of reaping and sowing describes the natural consequences of one’s choices and behaviors. Consequences are natural and reasonable. If you constantly ridicule and berate a friend, he or she will eventually end the relationship. If you place a hand on a hot stove, you will be burned. We cannot avoid such consequences. They are experienced as the natural outflow of our lives.
Importantly, however, reaping what we sow is value-neutral; it does not declare what one “deserves.” Reaping and sowing speak about the direction of one’s life, and what one might experience as the natural consequences of that decision.
Paul writes, “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the spirit will reap eternal life.”
The natural consequence of pursuing worldly pleasures will be worldly rewards, rewards that are ultimately elusive and transitory; pursing spiritual vitality, on the other hand, will lead us into eternal rewards. Reaping what we sow is simply to arrive at the end of the road we choose to travel upon.
The Difference Between Karma and the Gospel
Karma attempts to explain life’s randomness by providing an answer for what happens to us. Yet in doing so it leaves no room for grace. In the end, you have no one to blame but yourself for whatever occurs in your life.
Diagnosed with an illness? It’s your fault. Did a hurricane destroy your house? Well, you had it coming. There is no room for mercy or transformation. There is no grace. There is no forgiveness.
The gospel tells a different story. Jesus is not waiting to hurl lightning bolts of disease, accident, or tragedy at you. Jesus is not waiting for the day where he can finally smite you for all the mistakes or sins you have committed. In fact, Jesus is directly opposed of this.
On the cross Jesus spoke words of love, not hate, salvation, not condemnation. He prayed a prayer of forgiveness over those who spat on him, ridiculed him, struck him, and crucified him. That is how Jesus treats people, good, bad, or indifferent. The way of Jesus is not condemnation. It is the way of redemption, grace, and love.
No matter what has occurred in your life, or what may be occurring now, Jesus is with you. The consequences of life have no bearing on his utmost and unyielding love. He will not revisit your old mistakes asking for recompense. With Christ there is life, and life to the full.
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.