I don’t remember where in my church-going youth I picked up the verses about God punishing children for their parents’ sin. Possibly I found them in a Christian youth magazine or from catching a snippet of a doom-and-gloom sermon on TV while flipping through the channels. At some point, though, when I was pretty young, that strange concept got lodged in my brain: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents” (Ex. 20:5 NIV).
Since I was shy and proud, I never asked anyone about it. It bothered me—I was even pretty sure it couldn’t mean what it seemed to mean, because of Jesus’ sacrifice. But I didn’t know what to do with it, so I just sort of stored it away.
Then I had my first child, my son Milo, and within weeks, the verse was nagging at me. Would he suffer for my sins? Could it be possible, given God’s love? Christ’s redemption?
I certainly didn’t idealize my child as a “perfect little angel.” Even if I didn’t think that expression was unbiblical, he was never “angelic.” Milo didn’t cry; he shrieked. Inconsolably. He was red and tense for every waking moment, and then he’d crash hard and be out for a couple of hours before doing it again. His mother and I were shell-shocked, frazzled.
I’d been prepared to lose sleep and change my routines. I was not prepared to experience my child as an emotional vampire, an existential black hole. It felt as if we could give him every ounce of our attention and energy for his every waking moment, and it still wouldn’t soothe him.
Well-meaning people tried to assure us our love would be enough, but we knew early on that wasn’t true. Our love took the shape of trying to guide a profound force that we ultimately had to abandon to God’s sovereign care.
Over time, I found myself getting frustrated, then angry, in ways I’d never experienced with any other human in my life. I felt myself closer to physical violence than anyone has ever brought me. I seemed to have no patience with this toddler who kept throwing his food on the floor or taking his shoes off in the car. I just wanted to have 10 or even five minutes with this child where I didn’t have to calm or correct or redirect him.
“The sin of the parents.” In some translations, “the iniquity of the fathers.” Was this the inheritance of sin?
Another new parent once asked me about original sin. “I don’t believe in it,” she said as our children played on the floor. She wasn’t a romantic; she just couldn’t see active evil in her year-old son. I wasn’t prepared to abandon ancient doctrine on such scant evidence, but as I stumbled through a vain defense, it began to dawn on me how that troubling verse might relate.
If sin distorts, then love transforms.
From my own experience in the Reformed tradition, sin is not just personal but structural; it permeates Creation as a general brokenness. If I couldn’t see sinful intention, I could still see the effects of sin. From a young age, my son had many desires for things that I, as a parent, knew were harmful. It wasn’t only ignorance; it was palpable willfulness, a perverse demand to have whatever he desired.
Add to that my own inadequacy to be as loving or patient as he needed, and then the brokenness in me that will harm him—has already harmed him—with angry words and by bad example.
It hardly matters if Adam’s sin somehow travels through our DNA or is imputed or whatever; the kid’s in for it just by being born into this world. Sin has already broken him and will continue to damage him because his mother and I and everyone else—the whole world system—are all broken.
The author Flannery O’Connor cautioned us against the sentimentality that treats good and evil simplistically. We want sin to look like sin because when morality is black and white, we can excuse our behavior in the gray areas. We forget that “sin” names an orientation, too—an attitude of self-determination scornful of God’s favor.
When we want to make our own rules, God’s “punishment” might be to let us. Consider Romans 1, which says of intractable sinners that “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts” (Rom. 1:24 NIV). People are ready to employ this verse (as the context certainly allows) in arguments about homosexuality, but why not other sins?
It’s an ancient idea: Sin is its own punishment. It distorts our souls, perverts our reason, shrivels our imaginations. Dante’s description of hell disturbs in part because the souls persist in their sinful defiance of God, all but embracing their torments.
Surely Christ’s love defines me more than my sin does, just as it shapes my care of my children more than my brokenness can.
Romans 1 insists there’s a moral order to the world. It’s not mechanical or magical. Doing good won’t prevent suffering, nor will doing ill always lead to it. The sun rises and the rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike.
But if sin distorts, then love transforms. And surely the love Christ teaches us passes on to our children more powerfully than our brokenness. Surely that love defines me more than my sin does, just as it shapes my care of my children more than my brokenness can.
Scripture teaches that we’re citizens of heaven but for now reside on earth (Phil. 3:20). As parents, we’ve increased the labor pool, and every day we’re molding bricks for one of those two places. One city is a ruin we’ll rebuild to our own glory—only to discover it’s a prison. The other I like to imagine will be more like a carnival where everyone is family.
I used to fight all the time with my brothers; I don’t remember being very nice to them. Ever. Milo is seven now; his brother Theo is four. And, yes, they fight a lot. But there is sweetness, too. Love is transforming, molding new bricks, patching up the damage done by sin. The child who can take so much is also, miraculously, learning to give. When I brought Theo to Milo’s end-of-year party at school, Milo gave him his chair and asked the teacher for an extra plate of food. Then he looked at his own plate, picked up one of his two rationed Oreos, and handed it gladly to his little brother.
Photograph by Kyle Bean