“…for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
(Exodus 20:5-6 ESV)
The verses above come at the tail end of the First Commandment. God tells us that we’re to have no other gods before him, and that we aren’t to make for ourselves an image and bow down to it. He then informs us that he’s a jealous God, that he will not share us with another.
We all understand this command. But, at this point, he says something that causes many of us to struggle. He says that he visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate him.
As we read this, we begin to wonder what this means and why he would do this. It initially sounds to us like God is promising to punish children for the sins of their fathers. It sounds as though they will be condemned for the sins of their father.
However, God tells us elsewhere in Scripture that this is not the case. In Ezekiel 18, starting in verse 19, we read: "Yet you say, 'Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?' When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”
God tells us clearly in this passage that we aren’t punished for the sins of our father. We are punished for our own sins. So what is this whole business of generational sin talked about in the Ten Commandments?
It reminds us, first of all, that children will often bear the worldly consequences for the sins of their father. For example, if dad has a gambling problem, it may leave his children in poverty for years to come. And if one spouse chooses to break up the family, it can have a lasting impact upon their children.
We, then, must consider how our actions will impact our children. We must consider how our sins might influence the generations to come. Might our sins cause a lasting impact to fall upon those we love?
However, it also brings us to a place where we must search our heart. We must recognize the fact that our sins are often inherited. I don’t mean they’re inherited in the sense that they’re genetic. They’re inherited in the sense that they’re learned behavior.
The sins of our father are normal for us. And, in the same way, our sins become normal to our children. And, because it’s normal, because it’s what they know, they tend to act out in the same way. This is why we see that children of alcoholics have a greater tendency to become alcoholics themselves. This is why we see that those who grow up in an abusive home have a greater tendency to be abusive.
We can all likely recognize certain tendencies that we picked up from our father and our mother. This can be true of simple mannerisms. But it can also be true in terms of sin.
The question we must ask ourselves is this: What sins are a regular part of our life? What sins might our kids be learning from us? What sins might we be normalizing for our children in the way that we live?
This is a difficult question. None of us want to think that we might be teaching our children to sin, even if it’s inadvertent. However, we’re all guilty of this in some way.
This passage also reveals to us that, if we aren’t following the Lord, it’s not likely that our children will follow him either. If they learn from their parents that the Lord isn’t important, this is likely how they’ll live their life. It is, of course, possible for God to intervene through another person. However, the influence of a parent is great.
It’s essential that we confess our sins and repent for our own sake. It’s essential that we might receive God’s mercy. However, it’s also important that we do this so that we don’t lead our children into sinful behavior and into a life of unrepentance. We don’t want to be the cause of our children’s rebellion and their ultimate judgment.
That being said, we also receive a great comfort in this troubling phrase. We see that God’s grace is greater than his punishment. Although he visits iniquity on the third and fourth generations of those who hate him, he pours out his love to thousands of those who love him and keep his commandments.