“Ask a Priest: Will My Children Suffer for My Sins?”

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Q: I’m trying to understand temporal punishment. I found the following. God forgave David, but David still had to suffer the loss of his son as well as other temporal punishments (2 Samuel 12). Will my children suffer for my sins? My sister’s son is very sick, and she thinks he is sick because of her sins. Her guilt is tremendous. Can you shed some light on this? – S.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I’m sorry to hear about your sister’s son.

You question touches on separate issues.

One is the case of David. The punishment for his adultery and his murder of Uriah — including the death of the baby — is a sign that sin has consequences. Exodus 34:7 warned that the wickedness of a parent could bring punishment on children to the third or fourth generation (but blessings to a thousand generations, in the case of good behavior).

We shouldn’t read too much into the incident, however. It’s not the case that a parent’s sins will always lead to a child’s suffering.

Nevertheless, sin does have a social consequence. Our sins can hurt the mystical body of the Church, as well as the wider society. There is no such thing as a strictly private sin.

For instance, if Joe sins in the privacy of his home by viewing pornography, his sin affects his spiritual state, which in turn has an impact on the quality of his prayer and intercessory power for others.

Joe’s sin can also affect his marriage (ask a wife who has discovered her husband watching pornography). He is also helping to fuel a loathsome industry that exploits people, especially women. This demand for pornography in turn allows it to corrupt others.

Similarly, a parent’s sin could have an impact on children, just as it could impact a spouse, in-laws, his neighborhood, his workplace.

As for your sister: Without knowing more details, it’s impossible to say whether her sins might have caused her son’s suffering directly. If she were a drug addict during pregnancy and passed on health problems to her unborn son, yes, the link would be obvious.

But if they were other types of sins, then maybe God has simply allowed the son’s illness to bring about something good. Perhaps it is making your sister humbler, more reflective, more prayerful. This doesn’t mean, however, that God is “taking out his anger” on the child.

Then there is the matter of temporal punishment itself. It is the healing penalty that God in his justice inflicts either on earth or in purgatory for sins, even though the guilt of the sins is already forgiven.

It’s analogous to breaking your neighbor’s window out of negligence. You ask his forgiveness. He forgives you. But you need to replace the window, too – that’s the “temporal punishment” due to your negligence.

You might want to encourage your sister to seek out confession if need be. It would be good to assure her that God loves her and her son, and that he is not a vengeful deity but a loving Father.

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