“…visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
– Exodus 34:7
“And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.” – Nehemiah 9:2
Our family of origin teaches us many of things. It can be things as simple as how we celebrate a major holiday to what types of food we prepare and share on special occasions to how we communicate. Family is a powerful conduit of right and wrong, comfortable and uncomfortable, familiar and foreign. And it's no different when it comes to issues of religion and morality. What we learn inside the context of family during the early years of life shapes our moral compass and makes us, to a certain extent, who we will be when we enter the world as adults.
For many this can be a good thing. Many of us met God during our formidable years because our family knew God. Maybe we learned how to treat others with kindness and respect. Maybe we learned how to apply the word of God to everyday situations. But for some, the learning environment of the home wasn't so helpful. For some of us, we grew up in places and situations where we knew what was going on wasn't necessarily healthy. But to wade through issues of belonging and loyalty and fear were too much for us to stand up and say we needed something different. Until we grew up and were able to get out on our own. Then the question became, “What the heck do I do now?” We rely on the habits and culture formed in early life more than we know. These things can become subconscious many times.
This subconscious inheritance of habits isn't something that just happens to those who aren't careful or who haven't been in church. Really “good” people hit moments in their lives where all of a sudden this epiphany just hits them and they're like, “I don't really believe [fill in the blank] even though my family has for decades. I really don't agree that [fill in the blank] is the right way to go about this.” But it takes a bit of introspection, at times, and a fair dose of identity — knowing who you are in God — to be able to step out from the safety of the family bond for a moment and really look at what's going on and what you believe, and to determine whether those two things line up.
In Genesis 2:16-17, God tells Adam, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” In Genesis 3 we find the serpent questioning Eve, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?'” A clear twisting of truth. Eve's response in verse 3: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,” but God said “not of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it.” We find that something got lost in translation. Did you catch it? God told Adam not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But Eve says they can't even touch it. She adds to the word of God.
In Genesis 4 we find Cain and Abel, brothers and sons of Adam and Eve. The brothers bring an offering to God and God receives Abel's offering while rejecting Cain's. The Bible says that this made Cain very angry and he wound up killing his brother. In response, God curses Cain telling him “you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer of the earth.” What was Cain's response? In verse 14 he says, “Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden.” Did you catch it? God never told Cain his face would be hidden from him — a clear exaggeration. Cain added to the word of God. He repeated the sin of his mother.
There are more Biblical examples of this. Take Abraham and Sarah when they went down to Gerar, the land of King Abimelech (Genesis 20). Abraham was scared that the king would kill Abraham to take his wife so he lied and said that Sarah was his sister. Out of fear, Abraham lied. Go forward just a piece to Genesis 26, and – surprise, surprise! – you find Isaac telling the same lie to the same king about his own wife, Rebekah. Isaac lies out of fear. He repeats the sin of his father.
So when we see scriptures like Exodus 34:7 (above) that tell us God visits the sins of the mothers and fathers on the children and the children's children, we now have a context for the way in which this actually happens. God gives us free will and allows us to teach our kids whatever we want. He allows us, as children, to learn from those around us. But there are always consequences for sin. The scripture is clear that God will allow the full weight of the consequences to come upon those who sin, even if they learned to sin from generations before them. This is free will.
But free will also offers us another choice. As we grow and learn that the world is bigger than our family of origin, that it's okay to have an opinion that is different from mom and dad, and as we establish and foster our own personal relationship with Jesus, we will start to have moments where we can see that certain behaviors aren't working for us. We can decide we need to get free. And because Jesus went to the cross and died for our sins and repaired our connection with God, we now have an option to exit from this generational entanglement of sin. All we have to do is repent and get back to doing the word of God.
That's what Nehemiah was teaching the people in Chapter 9 of his book. After the prophet Ezra reads the entirety of the Law to the people and reminds them of the lifestyle God would like for them to have, Nehemiah 9:2 says that “the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.” And then they went on to declare what they would believe and do going forward. Through repentance and renewing their covenant directly with God through declaration, they broke the curse of sin over their generations. They changed their destiny and the destinies of the generations that would come after them.
Good news: Prosperity is inheritable, too (Ezra 9:12)! As we learn to walk out the fullness of all God has for us, we are teaching the generation coming up behind us. And as we learn to do well in the eyes of the Lord, we raise up children who learn to do well in the eyes of the Lord. We pass on an inheritance of blessing through what we teach our kids about God and about our relationship to him.
If this is causing you to think about certain behaviors and habits you've inherited that you think God wouldn't be too pleased with, there's a way to get free. The first step is identifying the behavior or habit that is violating God's word. Once you've identified it, your mind will probably go pretty quickly to the person who taught you to do that habit or the person who made it nearly impossible to make a different choice. That's good because step two is to forgive that person. Release them. And then step three is to tell God, on behalf of your family and yourself, that you are sorry that you ever got mixed up in that bad habit in the first place. Repent. These three steps will break the hold that generational sin has on your life. And I always suggest a fourth and final step: Ask God what behavior or habit he wants you to take up in place of the one you just got rid of. Ask him for the power to make the change. Philippians 2:13 says “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” God wants to work with you and in you to get you free from anything you picked up that doesn't please him. And he's faithful to finish the work!