Like Father, Like Son: Confronting Generational Sins
- 2011 30 Sep
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.
When a detective following the husband notices the dimming lamp, the woman is flooded with relief to think that her perception of reality is trustworthy after all.
The Family Traitor
Families who want to present an image of perfection often demand that family members keep all family sins a secret. Secrecy shackles people in their search for wholeness. When they ask for greater honesty from their families, even when the affirmation that their sadness or anger over these patterns is legitimate, other family members deny the problem and refuse to discuss the issues. The one who wants to talk about the underlying truth is often branded a traitor.
A graduate student studying to become a psychologist told me of a holiday trip to see her family. She wanted to talk to them about some painful family patterns that she was struggling to deal with. Afterward she was confident that she had not been disrespectful or provocative, yet her family’s vitriolic denial of the problems stunned her. Her family—well respected and admired in their church and community—refused to entertain any such discussion.
In some families the layers of deception run so deep that there are multiple versions of the “truth” and even siblings can’t agree about what is true. I have consulted with two couples who found themselves dealing with children and/or grandchildren who accused the husband of sexual abuse. In both cases the children spoke quite convincingly of recovered memories of the abuse.
The men maintained equally convincingly that it had never happened. Each of the men insisted that their accusers had False Memory Syndrome, a phenomenon in which memories are fabricated in the mind of a suggestible subject.
In one case the evidence of abuse became so overwhelming that even the man’s wife was convinced he was lying. In the other case it never was clear what was the lie and what was the truth.
I have worked with clients whose families essentially cast them out because they called attention to hidden patterns of family sin. When they expose the family’s problems, the identifiers are brought to psychotherapy as the troublemaker of the family. Like the ancient practice of laying sin onto the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:6-10, Leviticus 16:20-22), the family projects its pathology onto the one who refuses to act like everything is fine.
These scapegoated individuals long for an honest acknowledgment that their anger at their family is justified. The longer the family withholds the acknowledgment, the longer the traitor’s banishment continues. If the family can rally and honestly own the legitimacy of the criticism, the family’s unity can be restored.
Whether or not the family acknowledges its patterns of sin, a person searching for paths of righteousness must face and name those generational sins in order to keep from passing them on to the next generation. Sara Groves has a wonderful song about this simple but profound concept. In her song “Generations” she sings:
Remind me of this with every decision
Generations will reap what I sow
I can pass on a curse or a blessing
To those I will never know
Speaking the painful truth is one of the greatest gifts one generation can give to the next. Sin denied breeds corruption from within. Sin confessed can be exorcised.
Published April 27, 2009
Taken from Signature Sins by Michael Mangis. Copyright(c) 2008 by Michael Mangis. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.
Michael Mangis is a professor of psychology at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. A praciticing psychologist, he is the cofounder of the Center for Rural Psychology, Elburn, Illinois.