Karma is a word that has been adopted from Hinduism and Buddhism to capture the saying, “what goes around, comes around.” What you do to others—good or ill—will eventually in some form or fashion be done to you. As is often the case with proverbs or maxims, this one is widely recognized as expressing an observable truth about the world. People can’t but notice that we tend to get what we give. Of course, this is not universally true because there are many exceptions to the rule. Nonetheless, as 19th century Presbyterian theologian William S. Plumer observed, “To a remarkable degree men are made to reap what they have sowed, to gather what they have strewed, and to eat the fruit of their own doings.”
The Puritans were not blind to this phenomenon. John Flavel said that it was clear “to every man’s observation” that the good and evil that is done to us “is accordingly repaid into the bosoms of them that are instrumental therein.” They also recognized that God was the one behind it all. Flavel ascribed it to God’s “over-ruling providence.” And Ezekiel Hopkins said that “God, by his governing providence, distributes rewards and punishments according to our actions.” Therefore, what goes around, comes around, not because of some cosmic principle or some mysterious force of nature, but because God is on his throne. In short, what people call karma is simply providential retribution.
There are many biblical passages (2 Sam. 22:26-27; 1 Kings 8:32; Ps. 17: 15-16; 18:25-26; 41:1-3; Prov. 3:33-35; 22:22-23; 26:27; Isa. 33:1; Matt. 7:2; Luke 6:37-38; 2 Cor. 9:6; Gal. 6:7-8; James 2:13) and examples (Jacob, Haman, David, Ahab, Jereboam, Joash, Daniel’s enemies, etc.) that teach this truth. Sometimes, as Flavel pointed out, “the retributions of providence” are quite exact. For example, God “made the very place of sinning the place of punishment” when he providentially ordered events so that dogs licked up Ahab’s blood in the same place dogs had licked up Naboth’s blood.
One objection to this doctrine are the many injustices in the world. The wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Flavel responded to this with the words of Augustine: “If no sin were punished here, no providence would be believed; and if every sin should be punished here, no judgment would be expected.” Moreover, God’s providence includes his mercy. He is kind and patient toward sinners so that they might repent (Rom. 2:4). Plumer wrote:
“The Almighty does not settle his accounts with his creatures every thirty days. He is long-suffering. He is patient under affronts. He forbears to execute deserved wrath upon offenders. This is one of the striking displays of the goodness of God designed to lead us to repentance. He bears with us. He is slow to anger. He is the God of patience. Long-suffering is of his very essence… Often for a long time he delays his judgments.”
The biblical doctrine of providential retribution should impact our lives in a number of ways. First, we should examine ourselves in times of adversity. If we don’t like how people are treating us, then we would be wise to look at how we have been treating other people. Second, we should acknowledge God’s justice in our suffering, especially “when sorrows come to us in the ghost of the wrong we have committed (Plumer).” Third, we should think twice before we sin. Knowing that what we do to others will be done to us ought to restrain us. Fourth, we shouldn’t feel compelled to avenge ourselves because God will take care of it. Vengeance is his, and he will repay (Rom. 12:19). Finally, we should be encouraged to love God and our neighbor. God notices the good that we do, and he will honor those who honor him (1 Sam. 2:30).
 Commenting upon Ps. 18:25-27, John Calvin wrote: “The scope of the discourse is, that the people of God should entertain good hope, and encourage themselves to practice uprightness and integrity, since every man shall reap the fruit of his own righteousness.”
D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ.
- Providence (A Place for Truth) [ Booklet | PDF ]
- What is Providence? by Derek Thomas
- Providence (Princeton 2014) [ Audio Disk Set | MP3 Disk Set | MP3 Download Set ]
- Vengeance Belongs to the Lord by Philip Ryken [ Audio Disc | Download ]