The other day I received a request to comment on the topic of God punishing us for our sins in a seemingly random way:
It was ingrained heavily when I was a child that God punishes us for things long after we’ve repented. Any “bad” sin leads to year and years of punishment, even if it’s been repented of fully. My parents will say this often, that someone (even their own child) is being punished because of a very bad [unrelated] sin. I’ve felt an incredible amount of guilt and shame over my child’s health problems and always wonder if it was because of my sin.
I told the writer that this sounded like karma Christianity.
What is pop-karma?
Strictly speaking, “karma” (from Hinduism and Buddhism), refers to all the good and bad deeds in one “incarnation” of a person’s life that roll over, if you will, into the 401k, so to speak, of another “incarnation,” so that when something good or bad happens in this life, a Hindu or Buddhist will judge it to be the mysterious “karma” of a previous existence.
That is, to put it mildly, not exactly the same as the understanding of life events in Biblical Christianity, which is based on mercy, grace, and justice experienced in one life on this earth and in an afterlife (either with God or without Him).
But somehow much of Western Christianity has been infected by syncretism, promoting a kind of “pop-karma.” While rejecting the concept of reincarnation (because it so obviously doesn’t fit with Christianity), a surprising number of Christians still accept the random reward and punishment system of karma, but condensing it all into this life and attributing it to God.
Just for clarification, pop-karma, isn’t the same thing as logical consequences. (If I rob a bank, it isn’t “karma” if I end up in prison, it’s logical cause and effect.) On the contrary, the original concept of karma has at its roots a randomness that makes all of life inexplicably tied together, bad and good experiences now (which can’t be traced to logical consequences) all being tied to bad and good deeds from a past life (which you don’t even currently know about).
So pop-karma in Christianity teaches that the good or bad you’re experiencing now is also related to some good or bad deed in the past that you may not remember.
Some familiar pop-karma
In The Sound of Music, Maria (and the Captain) sing a song called “Something Good.”
Perhaps I had a wicked childhood.
Perhaps I had a miserable youth,
But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth.
For here you are, standing there, loving me,
Whether or not you should,
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good.
Nothing comes from nothing,
Nothing ever could.
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good.
The Sound of Music is, in fact, promoting the concept of pop-karma, which to many unsuspecting viewers would have appeared to be part of Christianity (since of course Maria was a nun, many viewers would reason, so she ought to know what she’s singing about).
Maria sang about the “good rewards” for a long-forgotten “good deed.” And when it comes to the bad experiences, “Christian pop-karma” teaches that you had better search your heart for what you did to cause it and keep repenting and repenting and searching your heart and repenting some more.
The woman who wrote the letter to me, though, didn’t come from a sect that emphasizes a works-related reward-and-punishment system the way Catholicism and fundamentalism do. No, she came from a conservative evangelical background, from a church that teaches the grace of Jesus Christ. This karma teaching has infiltrated thinking even in those churches.
The good news is that pop-karma has nothing to do with the way the real Christian life, the Christian life shown in the Bible, actually works. Nothing. And when Christians can get a hold of this truth, it can be very freeing.
No pop-karma in the Bible
I can think of two Bible stories in the karma-Christianity argument. If others occur to you, please feel free to mention them in the comments.
The first is in II Samuel 12, when King David had an illegitimate baby by Bathsheba (the married woman he stole from her husband, whom he killed). The baby died, and the Bible seems to indicate that the death was pretty obviously because of David’s sin. But because this was a direct cause-effect relationship, it isn’t an example of karma. David didn’t have to try to figure out what sins he had committed that had caused the death of this child. His sins were staring him in the face. As a result, he wrote Psalm 51.
The second pertinent story is found in John 9, the story of the healing of the blind man. The disciples, who sounded like they believed in some sort of version of karma, said to Jesus, “Why was this man born blind? Was it because of his sins or his parents’ sins?”
After all, if someone is suffering, they thought, it had to be because of someone’s sins, right? After all, karma.
But Jesus said, “No, that isn’t what this is about. It’s not about someone being punished for sins. It’s about displaying the glory of God.”
The man was gloriously healed and gloriously saved. The Pharisees were rebuked for their blindness. No, no karma here.
There are quite a few other passages of Scripture that I believe are pertinent in the pop-karma discussion, but I’m going to mention only one more. That’s Psalm 73, which you can read here.
In this passage, the psalmist laments the evil people who seem to get away with their evil while good people who love the Lord are struggling.
Oh my, this passage hits so close to home, since I’m aware of so many in both categories.
But this psalmist recognizes that there is no karma in this life. Instead he mourns the seemingly good life of the wicked . . . that is, until he gets to verses 17 and 18,
“Until I came into the sanctuary of God; Then I understood [for I considered] their end. Surely You set the wicked-minded and immoral on slippery places; You cast them down to destruction.”
The psalmist speaks of the final judgment, when those who haven’t repented or been judged in this life—those who have gotten away with all their evil deeds in this life (and there are so many who fit this description)—will receive their just deserts.
This is the way God works.
The God of mercy and justice through Jesus Christ
God is not a God of karma, and ultimately His concerns are not about physical life circumstances as much as they are about the spiritual realm.
In the spirit realm, God is a God of mercy and justice. Mercy for those who will come to Him in repentance, and justice for those who will not. Yes, there will often be logical consequences (cause and effect results) from deeds committed, but God will not punish His children mysteriously and then leave us to rack our brains and search our hearts to try to figure out what sin from the past we didn’t repent of. That simply is not the way He works.
Here’s the joy for Christians, for those people who have turned to Him with their whole hearts, come to Him, and sought His face. Oh, He loves you, and He delights to reveal Himself to you. If you are going through a hardship, one of those “this isn’t what I signed up for” experiences (I’ve so been there!), He says, “My child, press into Me. Come to Me. I want to show you My love through My Spirit.”
Though there will be some dark valleys for God’s children to traverse, our Savior’s heart is for you, to bring you into His presence, where there is fullness of joy.
There is no karma Christianity.