Breaking the Chains of Generational Sins

In The Christmas Carolthe ghost of Jacob Marley, the deceased business partner of Scrooge, says this:

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

This imagery reminds me of key advice my father shared with me years ago, which continues to ring in my heart. He said, “Son, don’t make it your goal to be like your dad. By God’s grace, I’ve broken many chains in my life, some handed down to me through the generations. As long as God gives me life, I will continue to break chains. But your goal should be to break even more chains and go beyond me, not just be like me. And I trust that your children will do the same, and break more even more chains than you have done.”

Does Scripture teach that there is such a thing as generational chains? Do grandparents and parents pass on particular sin habits and personal weaknesses to their children and grandchildren? The answer seems to be ‘yes.’

In Exodus 20:5, we find that God said, “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

What does the “visiting the iniquity” statement mean? Perhaps you have mistakenly thought, as some Israelites apparently did, that God punishes children and grandchildren for the sins committed by their parents and grandparents. This is a mistaken conclusion. Passages like Deuteronomy 24:16, 2 Kings 14:6 and Ezekiel 18:20 affirm this.

The Hebrew word translated “visiting” features several layers of meaning. On one hand, it expresses ideas such as ‘to inspect, review or number,’ and can be used for taking a census. How is this relevant?

It appears that God numbers or reviews sin by tracing it through generational lines. For instance, if a genealogy specialist counted how many people in a particular family tree struggle with stealing, when an early father in the lineage was a kleptomaniac, the total number of people in successive generations with a tendency to steal would be likely be high. Why? Because stealing habits were deposited into the family line early on, and many children and grandchildren picked it up. Does this happen? Yes, it does.

In addition to this layer of meaning for the word visiting, you should know that it does communicate ideas such as ‘to inflict or punish.’ But because of passages like Deut. 24:16, 2 Kgs. 14:6 and Ezek. 18:20, we know that God does not punish a successive generation for the sins of a previous generation.

So how should we understand Exodus 20:5? Douglas Stuart (The New American Commentary, vol. 2, p. 454) provides some very helpful perspective that clarifies and captures what it means for God to ‘visit’ the

“This oft-repeated theme speaks of God’s determination to punish successive generations for committing the same sins they learned from their parents … God will indeed punish generation after generation (“to the third and fourth generation”) if they keep doing the same sorts of sins that prior generations did. If the children continue to do the sins their parents did, they will receive the same punishments as their parents.

What bad habits, personal struggles or sinful tendencies have lingered in your family line for generations? Alcoholism, depression, verbal or physical abuse, immorality, racism, bitterness, dishonesty or fear? While any person may commit any sin, it seems apparent that children wrestle with the same sins as their parents did in an especially noticeable way.

So whether you have inherited certain propensities genetically or from exposure to regular family behavior, the Lord is able to overcome these battles and strongholds in your life as you determine to depend upon Him.

  • My father calls this “breaking chains.”
  • Ezekiel calls this “turning from all your sins” (Exodus 18:21).
  • Joel calls this “restoring the years the locust have eaten” (Joel 2:25).
  • Paul calls this “pulling down strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4) and “casting down imaginations” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Whatever you call it, generational chains exist. And generational chains can be broken. Identify the wrong thoughts that encourage your wrong behavior, and stop making generational excuses for it. Replace those wrong thoughts with biblical thoughts, and press forward in total dependence upon Jesus Christ. He will enable you to break the chains of your fathers and reflect the character of your heavenly Father instead.

I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. (Philippians 3:14-15)

“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

“According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these you might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” (2 Peter 1:4)


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