“I have a question,” 47-year-old Susan forced out through the tears. “Is the suffering I’m experiencing now, God’s punishment for making bad decisions when I was a teenager? Like karma?”
For Susan, her view of God and how he works in this world left her defeated and hopeless. Defeated because she couldn’t go back and change her past. Hopeless because she couldn’t escape the judgment she is now experiencing. Her future was accursed and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Susan believed something we are all tempted to believe, that God operates solely on the basis of cause and effect, tit for tat, reward and punishment.
One thought was instantly clear as I considered how to best comfort this hurting lady, “the gospel is superior to karma!” But how?
What Do We Mean When We Talk About Karma?
We’ve all heard people joke about karma or have joked about it ourselves. For instance, a friend makes fun of you for tripping over the curb only to trip over the same curb a few minutes later. You might jokingly respond, “That’s what you get! It’s karma.” Most of the time we are talking about karma not in reference to its Hindu roots but as a kind of cosmic cause and effect. If you are bad today, bad things will happen to you in the future. Alternatively, if you are good today, blessings are in store.
Thankfully, God’s grace (receiving God’s kindness we don’t deserve) and mercy (not receiving God’s judgement we do deserve) move him to act in surprising ways toward us. Specifically, He acted in sending Jesus to die an excruciating death as the wrath-bearing sacrifice in our place. As a result of the gospel, we can experience hope despite our sin and we can find meaning in our suffering.
Hope Despite Sin
One thing our popular understanding of karma gets right is that sin is serious. The selfish and sinful activities we persist in are not ignored. Sin has definite consequences. However, with karma there is no solution for sin, so the only hope is to do better and be better next time. Stop sinning, start living righteously and maybe we will experience some reward. For those who recognize our continual shortcomings, this doesn’t feel much like hope.
In the gospel we also see sin taken seriously. In fact, sin is such a grave offense it cost Jesus his very life. The hope of the gospel, then, is not that sin is no big deal and is taken lightly by God. Rather, the good news is that “He does not deal with us according to our sin, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). Grace is the opposite of karma. At the cross, we see that God the Father dealt with God the Son “according to our iniquities,” so that he might deal with us like sons and daughters. Jesus got what was coming to us, so that we might get what was coming to him.
The gospel offers real hope by offering a solution for sin without diminishing the reality and gravity of sin. At the cross we see that this hope doesn’t rest in our ability to create our own good fortune, but is found in the Rescuer, Jesus Christ.
Purpose in Suffering
If our view of God is little more than Christianized karma, we will inevitably view suffering as meaningless punishment for past offenses. We are not alone in wanting to make a straight line connection between our suffering and our sin. Job’s friends were less than helpful in insisting that his difficulty was the direct result of his wrongdoing. The disciples, as well, looked upon a man born blind and wondered aloud, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2 ESV). Certainly, suffering can be the direct result of sin (See Numbers 12; 2 Samuel 12). However, the disciples were so confident that this was the only explanation that they did not ask if this man’s blindness was the result of sin, they asked whose sin caused the blindness.
In response to the simplistic assumption of the disciples, Jesus responds, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3 ESV). Jesus asserts that there is a deeper purpose for this man’s suffering. He is not actually paying the price for his sin or that of his parents. There is more to his circumstances than karma. Instead, his suffering is meant to be a demonstration of the glory of God.
A truly Christian understanding of suffering makes room for multiple purposes for our trials. We see in the gospel that God takes the most undeserved suffering–the sinless Son of God tortured to death–and brings about the ultimate good. Through the cross, God displays his glory in unparalleled fashion in accomplishing our salvation. What might have looked like meaningless suffering from the outside was God’s good plan to demonstrate his grace and mercy to an undeserving world.
We may never know all that God is up to in our suffering. I suppose Joseph wasn’t pondering what it would be like to be one of the most powerful persons in the world while he was being sold into slavery or falsely accused and imprisoned (Genesis 35-50). We may not have all the answers, however, we can rely on two truths to encourage us: 1) God is using trials in our lives as a means to glorify himself by making us like Jesus (Rom. 8:28-29). 2) God is with us and for us, even when our circumstances would suggest otherwise (Rom. 8:35-39).
No suffering is enjoyable, but suffering without purpose is unbearable. The gospel teaches us that God is active in our suffering by making us more like Jesus. Furthermore, God is likely up to more than making us like Jesus. Similar to Joseph’s story, we can trust that God is working in a thousand ways that we may not discern for some time. Finding real meaning in our suffering can flood our hearts with hope even in the darkest moments.
The gospel does not mean we can continue sinning and escape any consequences for our disobedience. God will not be mocked (Galatians 6:7). It does mean that God is not sitting in heaven arbitrarily dishing out punishment for sins we committed decades ago. It does mean that there is the hope of real forgiveness because real justice was poured out on Jesus at Calvary. It does mean that God uses suffering to bring about his good agenda of displaying his glory through making us like Christ. The gospel is greater than karma because it provides hope for our sin and meaning in our suffering.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (John 9:2-3 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.