Question: “People have been saying to me that the Bible teaches the idea of karma. They say that the idea of ‘you reap what you sow’ in the Bible is the same as karma. Is the idea of ‘sowing and reaping’ the same thing as karma?” ~ D. in Afton, VA
Answer: At first glance there are Bible verses that seem to teach something similar to karma. But really they are two different concepts. To understand this difference, let’s look at the two ideas.
There are Bible passages that teach us that there are consequences for our actions; that we reap what we sow. Consider a few passages to this effect.
- “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)
- “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” (1 Corinthians 9:6)
- “As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.” (Job 4:8)
- “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” (Psalm 126:5)
- “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” (Hosea 8:7)
- “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.” (Proverbs 22:8)
- “… one who sows righteousness gets a sure reward.” (Proverbs 11:18)
- “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
Some call this the “Law of Reciprocity.” They see it as a spiritual principle that God has placed in the natural order. If you are loving, you reap love. If you are mean, you reap meanness. Plant seeds of selfishness, and you will usually find others acting selfishly toward you. It just works that way.
Now let’s consider karma. Karma is a concept that comes from Eastern religion. It originated in Hinduism, and is also found in Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The word karma comes from an ancient Sanskrit word that means “work,” “act” or “action.” The idea of karma is that all actions we undertake have later outcomes in our lives. If we do positive and good things, then these create positive karma that will result in positive outcomes in our lives. If we do negative or bad things, then the result will be a negative outcome.
However, karma is more than the future consequence of our current actions. The law of karma is also demonstrated by what we experience from our past actions—even from past lives. Since reincarnation is a basic teaching of Eastern religion, karma is considered as part of the reincarnation process. Karma from our past has determined our present situation. Indeed, our social status, genetics, family situation, physical strengths or weakness, even our species has been determined by karma. The manner in which we entered this life was preordained according to what we did in a previous life. The law of karma extends throughout this life and then into our next incarnation. What this means is that the actions we do in this life will determine what our next life will be like. In fact, in classic Hinduism, our very natures in the future are determined by karma. For example, if we sin greatly and do many wicked things in this life, then our negative karma will be so great that in the next life we might not even be human. Our bad karma may result in us being born as some animal, or a lowly creature like a bug or a worm.
Karma does involve belief in a “sowing and reaping” process, or a law of cause and effect. However, this is vastly different from the biblical concept of reciprocity for our actions. Here are some of the differences:
Karma is an inexorable law. There is no stopping it. According to Eastern religion, what actions we do automatically result in karmic consequences. However, the teaching of the Bible is different from this in several ways.
1) God is not bound by any system of “karma.” In the Bible, God is sovereign and in control. Although there may be natural and spiritual consequences to our actions, these can be changed by the sovereign decree of the Almighty God.
2) One of the main themes of the Bible is that the Lord is a God who forgives. Sin may naturally result in consequences, but God can forgive sin, wipe away any debt, and prevent any negative consequences from occurring. There is no law of karma that prevents God from dismissing the consequences of our sins. God can even correct our mistakes, and straighten out the things we mess up in life. (Thankfully!) However, it should be noted that even when God forgives sin, and removes eternal consequences, He does sometimes allow temporary natural, consequences to remain. Yet, this is the result of His sovereign decision, not because of some karmic debt. And He does this because it serves His purpose for our lives.
Karma is based on works. As noted previously, the very word “karma” means “work or action.” The entire concept of karma is based on our deeds, what we do. The only way to alter the future consequences we will experience (either in this life, or when we are reincarnated) is to do many good works, so that we develop good karma for the future. However, Christianity asserts that all of our works are ineffectual in pleasing God or changing our ultimate future status (see Isaiah 64:6, Romans 3:20, Galatians 2:16). The Christian faith is based on the grace of God, not human works (Ephesians 2:8-9). We experience the blessings of God in this life, and eternal blessings in the future life, because of what Jesus has done for us. These blessings are not the result of our own efforts at all. Under the New Covenant of God’s grace we abundantly reap so many things that we did not sow, indeed could not sow.
Karma and reincarnation go hand in hand. The idea of karma is part of the entire Eastern worldview. Eastern religion teaches that “salvation” consists of release (moksha) from the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Karma is an integral aspect of this belief system. Of course, the concept of reincarnation is foreign to biblical Christianity (cf. Hebrews 9:27). There is no karmic consequence that affects us in some future incarnation. In truth, our only future incarnation will be in a glorified, resurrected body.
While it is true that we usually do reap what we sow in this life, this only occurs in this life. Not in some future earthly incarnation. (Although as Christians, our actions in this life will affect our rewards in God’s kingdom in eternity.) Further, we must remember that the consequences of our actions can be changed by the Lord himself. Yes, we would do well to learn the principle of reciprocity. If we want to be treated with kindness, we should practice kindness ourselves. If we are impatient with others, we may find people being impatient with us. If you sow sparingly into God’s kingdom because you are fearful or greedy, you will likely find yourself reaping very little in the way of material rewards. These are just the way things work in this life. However, beyond this fact, we understand that God can change all of this. And even more importantly, He can actually change us.