t’s been said that if you want to understand the effects of the fall, look no further than to children.
The noetic effects of sin — the theological description of the fact that sin leaves no part of a person untouched in their reason, emotions, intellect, and so on — can indeed be observed in children, and especially when they are living under your roof. If anyone doubts human depravity or suggests that people are basically good, we need only point to Exhibit A, our children, to remove all doubt and prove the person wrong.
Kids do not need instruction on how to be selfish. They do that all on their own. They demand copious amounts of attention, unrelenting care, persistent attentiveness, support, food, clothing, and shelter. All of this can cause one to pause and consider the utter dependency of children and their sheer inability to survive on their own. Children require no training to do the wrong thing — in not sharing, not caring, not obeying, not listening. Children are the ironclad, silver-bullet proof that sin touches every part of us from the earliest of ages.
But the truth of the matter is that knowing this truth proves to be largely superficial. This obvious observation is akin to calling the sky blue or water wet. It is so native to the reality we know we take it for granted and no longer notice it. The sun will rise, winter will come, and my kids will often express their selfish brattiness. The truth of the matter is that although children are perhaps the most visibly and overtly selfish creatures, they are not unmatched in their selfishness. Rather, they are little mirrors that reflect how selfish we really are.
It is true — children want what they want and will let you know when they are unsatisfied. There is no doubt that your newborn has no consideration of your schedule, job, commitments, friends, or social engagements. There is the utmost certainty that children express the worst of behavior without ever being trained to do so. But it’s also true that children reveal to us how sinful we still are. I learned this once at two in the morning when I had an exam ahead of me the next day. It was the seventh time that night that either my wife or I had needed to get up to feed and rock the baby. I wanted to literally and angrily throw my son into his bed, slam the door, and selfishly go to bed. He had been crying relentlessly and making a nuisance of my night and possibly even sabotaging my performance on the exam.
But tell me now: Who was the beast in this picture? Who was the supremely selfish and guilty party?
It was I! I could see in that moment that, in a state of complete dependence, the child in my arms was not simply a 8lb. 9 oz. vessel of sin, but rather a vessel of sanctification exposing my own sinful wickedness and my horrific and selfish desires.
I often joke that before couples have a child they should read warning labels from other parents that say, Warning: Having children will make you die to self. Side effects will almost certainly include loss of sleep, loss of night outings, lower grades in grad school, more time at home, loss of time with friends, temptation toward irritability, tensions in marriage, feelings of jealousy toward single friends, animosity toward married childless friends, and more self-reflection in odd hours of the morning than you could possibly care to want, imagine, or dread to think of. Having children is not for the faint of heart. It is guaranteed to reveal your sin. The hobby that you love may actually end up being the idol you have to sacrifice. Your pet sin, which already demands its own attention, will double down on your loyalty, forcing you into the hardest spiritual warfare you’ve ever encountered in your life. Friends, children may absolutely be tangible proof of original sin, but they will reveal it in you more than you will ever see it in them. Children are a means of grace that God uses to help us put on the new self and to let the old self die (see Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3, respectively).
Children will give you the accolades you didn’t think you wanted. The barf on your right shoulder that you first notice while you’re sitting in class is a badge of honor. Bedhead means you’re new to the parent thing, but that you’re an insider. Not having seen a movie in theaters for over two years is a hashtag of persistence. A B- with kids is the equivalent of an A+ without. And pretty soon these de facto battle ribbons are stacked up in such a way that parents can actually become proud of their dead social life. But soon after that, your children will bring you right back to square one, from which you thought you had graduated, revealing your sin again. I couldn’t tell you how many times I have felt pride and resentment toward married couples without children. I could tell you how many times I’ve repented of this, and it is certainly a smaller number — much smaller than it ought to be. Children aren’t first and foremost the vehicles of sin and wreckage we may think them to be. They are image bearers of and gifts from God.
Children will undoubtedly force you to come to grips with idols, transgressions, and rough spots in your life, marriage and relationship with God that you were not fully aware of, and others you thought you had down pat. Children are wonderful. It is uswho are wicked. Children are gifts from God. It is us who are selfish. Children are not vehicles of the noetic effects of sin packaged in squishy tissue and dirty diapers. Children are vessels of sanctification. They are God’s grace, God’s gift, and — to borrow from Bonhoeffer — they are bidding you come and die.