MY PARENTS DIVORCED when I was 2 years old. Their marriage was dysfunctional, and my dad cheated on my mom. No wonder, though—he grew up without a role model and never even met his father. Yet he knew this fact: His father had affairs with unmarried young women in town. One of the affairs was with my grandmother. She was nearly 30 years younger, and they had three children together. He was a very influential man in a little town in south Brazil. Unfortunately, he never cared to pass his family name to his children; perhaps he couldn’t risk losing his reputation. My maternal grandfather also cheated on his wife with multiple women to the point that their 27-year-long dysfunctional marriage could not go on anymore.
As I contemplated my family history, I wondered if it would ever be possible to experience a fulfilling marriage. Wouldn’t I have the same inclinations toward unfaithfulness? If you think that’s more than enough dysfunction for one pastoral family, let me tell you some family history of my wife, Hellen. She lost two close family members to suicide—her mother, when she was only 7, and her older brother, when she was 25. Hellen’s father has always struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, and we never know what to expect when we call him.
IS THERE HOPE?
Given these backgrounds, Hellen and I wrestled with this question: “With so much dysfunction in our family history, can we be truly happy and provide a stable home for kids?”
Seventh-day Adventist theology does not teach that God is out to curse us; instead, we know He is an infinitely good and merciful Lord whose main passion is to save as many as He can. But we don’t talk a whole lot about generational sin and how it actually affects us and, more importantly, how to break the sinful cycle.
Generational sin is a cycle of sinful and immoral behavioral patterns inherited from parents and family members passed down through generations. These sinful and immoral behavioral patterns have dire consequences to the perpetrators and victims alike, as victims are prone to become future perpetrators, thus perpetuating the cycle.
Exodus 20:5, 6 and 34:7 clearly state that God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations. For instance, Abraham was a man of faith and a friend of God, but it did not keep him from being a coward and a liar. While his name was still Abram, he lied to Pharaoh, making him believe that Sarai—his wife—was actually his sister because he feared they would kill him if they found out the truth.1 Later on, after having his name changed by the Almighty God and being given a new purpose in life, Abraham lied again in exactly the same way, this time to Abimelech.2 This shows us that even though God gives us a new purpose in life, we can still fall back into our weaknesses.
Isaac, Abraham’s favorite son, grew up to be a liar as well. He lied to Abimelech about his wife for the same reasons his father did.3 Isaac fathered two sons, Esau and Jacob. Jacob went on to become a pathological liar who misled his blind father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn.4
It is important to realize that, apparently, Abraham and Isaac did not face immediate consequences for their lies. But Jacob, being the third generation, in spite of being cunning and deceitful, was majorly deceived. Jacob, the master con artist, was tricked into marrying the wrong woman.5 But it gets worse. Later in life he was lied to by his sons—who learned well the craft of lying from their dad—when he was told that Joseph was dead.6
These stories of family dysfunction are just some examples of how generational sin is manifested and how it can potentially worsen at each generation, if the cycle is not broken. It also shows that generational sin will eventually catch up with a person and can affect their whole family and life.
SINS OF OUR PARENTS
At this point you might ask, “Would a loving and just God punish the children for the sins of their parents?” Obviously not, but as awful as it may sound, this was a common belief all the way through the time of Jesus. After the disciples saw a man born blind, they asked Jesus if the blindness was a punishment for his parents’ sins. Jesus responded that it was not because of anyone’s sin, but so that the works of God could be revealed.7 If God doesn’t punish us for our parents’ sins, why do some families seem to have no break in the generational cycle, jumping from one tragedy to another?
Fortunately, the Bible is abundantly clear in stating that children should not bear the guilt of their fathers; neither should fathers bear the guilt of their children. Ezekiel 18:20 reads: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” Thus, even though children do not bear the guilt of their parents, they may bear the consequences of their failures and are more susceptible to repeat the cycle.
Ellen White calls it the “law of heredity.” She writes, “It is eternally true that the iniquity of the fathers is visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate the Lord. This is done through what is called the law of heredity. The evil traits of the parents are inherited by the children even to the third and fourth generation.”8 In other words, it is not that God actually punishes us for someone else’s sins—it is that we, knowingly or unknowingly, repeat the cycle in our lives, thus bringing upon ourselves the consequences thereof.
Comments from the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy have been well-supported and documented by modern research. Psychology refers to a genogram, which is basically a diagram outlining family dysfunction over several generations to see where patterns emerge. Genetics can now even forecast a predisposition to alcoholism in future generations. Researchers Howard J. Edenberg and Tatiana Foroud found this out, as revealed in the abstract of their study: “Abundant evidence indicates that alcoholism is a complex genetic disease, with variations in a large number of genes affecting risk. Some of these genes have been identified, including two genes of alcohol metabolism, ADH1B and ALDH2, that have the strongest known [effects] on risk for alcoholism. Studies are revealing other genes in which variants impact risk for alcoholism or related traits, including GABRA2, CHRM2, KCNJ6, and AUTS2.”9
Furthermore, our genes can influence us beyond chemical dependence on alcohol and drugs. They can also be a predictor of pathological gambling tendencies. A study conducted by the Department of Psychiatry at the Hospital Ramón y Cajal in Madrid, Spain, concluded, “Familial factors have been observed in clinical studies of pathological gamblers, and twin studies have demonstrated a genetic influence contributing to the development of [pathological gambling] PG.”10 Similar studies have demonstrated hereditary and genetic predisposition for chemical dependence on nicotine, cannabis, cocaine, opioids, and other substances.11 The University of Minnesota spent years researching 100 identical twins who were separated at the time of birth; they discovered that genes can be responsible for nearly 70 percent of the shaping of personality.12
It is due to the influence of genes and home environment—nature and nurture—that the cycle of dysfunction is propagated. This is why those who despised being abused by an alcoholic father are more likely to abuse their own children. It also explains why millions of adults who resented their parents’ lack of patience replicate the same or worse lack of patience with their own children.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Since generational sin is real, is there hope for those who find themselves repeating the cycle? What about those who do not want to ever repeat it? Yes, there is hope! We serve an Almighty God who gives us the power to overcome anything.13
In order to break free from the cycle, we must take five steps. The first step is to accept that we are sinners. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.14 We must take ownership for our sins and refrain from developing a victim mentality by blaming our ancestors or circumstances. Our past may explain our present, but it does not excuse or justify our future. Every one of us comes to a point where we can deliberately choose to repeat the cycle. Therefore, understanding that we have no one to blame but ourselves for the sins we chose to propagate is paramount for a tangible and perpetual break from the cycle. It is usually after the first step that we may be able to seek professional help to deal with deeper wounds.
Once we take ownership for our sins, we must ask forgiveness of God. At this early stage, we may be tempted to think God cannot forgive us because we knew better and still fell short. Do not trust your feelings—trust the Word of God when it says that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more.15 Claim the promise that Jesus is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.16
The next step is to repent. Repentance means turning around 180 degrees. If you were going in one direction, you go in another. This is where surrender takes place. You make a conscious decision to break free from the habits that enslaved you and ask God to give you the power to overcome.17
The fourth step is twofold. It is perhaps the most difficult one but is where most of the healing takes place. We must grant forgiveness to those who hurt us even when unsolicited.18 Some of them don’t even know the hurt they caused, or might not be around anymore, but either way, we must learn to let go. Note that granting forgiveness does not mean forgetting the wrongs; it simply means coming to terms with the fact that we cannot change the past and we would not retaliate if given the opportunity to. The sinful cycle can be broken only if we are willing to forgive the wrongs against us. If we do not forgive, we carry the sinful cycle with us and replicate it when least expected. Once we grant forgiveness to those who hurt us, it is time to seek forgiveness from those we hurt. We must tell them we are sorry for the pain we caused. Let them know that we cannot change our past, but we are willing to change our present and redefine our future. As we do this, we will remember these tips: Don’t explain, don’t excuse, don’t justify. Simply ask forgiveness and ask God to help us to not do it again.
Finally, the last step is to keep moving even if we fall. We should not seek perfection; seek progress. The chains of generational sins are hard to break, but they are not impossible. They have been so deeply rooted in us that we are likely to relapse to old ways at times. The problem is not falling—it is staying down. Therefore, even if we experience relapses here and there, in the name of Jesus we can keep moving. If we fall, make sure we fall forward and remember that our Savior also fell three times with the weight of the cross on His back. Yet He got up and kept moving because He loved us. Our cross may be hard to carry, but we do not carry it alone.
Generational sin has the power to impair your life, but it does not have the power to define it. Hellen and I are living witnesses to that. There was a period in my life when I was far from God, and all I wanted to do was chase women. I had many girlfriends and at times cheated on them. I enjoyed flirting with multiple young women, and I did not care if they got hurt. I justified my actions by stating that “a fruit does not fall far from its tree. All the men in my family did it. I can’t help it.” When Jesus brought me out of darkness into light, I honestly wondered if it would be possible to stay faithful to only one person for the rest of my life, let alone wait until marriage to have sexual intimacy. As I look back today, I am grateful to God because the cycle of generational sin has been broken. All the things I thought impossible became possible through the power of Jesus Christ.
The same goes for Hellen. By all human accounts, she had every reason to live a dysfunctional life. Yet she is an amazing wife and an incredibly loving and dedicated mother.
If you are struggling and feeling inadequate to break the generational cycle in your life, there is power in the blood of Jesus to shatter any hereditary tendencies. Perhaps your struggle is not hereditary, but something you cultivated yourself. Either way, Ellen White has these encouraging words: “It is by the Spirit that the heart is made pure. Through the Spirit the believer becomes a partaker of the divine nature. Christ has given His Spirit as a divine power to overcome all hereditary and cultivated tendencies to evil, and to impress His own character upon His church”19 (italics added).
Hellen and I do not have a perfect marriage, but as we look back to where we came from, we cannot help but be grateful to God for His healing power. We love each other and share this love with our children. We will continue to pray and fight for our family because we decided that the cycle ends with us. We pray it will also end with you.
1 Genesis 12:10-20.
2 Genesis 20.
3 Genesis 26:6-10.
4 Genesis 27
5 Genesis 29.
6 Genesis 37:32.36.
7 John 9:1-3.
8 The Signs of the Times, August 4, 1887 (vol. 13, p. 471).
9 H. J. Edenberg and T. Foroud. “Genetics and alcoholism.” www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4056340/.
10 Angela Ibáñez, et al. “Genetics of pathological gambling.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12635538/.
11 A. Agrawal, et al. The genetics of addiction—a translational perspective. https://doi.org/10.1038/tp.2012.54
12 Thomas J. Bouchard, et al. “Sources of human psychological differences: The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih. gov/2218526/.
13 See Philippians 4:13.
14 Romans 3:23.
15 Romans 5:20.
16 1 John 1:9.
17 Acts 3:19.
18 Colossians 3:13.
19 Ellen White, The Desire of Ages, p. 671.