When your child sins

Teens do a lot of astonishingly foolish things. They also do a lot of sinful things, and one of the great challenges of parenthood is the question of how to react to the inevitable foolishness and sin that come with learning how to be a man or a woman.

It’s easy for our love for our children (more charitably) or our pride (less charitably) to make us expect a sinlessness from them that we know is beyond our own reach. Every one of us could list persistent sins with which we’ve struggled for years: pride or lust or gossip or lack of faith. We can think back to sins we’ve committed that nauseate us with their selfishness or perversion or rebellion. The Christian is never satisfied with anything short of holiness, but we also recognize that sanctification is a process and the presence of sin does not nullify the promise of salvation. “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” Your children are born sick, just like you. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t need a Savior.

When we look down at a newborn infant, we are looking at a little person who will grow up to break every one of the Ten Commandments, sometimes in ugly and heartbreaking and persistent ways; sometimes in ways that will leave scars for as long as they live. This one is going to struggle with pornography. That one is going to rebel. Because they are human, and humans sin. Having a child who struggles with sin says nothing about your family or your parenting other than the fact that your child is a true descendant of Adam.

But that’s not an excuse for complacency. Christ didn’t say, “Try to be as good as you can.” He didn’t say, “Do your best, but don’t stress over it.” He said, “Be ye perfect.” He said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

Sin destroys and unrepentant sin damns. God deposited a human soul into your care for you to teach and shape, and that means talking and leading and disciplining and crying and praying and a hundred other things, because sin is death. Overlooking a little sin is about as safe as overlooking a little cancer. (Cancer is a good metaphor in more ways than one, incidentally, because different cancers require different treatments, and grabbing a scalpel and starting slicing is rarely the answer. We can’t just chop this or that sin out of a child’s life. Treatment of cancer and treatment of sin both require wisdom, patience, and flexibility. And lots of prayer.) 

So how in the world do we live out an understanding of both the certainty of sin and the sinfulness of sin? How do we avoid despair on the one hand and complacency on the other? Our attitude toward sin in a child should really be the same as our attitude toward our own sin. It’s the attitude of a watchman on a fire tower: Fires will always come, but this fire, this one right here, today, must be fought as if it was the only fire in the whole world. The firefighter isn’t surprised and doesn’t give up hope because a new fire will come tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean he gives an inch to the fire he fights today. And the fact that a firefighter is surrounded by fire, especially in some seasons, doesn’t mean he’s a failure; it means he’s doing his job.

It may feel impossibly hard to keep holding on when sometimes the whole horizon seems to show nothing but flame, but the parent of a sinful child isn’t alone; we are helped by One who has some idea of what it is like to love sinful, willful children. Adam’s sin inaugurated a world in which his second child’s life ended at the hands of his first, but our Father would not allow that bloody image to define the human family, and a few thousand years later the love of God would turn the world’s worst fratricide into the beginning of His making all things new.

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