Don’t Confuse Generational Curses with Poor Generational Choices
The real curse is believing we are powerless to break these familial patterns
In Exodus 34:7, we hear about the God of the Bible “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” From this passage has derived the notion of generational curses; the concept of pathological dysfunction as spiritual punishment. Modern adaptations of this idea speak to the cyclical nature of unhealthy family pathologies, citing things like poor health, illiteracy, sexual violence, and poverty as examples of these transmissible misfortunes.
But how much of our personal dysfunction is compounded by our decisions, as opposed to shaped by our ancestry? How many of us hide behind the guise of inherited issues to dodge the responsibility of having to resolve them? Probably quite a few of us. When we take this Bible passage as proof positive that our propensity for problematic behavior is everyone’s fault but our own, we render ourselves helpless to defend against it and embrace a level of victimhood that keeps us trapped in its cycle. So when does our participation in unhealthy familial patterns stop being the result of our “generational curses” and start being the consequence of our own generational choices?
But how much of our personal dysfunction is compounded by our decisions, as opposed to shaped by our ancestry?
The Bible speaks to this subject a total of four times, the most noted being in Exodus 34:7, just shortly after telling the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments. Despite the sorted placement of these four passages within the text, they all tell a similar story. To get a better understanding of the passage, it’s just as vital to understand the historical context within which it was written, as well as its context within the surrounding scripture.
The story told in chapter 34 of Exodus centers around the renegotiation of God’s covenant with the Israelites, his chosen people. God instructs Moses, the leader of the Israelites, to travel to Mount Sinai to receive instructions for the sculpting of new stone commandments to replace the ones he destroyed earlier. It’s during this journey that God reveals his character to Moses, acknowledging his propensity for wrath as well as his merciful nature.
While verse seven is the most heavily referenced in terms of biblical discussions of generational curses, the true intent of the passages leading up to it appears to be to highlight the duality of God’s character. “And he passed in front of Moses,” Exodus 34:6 begins, “proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.’” The focal point of the entire passage is that, beyond being firm and just, God is bountifully merciful. The focus of the full passage is to demonstrate God’s favor on those who love him — any abbreviated application of the text is regular old religious propaganda.
So how does this narrow interpretation reflect on the way we’ve been applying the concept of generational curses to our own present-day circumstances? For starters, it implies we’ve been looking at generational curses all wrong. Furthermore, the curses referred to in the Bible don’t appear to be curses at all — they’re more like consequences, specifically for disobedience toward God. In Christian doctrine, the punishments for sin range from birthmarks to barrenness, and everything in between, making it clear that God doesn’t play when it comes to paying what you owe. But without applying Christian parameters to the concept of generational curses, the theory that unwanted occurrences are the retribution for unholy behaviors simply doesn’t hold water. If not for the laws governing the Christian Bible, the threat of generational curses simply wouldn’t exist for most of us at all.
There’s a level of victimhood implied by the very idea of generational curses that renders us helpless to control our circumstances — a notion that isn’t supported in the Bible or in any other religious text, for that matter. Can a combination of genetic, environmental, and developmental factors make a person more susceptible to something like alcoholism, drug abuse, or poor health? Absolutely. Our medical records take into consideration the health of our parents and their parents for a reason; it does matter. But some of these “curses” require a level of complicity that calls into question just how many of us are participants in our own spiritual imprisonment as opposed to simply pawns of a higher power.
The Old Testament divided people into two categories: the cursed and the blessed. Those who obeyed God were good and therefore blessed and those who disobeyed were bad and therefore cursed. Living according to God’s word was thought to improve the quality of one’s life, and living a sinful life was thought to make life increasingly more difficult. But there is a clear division between the deserving and the undeserving that exists only in the Bible.
Today, we don’t have the luxury of adhering to ancient script scribbled on stone and having the rawness of our realities washed away like our sins (Hebrews 10:10–12). Salvation is the only instant in religion. No matter the measure of biblical obedience, some of us are more predisposed to these problems — these generational curses — and that predisposition is wholly problematic when coupled with a lack of accountability. If we grow up watching alcohol control the lives of our close relatives and choose to partake without any consideration for how that history of addiction might repeat itself in ourselves, we put ourselves at risk. And we can’t call it a curse if it’s the consequence of a conscious choice.
There’s nothing entirely generational about generational curses. And unless the rate of fatherlessness in our community is the result of millions of immaculate conceptions or second-hand alcoholism pops up in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), curse probably isn’t the right word for it either. The careful combination of the words “generational” and “curse” doesn’t just make our problems sound too big to solve by ourselves, it makes them sound too big to solve at all. Of course, curses aren’t solved, they’re broken, and when, how, or if that happens is often out of our hands; There’s no blueprint for how to remove bad omens, and when people are broken, the last thing they need is to be told that their healing is just as conceptual as what’s ailing them.
If there is a curse, it’s the one we cast every time we deny our ability to change the trajectory of our lives.
When people feel powerless to solve their problems, we’re more likely to embrace what we believe to be inevitable. The inability to envision a better future for oneself or the belief that the future is at the mercy of some grandfathered guilt leads to feelings of hopelessness, stagnancy, and depression, all of which decrease the likelihood that you do anything to change your circumstances. And, when the circumstances don’t change, you point to the “curse” as the cause while unknowingly reinforcing the problem behavior for witnessing generations.
This isn’t a conversation about bootstraps or admonishment of people who suffer the very real and very debilitating effects of things like racism, classism, sexism, and poverty — people like myself. Those blockades are as tangible as their solutions, which vary from eliminating educational disparities to reforming health care policies to closing employment and earning gaps and ending punitive policing. And when we’re looking to challenge generational dysfunction, it’s important to account for the ways unavoidable factors, like race, for example, make us more susceptible to otherwise avoidable ones, like incarceration and illiteracy.
If there is a curse, it’s the one we cast every time we deny our ability to change the trajectory of our lives. And, let’s be honest, a lot of our problems are there because we put ’em there because no amount of mysticism could completely derail a healthy, positive, well-intentioned personal journey. It’s gonna take a lot more than bad juju to do that. Either we’re at the mercy of the rigidity of religious doctrine, even the ones we personally don’t subscribe to, or we have the power to learn from and be shaped by the fullness of our past without being punished by it. The latter should be an easy choice.