Do Our Parents' Sins Affect Us?

Finding healing from generational hurts and hang-ups.

Most of us remember that day when we realized, Wow, my family is profoundly messed up. Maybe it happened during or immediately following a major holiday—it usually does. If you can’t remember a time, or even a fleeting thought of this nature, just wait ... it’ll happen. All of our families, even the healthiest and most godly, have deep-rooted secrets, patterns and behaviors that shape us individuals just as much as they shape us as a tiny band of broken people God has united.

I remember my day. And I remember so many days since then when I look at my battered but relatively unscathed self in the shadow of generations of sin, wickedness of biblical proportions, mental illness and general suffering, and know it is only by the grace of a Savior that I’m here and serving the God who pursued me even through my ancestors.

But this gratitude doesn’t come easily. It has only come by determination and courage, by clawing at the roots of my family tree, no matter how deep and twisted they grow. Even if I’d prefer they stay hidden and packed with dirt, I feel I cannot be free of these sins until I name them and let Christ shake them out of me or transform them for His glory.

Generational sin and blessing affects us all, whether we know it or not. The figurative ghosts that haunted our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, linger in our DNA, our thought processes, our sense of being and our behaviors. But fortunately, God’s faithfulness can be present in families, too, even when the family thread shows no faith in Christ.

God designed families to be the most meaningful people in our lives. Exodus 20:5 tells us, “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.” This verse isn’t necessarily a threat, but it’s a reality. The influence—good and bad—our families have on us cannot be diminished or brushed aside. We cannot underestimate its reach, just as we cannot underestimate God’s power to break the curse of sin in our hearts and families.

Hiding in Darkness

Generational sin can easily hide in darkness in several ways. First, we can choose to not talk about it. Many family secrets are easily swept under a deceptive rug of good intention. We think hiding it will protect the innocence of future generations. But sadly, this avoidance and ignorance often just makes kids more oblivious to their own sinful inclinations, which causes deeper wounding. Because they don’t possess the knowledge or the tools to break a pattern, like alcoholism, they easily pass it onto their own children. And the cycle continues.

Or we can see—and maybe even talk about—the effects of the sin but not be able to name the root cause. Some patterns are obvious: alcoholism, misogyny, abuse, racism and divorce. But some harmful thought patterns and relational hang-ups are harder to name, like anger, anxiety, depression or passive aggression.

I have a friend who recently realized his family used guilt as a way to assert control over one another. He didn’t trace this line on a family tree, but he felt the effects of this disease in his interactions with family members. It had become almost a coping mechanism, a way to avoid real feelings and addressing those emotions in healthy dialogue. Instead, win the upper hand through guilt. Because he named it, he is able see more clearly in himself and allow Christ to transform his relationships with others.

Walk in the Light

The truth of our families can keep us in chains, or it can set us free. To find freedom, though, we must first go searching for the truth, which can be ugly. For some, this search is easy because the answers are visible: their family naturally talks and works through dysfunction. But for others, it requires digging and asking hard questions of family members who may not want to give it.

We will never uncover every sin or see all the layers of dysfunction. But God offers grace for those secrets we may never find because of shame, stubbornness or death. He will give us the insight and discernment we need, but we need to be willing to let go of the rest.

Freedom comes when we see our own brokenness in light of the struggles of generations before us, not so we can cast blame, but so we can understand where we’ve come from and how—because of Christ—we can be better for the next generations.

That’s where generational blessing comes in. When a family member knows Christ, the curse of sin and death is broken, even though its effects still linger in our broken world. The prophet Isaiah promises that, because of the Cross, God’s people would and will “build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (Isaiah 61:4, ESV).

My parents didn’t grow up hearing about Jesus, nor did their parents, nor theirs. And yet, the light of Christ broke into my parents' worlds, and they said “yes” to Him. And because of God’s faithfulness to them and their faithfulness to Him—just one generation later—here I am. I’m not free of baggage, but I’m free of the curse.

Jesus Christ had plenty of shameful skeletons in His familial closet: misogyny, idol worship, infidelity, murder and incest, just to name a few. God chose this particular family, time and place to become flesh and dwell among us for many reasons. Perhaps one of them is to show us that he truly is making all things new, even—and especially—our broken families.

24 Comments

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Bonnie Mcmaken commented…

I certainly don't think depression is a sin. Here's where I address depression: "Some patterns are obvious: alcoholism, misogyny, abuse, racism and divorce. But some harmful thought patterns and relational hang-ups are harder to name, like anger, anxiety, depression or passive aggression." Depression isn't a sin, but it's a mental illness. It's fallen and broken, and it tends to be passed down throughout families.

85,364

SaskSaint commented…

Wow Life is so complicated. I don't know how I made it this far. Jesus loves me I guess.
Even the old testement says that if a dad is evil but his son forsakes the way of his dad then god
will not condem him. Your life , as well as mine, are still our own responsibility.. we can't blame our dysfunction on others.. WHOEVER. each of us MUST be born again, since the first birth, in the flesh, was never going to get us through. Only responding to the call of the Holy Spirit will free us.
walk then after the spirit and give no room for the flesh and you will not fulfill it's ( the flesh) its desires. Remembering that marriage is a union ordained by Him. We are all screw ups, to varyiong degrees.. that is the natural part.. the Spirit part is that Je4sus has set us free from the Law of Sin and death.. SO WALK IN HIM.

85,364

jcrumb commented…

Thank you Bonnie McMaken for writing such an encouraging and insightful piece. I cannot adequately describe my current situation without making a novel of it, but please know this has been exactly what I needed to hear. For the past few weeks my dear husband and I have been battling the junk that comes along with being part of my earthly, divorced, broken family... (not that his is perfect, but it's a lot easier to deal with) and it just hasn't been easy. Thanks for the reminder that even Jesus' lineage was full of garbage, but God knew what He was doing then and He knows what He is doing now!

Tony J Alicea

8

Tony J Alicea commented…

"Freedom comes when we see our own brokenness in light of the struggles of generations before us, not so we can cast blame, but so we can understand where weve come from and howbecause of Christwe can be better for the next generations."

There it is. That's how you break the cycle. It's not about casting blame but recognizing how their sin affected you, forgiving them so you can remove that block in your life, then allowing God to come in and restore what He originally intended for your life. Fantastic piece!

Ruby88

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Ruby88 commented…

i was just wondering about this recently. If the choices & sins of previous generations can disrupt or 'curse' an entire lineage - I kinddd of think it can, this article helps confirm that. It is never too late to right wrongs though :)

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