You may have heard it said before. You may have said it yourself, albeit in an innocuous way. And when you did, you couldn’t have been happier. It may have been about a revenge or payback that you least expected would ever happen. I have thought about it ever so deeply, but it didn’t really hit home as it did a couple of weeks ago... "whither grace, or karma?" I have wondered to myself about each.
Karma is the cycle of cause and effect; action begets reaction. There is no effect without cause. Karma is based on the principle that one sows what one reaps. Indeed, we are all free to choose any and all of our actions based on our understanding of good or evil, but we are also responsible for the consequences. For that reason, the core instruction within the concept of karma is do good works - that way, only good will return to you. But we also acknowledge that good doesn’t always return the same, because there are those who hurt others, who have always been good to them in return.
For example, we hear Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”This is such a difficult act to follow because it doesn’t reward consequences, nor does it reward reciprocity. In fact, it only speaks of turning the other cheek - the language of grace.
Grace is the state of being, which has been sanctified by God. It is the state where you realize that your life, and every life, is a precious gift from God, and so you find great value in turning the other cheek. Grace is the deep place where you feel incredibly thankful and grateful to God for the life you have, and the life that anyone else has. Grace teaches an unbelievable story about the gift that you have - one which you do not deserve but have anyway, because God decided to gift that to you.
In my sermon last Sunday, I made reference to Psalm 23, and the idea that God doesn’t follow us, and goodness and mercy don’t follow us; rather, the better translation of the Hebrew word radaph is "pursue". Mercy pursues us, goodness pursues us, and God pursues us. Have you ever felt being pursued by goodness, mercy, or grace? It is relentless!
Francis Thompson, an English poet, wrote a poem called “The Hound of Heaven”, and in the poem, Francis describes Jesus as a fierce hound who pursues a man until he gets him. He writes:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat--and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet--
'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.'
This is how John Francis Xavier O’Conor describes the poem... “The name is strange. It startles one at first. It is so bold, so new, so fearless. It does not attract, rather the reverse. But when one reads the poem this strangeness disappears. The meaning is understood. As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and imperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit."
The awkward, yet uplifting, reality is that if karma generates consequences for our actions, grace does not. In fact, our belief is one where the grace of God is so, so generous that it will ultimately win us over. And that as unsatisfying as our actions may be, grace always wins. The underlying promise within the framework of grace is that no matter how difficult life is, God is gaining on us. God is going to win you and I over with irresistible grace, a nagging grace which only pursues.
Instead of the consequence of retribution to which karma subscribes, grace absolves, renews, reconnects, and cures our broken relationships. Then the question for our consideration is, "How then does karma survive within the framework of our understanding of grace?"
Karma, like grace, also points towards nirvana, the salvation of the individual. Karma is rather a tough path, whereas grace is not. But I choose both not because I can earn my way towards salvation, but because - as Denis Read once said - “If you want to move mountains, bring a shovel.”
I prefer to bring a shovel.