The T.V. show “My Name is Earl” ran from 2005 – 2009. Its premise was stated by the title character in the opening sequence:
“You know the kind of guy who does nothing but bad things and then wonders why his life sucks? Well, that was me. Every time something good happened to me, something bad was always waiting ’round the corner: karma. That’s when I realized that I had to change, so I made a list of everything bad I’ve ever done and one by one I’m gonna make up for all my mistakes. I’m just trying to be a better person. My name is Earl.”
Karma. It’s an ancient idea, and yet as the T.V. show illustrates, quite modern as well, so modern that even many Christians today still buy into it. It was certainly a prevailing worldview when Paul found himself shipwrecked on Malta and tried to build a fire:
When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” Acts 28:3-4 (ESV)
Do you see it? Paul had been bitten by a poisonous snake; therefore Paul had done something to deserve it. They called it “justice”, but they really meant Karma – the principle of causality. If bad things happen to you, it’s because you did bad things. If good things happen to you, it’s because you did good things. By the way, Karma is not to be confused with the law of sowing and reaping, which is biblical (Galatians 6:7) – some positive behaviors really do (in general) cause positive outcomes, and some negative behaviors really do cause other negative results, i.e. if you eat donuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner…you will end up looking like a donut. That’s not Karma – it’s just poor nutrition.
Anyway, the idea of Karma is different – the negative thing happening to you stems from an unrelated negative behavior – Paul’s viper could never have been caused by a supposed murder. Karma is really not hard to understand, and somehow, the idea of it is even harder to escape. Even Jesus’s disciples seemed to buy into it:
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” John 9:1-2 (ESV)
But Jesus straightened them out – it wasn’t that anyone sinned, but that God wanted to glorify His name.
The great problem with Karma is that it’s just not true – it isn’t in fact the way that the world works. And beyond that, Karma can only lead to one of two outcomes: First, if something negative happens to you, believing in Karma causes a deeper despair than the negative event alone. How could it not? Apparently, Karma says, your cancer diagnosis stems from the way you treated that kid in the third grade. You were already feeling scared and upset over the cancer. Now Karma allows you to add guilt. In short, Karma piles on.
And of course, Karma also leads to another outcome. When good things happen to you, you get proud. You got promoted at work because you worked hard, and also because you’re a great gal. You got an inheritance from your great aunt Sally because you are a cut above the rest in so many ways.
Pride or despair, two inevitable outcomes of Karma. There is no middle ground.
But the biblical worldview is that bad things happen because of the fall of man, because the ground was cursed. All of us suffer in this world, and some of us far more than others, but not based on whether we were decent to the other kids in middle school.
In contrast to Karma, there is a wonderful principle that under girds all of the Christian life. It is called grace.
I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t a perfect friend to all the other kids in grade school. Not as bad as some, not as good as others. Beyond that, unlike Earl, I will not begin to list my faults and failures. For I can say that if I were to truly be paid back for all my sinful thoughts and actions, I wouldn’t want to get out of bed tomorrow. So I have no reason for pride.
But because of His love, I have no reason for despair either. When things go wrong in my life, for whatever reason, I know that I am deeply loved by One who is molding me into the image of His Son, even doing it through the consequences of a broken world. And when things go well, I know I don’t deserve it – it’s certainly not Karma – but I am living under the smile of a good and gracious Father…who loves to give good gifts to His children.
“You see one day over 30 years ago, I realized that I had to change, so I took the list of everything bad I’d ever done and one by one, I asked Christ to pay for my sin on the cross. Now I’m trying to live each day in light of His grace. My name is Roger.”
Get ready – on Friday, March 20th: Romans 1