Thursday, January 20, 2011

The sins of the parents

There is an incident I remember from my youth. I was probably fifteen or sixteen years old, which would have been in the late 70’s. I happened to overhear a phone conversation my mother was having with a local store about some glitch with a product. The store representative was trying to make amends, and my mother thought the rep was being too generous for what was, she assured him, a minor issue. “Don’t undercut yourself,” she told him. “You guys have to make a living too.”

I think the reason that conversation stuck with me was because at the time, my father had started his own business and my parents were struggling through some extremely difficult financial times. It would have been easy for my mom to simply accept the store rep’s generosity, but she knew it could be a hardship on a small business. While she wanted to clear up the problem, she also wanted to be fair to the store about the issue.

And the funny thing is, I find myself repeating the exact same words whenever a similar circumstance arises in my life. “Don’t undercut yourself,” I’ll tell someone. “You guys have to make a living too.”

I recently re-read a very interesting book entitled “The Year of Living Biblically” by A.J. Jacobs. Jacobs is a secular agnostic Jew in New York City who – purely out of curiosity rather than religious suasion – decided to not just read the Bible, but live every possible rule and regulation as best he could.

The book is about his year-long experiment in living biblically. He devoted the first eight months to Old Testament living (since approximately two-thirds of the Bible is Old Testament), the last four months to New Testament living. He naively admits that he thought he could strip away the historical cloudiness surrounding the Bible and get down to the bedrock of biblical living. What a task. He found he couldn’t do it, at least within the time frame he gave himself.

He came away from his experiment not exactly persuaded as to God’s existence, but far less cynical and much more understanding about impact and influence the Bible has on billions of people world wide.

Anyway, in re-reading this book I was struck by Mr. Jacob’s analysis of Deuteronomy 5:9 – “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…”

To be honest, I’ve always been disturbed by that passage. How unfair of the mighty Deity to punish innocent children for the sins of the parents!

But then it dawned on me: God doesn’t do that. He doesn’t have to. We do it all by ourselves. All the time. In our damned foolishness, by the stupid decisions we make, we easily punish our children to the third and fourth generation. Descendents who do not yet exist are impacted by our sins.

How? Easy. Just think of what your children – and their children – learn from you. Do they learn sarcasm? Hatred? Bitterness? Dishonesty? A sense of entitlement? Even our political affiliation has an impact on our children, and our children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.

I haven’t been able to get that passage out of my mind ever since.

Let me quote from the book. Jacobs writes, “This is a big recurring theme in the Bible: Children mimic their parents’ behavior, even the flaws, perhaps especially the flaws.” He continues: “I used to find this an appalling sentence. Why should God punish my grandson for my sins? It seemed outrageously un-American. What about everyone being entitled to a clean moral slate? And, yes, if you interpret this as a threat that God will smite your child with leprosy when you worship a carved idol, then absolutely it’s cruel.

“But I’ve come to appreciate it. The trick is, you have to see the passage as a warning that your moral failings will affect your kids’ ability to make the right choices. If you beat your son, he’ll be more likely to beat his son… What better deterrent could there be to bad behavior?

“You achieved immortality [in Biblical times] through your children and children’s children, who were physical extensions of you. The basic building block of society was the family, not the individual… a person’s actions reverberate through his descendants’ lives.”

Doesn’t that just stagger you? Once I realized the significance and truth of it, I’m blown away. Awed. Overwhelmed by the responsibility I, as a parent, have toward my descendents.

How we raise our children – the values we impart – the habits we encourage or discourage – the behaviors we model – the traditions we provide – the work ethic we emphasize – can impact several generations after us. How’s that for a scary thought?

My mother grew up under horrible poverty with a brutal alcoholic father. It would have been very, very easy for her to pass that legacy on to her children by marrying a brutal alcoholic man. But she didn’t. She was wise enough to recognize that breaking that legacy was up to her. She married a good man and raised four happy secure children. Because of her choice in a husband over 52 years ago, I had the wisdom to marry a good man and we’re raising happy secure children. We are now passing that legacy of security on to our future grandchildren. See how it works?

So when I read that passage from Deuteronomy, I marvel at God's infinite wisdom. He gave us both the curse and the blessing of free will and free choice. We have the freedom to gift our children with every conceivable toy and teach them they are entitled to whatever they want without working for it. We have the freedom (until we’re caught, that is) to beat our children and teach them that love for their parents is entwined with pain and hatred.

We can teach our children that God is nothing but an invisible pink unicorn in the sky, utterly unworthy of worship and deserving of mockery. We are free to reject divine gifts and teach our children to do the same. We can teach our children that those with reverence for the Deity are stupid and mentally deficient. We can teach our children that religion is an opiate for the masses and intelligent, educated people have no need for God.

We can choose to marry a bad man and so teach our daughters that men are to be feared and hated. When it comes time for them to marry, they have no basis for choosing good men, and this curse is passed on to future generations.

We can choose to teach our sons that girls are not to be respected and they should do whatever it takes to release their animal urges upon them. This lack of respect translates into unfaithfulness in marriage with resounding implications for future generations.

See how it works? A curse indeed.


Or we have the blessing of free choice. We can choose to raise our children with discipline and faithfulness. We can choose to set the example of marital felicity. We can choose to insist upon respect and appropriate behavior from our sons and daughters that will be passed on to their own children.

We have the choice to teach our children that reverence for God is a wonderful thing. We can teach them that belief and surrender to the Deity takes away our ego-induced need to control others. We can teach them the comfort that comes with laying our burdens in the Almighty’s lap. We can teach them about Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalf.

When you think this through – how strong is the impact our behaviors and our choices and our decisions on future generations – you’ll be bowled over with the responsibility to make those behaviors, choices, and decisions good ones, ones that will be beneficial to our descendents.

This is where such nonsense as dressing up our kids like Playboy bunnies or in cone bras is so serious. I don’t mean to keep harping on these examples except that they so beautifully illustrate my point. These are all choices – and those choices impact our children, and their children, and even their children to the third and fourth generation.

For those with rotten upbringings who carry tons of baggage from bad parents (like my mother), you have the power to affect your descendants by raising your kids better than you yourself were raised. When my mother was beaten as a child, she vowed through gritted teeth never to do that to her kids. And she didn’t. As a result, her choices are impacting future generations yet to come.

So take heart, people. God does indeed grant us the ability to gift our descendents with our sins – or our blessings.


  1. Never ceases to amaze me that something like this post comes along just when you need it. Long story. Been a tough few months. Thanks.


  2. I was raised poorly, and I did the same as your mother, I promised myself I'd raise good kids who were not afraid of me (I was terrifed of my adopted mother).

    I am very proud to say that God was with me...and I have two beautiful, successful adult children who are my gifts from God.

  3. Same as 'W'. This does indeed come at a perfect time. Thank you for the post.

  4. Let me get this right. God gave us the bible and he also created us with the ability to pick out and interpret from it how he really wants us to behave as distinct from how we shouldn't. That is, he gave us an inbuilt ability to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad.

    In that case why did he bother with the bible at all, and why should we bother with it now other than as a work of ancient fantasy literature?

  5. Excellently put. Thanks for writing this.

  6. Patrice,

    This has to be one of the most beautiful posts I have read. You made my heart break but in a good way. As with the other readers, the past few months have been very difficult. Your words couldn't have been more soothing to my soul! Thank you so much.

    Ouida Gabriel

  7. Wow Patrice!

    I have so often felt this but have been unable to put it into words. Like your mom I grew up in less that nice circumstances and have had to "learn" what is normal parenting. Thank you so much for writing this. Watching my extended family I see how this "curse" works and marvel at God's wisdom. Like you I see it not really as God but as our own sin punishing our childrens children.


  8. Your analysis is the Jewish interpretation which I think is so lovely. An example I always think of is if you choose to turn away from God and your children grow up not knowing God you have punished them and their descendent's as they will not know the beauty and grace of having God in their life. I can't imagine living a life without knowing God's grace. I think it would make you bitter and hateful, Quedula must have come from such an environment which is so very sad.

  9. This is great. Never really understood that passage. Now I think I do. Thanks!

  10. I just wanted to take a moment to say that I am really enjoying reading your blog. Thank you especially for this post.

    "J Smith"

  11. Wow, I never really thought of that passage in that way. Biblical discussion is so important. Thanks for shining a new light.
    On my side of our family, I am the 4th generation of ministers in the Assembly of God denomination, and my husband is the first Christian in his family. He had never even been to church before we met. Now our daughter is leaving for college in August to become a youth pastor.

  12. Quedula,

    God didn't give an inbuilt ability to interpret His Word. That comes from the Holy Spirit. You don't have it if you have no relationship with/to Jesus Christ. The Bible will not make any sense without that. That is from Paul's letters in the NT. I'll find the specific citations if you are interested.

    The extension is that any conscience you have is built by your culture. The Holy Spirit tells you to look beyond those cultural "beliefs," when they clash with God's Word. It forces self-examination in light of what the Holy Spirit says is the Godly course of action, as opposed to whatever your emotional response is influencing you to do.

    Xa Lynn

  13. I am new to your site (my brother sent me a link) and I enjoyed your post, as well as your earlier posts that I looked at. I am holding on to the promises of the blessings of right choices, i.e. Proverbs 22:6. My two boys are in their mid 20's and not really walking with the Lord. It is very difficult but I know God's Word is true and I will not be moved by what I see. Thanks.

  14. When I was a teenager I frequently babysat for a lovely family with four children. The father was from backwoods Alabama and had that heavy accent to his speech. Their Mother was from France and spoke heavily accented English. The children's accent was hilarious. Not Alabama, not French, and most certainly nothing close to Cajun.

    I met two of those children again when they were in their thirties, with children of their own. They still had that funny accent, and so did their offspring, though it was slightly less in the little ones. I imagine their next generation will still have it, but less still, until that habit of speech is influenced out.

    Life style is much like speech style. The habits of thievery, dishonesty, racism and bigotry, alcoholism, are all learned by example just like speech. Families who actively practice bad behaviors curse their own descendants. God didn't do it. That passage is warning that WE do it to ourselves.

  15. Thank you, Patrice, for confirming what I have already known--that our children reap what we, the parents, sow. My ex-husband was recently sent to prison for crimes unspeakable, beginning with online child porn. I might have cause to be concerned about the teenaged daughter we have together, except for the fact that she came to know the Lord at an early age, and her faith was already firmly rooted when this happened. Without a doubt, God has used our circumstances to draw my dear girl nearer to Him, and because of His grace in her life over these past difficult months, I now see a future for her brighter than any I'd imagined at the beginning of this nightmare. The Lord is faithful to those who love Him, and I am so very grateful.

    Susannah Hunter

  16. Great post. I too came from an upbringing that I would love to forget with an alcoholic dad and a mom that tried very hard to make up for his numerous shortcomings by being the great enabler, allowing the abuse to continue for years unchecked.

    When it came time for the 4 of us kids to leave home, my 2 brothers and I chose spouses that were the opposite of my dad. We also chose to follow the Lord, even though we had never been introduced to Him during our childhood.

    My sister chose the other route, a man very much like our dad, an alcoholic drug abuser and also very violent. She also chose to believe there is no God. Her life has been a living hell, with divorce and a stint in the mental hospital thrown in. Now my sister's children are all following in her footsteps, with out of wedlock children, abuse, alcoholism, etc. She has always taught them that there is no God because if there was her life wouldn't be so bad. How's that for rational thinking? I guess her stupid choices are God's fault somehow? If it wasn't so pathetic it would almost be funny.

    Just our family's small example proves to me that we do have the ability to curse or bless the next several generations by OUR actions.

  17. I completely understand if you DON'T want to post this to the comments here, I mostly wondered if you had seen this:

    2nd grade, no less !

  18. Wow. The people of the San Francisco area are shocked? Do they think that the children are not watching and listening?

    “Of course, it is hard to understand how that could have occurred.”

    Is anybody else finding it hard to understand how this could have happened in the SF area?

    Bill Smith

  19. Patrice, thank you for affirming what the Lord had given me regarding that verse. You put it so eloquently. I had come to understand it in the same way, "The consequenses of the father's sin will be visited on the children to the third and fourth generations." This is just wonderful to read it in your so well-expressed thoughts.

  20. Dear Quedula,

    For the first part of my life I, too, was mystified by this stuff. It made NO SENSE to me. Now, it is your comment that makes no sense to me -- except that I understand where I think you are, and remember being there myself. It just seemed all tangled up, and contradictory to me, and Christians seemed to be inventing answers to every objection.

    Then I got dragged on a weekend retreat when I was in my 40s by a teen I adored. I remember how I was lying in this tiny little nun's bed, in a tiny little room in the nun's quarters of this Catholic school. (The nuns didn't live there anymore.)

    Suddenly, emotions just started flooding over me, and through me. I was helpless to stop it. In the space of about 30 seconds my world totally, completely, utterly changed, and it has never changed back. Ever.

    Oh, I was still me. But my fundamental -- I don't know -- something was permanently, astonishingly different. There were suddenly things I could no longer do, or say, or think, or look at. Not from a sense of fear, or rigid rule following, but it just wasn't me.

    The only explanation that made -- and still makes -- any sense to me is what Xa Lynn said:

    "God didn't give an inbuilt ability to interpret His Word. That comes from the Holy Spirit. You don't have it if you have no relationship with/to Jesus Christ. The Bible will not make any sense without that. That is from Paul's letters in the NT. I'll find the specific citations if you are interested."

    That night began my relationship with Jesus Christ.

    That's how it felt, and that's how it was. Now, you can't trust just your emotions, because there are lots of Weekends, and Teachers who can produce a moving experience that last for a day, or a weekend, and many poor souls go chasing these experiences. All I can say is, that that very night it all made sense. It all clicked. And it still does after 20 years. The Bible read like a letter from someone closer, and dearer to me than any friend or family member.

    By no means do I mean that I became an instant Bible expert. But it all made sense. I trusted it, and still do. I am completely aware of how contradictory that sounds, but there it is.

    I wish this were more polished for you, Quedula, but I keep just messing it up more, so I'll stop now except to say that I'll pray that God will make himself known to you in his own Good, and Perfect Time.


    Bill Smith

  21. Once again I come here and find food and uplifting nourishment for the spirit. I'm blessed to have a Pastor who is a true Bible scholar and teaches this same message the issue of generational curses.

    How precious are these, both your fine post and the touching responses.

    For some reason they bring to mind the lyrics of a song I've sung for many years. The chorus goes:

    I can hear the angels singing
    And I feel nearer, my God, to Thee
    As I watch the sun a-sinking
    Below me in the sea
    The tall trees gather 'round me
    Whisperin' 'Pilgrim, welcome home'
    Sweet haven of mercy
    Sweet peace for my soul

    This 'place' you provide here for us to gather and share our thoughts and cares is a precious haven for me as I know it is to many. Is it not something of a miracle that through the invisible manipulation of some electrons and a few electronic devices we produce these ethereal words that reach out to so deeply touch each others' hearts, minds and souls?

    God bless and prosper you, Patrice and Don. And Will, Lindsay, Ouida and Joani, do know you're in my prayers.

    Much love,

  22. I believe you have nailed it Patrice. People are responsible for their own behavior. The parents will have to answer for themselves.

  23. Mr. Bill Smith,

    That was a most beautiful testimony of your salvation experience.


  24. quedula said...
    Let me get this right. God gave us the bible and he also created us with the ability to pick out and interpret from it how he really wants us to behave as distinct from how we shouldn't. That is, he gave us an inbuilt ability to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad.

    In that case why did he bother with the bible at all, and why should we bother with it now other than as a work of ancient fantasy literature?

    Why did God give us the Law, the Ten Commandments, even though we also have the ability to distinquish right from wrong? Well, the simple answer is to show us our sin.

    Look at this example: I tell my children to go do their chores. They don't. When I yell at them they tell me they're doing their homework instead. They've justified to themselves why they shouldn't have to do their chores then.

    We adults justify to ourselves why we should be able to get out of doing what God says. Our selfish reasoning overwhelms our knowledge of right and wrong.

    In the OT there's the complicated story of Jacob's daughter. She's raped by a local boy who then begs to marry her. Jacob says the boys' family have to be circumsised to marry her. The whole family and their servants are circumsised. While in recovery, Jacob's sons kill the whole lot of them. Jacob says it's an evil thing but the boys justify their actions back to him. Their revenge was murder in God's eyes but they though they had a great excuse.

    In modern times we still justify murder. Even Christians can get spiritually weak around the knees when talking about abortion and euthanasia. Society has justified this murderous rampage in the name of "quality of life" or "right to die". But God says "Thou shall not murder" and I put more faith in Him than the ever-changing moral stance of society. His Law is a rock I can lean on in times of weakness.

    And so, we look to the Bible and the law God wrote in stone for us. Our greed/self-interest often overrules our simple knowledge. It shows us our sin so we can correct ourselves and try to stay on the narrow path.

  25. Enjoy the easy life you have got Quedula. There is no point in wondering why. You will never be able to understand any of it because you are hard hearted and you would rather die than change. You will understand about 2 milliseconds after you give up your mortal bonds.

  26. Mollo, Do you not find it strange that God, when vouchsafing the Bible to a few middle-eastern primitive tribes, chose to leave out the Chinese, among others, who were leading highly civilised lives at the time?

  27. It's not strange at all Quedula. The bible is all over the globe. The power of the cross and the message it brings is foolishness to those who will perish. You are too self absorbed. Try looking at the big picture.

  28. Ok Anonymous @5.13PM. Here's looking at the bigger picture. Homo sapiens had existed on the earth for at least 100,000 years before the god of the bible decided to make a belated appearance to a limited audience of nomadic goat-herders. This made absolutely no impression on the rest of the planet at the time. Civilisations rose & fell and knowledge and philosophy flourished independently of biblical texts. Even since then, and notwithstanding the 19th.C boom in christian missions, the vast majority of all those who have ever lived have resorted to other sources of morality.

  29. Oh my Gosh. That is a real eyeopener for me into what makes you click. Your religion is your science. Your faith is in something that can change in a moment. Sorry, I forgot to mention this is meant for Quedula. Here is where you and I disagree Quedula. You are at the mercy of whatevever story they have decided to go with on that day. There will come a time when things spin out of control. What comfort will your science offer then?

  30. I have been a scientist all my life Anonymous @ 4.08 and benefited from all the modern comforts it provides, as I am sure have you. Medical science has cured or eased the ailments of several loved ones. I do not know what you have in mind by "when things spin out of control" but I do know that science has produced the tools to combat endemic and epidemic diseases, to reduce famine by greatly expanded food production and predict and prepare for, many natural disasters.

    If at some time in the future a meteor were detected on a collision course with Earth I shall expect the rocket & nuclear scientists of the world to get to work on designing means of deflecting it, not to down tools and troop into the nearest church.

  31. Hello Patrice.
    Good thinking is presented here. FYI the scripture verse you felt sounded unfair at Deuteronomy 5:9 actually was unfair! So God changed or updated this Old Testament biblical statement later on at Ezekiel 18:2-3,20. Take a look. Best wishes, Gary