You give what you get. What goes around comes around. “Just desserts”. “Bad karma”.
The most common usage of the word “karma” is to associate the bad things that happen with some prior bad action. Karma is either our blessing or our punishment based on our choices. Retribution. Justice. Cause and effect. Do this, get that.
However, the actual concept of karma is far more nuanced than that. This is going to get a little wordy, but hang in there with me, it will come together in the end.
The Sanskrit word “karma” can be described as the sum of one’s actions and the subsequent nature or state of being created by those choices. If you consistently make choices to give spiritual and physical gifts to others and develop a sense for seeing the needs of others and how you can help, you will have a karma of giving. If you consistently make choices to get what you can from others and develop a sense of seeing others as a resource, you will have a karma of greed.
Karma is the nature of who you are. It does not predict the future or prescribe future events. It can easily be changed through choice. If no change is made, karma can describe what awaits because descriptive, not prescriptive. It describes a current state of being, which if not changed will be lived into perpetually. It’s the direction you’re facing and the view from that position. This can look like it’s predictive, but given the vastness of choice it would be impossible to actually predict anything about the future accurately based on someone’s current karma (which is redundant, because karma is always about the present).
Karma has both a mechanism and a force. The mechanism of karma is as a lens, or conditioning, a state of being through which we see the world. The result of karma is a powerful attractive force. Both the mechanism and the force of karma are products of our own choices and actions. If you have a karma of giving you will be conditioned to see others needs and will continue to give unless a new choice is made. If you have a karma of greed you will be conditioned to see others as tools and will continue to take unless a new choice is made.
Our karma describes things as they are. It’s only relationship to the future is that every new moment is a new present, and that present is determined by one’s karma and the choice to either continue pointing in the same direction or turn or repent (change your mind). So if your karma is stagnant, each subsequent present will be like the last. It is not a predictor of future events based on prior choices. It is not fate. It is simply a description of the current state of things, and it can inform our agency.
We can become attuned to our karma, our conditioning, and then make powerful changes and adjustments which will immediately affect the manifestation of our karma. Not in the future. Right now. It is only concerned with your right here and right now. It does not promise joy or suffering as a reward or punishment at some future date when your life is weighed and measured. It helps us see the misery and suffering we are currently living with due to the lens we see the world through, a lens created through choice but also through culture, upbringing, and circumstance, and gives us access to divine joy and peace right now.
So, most simply put, karma is our energy and power as created through our own agency as we exist in the world we were born into. It is a force, determined by it’s mechanism, which is the way we come to and see our world. Karma is about us and the way we show up in the universe, not about what the universe is going to do to us. It’s not what will happen to us, it is us.
How did this all get so confused?
In many Eastern traditions, one’s karma is used to describe why our lives look the way they are. When we’re reincarnated, or in other words, take on the life after this one, our karma will remain with us, and will be reflected in our new lives after death. Over time, this was distorted until it was believed that if you are bad in this life you will be demoted to some lower form of life in the next. Or if you are good in this life you will be promoted to some higher form of life. Much easier to teach as a motivator, but when we lost karma’s power in this world we lost everything. Karma is for the now, not the then. It gives us access to living free of suffering here, not just there.
Where it gets exciting is when you start to see the parallels between these Eastern Hindi philosophies and Western Christian philosophies. We love to think that because we accepted Jesus as our Savior we have the corner on truth, but Christ’s mission was to all of God’s children. It makes sense for there to be similarities. Where karma is concerned, we’re dealing with the same fundamental principles and the same distortions. And it’s fascinating.
In Christianity, we have an idea that is identical to karma. We call it “justice”. Typically, it’s used to predict and prescribe some sort of punishment or reward for earthly actions. This is the justice of man. This is our own desire for vengeance and retribution leaking into our theology. But just as karma’s true essence has been disguised by the philosophies of men, so has justice’s. Both have been distorted and described as retribution, when the real meaning of justice and karma are more about restoration and progression. God’s justice is not the justice of man.
The justice of God, like karma, is descriptive, not prescriptive. It describes our present condition of mind and body, as a culmination of our choices and actions. It describes the lens through which we see the world. As such, it also describes the way we show up in the world. And the way we show up in the world is powerful. Our presence and our present is made up of the energy of our agency. This is what makes God who he is. The justice of God is how his light and love shows up in the universe.
As Alma puts it, “The work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:13). If justice isn’t a thing, then neither is God, because God is his justice. He is the energy that emanates from his being. He is the way he shows up in the universe.
And thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence (Alma 42:14).
Alma’s language makes it seem like the justice of God is this thing outside of us, controlling what is available to us. He’s trying to break down what he’s learned for his son, and he catches glimpses of a new way to think about the justice of God. Read in context we begin to see that justice is our choices, our actions, and we have complete dominion over our justice, which is an extension of God’s perfect justice. God is teaching us to be like him, to show up in the world as light and love. And to do that we need to understand that our agency matters. Our justice, if we are to be like God, is our way of being and the way we show up, and it matters. Just like karma, it’s been distorted to appear to be retributive, when it was only ever restorative.
When we read on in Alma 42 we see Alma begin to describe the nature of all things. He establishes the primacy of punishment by declaring that punishment comes before law, and law comes before sin, and sin comes before repentance. This is so beautiful!
We typically look at this all jumbled up. “There is a law given, and because there is a law there is sin, and because there is sin there is punishment, and because there is punishment there needs to be repentance.” But this isn’t what Alma is describing at all. Law doesn’t come first.
Punishment is first. Punishment is part of the nature of things. To Alma, punishment is being cut off from the presence of the Lord. There is a state of being which is godly, and then there is everything else. This “everything else” is punishment compared to the godly state. And because there is this state of punishment, which is a state away from godliness, then a law was given to men so that they might understand. Law is a description of this nature of things, the godly and the ungodly. Once we are in possession of the law, now we can make somewhat informed choices.
Sometimes we make great choices and catch glimpses of our divinity, and other times we make less than great choices or even horrible mistakes, and we experience this punishment, or state of being away from godliness. Our karma, our justice, shows up as less than what God is. We needed help being able to see this, and to know that even when we are experiencing the ungodly way in which we are showing up in the world we can use the power of our agency, informed by the power of justice and merciful love of God, to make changes and turn back toward the godly. Christ descended below all things to show us the way, and when we believe what he teaches we have access to profound personal adjustment, which we call repentance.
How could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment?
Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man (Alma 42:17–18).
You see, it was right there all along. Punishment leads to law which leads to sin and then repentance. And when we use our agency to repent and express our divinity, we are gods.
There is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.
But God ceaseth not to be God, and mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement; and the atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God; and thus they are restored into his presence, to be judged according to their works, according to the law and justice.
For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved.
What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God (Alma 42:22–25).
God ceaseth not to be God. His justice of light and love is fixed and perfect. Mercy cannot rob justice because there is nothing to rob. The plan of mercy is the justice of God, because he is loving and merciful. When we repent we use the power of the atonement to make adjustments to our own justice, our karma, to be in harmony with God’s, and this leads us to resurrection, becoming a new creature and restoring ourselves into God’s presence. If we do not repent, if we do not make adjustments, then our justice becomes our future, and we live apart from God, or in punishment, as described by the law. Mercy is a gift free to all, and it can inform our justice. Mercy gives us access to transforming ourselves into something new.
Whosoever will come may come and partake of the waters of life freely; and whosoever will not come the same is not compelled to come; but in the last day it shall be restored unto him according to his deeds (Alma 42:27).
It’s just that simple. Not retribution. Not punishment for sins. Not the justice of the natural man. Not beating us with a few stripes. Just the power of our own agency and restoring unto us that which we’ve attained to. God’s justice and our justice in his image.
Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection (Doctrine and Covenants 130:18).
Each and every moment we are defining the nature of our being. We are defining our justice, our karma. And whatever justice or karma we have in this life will come with us in the resurrection. It will follow us, because it is us. The transition between this life and the next does not change who we are. Our next life is materially created by our present one. We’ve heard this idea before.
In Latter-Day Saint traditions we call it spirit paradise or spirit prison. Or we call it the Celestial, Terrestial, and Telestial Kingdoms post-resurrection. Christianity in general calls it heaven and hell. In some Eastern traditions they call it Reincarnation. It’s all the same idea.
Whatever we are creating and emanating into the universe right now is who we are. And who we are is what determines our placement in relationship to God, not just in the next lives, but in this one. All the time. These principles aren’t for some ineffable future, they are supposed to give us access to our godhood right now.
It’s amazing to me that these foundational truths have been taught throughout all generations and to all peoples. God is not only good, he’s really, really big. He’s got this whole world in his hands. If we truly understood the power of our relationship with God in this life we would have a deeply profound affect on the world around us. And now we see why the adversary would want us to think all of this only has to do with the life after this one. The quickest way to prolong the building of the kingdom of God on the earth is to make humans believe that what they do only matters in some undetermined future.
Zion is not something we wait for. It’s something we are now. God has given us many gifts of knowledge, understanding, and power to help us discover these truths, to unlock the power of the present moment. Even the priesthood, which is describes as God’s power and authority, is simply an emanation of his justice, his perfect way of being. A godly way of being carries with it a distinctly powerful presence in the universe, even unto miraculous gifts of the spirit, healings, and sealings.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41–42).
When we make adjustments so that our justice matches that of the Father, his power is our power. We are the same. And access to this incredible energy is available to us here, right now. We are inherently worthy of it, we just need to repent. Through our experiences and our agency we develop a karma which is in harmony with the Father and we assume the power and authority which is our divine inheritance.
In Hindi traditions, when one’s karma reaches its universal potential then that person becomes perfectly one with the universe in salvation and transcends reincarnation to live in bliss for eternity, at one with Brahman, or God. In Islam, when one’s actions are in accordance with the will of Allah then that person will live in Paradise. In many Western traditions, when one’s justice is fulfilled by perfectly emulating the will of God then that person lives forever in the presence of God. In the Latter-Day Saint tradition, when one’s being is in line with the being of God then that person is exalted to reign as a King or Queen forever in God’s Celestial Kingdom, the natural and perfect state of Godhood. Different language, but the same big idea.
This pathway of progression, and it’s expression through all cultures, is beautiful and inspiring. When we take time to pray, meditate, or contemplate about our own way of being, our own karma, or our own justice, we are given access to divinity which we can use to inform our agency, perfect ourselves, and powerfully interact with the world around us.
When we see justice differently in this way we will be able to use it to our advantage, to inform our actions and bring about much good in this world and all the worlds to come. We don’t have to wait for some future promised resurrection. As described when we entered the waters of baptism, we can die to our old ways and become a new creature now. Because of our inherent divine agency and the grace of Christ’s condescension we can choose to be powerful and creative beings of light and love.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works (Matthew 5:16).