There is a karma-like understanding in the Bible that we find particularly in the book of Deuteronomy. If you do good things, God will bless you. If you do bad things, God will curse you.
Deuteronomy 28 is such a clear example: “If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:” (28:1-2) These two verses are followed by 12 more that just list all the wonderful things that will happen to you if you do good things and obey God.
Then verse 15 begins: “However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you:” This verse is then followed by 53, yes you heard that right, FIFTY-THREE, more verses that list all the awful curses that will happen to you if you do bad things and disobey God.
Over time, humans have reverse engineered this and applied it to individuals. If your life is challenging, it’s your fault because you did something wrong and God cursed you. If your life is prospering, it’s also your fault. You did good things and God is blessing you.
Jesus corrects that way of thinking in a few different places in the New Testament. In one story, Jesus and his disciples walk past someone who was born blind. The disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned . . . “ (John 9:2-3) That was the assumption at the time. Someone must have sinned for this man to be born blind.
Overturning the do-good/get-good do-bad/get-bad way of thinking sounds nice until we start to recognize what it really means. That became a dominant way of thinking about life for a reason. It helps us organize our life. But without that, life can feel quite arbitrary. There’s a reason we are drawn to a karma-like philosophy. It gives us an equation to make sense of God. It is a divine algebra. If I do good, good happens. If I do bad, bad happens. A+B=C. But if God does not discriminate then we have no theological calculus.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus emphasizes this point again: “God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Now, the point Jesus is making here is that we should love our enemies because even God gifts the unrighteous with sun and rain. But if God withholds rain from those who do good and gives it to those who do evil because God loves everyone the same then God is unpredictable and I can’t rely on A+B=C.
For me, this idea terrified me. I like things to make sense (which is usually a euphemism for, “I like control.”). But this God seems mysterious and uncontrollable. But then, over time, I found this idea liberating. It became a bedrock of my theology. And I found out, it is especially important to break this habit of thinking God must approve of something just because it prospers when it comes to America.
In my tradition growing up, all our national woes were because we had “gotten away from God.” The Columbine school shooting was because we took prayer out of school, the stock market crashing was because we voted in a Democrat as President, hurricanes and floods were caused by allowing gay people to have rights.
But think about the implications for that kind of thinking. For instance, I have heard many a sermon on the need to get back to that “old-time religion” so that God will bless this great nation again. But our history does not reveal a spotless rap sheet. We began with the violent takeover of Native land and have treated, and continue to treat, women, the poor, and Black Americans, unjustly. And these injustices weren’t just perpetrated by a few but have been baked into the very laws of our land.
I want no part of a theology that says God prospered America when Christians owned other human beings as slaves but God will bring America to ruin if two men who love each other are allowed to get married.
There is a real danger when we believe we can interpret current events for God. According to Jesus, there is no divine algebra and anyone who tells you otherwise is projecting. How do we know? Because almost never is it that person, or that person’s tribe, who is causing the destruction of America. It’s almost always “those” people. And the whole point Jesus is making in Matthew 5 is that there is no such thing as “those” people. God sends sunshine and rain on the just and unjust alike. God loves God’s enemies and so should we.