How do the sins of my forefathers affect my life?
Looking back to our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, we can often trace our physical features, strengths, and weaknesses through the family line. In the same way, we can observe character traits and spiritual influences that span the generations. A Godly heritage offers a sturdy foundation of virtue and faithfulness, but deeds such as anger, lust, and bitterness set destructive patterns that need to be recognized and overcome.
In the Biblical account of Abraham’s family, the iniquity of deception became a stronghold that affected the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons. (See Genesis 12:10–20, 20, 26:1–11, 27:1–40, 37:12–36.) On the other hand, the New Testament examples of Lois, Eunice, and Timothy demonstrate the richness of a heritage of faith. (See II Timothy 1:5.)
When we understand how our lives are influenced by our forefathers, we can respond appropriately to that influence. We should appreciate and celebrate the good that has been passed down through our families. Also, we should acknowledge the iniquities of our forefathers, repent of our own sins, and endeavor to overcome the tendencies toward specific sins that we have inherited. While we are not held responsible for the sins of our ancestors, we are susceptible to their areas of weakness and should be alert to these inclinations.
Identify Generational Iniquities
When God gave the Ten Commandments to the nation of Israel, He included this description of His character and ways: “. . . 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; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5–6). God repeats this warning about generational iniquities in Exodus 34:6–7, Numbers 14:18, and Deuteronomy 5:9–10.
What we do matters to the next generation, because children have a natural tendency to imitate their parents. When parents do something that is wrong, their children are very likely to justify the same action. In fact, they often justify even more destructive attitudes and actions, going beyond what their parents deemed permissible.
The most vivid example of this influence is seen in Adam’s sin. “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). Because of Adam’s decision in the Garden of Eden to disobey God’s command, each person on earth has inherited a nature of rebellion against God.
An example of how our forefathers’ actions can influence us for good is found in the seventh chapter of Hebrews: “. . . Levi also, who receiveth tithes, paid tithes in Abraham. For he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchisedec met him” (Hebrews 7:9–10). Although Levi was not born until many years after Abraham and Melchisedec met, he is credited with paying tithes because he was a physical part of Abraham when Abraham paid the tithes.
This concept rests at the heart of our inherited strengths and weaknesses. Because we are a physical part of our ancestors, we are deeply influenced by their decisions and the patterns of their lives. We can see this influence clearly in Abraham’s family.
Learn From the Testimony of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Abraham is known as the Friend of God and the “father of all them that believe.” (See James 2:23 and Romans 4:11.) His responses of faith and obedience in the major decisions of his life pleased God. However, when Abraham went down to Egypt as a result of a famine, he adopted a deceptive practice.
And it came to pass, when he [Abraham] was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai [Sarah] his wife, Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon: therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee (Genesis 12:11–13).
Abraham’s deception put Sarah in moral jeopardy, and Pharaoh soundly rebuked Abraham when the lie was discovered. Years later, Abraham used this lie again when he and Sarah traveled in Gerar. (See Genesis 20.) In both situations, God moved to protect Sarah and others from the sin of adultery, but in the years to come the iniquity of deception played a significant role in the lives of Abraham’s descendants.
Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac followed Abraham’s example and lied about the identity of his wife, Rebekah, when they traveled in Gerar: “And the men of the place asked him of his wife; and he said, She is my sister: for he feared to say, She is my wife; lest, said he, the men of the place should kill me for Rebekah; because she was fair to look upon” (Genesis 26:7). When the Philistine king, Abimelech, discovered Isaac’s deception, he rebuked Isaac for exposing other men to the possible sin of adultery. (See Genesis 26:9–10.)
In the next generation, the lies were directed toward immediate family members. Rebekah and her son Jacob schemed to deceive Isaac into giving secondborn Jacob the firstborn blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau. Taking advantage of Isaac’s failing eyesight, Jacob deceived his own father: “And he came unto his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I; who art thou, my son? And Jacob said unto his father, I am Esau thy firstborn; I have done according as thou badest me: arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me” (Genesis 27:18–19).
Decades later, Jacob’s sons deceived him concerning the welfare of his son, Joseph. The older brothers, jealous of Joseph’s favor with Jacob, sold Joseph as a slave: “And they took Joseph’s coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood; and they sent the coat of many colors, and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy son’s coat or no. And he knew it, and said, It is my son’s coat: an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces” (Genesis 37:31–33). Not until years later did Jacob discover the truth of what had happened to Joseph. (See Genesis 45:26.)
In these examples, we can see how the iniquity of deception was taken up by one generation after another, deepening and becoming more desperate through the years.
Acknowledge the Sins of the Forefathers
Nehemiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and others understood that God wanted them to agree with Him about the iniquities of their parents and purpose to not continue them. These men of God acknowledged the iniquities of their fathers when they confessed their sins:
- In the days when Nehemiah worked to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, Ezra the priest gathered the people together and read to them out of the Law of God. When they realized how far they had strayed from God’s commandments, they repented: “And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers” (Nehemiah 9:2).
- When Jeremiah realized that God’s hand of judgment was upon the land of Judah, he acknowledged the iniquities of their forefathers. He prayed, “We acknowledge, O Lord, our wickedness, and the iniquity of our fathers: for we have sinned against thee” (Jeremiah 14:20).
- When Daniel discerned by the Scriptures that it was time for Israel to be restored to the land, he sought the Lord’s forgiveness through prayer and supplication, with fasting. He prayed, “O Lord, according to all thy righteousness, I beseech thee, let thine anger and thy fury be turned away from thy city Jerusalem, thy holy mountain: because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and thy people are become a reproach to all that are about us” (Daniel 9:16).
Recognize Personal Responsibility
As we acknowledge the sins of our forefathers, we must also accept personal responsibility for our own sins. For example, a son cannot blame his father for his own sin, nor can a father blame his son. God will deal with each person on the merits of his own actions. “In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29–30).
This truth brings clarification to God’s warnings about visiting iniquity on future generations, which Jeremiah repeats in the next chapter: “Thou showest lovingkindness unto thousands, and recompensest the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of their children after them: the Great, the Mighty God, the Lord of hosts, is his name, great in counsel, and mighty in work: for thine eyes are open upon all the ways of the sons of men: to give every one according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings” (Jeremiah 32:18–19).
Generational iniquities follow the laws of the harvest: we reap what we sow, we reap where we sow, we reap more than we sow, and we reap in a different season than we sow.
“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting” (Galatians 6:7–8).
Find Freedom in Jesus Christ
When we become aware of the sins of our forefathers, we should respond in the following ways:
- Acknowledge generational sins before God
- Repent of similar sins in our own lives
- Receive cleansing and forgiveness through Christ
- Submit to the Word of God as it relates to the areas of our inherited weaknesses
To repent of something does not mean merely to be sorry or remorseful but to turn away from it, to change, to go in the opposite direction. Understanding our forefathers’ sins provides insight for turning away from those specific attitudes and actions. We must study the Scriptures to learn how we can honor God in these areas. Often we may need to build boundaries in our lives to help protect us from the temptations that are common in our background (for example, temptations to drunkenness, gossip, theft, or immorality). As we set aside activities that present temptations in these areas, our tendency toward generational sin patterns will diminish.
The power to overcome generational sins comes only by Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul encourages us, “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof” (Romans 13:14).
Jesus said: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house forever: but the Son abideth forever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:34–36).
This article is adapted from pages 114–123 of the Anger Resolution Seminar Workbook.