Our families have the greatest influence on our development, including the development of our patterns of sin. Some people even assert that family curses are passed down along generational lines. The belief comes from Old Testament passages which say that God “punishes the children and their children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). I will leave that discussion to biblical scholars.

Whether or not families inherit spiritual curses, it is obvious that patterns of sin are passed down through families. Everyone sins; but just as culture, ethnicity and gender steer our patterns of sin in particular directions, so do our families.

In my work as a therapist, I am amazed at the intricate ways in which family patterns of sin haunt people, even without their knowledge. I have seen individuals have an extramarital affair, only to learn afterwards that a parent had an affair at the same age. Many parents lament that they replicate the unhealthy discipline habits of their own parents, despite all their promises to themselves that they would not repeat their parents’ mistakes.

My family of origin is known for avoiding conflict. While this characteristic makes us easygoing and friendly, it also means that grudges sometimes fester under the surface without being resolved. Other families go to the opposite extreme and get addicted to conflict. They can’t connect with each other except through fighting.  

I clipped out a cartoon of a person sitting alone in a room full of empty chairs next to a  sign that read “support group for people with perfectly healthy, well-adjusted families.” Psychology graduate students often say their parents are afraid that the student will come home and point out all the pathologies of the parents and the rest of the family. Their fear has some basis because every family has its own areas of health and dysfunction. Unless the family is unusually abusive or otherwise unhealthy, however, most students come to realize that their own family’s quirks and neuroses are no worse than those of their fellow students’ families.

One measure of a family’s health is its capacity for members to tell each other the truth. This sounds obvious, yet many families live under astonishing layers of lies. A person sincerely trying to grow spiritually may have to acknowledge family as one source of sin, only to meet resistance from others in the family. Fear of facing sin patterns robs families and individuals of the opportunity to confront and vanquish the sin. Reconciliation is not possible when only one party acknowledges that a wrong has been committed.

Children are very suggestible. Parents easily exploit children’s vulnerability to having their perceptions altered by steering a child away from one interpretation of reality toward another. Guiding a child’s thinking is harmless and even helpful if, for example, I steer my child away from wanting soda toward wanting milk for breakfast. It is insidious, however, if I steer my child away from seeing that I have sinned toward believing that he or she has sinned. A cruel, abusive mother lies to her son, telling him that the beatings are for his own good. A hostile, controlling father tells his daughter that her mother left because the daughter was such a bad girl.

Those who have been subtly and systematically lied to often have great difficulty sorting out the truth. Others find them easy to exploit. I sometimes ask patients to watch the classic 1944 movie Gaslight.  Ingrid Bergman plays a woman who is slowly convinced by her psychopathic husband (played by Charles Boyer) that she is losing her mind. She comes to trust his perceptions over her own, even the obvious fact that the gaslight in her room has dimmed, suggesting that someone has turned on a light elsewhere in the house.