October 28, 2020

Poetic Justice

In a column adapted from a recent article in the New York Times about the U.S. president’s personal bout with COVID-19, authors observed that “many Biden supporters expressed varying degrees of satisfaction that Trump was experiencing a karmic shock after half a year of playing down the pandemic."i

Note to reader: In no way is this intended for engagement in the vituperative political discourse of our time. This quotation from the Times is here offered merely as a way of introducing another topic for consideration completely unrelated to the highly-charged partisan conflict in which we find ourselves immersed. Everyone, please put down your cudgels and return to your corners!

What may be overlooked in the New York Times’ description of public thought is the offhand use of the expression “karmic shock.” What is apparently meant in this context is based on an understanding—maybe acceptance—of karma, understood “as bringing upon oneself inevitable results, good or bad, either in this life or in a reincarnation.” More and more, even in secular Western culture, one hears “karma” in everyday conversations. Australian author and pastor Sarah Coleman writes, “You don't have to go far to hear people refer to karma—on reality television, the radio, in conversation. . . . Karma has seeped into our Judeo-Christian society. Like its cool. A new standard.”2

Often such an exclamation as “Karma!” is offered as a casual way of saying that someone is deserving of what he or she has done—good or bad. A downturn in someone’s affairs is seen as a result of his or her negative act or behavior: “He got what he deserved!” Or, even in some cases, someone is seen as meriting some reward for good efforts.

This idea seems to be inherent in almost any worldview. It’s become almost natural to human thinking: He got what he deserved!

The study of literature includes an occasional expression called “poetic justice,” which has spilled out at times into everyday observations. This is when “vice is punished and virtue rewarded usually in a manner peculiarly or ironically appropriate.” 3 When the hero of a book is at last vindicated in the story’s climax—or the antagonist experiences defeat—it brings to readers a kind of satisfaction that things are as they should be.

Reward and Punishment in the Bible

Even in Scripture there is often a seeming justice, often handed down by God Himself, for righteousness—or wrongdoing. After years of difficulty, implied at least in part because of his faithfulness, Joseph is at last drawn from slavery and imprisonment to leadership second only to the most powerful man on earth at the time. Conversely, King David, because he committed adultery and murder, loses the child borne of these acts and lives out his days in the troubled intrigue and rebellion of his own royal family. The selective reader of the Bible may think it a Who’s Who for those who get what they deserve.

“Whoever sows injustice reaps calamity,” wrote King Solomon (Prov. 22:8)4. On the flipside, the apostle Paul urged, “Let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up” (Gal. 6:9, NLT).5

So there you have it! Both Old and New Testaments seem to testify to the spiritual concept of karma, unnamed specifically but possibly there in principle. But as in the case of any other study of Scripture, it is best not to focus solely on any single passage for inferring its overall truths. There are, in fact, obvious places in which Scripture seems actually to contradict itself. Skeptics like to point this out.

The truths of Scripture, however, are to be determined through a study of its entirety—through the Word of God in its fullness. Back in the sixteenth century Martin Luther asserted: “Scriptura sui ipsius interpres” (“Scripture is its own expositor”). Any consideration of the meaning of a single passage must include, also, its context in the widest sense of the word—its place in all of God’s Word. Paul’s “doing what is good” is a favorable principle of godly living, surely, but it must be leavened with other scriptural assertions of God’s love and grace for a full understanding of His truth.

In an unknowing way, many of the people of Jesus’ time themselves believed in a kind of karma, though they would never have recognized it as such. Jesus and His disciples one day encountered a man born blind, and they asked Him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).

It is interesting to note one implication of this passage. If he was “blind from birth” (verse 1), why could the disciples have wondered how he himself could have been in some way answerable to such a fate as blindness? Could he have sinned before he was born? In fact, there was among many of that time and place a belief in prenatal sin. It related to the nature of sin in human existence, being born sinful creatures, as we all are.

Ellen White observed: “It was generally believed by the Jews that sin is punished in this life. Every affliction was regarded as the penalty of some wrongdoing, either of the sufferer himself or of his parents. It is true that all suffering results from the transgression of God’s law, but this truth had become perverted. Satan, the author of sin and all its results, had led men to look upon disease and death as proceeding from God,—as punishment arbitrarily inflicted on account of sin. Hence one upon whom some great affliction or calamity had fallen had the additional burden of being regarded as a great sinner."6

Sounds a lot like karma!

In this particular case, however, Jesus pointed out that nothing in the man’s past—or that of his parents’—had brought about his blindness. He goes on to explain that, in this particular instance, “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in [the man’s life]” (verse 3). It might be said, then, that being born into a sinful world brings with it the inevitability of suffering of some kind. Just as in the epic story of Job, God allows the inexorable effect of sin in human life, but ultimately this will be a demonstration of His love and grace.

Grace and Karma

Here is where this possibly greatest of paradoxes of God’s sublime verity may be seen. In a dialogue with a confirmed skeptic, Bono, the front man for the supergroup U-2, put his finger on this great truth: “It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between grace and karma. . . . I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of karma into one of grace.”7

Jesus said, “I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father. . . . I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:28, 33).

This trouble of which Jesus speaks is, in a sense, the result of our own sinfulness as a species, but it is not necessarily a simple, natural result of any particular sinful individual act. Someday soon it will be washed completely away through the love and grace of a God who is looking for our company.

Gary B. Swanson is editor of Perspective Digest, a publication of the Adventist Theological Society.

1&cvid=505f0401fd7a4aa48f975e0d049ddecd; all sources herein accessed October 17, 2020.

2 www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/what-s-the-difference-between-grace-and-karma.html.

3 www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/poetic%20justice.

4 Unless otherwise indicated, Bible texts are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ã 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

5 Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

6Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p. 471.

7 Michka Assayas, Bono: In Conversation With Michka Assayas (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005); quoted in www.beliefnet.com/columnists/prayerplainandsimple/2010/02/the-karma-of-bono.html.

i“Divided even over Trump’s illness,” The Week, October 16, 2020, p. 36.