The Gospel Coalition

The following is another excerpt from my forthcoming book Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free

"Good people get good stuff. Bad people get bad stuff." Or as the Beatles sang with their last gasp on Abbey Road, "In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

Now I love John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but I take issue with them here, and I know I am in the minority. After all, the world runs on retribution. "This for that" comes as naturally to us as breathing. Moralists interpret misfortune as the karmic result of misbehavior. This for that. "You failed to obey God, so He gave your child an illness." Such rule-based economies of punishment and reward may be the default mode of the fallen human heart, but that doesn't make them any less brutal!

This does not mean that sin doesn't have consequences. If you blow all of your money on booze, you will likely reap poverty, loneliness, and cirrhosis of the liver. Simple cause and effect. But to conclude that suffering people have somehow heaped up trouble for themselves on the Cosmic Registry and that God is doling out the misery in direct proportion would be more than mistaken; it would be cruel. The humorist Jack Handey perceptively parodied such ideas in his Saturday Night Live-featured book Deep Thoughts:
If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is "God is crying." And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is, "Probably because of something you did."

Hahaha...not really.

The truth is that while we laugh at something as silly as Handey's "deep thought", most of us are naturally governed by this kind of thinking regarding God.

So, while no one can deny that our actions have consequences---that if you put your finger in a light socket you will "reap" a shock---we do God (and ourselves!) a great disservice when we project this schema onto Him. That is, when we moralize our suffering and that of others. The lab test results come back positive, and we interpret it as some sort of punishment. Or your loved ones interpret it that way. Your marriage falls apart, and you assume God is meting out His judgment on your indiscretions. Most of us---not all, I'm afraid---would stop short of blaming the citizens of New Orleans for the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but that doesn't mean we don't moralize our suffering in other, more subtle ways.

The truth is that when you and I insist on that all-too-comfortable paradigm of cosmic score keeping, we're no longer talking about Christianity. In fact, what we reveal is that we've adopted (unwittingly) a Westernized form of Hinduism. We are talking, in other words, about karma. If you are a bad person and things are going well for you, it is only a matter of time before karma catches up with you and "you get yours." If you are good person, the inverse is true: just be patient and your good deeds will come back to you. This is a simplification of the complex Hindu understanding of history as determined by the past lives of others: that we are all stuck in an eternal cycle of suffering perpetuated by reincarnation.

Westerners are understandably reticent to embrace the notion that the universe is paying us back for a prior life of boozing, spousal abuse, or tax evasion. We believe in the inherent goodness of human beings, after all! We prefer to keep the cycle within the confines of a single life. But the appeal of this perspective should be fairly obvious: no one gets away with anything. If someone harmed you, she will suffer. If you do good, you will have a good life. Karma puts us in control. The problem in this worldview comes, as it always does, when we flip it around. If you are suffering, you have done something to merit it. Pain is proof.

No doubt many of us would object to the accusation that we share or agree with such a mind-set. That's simplistic nonsense, we might think. No one with any education or experience would ever hold to such a juvenile relational bartering system. But hold on for a moment. Think about the last fight you had with your significant other---was there an element of deserving tucked into the conflict? "You hurt me, so now I'll hurt you"? I can't tell you how much self-abuse I've come across in my years of ministry that had some element of inward-directed retribution at its core: the teenage girl who punishes herself by cutting her arms; or men who sleep around to prove that they deserve the contempt of their wives. If we cling to quid pro quo when dealing with others and ourselves, why wouldn't we project it onto God (or the universe)? We are all helpless moralizers, especially when it comes to suffering.

On the opposite end of our natural tendency to moralize life and suffering stands the counter-intuitive affirmation of Christianity. Christianity affirms that Jesus severed the link between suffering and deserving once for all on Calvary. God put the ledgers away and settled the accounts. The good news of the gospel is NOT that good people get good stuff. It's not that life is cyclical and that "what comes around goes around." Rather, it's that the bad get the best, the worst inherit the wealth, and the slave becomes a son (Rom.5:8).

Because the truth is, that it's just misery to try to keep count of what God is no longer counting. Your entries keep disappearing.


Comments:

Destinations « Luggaged

July 24, 2012 at 12:15 PM

[...] In this post, Tullian tells us that we often function with a view that is more karmic than Biblical. I think he has a point. [...]

Greg Kredell

July 21, 2012 at 12:21 PM

Read this and then in my daily Bible reading came across Psalm 103:8-10

[...] Karma & The Gospel No doubt many of us would object to the accusation that we share or agree with such a mind-set. That’s simplistic nonsense, we might think. No one with any education or experience would ever hold to such a juvenile relational bartering system. But hold on for a moment. Think about the last fight you had with your significant other—was there an element of deserving tucked into the conflict? “You hurt me, so now I’ll hurt you”? I can’t tell you how much self-abuse I’ve come across in my years of ministry that had some element of inward-directed retribution at its core: the teenage girl who punishes herself by cutting her arms; or men who sleep around to prove that they deserve the contempt of their wives. If we cling to quid pro quo when dealing with others and ourselves, why wouldn’t we project it onto God (or the universe)? We are all helpless moralizers, especially when it comes to suffering. [...]

Paul ST Jean

July 20, 2012 at 08:22 PM

Pastor
I believe that the Gospels in particular Marks speaks of Jesus as a suffering servant. as a disciple we need to follow him, which means we will probably suffer for the sake of the Gospel. This should be nothing new to the Christian.

[...] You Believe In Karma [...]

Bud Brainerd

July 19, 2012 at 11:59 AM

Once again Tullian restates the Gospel in terms that will resonate in the soul of every reader. Thanks to the members of the Gospel Coalition for stating the obvious, that is the truth of the Gospel, with such consistency.

[...] http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/2012/07/19/the-gospel-is-unfair/ Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in KFD. Bookmark the permalink. ← The Currency of Conviction [...]

Susanne Schuberth (Germany)

July 19, 2012 at 02:47 PM

Hmm...
I guess that the thought of Karma is as old as (fallen) mankind.
However, it was also part of the Old Covenant that the Jews were only blessed by God for their obedience (Dt 28:1-14), and disobedience was followed by being cursed (Dt 28:15-69). These curses could be observed on the outside from other Jews as well as from other nations. We can see this sort of 'karmic conviction' for example when Jesus healed a man who had been born blind, and the disciples wanted to know WHY he had been blind, and WHO was to blame for his disease (Jn 9:1-2). ‘Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him."’ (Jn 9:3)

On the one hand, there is something overwhelmingly different in the New Covenant since there was a man who has become a curse for us, so that we do not need to believe in this kind of Karma any longer, and that anybody, even the worst mass murderer, won’t be punished for his sins due to Jesus’ death on the Cross (Col 2:14), given that he/she believes in Him (Jn 3:18). Everybody who wishes can be justified no matter how his/her life was before his/her justification.

Hmm again...
But on the other hand, what about obedience in the New Covenant?
While the OC was a covenant in the flesh (circumcision), the NC is a covenant in the spirit (circumcision of the heart). Whoever has experienced justification knows that he/she had been the worst sinner on earth before, just like Paul confessed it (1 Tim 1:15). Without the Holy Spirit we are all sinners; this is true. But as soon as the Spirit of God dwells in us (Rom 8:9), we can walk by the spirit; that implies that Christ’s Spirit enables us to destroy root and branch of our sinful nature (Rom 8:13). Thus permanently walking by the spirit, we will never feel condemned any more for:

‘There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.’ (Rom 8:1 KJV)

However, what is the means by which we learn to be obedient? Ouch (!), here it is:

‘[…], provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.’ (Rom 8:17)

‘Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.’ (Heb 5:8)

‘Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.’ (1 Pt 4:1-2)

Sounds somehow like “Karma reversed”, doesn’t it?

Michael

July 19, 2012 at 01:05 PM

First of all great blog.

Second of all, I'll leave this right here just in case Tullian might want to relive the magic that took place watching Kaskade at LIVMiami. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOCNB6MtebI

Just looking out for a brutha.

;)

[...] T. “You Believe in Karma,” posted 19 July 2012 http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/2012/07/19/the-gospel-is-unfair/?comments#comments accessed 20 November [...]