This world runs on karma: Do good, get good. Do bad, get bad. But the kingdom of God runs on grace: God is good to you. Period!
The old law-keeping covenant ran on karma: Obey and you’ll be blessed. Disobey and you’ll be cursed. But the new covenant runs on grace: You’re blessed because Christ obeyed.
Karma vs grace
Karma is about retribution and return on investment, but grace is about forgiveness and favor. One deals in payback, the other in peace.
One of the greatest poets of our time distinguishes karma and grace like this:
At the center of all religions is the idea of karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. 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. ~ Bono
All through the Bible you will find people who trusted in karma or grace. Job was a believer in karma (he made sacrifices to atone for his kids’ behavior), but David was a believer in grace (“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your lovingkindness”).
Jesus didn’t come to remind us about karma but to reveal the astonishing good news of grace. His grace changed the world. It certainly changed the apostle Paul. The apostle of grace devoted his life to proclaiming the gospel of God’s grace. Everything he said was grace.
Or was it?
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. (Gal 6:7)
That’s not grace – that’s sowing and reaping – and it’s in stark contrast to the hyper-grace message that Paul preached. So why does Paul say it? Does he want us to mix grace with karma? Are we supposed to trust God for some of his blessings, but ourselves for the rest? Not a chance!
Sowing to the Spirit
Paul says it because not everyone speaks the language of grace. However, everyone understands sowing and reaping. It’s a universal language. “If this is your language,” says Paul, “then make sure you sow well lest you reap a bad crop.”
Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction. (Gal 6:8a)
Sowing to the flesh is not a smart choice. It’s following Adam down the lonely path of distrust and death. Whenever we rely on our own flesh – our abilities and understanding – we set ourselves up for disaster. It’s a destructive way to live. Happily, there is a better way:
Whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (Gal 6:8b)
How do you sow to please the Spirit? Read Galatians. To walk in step with the Spirit means to trust him. It’s living by faith in the Son of God (Gal 2:20). It’s relating to God as a Father (Gal 4:6).
The Goldenest Rule
Sowing and reaping is a fact of life (ask any farmer). You can use this principle to encourage giving, as Paul sometimes does (eg: 2 Cor 9:6). You can also use it to promote good behavior, as Jesus did when he uttered the Golden Rule (“Do unto others what you would have them to unto you,” Luke 6:31). But what you cannot do is use it to purchase the free gifts of God.
Sowing and reaping is not bad, and heaven forbid that I should suggest it is, but there is a better way to live. Instead of being good to get good, live in the goodness of God. Instead of waiting, waiting, waiting for your little seeds to grow, live now in the abundant harvest of God’s grace.
How does that work?
Take the Golden Rule as an example. Those who miss the grace of Jesus use this rule as a guide to a life of good karma. They invite people over in the hope of getting invited back. They help others in the hope of getting helped back. That’s not a bad way to live. but it doesn’t capture the heart of the one who said this:
Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. (Luke 6:35a)
There’s nothing special about doing good to those who are good to you (Luke 6:33). That’s ordinary. What’s extraordinary is doing unto others as God has done to you. It’s blessing those who curse you, loving your enemies, and forgiving as Christ forgave you.
Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. (Luke 6:35b)
See the difference?
To live by karma is to trust in man. It’s saying, “I’ll be good because what goes around comes around. I have faith in humanity.” You’re going to be disappointed!
But to live by grace is to trust in God. It’s saying, “My Father has been so good to me, how can I not share his goodness with others?” Live this way and you’ll never be disappointed because God’s goodness always exceeds our expectations.
And that’s the Goldenest Rule of all!