Dag Hammerskjold, former Secretary to the United Nations, once said, “You cannot play with the animal in you without becoming wholly animal; play with falsehood without forfeiting your right to truth; play with cruelty without losing your sensitivity of mind. He who wants to keep his garden tidy doesn’t reserve a plot for weeds.”

What’s growing in your garden? Did you know that what you grow and cultivate in your garden today could spread to your offspring? Did you know that a sin you now tolerate could still be tormenting your great-grandchildren?

Consider the following strident warnings of Scripture:

Then the Lord descended in the form of a pillar of cloud and stood there with him and passed in front of him and announced the meaning of his name. “I am Jehovah, the merciful and gracious God,” He said, “slow to anger and rich in steadfast love and truth. I, Jehovah, show this steadfast love to many thousands by forgiving their sins; or else I refuse to clear the guilt, and require that a father’s sins be punished in the sons and grandsons, and even later generations” (Exodus 34:5-8).

You shall not bow down to any images nor worship them in any way, for I am the Lord your God. I am a jealous God, and I will bring the curse of a father’s sins upon even the third and fourth generation of the children of those who hate me; but I will show kindness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments (Deuteronomy 5:9-10).

What do these warnings mean? Is God trying to deliberately ruin the next generation? Why would God set up a system that visits one generation’s flaws on three or four others?

I have a hunch that God is trying to tell us that the way we live is of supreme importance to Him. Possibly He’s using a warning of future judgment on our descendants to keep us on the straight and narrow today.

Whether you like it or not, your children are becoming just like you. Their little eyes are watching to see how you relate to your mate, how you pray, how you walk with Christ on a daily basis. They hear your words and subconsciously mimic your attitudes, actions, and even your mannerisms.

And as time goes by you’ll find that they’ve inherited some of the same tendencies toward sin that you learned from your own parents. That’s why so many children from broken homes, for example, grow up and fail in their own marriages.

Leaving a legacy

I’ll be honest with you: The thought of my kids sinning in the same areas that I sin has bolstered my obedience to God. I’m reminded of the piercing statement by C. H. Spurgeon, “Sin would have fewer takers if it’s consequences occurred immediately.” I wonder, if we could see how our sin affected our descendants, if it would make a difference?

One of our FamilyLife staff members is committed to breaking the chains from his past. When speaking to individuals considering vocational Christian ministry he always says, “I grew up in a broken home and I don’t want to end up like my father. He lived his life for himself, and in the end, there were only 10 people in attendance at his funeral. I want a packed funeral—full of lives my life has impacted. I want to leave a heritage that would outlast me.”

Just think for a moment of the sins that could be visited upon your children. What do you struggle with? Lust? Selfishness? Anger? Lack of discipline? Jealousy? Pride? How about deceit? Broken promises? A gossiping tongue?

The following letter contains a sad commentary of one father’s legacy. (I’ve changed the names and places, of course.)

Dear Benjie: Before I start this letter to you I must tell you that I love you and none of what has happened or is going to happen is in any way your fault. If I had been as good a father as you are a son there would be no need for me to write to you now.

Over the years I have been unfaithful to your mother in thoughts as well as in deeds. Because your mother had complete trust in me I was able to cover up by lying to her. Last May I met a woman in Sacramento. Her name is Susan. I am going to leave your mother and go to live with her. This does not mean you no longer have a home. Your mother and I still both love you very much. I want you to know that your mother and I will always receive you into our homes with love that is unconditional.

What I have done is morally wrong and I hope you will not follow in my ways. When you meet the right woman make a lifelong commitment to her. I was never able to do this and it has caused much sorrow.

Please do not allow this to change your feelings about your mother and me. We love you very much and both need your love now even more than before. We will always be your family and will be here for you even though we will be living apart.

I love you. Dad

Every time I read this letter I wonder what was going on in that man’s mind. Did he really think that by telling his son to not follow his footsteps that he could reverse the damage he’d already done? It’s clear to me from Scripture that, unless God takes hold of this young man’s life, he will find himself having the same difficulty in making a lifelong commitment when he’s an adult.

Breaking free

So what are we to do? Wallow in guilt, because we are far from perfect? Are we enslaved to our ancestors’ wrong choices and thus permanently under the punishment of God?

No, we can stop the chain reaction by our repentance and confession. God in His grace stands ready to forgive us and grant us favor. You can, by faith, stop even the most tyrannical control of a sin that has beset your family for generations in the past.

Under the empowering work of the Holy Spirit, He can give you victory over those weaknesses. I pray frequently that God would help me arrest those things in my life that could be passed on. And He’s working—there’s hope.

The good news is that there is a forgotten promise in one of the passages I quoted earlier: “… but I will show kindness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Deuteronomy 5:9-10). That means your righteousness can still be influencing others a thousand generations from now. Now that’s encouraging news!

Once I asked one of my children what he thought about this idea of sins being passed from one generation to the next. His response was piercing:

“Don’t sin, Dad.”

He was too young to realize the wisdom of his own words. But I knew. The more I walk with Christ the more I see the wretchedness of my humanity. Moses’ prayer is becoming mine:

Oh, please, show the great power of your patience by forgiving our sin and showing us your steadfast love. Forgive us, even though you have said that you don’t let sin go unpunished, and that you punish the father’s fault in the children to the third and fourth generation. Oh, I plead with you, pardon the sins of this people because of your magnificent, steadfast love, just as you have forgiven them all the time from when we left Egypt until now (Numbers 14:17-19, TLB).

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