In the Old Testament, we read that God “will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.” Sometimes, the phrase is lengthened, referring to “those who hate God,” but sometimes concept of “sins of the father” seems to apply to everyone.
At first glance, the concept seems to say that innocent children will somehow experience, and perhaps commit, the same sins committed by their fathers. What does this mean? I remember seeing, a few years ago, a book about cleansing one’s family tree. It was a mixed-up and incorrect reaction to this concept, which sounds both unfortunate and unfair.
But the words are a riddle, because it is impossible for God to force anyone to sin. So then, if he is not making the children sin, what does this concept, or ‘rule,’ mean?
I think it means two things: first, children experience the consequences of their parents’ sins, and second, children often have the same weaknesses. For example, let’s say a woman is tempted to drink too much. We won’t be surprised to hear that 1) her children suffer the consequences of this, and 2) her children also happen to have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. We aren’t surprised, right? Many of our human failings are intergenerational. It’s as though there’s a blind spot all the way down the family tree. Or let’s say a man has a terrible temper, and bullies his family habitually. You won’t be stunned when you hear that his father was the same way, right? We are actually used to seeing or learning of these patterns of “dysfunction” (= sin).
But where it gets interesting is when the story finally reaches a child who chooses differently.
This child, like all of the generations before, carries the weight of that specific type of weakness. Study his genetics or his surroundings, or both, and you will find excuse enough for this child to fall into the same hole as his parent(s), whether that hole is one of the talked-about ones (such as alcoholism or abusive behaviour), or whether it is one of the silent ones (such as envy or hypocrisy). The child has seen it in action. The son has learned from his father how to treat women poorly. The daughter has learned from her mother how to pretend to be holy. They’ve learned it, and, as a matter of fact, it comes easily.
However, this child chooses differently. This child recognizes the potential problems, the potential sin, and corrects the problem. This child confronts and conquers the problem, sooner or later. If this child chooses early and makes a point of avoiding anything that smells like repetition of the same problem, then that’s best. Father is an alcoholic and drug user? The child responds by avoiding alcohol and drugs (and nicotine and caffeine for good measure). Mother is a brazen flirt and home-wrecker? The child responds by cultivating loyalty and prudence in practice and in appearance. The child overcomes the sin of the parents.
I write this simply and briefly, as if it’s easy, but it’s a very dramatic thing to overcome any type of sin. Chesterton wrote his entire book, The Man Who Was Thursday, to illustrate the point that trying to be good is a profound adventure. He felt the point needed to be made, for it is commonly thought that ‘good’ people live very boring lives, that they don’t have stories worth telling.
But avoiding sin is about being tested, and tests can be dramatic. And the thing is, sooner or later, you will be tested to your absolute limit. Nobody is immune. If you believe that you have already been tested, and you didn’t actually find it difficult to resist temptation (because of your inherent goodness, good habits, humility or because of God’s grace, or the prayers of others), then I have news for you: you haven’t experienced your toughest test yet. Doubt me at your peril.
I will never forget the woman who pointed out to me, as if I were obviously lacking knowledge about faith and morals, that Christians need not worry too much about lust, because “Christ changes you.”
When she said this, in her superior way, it was one of those moments. Does this happen to you? It was one of those times when someone says something which is so utterly wrong-headed that you think to yourself: where do I even begin? There are so many things wrong here that I need a moment to think about how to tackle all of the embedded errors. Should I begin here, or should I begin there or there? Yet at the same time, I realize, from the level of arrogance or condescension of the speaker, that it really doesn’t matter what I say. She’s already written me off. At times like this, I am just dumbfounded. I don’t have an all-purpose retort at the ready to use in such situations. Do you?
Of course Christ changes people! But he doesn’t remove all the challenges. We still have the inclination to sin, and we still have the opportunity to sin. We are still tempted, as was Christ. If he was not spared, why would or should we be? The truth is, nobody gets through life without that really, really, tough exam — that exam which has only one question: “Will you choose what is right or will you choose what is wrong?”
One question. Does that make it easy?
Sin is like standing in front of a beautiful tree full of glossy, ripe plums. True, it’s not your tree, but look: here is a perfect and ripe plum within reach. It’s almost as if it’s meant to be, and the truth is, you’re hungry. And probably nobody would ever miss it, or know that it was you who took it.
One of the first poems that I ever really noticed was by William Carlos Williams:
This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
It was a long time ago that I first read that. It is a “sorry-not sorry” poem. Effective, but I cannot say that I admire it. The speaker flaunts and revels in his choice, and the “Forgive me” is pure arrogance.
And it strikes me now as not coincidental that it was plums, the only fruit I never eat anymore. I won’t even touch it.
In any case, let’s go back to the child. The child resists. The child resists the sins which were committed by his or her parent(s). In this context, you can solve the riddle. In this context, you can understand the meaning. Let me explain.
When we read that God “will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation,” we must understand the reason. God is not doing this as a way of punishing the children and grandchildren and so on. He is doing this to allow a rematch. A rematch! Same sin, different soul. Through this rule, God says, “Double or Nothing.” The contest begins again.
The challenge repeats. Does the failure repeat?
The failure may repeat, and repeat, and repeat.
But then, finally, there is a victor. There is, finally, a child who wins, who overcomes the temptation. There is finally a child in the family tree who walks away from the fruit.
And then what? Can you guess? Should I tell you? I will.
It’s called “the surprise.” In his generosity, God counts the child’s win as a win for everyone on the family tree, going forwards and backwards. He shares the win with the father, the mother, the grandmother, the grandfather, the great-grandfather, the great-grandmother, the great-great-grandfather and the great-great-grandmother, and on and on and on and on. How does he do this? I have taken you this far, but can I explain the mystical way that this happens?
God breaks out the champagne. He breaks out the little crackers with cheese and slices of sausage. He passes the smoked salmon and the pate. There’s even one of those hollowed out big loaves filled with spinach dip on the table.
He says with a big smile, “Aren’t you all glad it was double-or nothing? Aren’t you glad? It was a good idea?”
And we all say that it was very, very, good.