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In April 2003, a three-billion-dollar, fifteen-year project involving 2,800 scientists finally came to its culmination: the publication of the entire sequence of the human genome. The Human Genome Project was one of the most ambitious, influential, and internationally-collaborative scientific endeavors ever attempted. The maps of human DNA that the project produced have been used in the two decades since to better understand diseases, design treatments and medicines, and even develop new solutions to energy and agricultural challenges. Discovering the details of our DNA has opened the door for more discoveries of all kinds.
DNA is fascinating. It’s the mechanism for inheritance, the part of our body that connects us to our ancestors. If we become biological parents, it allows us to pass that connection to our children. Each of us is shaped by our DNA more profoundly than we can know. Our genetic inheritance supplies us with strengths and beauties: the blueprint for every system in our body, artistic and athletic potential, distinctive and lovable quirks of personality. But it also imposes burdens and limits on us, like predispositions toward addiction or heart disease.
What’s true of physical inheritance is also true of spiritual inheritance. We do not arrive in God’s kingdom with no past. We all have spiritual parents who have shaped us for good and ill in our formative years. We also have spiritual ancestors who have passed on to us a kind of predisposition toward sin. Part of growing up in God is discovering our spiritual DNA, learning and reckoning with what we have inherited—good and bad. When we make that reckoning, we start to make a map of our distinctive spiritual heritage. Like the genome sequences, that map can help us chart new discoveries in spiritual life that bless everyone around us.
What We All Inherit
The basic structure of DNA is the same for all human beings. That’s what makes the Human Genome Project so exciting: Its discoveries are relevant to everyone on the planet, past, present, and future. At the same time, DNA is different for each of us (with a few fun exceptions like identical twins). Spiritually, there’s a similar paradigm: Some basic structures of our inheritance are the same for everyone, but each of us also has a unique heritage.
First, the bad news: Sin. We all inherit it from Adam and Eve, our “first parents” as the Book of Common Prayer calls them. The Apostle Paul writes that “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” (Romans 5:12 NRSV).
Exactly how this works is a matter of theological debate too dense to tackle here. Even this one sentence of Scripture gets at some of the complexity: Death comes from sin, and sin is here “through one man” (Adam), but, at the same time, the reason “death spread to all” was that “all have sinned,” not just Adam. There’s some causal connection between Adam and Eve’s sin and ours, but we also are responsible for our own sinful acts.
One metaphor I’ve found helpful is that sin is like an inherited disease, or—to use a contemporary phrase—a genetic predisposition. Fifth-century bishop and theologian Cyril of Alexandria puts it like this:
[O]ur nature contracted the disease of sin because of the disobedience of one man . . . . This was not because they sinned along with Adam, because they did not then exist, but because they had the same nature as Adam . . . . human nature acquired the weakness of corruption in Adam. (page 142)
Human nature, originally good, has been corrupted because of Adam and Eve’s sin. We all come into the world with this corruption, this predisposition toward disobedience and destructive desires, thoughts, and actions.
What You Have Inherited
The way that “genetic” disposition manifests itself is different for each of us. My sins may not look much like yours. The details depend on the complex intersection of our own will, our bodies (including, yes, our genes!), and the influences of our circumstances and relationships—not least our relationship with our childhood families.
We’re tempted to look at Adam and Eve and ask, what does their sin have to do with me? That question is all the more poignant when we ask it about the families who raised us. Yes, their sin is their own. But its touch on our lives is pervasive. In many of our own sinful habits, we see an echo of, or reaction to, our family’s shortcomings. Alongside sin itself, we also carry the wounds and griefs of childhood difficulties. These things were not our fault, regardless of whether they culminate in anything we do wrong.
It can be painful to turn to such memories. That’s true whether we faced the extremes of abuse and neglect or simply the failures of imperfect people trying to do their best. But we cannot understand ourselves unless we grapple honestly and bravely with the darker aspects of our early life.
Just as we may have physical traits that make us resemble our biological parents, we also have inherited emotional and spiritual predispositions. Fears, shames, and prejudices can be transmitted generationally, not just thick eyebrows or gapped teeth. When we learn to recognize what we’ve inherited, we add details to our map for navigating life. Take a moment now to consider what you learned in your childhood family that’s still with you today.
A New Inheritance
Onto the good news: In Jesus Christ, each of us can claim a new inheritance. In the same passage above, Paul continues, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Romans 5:18 NRSV). Jesus’ gift of his life for us on the cross is the “act of righteousness” that provides a cure for the disease of sin. Paul invokes the language of inheritance to describe this exchange in another passage. He calls those who receive God’s life “heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17 NRSV).
This raises the question: What are we inheriting? If the disease of sin is like a predisposition toward destructive decisions and habits, then the counterpoint of “justification and life” must include a new kind of predisposition: an inclination toward good and life-giving decisions and habits. But an inclination by itself is not enough. We need hope that we can actually do good things, that we can become Christlike, that we can live the life that Paul is describing.
The fullness of the good news is that our inheritance includes hope for living that life, both now and into God’s eternal future. Sin is like a degenerative muscle disease, which reduces our ability to move and function more and more over time. We find ourselves trapped in patterns of behavior, even though we know at some level how destructive they are. But, in Christ, the disease of sin can no longer set the boundaries for our life. God’s grace restores the muscle mass that has been eaten away, allowing us to exercise our limbs again.
Paul writes that when you are in Christ, “sin will have no dominion over you” (Romans 6:14 NRSV). Instead, “grace [will] exercise dominion” in our lives (Romans 5:21 NRSV). When God’s grace is in charge of us, we can break the habits of sin and replace them with patterns of service and generosity and love. Our inheritance in Christ liberates us so that we can say “yes” to the kind of life that he lived.
A Family Inheritance
The inheritance of sin and death is both universal, something we share with the whole human family, and specific, something expressed uniquely in us and in our families of upbringing. So, too, our redemptive inheritance is shared with all who are in Christ, but is also as unique as each of us individually. We each find our footing in our new inheritance within a specific family, too. We do not receive God’s gifts of grace and righteousness in a vacuum, but rather within a community.
As we do the work of identifying the difficult “family traits” we still carry with us, we need a family that can help us learn the ways of our new inheritance. For the fears we may have learned in our childhood family, we need a family that teaches courage. For the prejudices, a family that welcomes everyone. For the hurts, a family that knows the art of healing. For all our sins, a family of forgiveness.
In the New Testament, a constant theme of the apostles’ teaching is that the community of believers, the church, is meant to be that family, a formative place of grace and life. But for many people today who have been hurt within the church, it can be difficult to imagine a church community in such terms. Sometimes the family that someone is leaving in order to un-learn destructive family traits is a church. Some of our spiritual brothers and sisters have simply never felt connected at church in a way that feels in sync with what the Bible describes.
Those of us who feel more connected to church community can uphold those who feel on the fringes in prayer. We can also listen to them, and consider what our specific church community is like. What does it feel like to newcomers and outsiders? There are always lessons to learn about how to truly welcome everyone. At the same time, let me offer a gentle word to those who are distant from church at the moment: Let the icon of the church that’s painted on the pages of Scripture touch your heart.
It’s a beautiful icon. Just like there’s a bit of paradox in however Adam and Eve’s sin connects to ours, there’s also some mystery in the Bible’s description of how redemption is transmitted from generation to generation. Each person’s individual faith is a key ingredient; you can’t ride into the kingdom of God on your ancestors’ coattails. Yet see how Paul encourages Timothy: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you” (2 Timothy 1:5 NRSV). The faith is sincere, and Timothy owns it himself. Yet Paul imagines it as the same faith that his mother and grandmother had, living within each of them. Like a gene.
That’s what church is meant to be. A place where our own personal experience of life with God is enkindled in the first place, and then rekindled again and again through the influence of those who are learning to live by grace right alongside us. A place where we learn new family traits, taking on a stronger resemblance to Jesus year by year. A place where we learn to claim our new inheritance, confident that God will bring it to full fruition in his time, by his grace.
Use these questions to take stock of your own spiritual inheritance.
- What did you inherit from your first family? What . . .
- Physical traits?
- Social habits?
- Culture and language?
- Financial resources?
- Community connections?
- Practical know-how?
- Political viewpoints?
- Expectations for your life?
- What is something good from the list above that you can give thanks for?
- What is something bad from the list above that you still carry with you?
- Take a moment and present this inheritance, good and bad, to the Lord. Of all these things, where might he be drawing your attention?
- Who is a member of your current spiritual family you could talk to about this experience? If you’re willing, shoot them a text and find a time to talk and pray together about it.
Image by Photo by Braňo on Unsplash
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