I've heard the word "karma" quite a bit in response to the story of my parents' cars being stolen. The saga ended in a fiery wreck, so saying "karma" conveys a certain dramatic conclusion. We hear it all the time: "what goes around comes around" and "karma is a b****," but do we actually want that idea to be true for our own lives?
"Nice hatch, bro." A guy in the Domino's parking lot complimented my car as I walked in to pick up food. "Yeah, it was a lot nicer before someone decided to run into it and not pay to fix it," I jokingly replied. "Oh man, that sucks. It will come back to them, though," he said with confidence. "I really don't know," I said. "Oh it will for sure, karma is real," he replied with unwavering certainty.
Where does this idea come from? For a term that found its origins in ancient India, it's interesting to me how pervasive the concept is in our western world. I think it's because most people have a longing for justice. It's unsettling to think that a wrong isn't made right in the world. Surely justice must be served.
Do I want to get what I actually deserve in every situation, though? I want to be forgiven, shown grace and mercy, to avoid the consequences or punishment.
There is an interesting dance between justice, grace, and mercy being performed beneath the fabric of reality. I don't fully understand it, but it's confounding when you really think about it...
Good things happen to good people.
Bad things happen to good people.
Good things happen to bad people.
Bad things happen to bad people.
I highly doubt most westerners that use the term "karma" are considering the reincarnation aspects of such an idea, which is where the idea is deeply rooted. We use it more as an out-of-context, cultural nod to an obscure idea of justice. Personally, I think it's an easy wrap-up to a conversation about uncomfortable, bad stuff we can't exactly explain.
Grace is a scandalous idea that doesn't fit the cause and effect mold of karma. I've heard it said that it makes life not fair. Being given what one does not deserve (grace), or not being given what one does deserve (mercy), flies in the face of an eye-for-an-eye mentality or a system that says every bad action is like a boomerang waiting to fly back and hit you.
I'm still trying to figure out how this looks practically. How do I participate in the mystical dance between justice, grace, and mercy? Jesus had a few things to say I think are helpful:
"You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."
Can you imagine hearing this as a first century Jew? Jesus continues with his you-have-heard-that-it-was-said statements I've come to appreciate so much:
"You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Hearing this as a 21st century American, even with all the progress we've made since ancient times, is still hard to swallow. It's definitely hard for me. It's the opposite of my default mode. It goes against our natural tendencies.
It looks like an absence of justice, and it's a standard that seems unattainable. Perfect? How can I be perfect? I can't, and that's exactly the point. In order for the kingdom of God to spread, for peace to invade the world, grace is the necessary component for imperfect people to not only coexist but move towards unity.
I'm going to be honest. If someone tries to steal my car, my first reaction is probably not going to be to offer my iPhone to go with with it. Or if someone hits me in the face, it's likely I'll either run away or fight back, depending on the size of my attacker. However, I do believe the backwards, unfair way of grace is the answer, and I'll continue to unpack the mystery of how justice, grace, and mercy intertwine.
Books I recommend: