Generational Curses and the God Who Blesses

I heard these words at 18 years old, spoken by a trusted Christian mentor. I had never married or divorced, but somehow, this mentor determined my future simply by looking at my parents' pasts. My mentor believed a generational curse bewitched my heart.

"Generational curses" go beyond the orthodox view of original sin. It's the idea that a family's patterns of sin are passed down from generation to generation. From the outside, it looks like families cannot break the power these "curses" hold over them.

Even for those who don't believe we inherit sins, we cannot deny their effects. As the adage goes, "Hurt people, hurt people." Biblical counselor Alasdair Groves states concerning trauma: "If you've been through something really hard and traumatic and awful, you can expect, and in fact, you're basically guaranteed to have long-lasting physiological baggage of some sort or another from that experience." In other words, humans feel the effects of others' sins.

Divorce may not mark your family tree, but parental absence or legalism could tinge its roots. Maybe you've noticed gossip, unhealthy friendships, or contempt between generations. When you look closer, unhealthy marriages flower each family's branches.

Sin leaves no one unscathed. After all, we see how our parents have been affected by their parents, and our grandparents by their parents.

Are all generations doomed—for better or worse—to follow in the steps of the generations before them?

Generational Curses, Broken

Abraham did not grow up watching "Veggie Tales." No, Abraham was an idolater in a family of idolaters (Josh. 2); his family tree was so averse to God that the names throughout Abraham's clan referenced moon god worship (Josh. 2:24). It seemed he was in the wrong place, in the wrong family, doing all the wrong things.

Yet God had other plans. Genesis 12 begins with God's words, which promised Abraham—then still named Abram—a new family identity: "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you…. [I]n you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:1–3).

John Calvin considered Abraham's calling this way:

This calling of Abram is a signal instance of the gratuitous mercy of God. Had Abram been beforehand with God by any merit of works? Had Abram come to him, or conciliated his favor? N[o]...[Abram] was plunged in the filth of idolatry; and now God freely stretches forth his hand to bring back the wanderer. He deigns to open his sacred mouth, that he may show to one, deceived by Satan[,]… the way of salvation.— John Calvin, Genesis, 343

We can't lose the significance of this event in Abraham's life. His obedience meant that he now trusted God with his life on this earth and in eternity (Heb. 11:8–10).

Through God's grace, Abraham rejected his family's long history of idol worship to honor the true God. The Lord took an idolater in a long line of idolaters and made Abraham his own, proving that generational sins and curses are no match for him.

God's Grace is Bigger than Our History

When we look at Abram, we might think the future of his family tree should be more idolatry, more paganism, or more brokenness, but this isn't what God had in mind. Remember, God declared to Abraham that "in [him,] all the families of the earth [would be] blessed" (Gen. 12:3).

The Gospel of Matthew opens up with the blessed fruit of Abraham's family tree: Jesus, the Messiah, the one who would deliver every believer from the curse of sin and reverse its effects—the one who would bless all of the nations, all of those he called his own, regardless of their family history (Matt. 1:1–17).

Whether we come from a family the world might envy or revile, as believers, we are dependent upon Christ—his obedience, death, and resurrection—for our own obedience. Sin and its effects no longer enslave the believer (Rom. 6:6). Sin and its effects no longer hang over us like a curse (Rom. 6:7).

Our ancestors' sins no longer claim us for themselves—Jesus does (Rom. 6:11).

Grace-Determined Futures

My husband and I once discovered that we thought differently during disagreements. While he disagreed with the end in sight, resting securely on our marriage vows, I felt emotionally lost. When conflict arose, I felt like every small argument threatened the promises we made to each other. Both in obvious ways and covertly, generational patterns left marks on our marriage that needed intentional care.

Acknowledging these spiritual vulnerabilities allowed us to better resist them. John Owen declared that we tactically wage war against the sin in our lives, first recognizing it, then uncovering its strategies, and finally doing all we can to destroy it. We don't have to fear the weaknesses that are passed on through our families—but through the Holy Spirit, we name them and fight against them with everything we have (Phil. 2:12).

The beauty of God's sanctifying work is that as we war against sin, God cultivates life from the barren battleground. The Holy Spirit progressively enlivens us, daily conforming us into Christ-likeness: "For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). God loves to claim the least likely, even those with hard backgrounds and spiritually fruitless family trees, to display his Spirit's power (1 Cor. 1:27–31).

When I think back to the mentor who claimed that my past defined me, there's a part of me that wants to point to my marriage, my ministry—to me—to say he's wrong. But in the end, I can't point to anything I've done to prove that God has done a great work in my family tree.

I can only point to Christ.