A brief survey of how the Bible teaches, and then un-teaches, karma.
I get turned around, and I mistake my happiness for blessing. And I’m blessed as the poor; still I judge success by how I’m dressing. — Caedmon’s Call
Does the Bible teach karma?
I really hesitate to use the word karma at all. For most, this word carries with it a Buddhist or Hindu connotation, and therefore if you’re a Christian, you might immediately write it off. But as Ramachandra from the Matrix Revolutions movie would say: karma is just a word, and what matters is the connection the word implies.
So instead of the word karma, I’m going to use The Disobedience Meme. Surely you know it. It goes something like this:
- Good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people.
- If we obey, we are blessed. If we disobey, we are cursed.
- If you’re a good boy, you’ll get a Christmas present.
- If things are going badly for me, it must be because I offended God.
- If I’m sick, it’s my fault. Affliction is due to my disobedience.
- When I’m thriving, I must have God on my side pulling strings for me.
This meme is kind of everywhere in our consciousness, is it not? Even as modern, rational people who have embraced, or at least accepted, a neutral universe where random chance has somehow produced humans from a long cycle of natural selection… and “shit happens”… why do we still subconsciously link our behavior to our circumstances?
A meme is a behavioral “trait” or social symbol that is passed on from generation to generation. It’s embedded in our consciousness the same way a gene is embedded in our DNA. It’s probably the reason you’re afraid of spiders.
Spiral Dynamics, which explains the evolution of human consciousness, groups emerging memes together into containers called vMEMEs, which are represented by colors — Purple, Red, Blue, and so on. If you haven’t read about SD before, please do — it’s fascinating.
One thing I learned from SD is that vMEMEs arrange themselves in our consciousness such that certain ones are active and others are inactive, but the inactive ones can become active in certain circumstances. At football games, we all become tribal (Purple). When challenged, our ego may hijack our reasoning faculties (Red).
And that is why, even though we are a modern Orange/Green society that prides itself on rational thinking, objective evidence, and scientific reasoning… we still cling to The Disobedience Meme from time to time.
- Serial rapist gets hit by a bus? He had it coming.
- Super-Pastor-Hero guy’s kids got accepted to a prestigious art school? God is totally blessing them.
Whether this karma-esque worldview is Purple or Blue, I’m not sure. But it’s certainly pre-rational, and therefore, it’s not all that surprising that we would find it in the Bible.
Scriptural examples of the meme
In the oldest books of the Bible, we can see The Disobedience Meme pretty clearly. Sometimes it’s quite obvious, as the biblical authors are blatantly saying “here’s what’s going on” — but other times, it’s beneath the surface and you have to read between the lines to see it.
Here is where the meme is introduced.
But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies. Those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you. (Leviticus 26:14–17)
Ouch. This actually goes on for a while. God says what happens when his people disobey, then continue to disobey, then continue some more.
An interpretation from The Jewish Study Bible:
…it casts God is not in the role of the petty tyrant exacting retaliation for each infringement but rather as the undeterred ruler, patient but far from passive, who realizes that he may not achieve his end immediately and that severe measures may be necessary. God is pictured here as compelled to give repeated second chances…
I’ll live with that for now. But there’s more…
Our pastor at our church sums up this rather repetitive book as a “Wheel of Misfortune.” After finally entering their promised land, Israel goes through a pattern of idol worship, being punished by God, becoming slaves to another tribe, God sending a “judge” or prophet to speak to them, them finally turning back to God, and becoming free and prosperous again. Then the cycle repeats.
The important thing here is, Israel is in slavery not only when they are disobedient, but because they are disobedient. Conversely, obedience brings them back into flourishing.
The Babylonian Exile
After the temple — God’s dwelling place, and Israel’s house of worship — was built by King Solomon, Israel again fell into disobedience. They were invaded by a foreign power, their temple was destroyed, and they were exiled from their promised land.
Large sections of the Old Testament (like Isaiah) are written in response to, or in warning of, this event — the prophets continually plead with their people to turn back to God so he will deliver them from their plight — correlating disobedience to judgment, and obedience to blessing.
Lest we be too hard on these poor Israelites who are always screwing up and getting punished, how about a time when they were faithful to God and were blessed? An “easy” example is the story of Israel when they first entered — rather, conquered — the promised land. They pulled a Christopher Columbus on the evil inhabitants of Canaan, who clearly had it coming, and took the land God had promised them (see the book of Joshua).
Jesus and the blind man
Last one. Right before Jesus heals a blind man, we get this conversation between him and his disciples.
As [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:1–5)
This is a difficult exchange with multiple layers of meaning. I mention it here simply because The Disobedience Meme was not just an Old Testament thing — it persisted 1000 years until the time of Jesus and the New Testament. (And as I’ve said, it’s still in our consciousness 2000 years after that.)
Now. Let’s make things more interesting and see how the Bible critiques The Disobedience Meme.
This is important: the Bible is not above critiquing itself. Remember, Israel is God’s chosen people — chosen not only to represent him to the world, but also to wrestle with him, and in doing so, reflect his love and patience to the world.
A strange book of wisdom
If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Job, it goes something like this:
- Job is very obedient/faithful to God
- Satan accuses God, “he’s only faithful because you blessed him; he will curse you if you take his blessings away” (kind of The Disobedience Meme in reverse!)
- God takes the bet, and afflicts Job with extreme calamity (illness, losing family members, etc.)
- Job’s friends tell Job, “you must have done something wrong to deserve all this” (citing The Disobedience Meme)
- Job insists to his friends over and over that he’s done nothing wrong; eventually he complains to God too
- God rebukes Job for questioning him and complaining
- God restores Job’s fortunes and rebukes Job’s friends for misrepresenting him
This story is incredibly interesting to me. For one thing, God plays with Job’s life just to win a bet with Satan. This is a head-scratcher and I won’t pretend that I understand it.
Next, when Job finally (rightfully) complains, God responds:
Ok. In all seriousness, here’s what he says.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. (Job 38:4)
He’s got a point. I could probably keep that in mind more often as I go about my day. But no need to play the “God card” to Job — why not just say “yeah, I was just messing with you to prove a point, here’s your stuff back dude.”?
But my point here is this. The “conventional wisdom” of The Disobedience Meme — which is very biblical up to this point — is being parroted by Job’s well-meaning friends, and God himself rebukes them for it.
Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. (Job 42:8)
Winner: Job (and God)
Loser: Job’s friends (and Satan)
Again, it should not shock us too much that the Bible demonstrates an evolution in Israel’s understanding of the Divine — and how we as people interact with God. Of course, some may point to this and say “LOOK AT THE BIBLE CONTRADICTING ITSELF LET’S THROW IT ALL AWAY,” but I see it as an invitation for us to wrestle with God right alongside the ancient Israelites, and know that we may get it wrong just as much as they did.
Transforming the meme
Lastly, let’s look at how Jesus transforms The Disobedience Meme into something new. Something exciting and revolutionary.
There’s a story in the book of John where a woman is dragged out of bed (she’s having extramarital sex) and brought before Jesus. The religious elites are trying to “trap” Jesus here. I had to look up exactly what the trap was:
- Jewish law said adulterers should be stoned. If he sticks with his message of mercy and forgiveness and doesn’t stone her, he breaks Jewish law.
- Roman law said only government officials — of course not Jews — could execute a person. If he orders her execution, he breaks Roman law.
Well played. Glad you brought just the woman, too. That’s great.
Now what does Jesus do? Writes something on the ground, and tells them “whoever is without sin can throw the first stone.”
Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:10–11)
Neither do I condemn you.
This is worth pondering for a minute. Remember, the thesis statement of the gospel of John is: Jesus is God. Yet, somehow, Jesus isn’t condemning her.
Shouldn’t God condemn her? Doesn’t he hate sin? And isn’t he above Roman law? Why does he give this sinful woman a pass?
Which leads me to…
The most famous verse of the Bible
You’ve probably seen it held up at a sporting event.
For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
There are two ways to interpret this. The most common way goes like this: God hates sin, he must punish it; everyone has sinned, and will go to hell unless they are saved, and that’s where Jesus comes in — by graciously stepping in to live a perfect life which we could never do, and taking God’s punishment on our behalf. God gave us Jesus to be punished on our behalf.
Let me suggest another way to read it.
Jesus shows us who God really is — and how wrong we were about God before. He corrects our misconceptions about God being a tribal bloodthirsty intolerant hateful vengeful warrior — and instead teaches us instead that God is patient and kind, loving and inclusive, and wants to bring us out of our self-induced exile/death into God’s eternal presence/life. God gave us Jesus to save our world from a system of death.
Let’s read the verse right after “the most famous verse”:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. (John 3:17–19)
God did not send his son to condemn the world.
God is not in the business of condemning people. He’s in the business of saving people.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43–45)
Jesus is bringing us to a new understanding of God. He is dismantling The Disobedience Meme.
This is Good News.
A few obligatory points
I am not saying that we should ignore the Old Testament (far from it!). I am not saying that Jews all have a bloodthirsty view of God. I am not saying that God contradicts himself. I am not saying sin has no consequence. I am not suggesting the Bible is not trustworthy, or is man-made literature.
I am saying this: the Bible is not an inflexible Stone Tablet, but rather a dynamic library of writings which demonstrates a trajectory — a trajectory of values, experiences, and thoughts about God; a trajectory into which the Bible invites us to enter.
As I’ve said before, I’m clearly not an expert in these topics, but since beginning to think of the Bible in this way, I have tried dismantling my own misconceptions about God, and Jesus, and the Bible itself — and I have found it immensely rewarding and fulfilling, to the point where I can’t help but stay up too late writing long rambling blog posts about how excited I am that I have finally started to see the world through the lens of Jesus and The New Creation.
There’s something comforting in knowing “I’m not always right.”
One final thought from the theologian NT Wright: “Jesus did not come to give us good advice; he came to give us good news.” Jesus is not interested in helping us avoid God’s punishment by adding to or clarifying the rules of engagement. Nor is he interested in allowing us to perpetuate harmful belief systems that misrepresent his Father.
Rather, he is saying that the exile is now over.
And that brings us to the overall narrative of the Bible, which I’ll write about next time.
Thanks for reading. -Jamie