“You reap what you sow” means that there is an effect for everything people do or say, and that the effort a person puts into something will be rewarded appropriately in this life or the next. People use this phrase as a reminder to be kind and work hard. Although the phrase might have roots in early Christianity, it appears in some form in other religions and also can be applied in non-religious situations. Seeing bad people succeed sometimes makes people who follow this general doctrine have emotional, social or spiritual crises, so societies usually try to provide some sort of explanation as to why good people don’t always prosper.
The general idea behind "you reap what you sow" is that actions will have consequences. The effects of a person’s behaviors are not necessarily apparent right away, such as when a farmer has to wait a while for a crop to mature. Nevertheless, they show up eventually.
Application and Purpose
People usually apply the reaping concept as a means of directing general living and working. The purpose is to encourage positive behavior and discourage negative activity, or to get a specific result. In this way, it serves as a means to move a person toward the thoughts and actions that are culturally accepted as being constructive, ethical and moral.
The idea behind “you reap what you sow” is ancient and therefore has origins that are difficult to track, but one possible starting point is with early Christians. The phrase appears as “whatsoever a man soweth, that he shall also reap” in the King James Version of the New Testament. Specifically, the quote is found in Galatians 6:7-9, a book made up of letters written by Paul, a disciple of Christ. Galatia was a region located in what is now Turkey. Paul’s letters addressed Christian communities in Galatia, providing advice on how to live for God.
Given the context of Paul’s letters, one explanation for why he said this phrase to the Galatians was because he wanted them to “sow” kindness and goodness. He wanted to teach them that God would reward them for doing the right thing and punish them for sins, if not in their mortal lives, in their eternal ones. He emphasizes this point by preceding the statement with “God is not mocked,” meaning that even though evil exists on Earth, ultimately, no one can hide from God, who distributes righteous, victorious judgment in the end.
One reason Paul used a farming metaphor in his letters was that, at the time, most societies were heavily dependent on agriculture. Most members of a community were familiar with basic farming processes and schedules, and they had learned from experience what to expect from specific agricultural activities. Communicating metaphorically made it easier for the Galatians to understand and accept what Paul was saying, just as stories had made it easier for Paul and the other disciples to understand and accept the messages of Jesus. Today, even though many societies are more industrialized, the majority of people still grasp farming principles and can apply the concept just as early groups did.
Presence in Non-Christian Areas
The idea of behavior having repercussions is not unique to Christianity. In Hinduism, for example, karma intrinsically is linked to the concept of getting back what one puts forward. Reincarnation gives people an opportunity to continue to improve on their spiritual life, and any action in this life can have repercussions in the next. A related quote occurs in the Kenneth Branagh film, Dead Again, where a character refers to reincarnation as the karmic credit plan: “Buy now, pay forever.”
The fact that the concept works under so many different contexts means that it is applied even in situations that do not have any religious connotations at all. An employee, for example, might work hard at his job because he believes that his boss will reward his efforts with praise, a pay increase or other benefit. Similarly, a geneticist can see that a specific DNA pattern yields predictable traits such as eye color, thereby leading him to arrange gene sequences together in a distinct order to get a desired genetic result.
Spiritual, Social and Emotional Conflict
Some people appear to sow discord, dishonesty or other unenviable things and never pay for it. Others who see this can experience spiritual, emotional and social crises, wondering how it is that bad people profit while good people suffer. If these crises are not addressed, they might cause a person to stop putting forth as much effort, or to cease engaging in good behaviors. Societies therefore try to provide answers about why bad people can prosper.
An answer individuals commonly give to resolve these crises is that life is simply not fair. This is often connected to the concept that nothing is perfect. Another response that is more religiously based is that God (or another higher power) is waiting to punish the bad people in His own time, and that God can use even negative things for His glory. Those who focus on this answer often cite Biblical verses such as Romans 8:28, which says, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.”
The Butterfly Effect
Some people push the idea of “you reap what you sow” one step further, emphasizing the “butterfly effect.” This term refers to the fact that the simple act of a butterfly moving its wings can have an enormous effect on the world by serving as a catalyst for other changes or events. Under this lens, people should be extra careful of what they say and do, because it’s not always clear how large the ramifications of their speech or behaviors are.