Sins of the Fathers

Exodus 34:6-7 contains a marvelous declaration of God’s compassion and mercy. It reads:

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.

I had a couple of professors who talked a lot of about these verses. One of them drew my attention to the last sentence, the part that seems to unfair, God punishing children for the sin of their parents. The above quote is from the NIV translation. He liked to point to the ESV which says:

visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.

He drew attention to the fact that the sin of parents are often visited on their children. Sin and evil are not individualistic things. Rather, as every person is connected to other people, sin ripples outward.

This was something that I am all too familiar with. For roughly a year, I served as a mentor for kids and teens in the foster system. I found this pattern repeated all too often. There were grandparents who had experienced a broken marriage. Perhaps they had been too focused on their careers or were too selfish. Whatever the reason, the marriage was full of division. Their children, experiencing this fracture during their teenage years, rebelled. The same patterns of behavior that made the marriage fail only reinforced the division between parent and child. After a series of increasingly bad decisions, the children had children of their own. Between birth and three years, when a parent’s presence is so critical for emotional and social development, the parents were involved in drugs and crime. There came a point when the parents were no longer able to care for their child. The child was handed over to the state and placed in the foster system.

Here I was as a mentor, trying to deal with multi-generational sin. I as a mentor and the state foster system, were ill able to deal with it. How does one break the cycle then? My answer, a very simplistic one, is grace. Grace is what interrupts the cycle of karma. The fosters homes which I think did most to stop the brokenness were those that had grace. Some foster parents are in it just for the money or the feeling that they are being really good people because they are giving these kids more than they deserve.

I remember one family. Most of their biological children had already moved out of the house. They could have rightfully considered that they had completed their parenting duty. Instead they took in foster teens. They hadn’t caused these children’s lives to be so broken, but they took responsibility for them anyway. I can say from watching it that the process was incredibly messy and painful. It must have taken a supernatural amount of grace in their personal lives for them to do what they did.

I think the knowledge that sin can stretch like this, across generations, should move us to give people grace. We often don’t know what their parents were like, or their parent’s parents. What were the parents of the grandparents like whom I encountered? Sometimes we react harshly to our own parents without considering what life was like for them growing up. What behaviors did they just succeed in avoiding? What ways might I be continuing sins that I learned unknowingly from my parents? Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.


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