A recent commercial for kleenex facial tissues shows a Buddhist monk walking along a path. Because he’s a believer in karma, he’s careful not to step on a turned-over turtle. He rights it and goes on his way. Then he gently helps a stranded spider. Finally, he blows his nose with a Kleenex. But to his horror, the Kleenex box reads, “Antibacterial tissues. Kills 99.8% of bacteria.” Uh oh—bad karma.
The concept of karma is one we hear often and may even joke about even if we don’t fully understand it. But karma has interesting implications for Christians, even though it’s not a doctrine we usually embrace.
The doctrine of karma is a common concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, and New Age thought. Believers in karma say that our state in this life is a direct result of our actions (both physical and mental) in past incarnations, and that our actions in this life can determine our destiny in future incarnations.
Karma implies both an action and a reaction. Our actions have consequences—some immediate, some delayed. Individuals bear responsibility for all their actions and cannot escape the consequences, although good actions can atone for bad actions. This is why people who believe in karma feel compelled to do good deeds.
But here’s where it gets interesting. The Christian faith shares this point of view with respect to diagnosing the source of our misery: it’s karma.
Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism agree that our misery stems from “bad karma”—in other words, we reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7). We have sown sin and are reaping death (Rom. 6:23). We have rejected God’s love and chosen alienation.
The difference, however, lies in the prognosis. People who subscribe to the doctrine of karma do good deeds so their good karma will outweigh their bad karma, insuring a better reincarnation in the life to come. Christians, on the other hand, believe that since we are unable to escape the ultimate consequence of our “bad karma” (whose wages is death), we need to trust in the “good karma” of Jesus Christ, which is grace.
When we receive the good deeds of Jesus shown on the cross, we affirm that the “good karma” of Jesus outweighs our own bad karma. Or as Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 86 puts it, “We have been delivered from our misery by God’s grace alone through Christ.”
Not only does Jesus’ “good karma” outweigh our “bad karma,” it completely erases it.
And we don’t reincarnate as a snake or a dove depending on the accounts of our karma, but we will have a glorious and heavenly human body along with Jesus Christ.
Having broken the vicious and unending cycle of “bad karma,” the Christian does good deeds not to earn salvation but as an expression of gratitude for the “good karma” of Jesus’ grace. “We do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us” (Q&A 86).
But there’s more. Since we are baptized in the “good karma” of Christ, we become vessels of his grace, so that he may pour it out where and when he chooses. As Q&A 86 continues, “We do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.”
Indeed, grace is the best karma.
- Are you familiar with the term karma? Where have you heard it used?
- What is your reaction to Rev. Ko’s use of the word karma to describe the Christian understanding of grace? What new insights have you gained from his example?
- What is your motive to do good deeds? Does God work through your will or in spite of it?
- How can you best share the good news of God’s saving grace with those you meet?
- Do our present deeds have consequences for us in the life to come? If so, what are they?