Thursday, March 3, 2016

When Grace Collides With Your Karma

You get what you deserve, right? Everybody knows that. At least that’s what we’re told – and taught. In the workplace, if you work hard and perform your job well, you receive a promotion, a pay raise, or find a better job. It’s often the case in the classroom, where if you study hard and score well on the exams, you receive an A or a B. And we see it all the time in sports: high-performing athletes earning spots on the first team and exceptional players gaining accolades at season’s end.

We even see this principle applied in some marriages, where a husband or wife’s behavior can elevate them to the penthouse or banish them to the doghouse. “What goes around comes around”: Be careful how you treat people because you'll be treated in similar fashion, good or bad.

Spiritually speaking, this view is widely held as well. There’s even a term for it: “Karma.” Wikipedia defines karma as “the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). Good intent and good deed contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad karma and future suffering.”

Whether it’s called karma or not, virtually all religions embrace this principle to some extent. Maybe it’s “reincarnation,” a belief that one’s actions in this life shape the quality of existence in the next. Or the idea that receiving the approval and acceptance of God, “the man upstairs,” or the “higher power” (whatever term people prefer) depends upon actions. If you do enough good, God will like you. If you don’t, well, you’ll get what you deserve.

This, however, is a key area where Christianity parts company with other belief systems. The Bible calls all wrongdoing “sin,” and makes clear sins do bring consequences. Galatians 6:7-8 declares, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”

However, the concept of karma exists nowhere in the Bible. Especially in terms of our eternal destiny. Instead, the Scriptures teach grace and mercy, which could be regarded as two sides of the same coin. They can be viewed as the converse of one another: Mercy is not receiving what we deserve (unlike karma); grace is receiving what we don’t deserve. Another way of looking at it is that grace is “God’s unmerited favor” – we can’t earn it, and definitely don’t deserve it.

I’ve heard people say, “I’m basically a good person,” or “I think the good I’ve done outweighs the bad.” However, the Bible disagrees. Referring to several Old Testament passages, the apostle Paul states, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God…there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). Then he adds, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Wow! Pretty sobering, isn’t it? That’s why Paul proceeded to write, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). But he doesn’t stop there. Drawing from knowing God’s grace and mercy, the apostle continues, “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!... Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 7:25-8:1).

I like how author Max Lucado compares grace and mercy in his book, Grace: More Than We Deserve. He uses Jesus’ well-known parable of the prodigal son, a selfish, greedy young man who demanded his inheritance while his father was still living. After recklessly squandering all he’d been given, he crawled back home in humility and shame. Instead of turning him away, however, his father welcomed him without reservation – even celebrating his return. As Lucado writes, “Mercy gave the prodigal a second chance. Grace threw him a party.”

This doesn’t mean we’re given license to do as we please, thinking God is somehow obligated to forgive – or even ignore – our misdeeds. Not at all. He’s fully aware of our sins, every single one, and knows we each deserve punishment for our self-centered rebellion against Him. But this is where He offers grace rather than karma.

Paul the apostle unequivocally asserts, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Karma says we rightly deserve death and eternal condemnation. Grace says all who are “in Christ” will receive what we don’t deserve – God’s unconditional forgiveness and the promise of eternal life.

But how can this be? If we’re as bad as the Bible says we are, how could God forgive and accept us into His family? We find the answer in Romans 5:6-8, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly…. God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

How does it make you feel to read this assurance? Do you shrug your shoulders, or are you filled with thankfulness? As I heard a preacher say one time, “If this doesn’t light your fire, then your wood’s wet!”

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