Do I need to be worried about generational curses?

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(This post is part of a series. For an introduction to the topic read, “How ought we read the Bible?” To see all posts in this topic, go to “Does the Bible really say that?”) There is a belief among some that there exists a spiritual principle of “generational cursing”. I’m not aware that this phrase occurs anywhere in the Bible, though there are passages used to justify the idea. For instance:

“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” – Exodus 20:5 (repeated in Deuteronomy 5:9)

Then later, after Moses broke the first tablets, the Lord came to him and said...

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” - Exodus 34:6-7

Based on passages like these, the thinking goes like this. There are spiritual forces at work that are unseen and beyond our control. God has set up a principle that when a person sins, his children will be held accountable for that sin. Some see this inherited guilt as continuing for 3-4 generations, but many teach that the sin is passed on perpetually until someone breaks the curse. This is the thinking. Because of this understanding, people see the remedy as praying specific phrases so that God will break the pattern.

There are many who believe this, but I don’t think it is sound and I don’t think you can find support for it in the Bible. Just a few thoughts before examining what is meant by the “visiting iniquity for generations” language:

  • These passages don’t use the phrase “generational curse”. This phrase brings to mind other ideas about cursing that are foreign to the text. This sounds like a hex or a spell being placed on someone. There is nothing here to suggest that anything like this is happening.
  • There is no reference to any spiritual beings in these passages other than God. The idea that Satan or any other demons are involved must be imposed on the text. (Isogesis rather than exegesis.) God has made specific statements that we need to examine, but we shouldn’t import anything foreign to the text without good reason.
  • These passages say nothing about using prayer to remedy the situation.

So what does God mean when He says He will visit iniquity for generations? Look back to the passages cited. In the first (both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), we are reading from the ten commandments – actually only one – the second. There are two important details we can’t miss here. First, this is the commandment regarding idolatry. He says he is a jealous God. He doesn’t take kindly to people putting things above Him. Second, he doesn’t just say he visits iniquity on the offspring – he says he visits iniquity on the offspring that hates him.

Now look back to Exodus 34. Again we see the familiar “visit iniquity” language, but what else is around it? The whole passage is ripe with language of mercy and grace. It’s all about God not being anxious to express his wrath, his justice in dealing with the innocent, and his willingness to accept those who seek forgiveness. It’s only the end that talks about dealing with the guilty. So what do we take from this?

  • God is holy. He cannot ignore sin. In fact, he hates it.
  • God is just. He will not deal with the innocent unfairly.
  • God is just. He will not ignore the crimes of the guilty.
  • God is merciful. He will forgive those who seek Him.
  • We don’t sin in a vacuum. Actions have consequences. The closer people are to us, the more likely they are to be affected.
  • Sin is messy. It doesn’t always clean up easy. It can take a while for the consequences to play out.
  • Sin is catchy. We often do things because we are following the lead of someone else. While that may explain our predicament, it does not excuse it.

Nowhere in scripture does God punish the children for the sins of their fathers, except when they continue in that sin. That’s a very important distinction that belies the claims of many who believe in generational curses today. Often we experience consequences for things done by those before us, but this is the natural outworking of our fallen world, not a punishment from God. In other instances, we carry in the same sins we learned from our parents. While it is unfortunate that we were in this circumstance, we are complicit if we choose not to learn from experience and turn to God. The only time God actively continues to punish subsequent generations is when subsequent generations actively continue to sin.

Ezekiel 18 bears out this reading. It can be divided into the following sections.

  • God speaks through Ezekiel, “Why do you keep saying that I will punish people for the sins of their fathers?” (v1-4)
  • If a man is righteous, God will see him as righteous. (v5-9)
  • If he has a wicked son, the son will be judged for his actions. (v10-13)
  • If that wicked man has a son who learns from his father’s mistakes, God will see him as righteous. (v14-17)
  • Yet even though the son turned, God will still deal with the father (v18)
  • God deals with the misunderstanding of generational curses that existed even then. In short, only those who do wrong will be seen as guilty (v19-20)
  • It gets even better. Even if a man lives wrongly but later turns to God, even he will be forgiven.  (v21-29)
  • Therefore, turn from your sin! God has no desire to punish the innocent. He will deal with all of us individually. (v30-32)

The moral of the story is this. For people who are concerned about generational curses, the solution is simple – stop the cycle. Learn from those who have gone before you and choose a better path. How do you find another way? Turn to God. Follow Jesus. If you are in Christ you are a new creature (2 Cor 5:17). You don’t need a special prayer, magical phrases, or more faith. If you have turned to Christ you are under no curse. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1). That is not to say that there are no consequences, or that the past will be erased. But it does mean that you no longer need to live in fear of some unknown thing in the past.