How to Raise Children With the Concept of Mercy

The knowledge of sin is not something to fear if one also knows our merciful redeemer.

Charles de Groux (1825-1870), “Mother and Daughter Visiting the Sick”
Charles de Groux (1825-1870), “Mother and Daughter Visiting the Sick” (photo: Public Domain)

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times ran a commentary, Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin, by Julia Scheeres, an atheist who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family. In the article she tells the story of her nine year old daughter seeing the word “sin” on a sign and asking her mother what that word means. Scheeres flashes back to her own childhood of oppressive morals and fear of God in every little mistake she made. She tells how she eventually came to no longer believe in God, and now is raising her children to fight against injustice and inequality.

Interestingly enough, she herself admits it that she has just switched from one rigid worldview to another: “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.” She has done all of this without her children learning the word, “sin.” In truth it is a word that does not make any sense in a world that denies the existence of God.

Scheeres says that she is proud of her children, who have gone to rallies to fight the world’s injustices from their infancy, take care to protect the world’s resources, are activists for political positions, and further insist on having food in the car to share with the homeless they encounter on street corners. Yet her children do not sound much different from my own, who have been raised with a clear concept of sin accompanying the knowledge of God’s mercy and love.

My children have been begging me for weeks to finally get together all the supplies we need to make “blessing bags” for the homeless we see as we drive around St. Paul. My older daughters, the same ages as Scheeres’s, care strongly about the legal injustice allowed against unborn babies; tears of sorrow and confusion welling up in their eyes when they think about it. They were filled with indignation when they learned through Ken Burn’s National Park documentary that a beautiful valley in their favorite park, Yosemite, was filled with water (years ago) and turned into a dam to supply water to San Francisco. Like her daughters, mine “have a moral code — one [they] followed not from obligation, but from [their] own desire[s] to make the world a better place.”

Unlike her daughters, mine know about the word “sin.” They know that it is something that offends God, but they also know that the God they offend is a loving, good God, who wants them to be like him and united to him. They know that sin cuts them off from him, and they want to be close to him. He desires for us to love him with our whole hearts, and sin is when we fail to love him. He desires us to know him, to be in relationship with him, to be close to him, and not to cower in fear of his wrath.

If God acted according to the full demands of justice, then we would not even have a chance—but the God we revere, is a God of mercy as well as justice. Yet, God, in his great love for us has provided a way for us through giving of and sacrificing Himself for us who turn away from him daily. My children know this and that, when we fail, we are not expected to get up without help. Rather, we are offered God’s help, his grace, most especially through the sacraments.

This is why I give my children the opportunity for frequent the reception of Holy Communion and to go to the Sacrament of Penance twice a month. This is why I teach them to take time for private prayer to talk to God and come to know him. This is why I teach my children about the Works of Mercy. I want them to know that the God who we offend through sin, made all of the commandments for our good and happiness, and that He is a merciful God, not one who stands in judgment against these little ones. And no matter how many times we sin, he, like the father of the prodigal son, is just waiting with open arms to forgive all we have done.

So, I pray that Scheeres’ two little girls, who aspire so much to solve the injustices in the world they know, will also come to know God and his mercy and love. The knowledge of sin is not something to fear if one also knows our merciful redeemer.