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 Maria was a nun, many viewers would reason, of course 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.
Just saw this in my mailbox. Yes – the idea of a ‘just universe’ is common among many folks, Christian and non-Christian alike – and that is behind the mentality of victim-blaming: if something bad happens (abuse, bullying, sickness..), it must have been your fault – something you did or didn’t do.
Granted, the Bible does include the concept of ‘sowing and reaping’, so eventually it does ‘pay’ to do good (“Let us not grow weary in well doing”) but as finite and fallible humans, it is not our place to make quick assumptions about someone else’s calamity.. I am learning this in my own life, as I was once too quick to judge and assume about others. 🙁
Yes, the Biblical law of sowing and reaping in Galatians 6:7-9 is what I called logical consequences or cause and effect. That’s different from karma or even pop-karma, which is a punishment that can’t be logically traced to the sin.
Oh how I needed to read this!!!
And when I read the last paragraph where you made mention to Psalms 16:11 I just burst into tears!!!
As this was the very first scripture I learned as a new believer in Jesus decades ago….
…and with all the recent struggles I have cried out to the Lord, asking Him if He is still there and has He truly forgiven me of a sin that I have carried so long on my heart…..
…and then as I finished reading this…there was His loving reminder…
Psalms 16:11….”You will show me the path of life; In Your presence there is fullness of JOY; at your right hands are pleasures FOREVERMORE”
It spoke to the pain and shame in my heart and the tears fall in relief…He has never left me…He continues to show me the path of life….and it is only in Him that I sense and know joy….
Thank you my friend for this gentle reminder of His grace and love to us all…
Oh dear friend, that’s a Scripture I love so much too! I pray that you’ll be able to continue to hold it in your heart through the dark valleys you have to traverse.
Karma Christianity… I love this clever nomenclature for a wrong theology.
The Lord wants a relationship with us. The goal of Christ’s magnificent sacrifice was not legions of dutiful followers trudging fearfully through their days, wondering what forgotten misdeed will come back to bite them, but joyful children who know they are loved, and who pour out the joy and tenderness of the Father to a hungry world.
Well meaning Christians have assured me:
1. If I remained chaste God would surely send me a soul mate and mind blowing sex on my wedding night. When neither materialized they said, You’re not spiritual/mature/content/as wonderful as us matrons.
2. If I ate right and resisted gluttony I could be as slender as Jennifer Anniston. Only gluttons have weight problems. Genetics and grocery budgets are irrelevant.
3. If I tithed regularly God would enable me to set aside 10% of my income for the $1000 nest egg David Ramsey says is a must for respectable Christians. Tithing is barely doable on less than $800 a month. If I’m lucky I don’t have to visit the food bank to feed myself the final week..
Oh, ugh, Rachel, I’m so sorry. When bad things happen, unless there’s a logical “sowing and reaping” obviousness to it, then we don’t need to look for what we did to cause it. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.
Wouldn’t the book of Job be a rebuttal to the concept of “pop-karma?”
Yes, that’s a really good observation.
To Rachel: Oh, I do get that about happily (or not so happily) married women trying to give good lessons about singles needing to be ‘content’ and ‘mature’ before we ever qualify for even asking God for a spouse.
Funnily the same logic is seldom, if ever, applied to some other needs, like food and shelter.. When a person needs a roof over their head, that person is not expected just to be ‘content’ while being homeless. Or, should a hungry person just wait and be content being hungry and malnourished, so hunger and need for food will supernaturally disappear?
Of course, God can supernaturally provide, for any need – but there are many answers that are connected to His Body, other believers. Sometimes the answer does not come because of the unwillingness of people 🙁 Marriage is something I believe God would gladly give to most of His children, but when the potential spouses aren’t ready, then.. He does not force anyone! (I don’t want to enter into a debate how many ‘potential candidates’ there can be for one person, I would be thankful for just one, who says ‘yes’)
I am also in a financial situation where I am unable to tithe, and very disappointed about that. I need to pay my bills and have very little extra after that. But it says that God loves a cheerful giver, so I try to give out generously whatever I can.. help when possible, a listening ear, a prayer, tips and information, even seeds and seedlings during the gardening season… ! It is the heart intention that counts the most.
Vicki S: so true. Many who have a sensitive conscience have the tendency to always wonder, what sin and wrong thought/attitude we need to repent of, whenever there is a challenge and things do not go easily. It cen get very inward looking, and keep one from going forward. One can never be sure, if cleansed enough, healed enough, repented enough… dealed enough with the past.
Much of the counceling / inner healing and deliverance teachings I have heard and read emphasized the need to need to dig and renounce anything that might possible cause a negative effect. It can become very fear-oriented and even superstition… trying to get rid of this curse or that one.
Sometimes God reveals things, when needed, but He can do it without us having to fret and worry about missing His instructions. He does not play games of hide and seek.
(sorry, the system did not allow me to reply to comments directly)
Yes, I have to figure out what’s causing that glitch in the system.
Oh my goodness!! I feel like I could have written that beginning quote! As a child, those very teachings were ingrained in me as well and I clearly remember my father saying that sometimes children are punished for their parents’ sins. This to me was so unsettling and as I grew older, frightening. I started trying very hard in life to not commit sins that I or someone I loved would be punished for. I actually started becoming very superstitious about it! ‘Did this thing happen because God is teaching me a lesson because of a sin? What sin was it? Will x happen if I do such in such?’ I finally came to the understanding of grace and it really did and does feel like shackles falling off. This post was wonderful and I love how you compare it to karma. Thank you for writing yet another thought-provoking and mind-freeing piece!
I’m so grateful for the freedom you’re finding in Jesus Christ, Jessica.
I have been wondering about when Christians like to blame a natural tragedy on the immorality of our culture, that it must be God’s judgment because of various sins…Is this idea related to what you are thinking here? Some person will pronounce God’s judgment on the entire nation because of our national sins….??? Or those people must deserve God’s wrath because of their sins…..I am not very clear about this but I want to throw it out for your consideration just in case… thanks
Good question. I wasn’t thinking in terms of national tragedies, because I think “karma” applies only to individuals (in eastern religions each individual goes through an invidivual reincarnation, etc). What you’ve brought up is an important thing to consider, but isn’t exactly what I was talking about in this post.
One more aspect comes to mind.
There is a teaching I have heard many times in Charismatic circles: if you’re constantly facing similar type of trials in your life, it must be because of sowing and reaping – you’re not ‘dealt’ with it enough, so it comes back to until you learn a lesson or repent of having feelings of injustice…
So if you suffer from the same type of bullying, abuse, or even cancer, you are ‘reaping’ it because of your own failure to deal with it sufficiently… Again, the shame is one the victim. More digging, more repenting, more renouncing.. ‘Oh no, I thought I dealt with this already, didn’t I have the victory last time?’
A man called Francis Frangipani had an excellent article on that, something like ‘Goliath has a brother’. meaning, having similar trials again and again doesn’t mean you didn’t ‘kill’ the first giant correctly 🙂
Sometimes the reason is that you killed the giant well enough, and now his brother comes back at you..
It was very liberating to read once a different perspective – not that your repeated trials are your own fault.
Yes. This really just isn’t Scriptural at all. Thank you for pointing it out.
This attitude is SO pervasive in christianity today! the term ‘pop-karma christianity’ does a great job of offering a very apt description.
Another variant of this is one I’ve heard stated in the following way:
” God must be disciplining me for something, so I better try and figure out what it is, so that I learn what God is punishing me for and don’t do it again!”
The more disturbing variant of it fully embraces the ‘fatalism’ of eastern philosophy, actually overtly including it, in words of the following nature: “god has SOVEREIGNLY ORDAINED THIS, you have no choice; god has SOVEREIGNLY declared this inescapable path of condemnation, and if you don’t go along with it and suffer without grumbling or complaining-then you’ll only make it worse, and because god has ordained it, there’s no escape… , if you bear up under it with a smile on your face, pretending it has no impact on you, then you’re a good christian, and MAYBE god will EVENTUALLY spare you from FURTHER punishment-but that’s all you deserve, anyways! ”
I’ve seen both these variants too often; and the truly ‘fatalistic’ brand of it is so diametrically opposite to the real gospel; and effectively robs us of any hope.
This is a helpful and insightful post.
Yes, when this happens, our one true Most High God begins to be indistinguishable from the Muslim Allah. It is a sad state of the Christian church.
[…] And something in us wants to think that if you’re suffering, you must have done something to deserve it. […]