Editors of the Foma journal received the following letter:
Why should I pay for “my sins”? I did not ask to be born to this world, they made this choice for me, and my sins are, to a great extent, generated by life’s external conditions.
What exactly should I pay for?
Sergey, Ufa, Russia
Alexander Tkachenko answers the reader’s letter:
The characteristic consequences of sin are the punishment that a person voluntarily takes by agreeing to sin.
In modern comedies there is a widely circulated plot, the essence of which is as follows. A person is informed that it is very easy to put an ordinary light bulb into his mouth, but then it is impossible to pull it out without the help of a doctor. The person does not believe this paradox and decides to test its truth on himself. As a result, he finds himself in the emergency room, where a whole line of such experimenters is already sitting. It is something like that for people who have heard that stealing, envy, cheating on their spouse, and judging other people are sins, but they still decide to experience the consequences of these sins on their own.
The laws of spiritual life are as immutable as the laws of physics, chemistry, or anatomy. Therefore, the punishment for a committed sin is as inevitable as the punishment for licking an iron doorknob in the cold. It makes no sense to ask here “why should I pay for this?”, because this is just a natural sequence of events. The one who chose a sin at the same time chose its inevitable consequences. According to St. Irenaeus, God merely affirms the choice of a man himself in determining the punishment for the sinner, “For all those who voluntarily move away from Him, God imposed the distance itself as punishment for them. Therefore, <…> the withdrawal from God is the loss of all the blessings that come from Him.”
The external conditions of a person’s development can in fact influence his spiritual state. For example, sinful life of parents or other significant adults can damage the spiritual state of the children whom they gave birth to and bring up. This damage manifests itself in various sinful and evil inclinations and passions, which are transferred as if by inheritance within one generation. In the Holy Scriptures the idea of such sin’s transference from the older generation to the younger one is expressed quite definitely: “For who so despises wisdom and nurture, he is miserable, and their hope is vain, their labours unfruitful, and their works unprofitable: Their wives are foolish, and their children wicked: <…> As for the children of adulterers, they shall not come to their perfection, and the seed of an unrighteous bed shall be rooted out. <…> For horrible is the end of the unrighteous generation.” (Wisdom of Solomon 3:11, 12, 16, 19).
Passed down from generation to generation, a tendency toward certain types of sin can be so entrenched in the descendants of such an unrighteous generation that it will be much more difficult for them to confront these sins than it is for other people. However, a person has a choice here as well. Having realized the effect of such a sin inside, a person can, for example, completely abandon the responsibility for his actions and write off all his indecencies to bad heredity.
But there is another option: when a person begins resisting this influence of his ancestors’ sins to the best of his ability.
A person sins not when he receives these inclinations in his family, but when he justifies this abnormality, does not fight it, and gives it full freedom in his life.
Meanwhile, with God’s help, such manifestations of a “family” sin can be restrained and made subdued to reason and conscience. The transfer of this sin can be stopped, not allowing it to go to one’s descendants. Having been injured by the sins of his ancestors, a person can begin to correct his life, if only in order not to pass this hereditary spiritual darkness to his children. And even if he does not manage to do this fully, God will accept this person’s work as a real feat of piety.
The external circumstances of our lives affect our spiritual state. And God takes these circumstances into account. He knows the conditions under which a person grew up, the measure of sin invested in his heart by his educators, and judges each of us according to these conditions.
St. Theophan the Recluse wrote, “The Lord at the Last Judgment will not only be as if judging us, but also as if justifying us all. And He will justify everything if there is at least some small possibility to do so.” Only one thing depends on us: will we give Him such a possibility? This will be our “payment” for our sins. Everything else the Lord paid for us Himself two thousand years ago.