“What goes around comes around.” Or as the main character from the show My Name is Earl puts it, “Do good things and good things happen to you. Do bad things, they’ll come back to haunt you.” Karma is pretty straightforward. You eventually reap what you sow within this lifetime.
The entirety sitcom is based off of this very principle. The show starts with Earl finding himself in a hospital bed after being hit by a car. His wife hands him divorce papers to essentially move in with his friend Darnell, the actual father to his son Earl Jr. And the winning lottery ticket in his hand at the time of the accident blows away in the wind. A comedic sequence of events puts Earl in the lowest point of his life.
And as he lays in that hospital bed watching Carson Daly on TV, he hears a brief explanation of Karma and realizes that his current state is the result of all the bad things he had done previously. He writes a list of all the terrible things he regrets doing to others: getting his friend deported, stealing a DJ’s equipment, and not giving his mother a good Mother’s Day, amongst a variety of other hilarious errors. And he commits to crossing off each one by making amends with those he’s wronged. All this in the hope that his life circumstances will change as a result of his good deeds. In many respects it’s a comedy with a really rich underpinning storyline. The power of forgiveness and reconciliation.
But despite the fictional nature of the story, one might be surprised to hear that based on a Statista poll in 2019 an estimated 31% of adults in the US “very strongly” believe in Karma and an additional 34% “somewhat strongly” believe. But is it actually how the world operates?
theology: the science of relations
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines theology as “the study of religious faith, practice, and experience, the study of God and of God’s relation to the world.” And as such, in a culture that strives for a division of church and state, theology appears to be reserved for those sets of practices one does outside of the normal day-to-day activities that constitute much of our lives.
But as Augustus Strong writes in his Systematic Theology, “In defining theology as a science, we indicate its aim. Science does not create, it discovers. Theology answers to this description of a science. It discovers facts and relations, but it does not create them.” And he latter writes, “Science is not only the observing, recording, verifying, and formulating of objective facts; it is also the recognition and explication of the relations between these facts, and the synthesis of both the facts and the rational principles which unite them in a comprehensive, rightly proportioned, and organic system. Scattered bricks and timbers are not a house; severed arms, legs, heads and trunks from a dissecting room are not living men; and facts alone do not constitute science. Science = facts + relations.”
In essence, theology is an attempt to collect the facts of how life unfolds and to describe the relations between them. Karma is by that definition an attempt at theology. A distillation of life’s circumstances into a simplistic relationship. “Do good things and good things happen to you. Do bad things, they’ll come back to haunt you.”
And maybe a clue as to how pervasive this world view is, is just how irritated we get when these rules are violated. When the good die young. When criminals go unpunished. When the pure of heart suffer unjustly. When the consequences of someone’s actions are felt most by an innocent bystander. Almost all of our grievances in this world follows this pattern. People not being recompensed for their actions, good or bad.
who sinned that he was born blind?
John 9 speaks of a blind man who Jesus and his disciples cross paths with. And the disciples’ first question is “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In many respects, this question comes from a place that is similar to those who hold to worldview like Karma. How was this misfortune merited?
But Jesus responds “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” I’m sure this was not the response his disciples anticipated. The works of God are displayed in a man who has suffered incredibly and for no apparent reason? Is this really a God worth following if he would allow this man to endure this?
Yet Jesus then proceeded to heal that man of his blindness.
Is it possible that the man was better off for having gone through his blindness and being healed? Is it possible that the works of God might be displayed in the areas we least expect him to work?
And if that’s possible, could it also be quite true of the inverse? Is it possible that those who commit atrocities in this life and escape punishment in this life, don’t actually get away with it? A worldview like Karma has no room for such possibilities and it can often lead to great distress when the unfolding events in this world seem to mock the righteous expectations we have.
But I truly believe that the worldview that Christ embodies, lives out, and invites us into provides a far better explanation for the relations between us and God in this life. For even in his death we are given a picture of the greatest injustice that can occur: the mockery, torture, and murder of a perfectly good and innocent man. That the person least deserving could be subject to such horrific treatment, while other far less righteous people would be exalted within this life.
Earl’s circumstances turned for the better when he started doing the right thing. And while this may very often be the result of improving our actions, it isn’t always a guarantee. And sometimes misfortune occurs that’s not necessarily earned. But maybe God has plans to reveal his glory through those moments in ways far more profoundly than if we were never in that circumstance to begin with. The past 2,000 years certainly seem to indicate God had far more plans through Christ’s crucifixion than any could have thought in that moment.
Theology, like all sciences, is about the discovery of facts and the relations between those facts. Every life experience is a data point and if we’re intentional about our worldviews, we try to understand how all these life experiences relate to one another. Karma affords a simple relationship. You reap what you sow. But life will prove that this framework is insufficient to navigate life’s storms.
Jesus offers us something far richer. A more detailed map to understanding how to live this life and respond during both the highs and lows. Divorce your actions from their consequences. Do good even when it repays you with evil. Know that you aren’t abandoned by God when the outlook is bleak. And in every circumstance, God may be using the opportunity to display his good works.