Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: John 9:1-3, Ephesians 2:8-10
The concept of Karma is popular in today’s culture, and is expressed in pop culture through songs like Taylor Swift’s (Karma) and Justin Timberlake’s (What Goes Around, Comes Around). Is Karma compatible with a Biblical worldview? The Christian concept of grace seems to offer something that is missing in karma, in the way we understand the way that God works and how we are to relate to each other.
The idea and title for this message comes from a current song by Taylor Swift called “Karma”. She’s putting “Taylor’s version” in the title because she is re-recording all of her old songs so she can have the complete rights to them.
So this morning I want to look at this idea of karma. Now I’m glad there aren’t any Swifties here today, so I don’t have to worry about offending anyone. Oh wait, there are? Ok, shat do you call a Christ-follower who’s a Swifty? A “Christy”!
I’m going to look at the question, “Is karma compatible with Christian faith?” How is it similar and how is it different from who God is and how God operates?
A little disclaimer to begin with. I don’t claim to be an expert on karma, nor on the ways of God for that matter. I’m still learning, still growing. So keep in mind that this is Tig’s version, at this point in time.
So first, what is karma? Karma is a Sanskrit word meaning “action.” It refers to a cycle of cause-and-effect that is an important belief in many Eastern Religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism.
In its essence, karma refers to both the actions and the consequences of the actions. In pop culture, karma is this idea that you reap what you sow.
Or as the title of a Justin Timberlake song says “What goes around comes around”. Timberlake’s song is about a guy who’s girlfriend dumped him for another guy, and he’s trying to make sense of it and cope with it. So he sings:
“It’s breaking my heart to watch you run around, cause I know that you’re living a lie, That’s OK baby ‘cause in time you will find what goes around, what goes around, comes all the way back around.”
The guy takes comfort in believing that his ex-girlfriend is with the wrong guy instead of him, she’s living a lie, and in the end she’s going to get burned, suffer. She’s going to reap the suffering that she sowed to Justin.
The late great John Lennon also had a song about karma—anyone remember it? “Instant Karma”. By instant, he was emphasizing that the consequences of bad actions can sometimes be quick and immediate:
“Instant karma’s gonna get you, it’s going to knock you right on your head. You better get yourself together, or pretty soon you’ll be dead.”
Then there’s Taylor Swift’s song Karma, which like Timberlake’s is also seems to be about an ex who betrayed her and has a habit of trampling on people to get what he wants. She sings,
if you dare you’ll see the glare of everyone you burned just to get there, it’s coming back around. But she says “I keep my side of the street clean, you wouldn’t know what I mean”.
And then the chorus, where she gives a bunch of metaphors of the good karma that she’s experiencing because she’s been good:
“‘cause Karma is my boyfriend, karma is a god, karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekend, karma’s a relaxing thought, aren’t you envious that for you it’s not? Karma is sweet like honey and like a cat purring in my lap.”
In both Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift’s songs, there’s this idea that karma is like a judge that is going to bring justice to people— For those who treat other people well, they will be at peace and enjoy life.
And for people who cause suffering for others, karma will make sure they suffer as well. What goes around, comes around.
And also the people whom they hurt don’t have to take revenge because karma will catch up with them. So there’s this feeling of satisfaction that karma will run its course without us needing to do anything.
When karma is a type of punishment, we have a phrase to describe this sense of justice; we say “people will get their just deserts’”.
Do you ever wonder where a phrase comes from? I used to think that the desert here was spelled with two s’s, you know that thing you look forward to after a meal. But I read something this week that debunked that theory,
It said “it doesn’t make sense for it to refer to something good like dessert, when it’s a punishment, right?” I mean, I might be tempted to get into all kinds of mischief against other people if I knew that I’d get some German chocolate cake with ice cream for doing it.
But in actuality, the phrase is spelled with only one “s”, like ‘desert’, but it’s pronounced “dessert” because it actually comes from the word deserve. So getting your just deserts means getting what you deserve, reaping what you sow.
Why is karma such a popular concept all over the world and not just in areas where Hinduism and Buddhism are common?
First, as we saw in the songs, we are wired to want things to be fair and just. “It’s not fair!” is a phrase that children learn from about the time they start to talk.
We believe that everyone should play by the same rules. How many of you have watched some women’s world cup soccer matches? If you have, you’ve no doubt seen games decided by penalty kicks.
What if the ref says, OK, team A, your penalty kicks are from 12 yards out, but Team B, you can kick yours from 6 yards out because I like your uniforms better. People would be up in arms, because it wasn’t fair, right?
And this sense of fairness and justice means that if people break the rules, there should be the same standard for everyone. “No one is above the law” we say, and that even includes politicians at the highest levels of government, hypothetically speaking, of course, right?
Another reason why I think we like the idea of karma is its idea of cause and effect is like the law of physics, it helps us understand and even predict what happens to us and other people.
There’s a song in the musical The Sound of Music, where Maria is trying to make sense of her good fortune of Coronel Von Trapp falling in love with her.
She sings, “somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” She didn’t see his love as a gift, but something she earned and deserved, even though she didn’t know exactly what it was that she did.
On the other end of the spectrum, we see this idea of cause and effect in today’s scripture from the gospel of John, when Jesus and his disciples encounter a man who was blind since birth.
Jesus’ disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). This was part of the worldview of Jesus’ day—that disabilities were seen as a consequence of someone’s sin, of bad karma playing itself out, like some sort of curse.
I read an article this week from Christianity Today about how karma plays itself out in different parts of the world. And it’s not a one size fits all; there are different interpretations of it.
In any case, the article tells the story of a missionary who was blind who applied for a visa to serve in a country in Asia. He was denied the visa because the authorities believed that he had bad karma and therefore was not fit to do religious work.
When bad things happen to people, we’re always asking “why?” Even with natural disasters that aren’t caused by humans but are known as “acts of God”, people have come up with reasons.
Almost every time there’s a hurricane or earthquake that causes a lot of destruction, there have been TV preachers who have tried to blame it on the sin and disobedience of certain people in the region affected by it,
God is punishing them for their sins, they say. They’re trying to find a cause to the effect, to answer the question “why?” Now I want to look a little more closely at the Bible and the idea of karma.
There are a lot of scriptures that resonate with karma’s idea of reaping what we sow, the law of cause and effect, that our actions have predictable consequences.
The apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians says “do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that he or she will also reap.” (Gal. 6:7)
Prov. 22:8 says “whoever sows injustice, will reap calamity, and the rod they wield in fury will be broken.”
Psalm 1, the very first psalm, contrasts two different ways of living:
Blessed, happy are those who take delight in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. 3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.4 The wicked, those who deny God and go their own way are like chaff that the wind drives away. In the end, they will perish.
I read a quote from a Buddhist who was talking about karma in terms of spiritual development, that we are shaped by the choices we make with our thoughts, our attitudes and our actions.
And that’s what we see here in this Psalm as well as in other scriptures in the Bible. We are responsible for our actions and how they impact ourselves and other people. Like karma, in many ways we do reap what we sow in life.
Also in the Bible, there’s the idea of justice and fairness just like with karma. The Bible teaches about a God who hates injustice, and who speaks out against those who abuse their power to oppress other people, especially the poor and the powerless.
Mary in her Magnificat proclaims a God who will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
So justice and reaping what we sow are biblical concepts that resonate with karma in many ways.
But there are some things that I find in my understanding of God and of the Christian faith that seem to go above and beyond the idea of karma, at least how it’s understood in popular songs and culture.
First, the God I believe in can’t be put in a simple “cause and effect” box. Our human, finite minds cannot confine God to a box—God acts in ways that we can’t always predict, understand, or control. We call this God’s sovereignty.
We as humans can’t control our own destiny completely. Doing all the right things usually means that things will go well for us, but there are no guarantees. Good, God-fearing people get in accidents, they have miscarriages, they suffer unjustly because of the sin of other people.
The book of Job is a classic example of this. Job suffers all this calamity, and his friends and his wife are telling him that he must have done something wrong to deserve all his bad fortune, that God is punishing him.
But in the end, God was just testing Job. And Job realizes that he is not God, that God’s ways are not his ways, and his finite mind can’t always comprehend and infinite God. Job says at the end of the book, “I spoke things that I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”
Now let’s go back to the story of the Jesus and the blind man. Jesus replied to his disciples’ question about who sinned, by saying this: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:3)
Jesus’ focus is not so much on the “why” but on the “what” –what good can come out of the situation, how can God be glorified in a situation.
This is what we might call “redemptive suffering”. You see with God, unlike karma, people don’t always get what they deserve. And that can be a very good thing, for all of us. This is what we call grace.
Think of the story of Joseph and his brothers at the end of the book of Genesis. Here his brothers had treated him like dirt, left him to die, and sold him into slavery.
Now fast forward to where Joseph is in a position of power, and his brothers need food and are at his mercy. Joseph had every right to turn his brothers away and let them starve to death. It would make sense in a world of karma. But instead, he showed them mercy, he forgave them, and he reconciled with his brothers:
“20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people,” (Genesis 50:20) We could say that He broke the cycle of family dysfunction with his act of grace toward his brothers. They ended up reaping something different than what they sowed.
Of course, Jesus taught and lived a way full of grace that went beyond cause and effect, beyond “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, he calls us to show love even to our enemies, to those who do us harm.
The sad reality is that some people who call themselves “Christians” are rejecting Jesus himself because they see him as “weak” but actually love that shows grace and forgiveness is the most powerful, strongest love known to humankind.
Our scripture from Ephesians 2 challenges us to remember the gift of grace that God has given us, and to share it freely with others through concrete actions.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we may walk in them.
I want to close with a quote from the great ‘theologian’ Bono, of the band U2, who talks about karma and grace in a book that came out several years ago. He says:
What keeps me on my knees is the difference between grace and Karma… at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma—what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—every action is met by an equal or opposite one… And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff”…I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the cross…”
Friends, we’re all holding out for Jesus’ love and grace. And the good news is that even though we don’t deserve it, it’s a gift for us to receive. Amen.