Tools for Living

Responsibility and Religious Faith

“Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.”  ~Corinthians 3:8   


The importance of taking personal responsibility for our actions and their consequences is recognized in virtually every religious tradition.  The concept of karma (which literally means “action”) holds that we are responsible for our actions and bound by their consequences. This idea is fundamental to Hinduism and Buddhism . . . and is also taught by Christ, as we shall see.

In the Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna (who is the personification of God), says:

Offer all thy works to God, throw off selfish bonds, and do thy work. No sin can then stain thee, even as waters do not stain the leaf of the lotus. […]

The man of harmony surrenders the rewards of his work and thus attains final peace: the man of disharmony, urged by desire, is attached to his reward and remains in bondage.  (Bhagavad Gita 5: 10,12 – Penguin edition translated by Juan Mascaro)

In other words, whenever we act for the sake of satisfying our selfish desires, we are bound by those desires and the consequences of our actions to the worldly cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth.  But if we transcend selfishness and act without regard for our own desires but solely for the sake of doing God’s will, then we will find peace and throw off the bonds of this world. Thus we alone are responsible for our own fate, for it is determined by the choices we make.

For Buddhists, whether we continue to suffer or to find liberation from is likewise determined by our choices and our actions.  No one else is responsible for our fate but ourselves.  The Eight Fold Path of Buddhism is a prescription for right thoughts and actions that will release us from suffering, but we alone are responsible for following the path.  No one else can do it for us.

As Lama Thubten Yeshe explains in The Bliss of Inner Fire:

Karma is not something complicated or philosophical. Karma means watching your body, watching your mouth, and watching your mind. Trying to keep these three doors as pure as possible is the practice of karma.

…just as we are responsible for our own suffering, so are we solely responsible for our own cure.  We have created the situation in which we find ourselves, and it is up to us to create the circumstances for our release.¹

The concept of Karma is likewise addressed in Christian scriptures, though not within the framework of a Hindu or Buddhist cosmology, of course.  For instance, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul effectively echoes Krishna in the Gita:

…for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8)

And the idea of reaping what we sow is also expressed in Jesus’s own words in the Sermon on the Mount, as reported in the Gospel of Luke:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven.  Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.  For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Luke 6:37-38)

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 ¹Lama Thubten Yeshe, The Bliss of Inner Fire (Somerville, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications, 1998), 38, 43.




Proverbs 3:27-28 “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it’ – when you have it with you.” 

Proverbs 28:13  “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.

Ezekiel 18:30   “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn [yourselves] from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.”

Matthew 12:37   “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”

Corinthians 3:8   “Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.”

Galatians 6:5   “For every man shall bear his own burden.”

“Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” ~Goethe

“I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.” ~Robert Heinlein

“Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility.” ~Elizabeth Cady Stanton

“The difficulty we have in accepting responsibility for our behavior lies in the desire to avoid the pain of the consequences of that behavior.” ~M. Scott Peck

“You are not responsible for the programming you picked up in childhood. However, as an adult, you are one hundred percent responsible for fixing it.” ~Ken Keyes, Jr.

“The proverb warns that, ‘You should not bite the hand that feeds you.’ But maybe you should, if it prevents you from feeding yourself.”  ~Thomas Szasz

Links to more information about Responsibility:

From the Character Journal, “Responsibility”

“Christian Accountability,” by J. Hampton Keathley, III, for

Isa Gucciardi, “Personal Responsibility: A Buddhist Perspective on Relationship”

From BuddhaNet, “Buddhist Responsibility within Society”

Stephen Tyng, on “Responsibility in Christ”



Recommended Books:

Chuck Lynch, You Can Work It Out: The Power of Personal Responsibility
From a Biblical perspective, Lynch discusses identifying, assuming, and fulfilling personal responsibility as the key to resolving conflict and establishing healthy relationships.

Edward J. Anton, by Edward J Anton Repentance: A Cosmic Shift of Mind and Heart
Anton writes about the true meaning of repentance, the life transforming change in attitude and behavior that is both the evidence and fruit of spiritual awakening.

Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility
A contemporary rabbi writes about responsibility as heeding God’s call to become partners in creation by “mending the world one life at a time, one act at a time, one day at a time.”

Phil Cousineau, Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement—Healing the Past, Making Amends, and Restoring Balance in Our Lives and World
A new collection of essays by several noteworthy spiritual thinkers on the nature of atonement and its importance for healing past wounds and restoring hope for the future.