Her words still rattle me. (They should.) Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin published recently in the New York Times was the kind of title that sinks to your gut like a stone, stirring up silt and making things generally cloudy. I wish I could discard this with other headlines, lining tomorrow’s birdcages … but unfortunately, this one is perennially relevant.

The blurb: My religious fundamentalist childhood was built around the fear of sin. My daughters don’t even know the word.

The author, now estranged from her parents, recounts a childhood that sketches the nightmares of any parent who loves God’s Word–and loves grace:

God was a megaphone bleating in my head: “You’re bad, you’re bad, you’re bad!”

….Sin. That tiny word still makes me cringe with residual fear. Fear of being judged unworthy. Fear of the eternal torture of hell. Fear of my father’s belt.

….I had little contact with people outside of the rigid triangle of my Calvinist home, church and school. …I feared non-Christians in general and atheists in particular.

….The absolute truths of my girlhood crumbled when I watched Carl Sagan’s 13-part “Cosmos” series…that included an overview of evolution which made it verboten for me as a kid, but whose logic made irrefutable sense to me as an adult.

The story behind the creed

Concerned and sobered, I wanted to know more of the story. The author, Julia Scheeres, also wrote a bestselling memoir, Jesus Land, of her experiences. Entertainment Weekly wrote that it “will break your heart and mend it again, but it won’t stop haunting you.” I believe them.

Julia and her black, adopted brother David moved to the rural Midwest, a place of “an all-encompassing racism,” reads the book’s marketing copy. “At home are a distant mother—more involved with her church’s missionaries than her own children.”

Here, Ms. Scheeres fills in her life details in the article itself:

I started attending a public school and my black-and-white worldview started gaining color and nuance….I stopped fearing the secular world and grew intrigued by it. And paid the price: At 17, after being caught “fornicating” with my high school boyfriend, I was sent to a Christian reform school [in the Dominican Republic, the book clarifies] where children were beaten in the name of God. It was there that I learned that religion has nothing to do with goodness and there’s a strong link between zealotry and hypocrisy.

Ms. Scheeres, wounded as she is, is not the enemy. She is the messenger.

Is sin the problem?

If what the author says is true, her childhood was a weaponized, gross corruption of the gospel itself.

“Sin” is not a concept she equates with a cancer, eating away at a healthy, loving relationship with a God who loved her to the point of giving Himself. Instead, she equates sin with fear, obligation, abuse, and relational alienation.

If you equate sin with these trauma triggers, how can you see sin as a good diagnosis, a necessary step toward a restorative, welcomed cure? How can you see it as something whose removal would restore you to a whole, loving version of yourself?

Her story finds us wondering if sin really was the blind, raging villain here.

In a sense, it was. Ms. Scheeres has been deeply sinned against. “Sin” was used by sinners to beat her, at times literally, into submission.

But was the problem that she was raised with a concept of sin?

Ms. Scheeres is still intentionally raising her children with a moral code, complete with right and wrong. I cannot speak for this well-articulated woman. But in her desire to jettison the concept of sin, I wonder if what she truly wishes to oust are shame, smothering control, and fear-driven parenting.

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Shame: a likelier culprit

Shame researcher Dr. Brene Brown explains that shame is positively correlated with addiction, depression, aggression, violence, eating disorders, and suicide. Guilt, on the other hand, is inversely correlated with every one of those.

….Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful—it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous. (emphasis added)

It’s all too easy, in the midst of my own shame over my kids’ behavior—not to mention the barking dog, the hot car, the week of hormone-bewitched adolescents, the missed work deadline—to communicate they are not acceptable. (Not just their behavior. Them.) That they are unworthy of connection.

Love: a better answer

The message of unconditional love and acceptance of our kids, even as we discipline them, matters intensely. It replays over and over how God loved us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).

Does our parenting communicate that God accepted us before we got our act together with Him?

Does it shout to our kids that Jesus alone—not their ability to perform, or our ability to protect them—pleases God on our behalf?

Maybe this comes across more clearly in the words of my four-year-old, when I called him at his grandma’s one day to apologize for blowing my top. He told me, “Even when you do bad things, I still love you. And I want you to know that even when you do bad things, God still loves you.”

Sin = hope

Ms. Scheeres is right-on with one of her points. Without the happiest ending of God’s love winning, there is no hero. Sin is nothing short of horror, fear, and separation. It leaves us damned. Desperate. Crushed.

Parenting from fear—from the crushing demand of perfection, the hatred of personal failure and weakness—leaves me reactionary, touchy and rigid, growling orders. Or I hover in a flurry of activity and research and determination. Or … I shame my kids. Because they will be good kids, if I have anything to snarl about it.

Essentially, I resort to control. Fear robs me of the capacity for graciousness, for the room for my kids or myself to fail.

John Lynch writes poignantly:

Sin and failure is all we think we have until new life is wooed forth. We need others to show us God beautifully, without condemnation, disgust, and unsatisfied demands … We’ve just been goaded so long, we’ve learned to shield ourselves from religion.

…. This life in Christ is not about what I can do to make myself worthy of His acceptance, but about daily trusting what He has done to make me worthy of His acceptance.

What’s bigger?

As a parent, I’m asking myself now: Am I making sin, personal failure, and weakness a bigger message than what God did to overcome it?

Sin is there to show us and our kids our bleeding, gaping need (Galatians 3:24). This is the lesson of the Old Testament: Without Christ, what hope do we have in the hands of an angry God?

Without God gushing his undeserved favor over us in the person of Jesus, Ms. Scheeres is quite correct: We and our children are isolated, abandoned to drown in inch-deep, posturing self-righteousness or naked rebellion. Or both.

If we don’t fully internalize Jesus, our kids will see right through our false gospel.

Filling in the gaps

As an adult, Ms. Scheeres reports how she must now fill in the gaps left by the Gospel she didn’t experience from Christians:

Religious brainwashing imposed from infancy is hard to shake… I wondered how I’d teach [my children] right from wrong without a church….But my husband — Catholic by culture, atheist by intellect — wanted nothing to do with organized religion.

…I am no longer motivated by fear of an unproven hell, but by real-world concerns about injustice and inequality.

…Just as my parents’ approach to imparting their values was shaped by an effort to avoid the sins they feared, I am raising my two daughters according to my moral code. To me, the greatest sin of all is failing to be an engaged citizen of the world, so the lessons are about being open to others rather than closed off.

She has taught her children to march for racial justice and for women’s rights. To help the homeless, to recycle, to intervene in bullying, to participate in school walkouts on gun violence. And to “always [question] the world around them.”

She understands innately that when Christian parents do wonderful acts without the motivation and context of love, it’s the equivalent of a car alarm everyone wants to shut off (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). If her accounts are correct, she has seen the sweeping power of fear-driven parenting.

Instead—even in our children’s most devastating moments—may we be parents driven by our own awe and trust in a God who would rescue and change even the likes of us.

Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.