4 Encouraging Ways You Can Stop Generational Curses

two generations smiling, sins of the father generational curses

4 Encouraging Ways You Can Stop Generational Curses

“Sins of the father” is one of those phrases that has worked its way into the English language and almost all of us have heard it somewhere. Some Christians will use the phrase to talk about families being “generationally cursed,” as if God or something else is punishing a family for one particular mistake.

“Sins of the father” is one of those phrases that has worked its way into the English language and almost all of us have heard it somewhere. Some Christians will use the phrase to talk about families being “generationally cursed,” as if God or something else is punishing a family for one particular mistake. In fact, there are big problems with this understanding, which misunderstands what the Bible says when it uses the term “sins of the father.”

Let’s take a look at this idea more deeply, what we usually mean by it and what in fact the Bible tells us about it.

What Is a Generational Curse?

Usually when people talk about “generational curses,” they mean one of two things. On the literal level, there is the idea that God punishes or curses children for the sins that their parents committed. This idea is sometimes described as a Christian idea but actually doesn’t fit with a Judeo-Christian understanding of sin and divine punishment. It has more to do with animism, religions that describe the world as full of nature spirits that need to be appeased or they might harm you (and go beyond that to your family).

On the more symbolic level, “generational curse” can be a term we loosely use to talk about how certain sinful patterns of behavior affect people’s children. A family where multiple generations struggled with alcoholism might be said to be “cursed with a drinking problem.” This isn’t a very accurate way to talk about sinful behavior, but Christians frequently use it. People often use superstitious phrases or concepts without really thinking about them or considering if those ideas really fit their beliefs.

Since we often use superstitious language without thinking about it, we need to consider what the Bible actually says about generational curses.

What Are 'Sins of the Father?"

Questions about how parents’ sin affects their children come up various times in the Bible. Romans 5:12 states that Adam and Eve’s sin affected all of humanity. Many chapters in 1 Kings and 2 Kings start with something like “this king did not follow the ways of his father and honor the Lord…” and then show how sinful living affected those kings. These ideas appear in the Bible because raising children well and following a parent’s wise teaching matter a great deal to God. Therefore, parents who sin and pass on their sinful habits are a big problem in God’s eyes. Recognizing the bad habits passed on by parents and learning to overcome them is vital to becoming a healthier Christian.

More specifically though, the phrase “sins of the father” itself comes from Exodus 20:5. God gives the Israelites the commandment about not making or following any idols, and God declares, You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.

This same message gets repeated in Exodus 34:7, when God tells Moses to make stone tablets with the commandments on them, replacing the ones that Moses smashed when he saw the Israelites worshipping an idol.

Then In Numbers 14, Moses quotes the Exodus 20:5 passage when he intercedes for the Israelites after they have rebelled against God. He asks God to pardon them, to make good on his promise to forgive sin and rebellion and not kill the Israelites (Numbers 14:15-19).

So, the passage we really need to consider if we want to understand “sins of the father” is Exodus 20:5

What Is the Context of Exodus 20:5?

At first glance, Exodus 20:5 seems to be saying that God directly punishes children for the sins that their parents committed. However, the Bible affirms in many places that while consequences of sin affect families, God does not punish children for their parent’s mistakes. Deuteronomy 24:16 says that “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.”

In Ezekiel 18:19-20, there’s a long message that God gives the prophet where he repeatedly refutes the idea that children are punished for their parent’s sins. Here, God says that a righteous man’s son who lives a sinful life will be judged (18:10-13), and a sinful man’s son who lives righteously will not be judged for his father’s sins (18:14-17). The next section makes this point even more forcefully:

Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.”

The New Testament is full of verses that emphasize God’s forgiveness for anyone who trusts in Jesus Christ, regardless of their heritage. Clearly then, God does not direct punish all people for their parent’s mistakes. We need to dig into the context of Exodus 20:5 to understand what it’s really saying.

First, we know this verse is in the 10 Commandments. Those commandments were addressed to the Israelites as a group of conditions when God made a covenant with them. A covenant is a kind of binding contract, often made between kings and people seeking a king’s protection. In this case, God is the protector, and the Israelite nation is agreeing to serve him by following his guidelines. The covenant had spiritual and legal consequences. When the Israelites held up their end of the covenant (by doing things like tithing), God held up his role as protector and blessed them. When they did things like worship idols or neglect God’s moral rules, they broke the covenant and suffered the consequences (punishment from God on a national level, other nations invading them, etc.). The Israelites being invaded by Babylon and taken away in exile can be seen as an example of a time when Israelites hated God and suffered the consequences for multiple generations.

Second, the verse is part of a warning that God gives about following idols. That clearly violates the covenant and perhaps helps to explain why the consequences were severe. Interestingly, when the verse is quoted again in Exodus 34:7, it’s when the sin of idolatry has been committed. Because the Israelites worshiped a golden calf, Moses got angry and smashed the stone tablets with the 10 commandments on them. Now in Exodus 34, God brings up the passage as he tells Moses to make new tablets, forgiving the Israelites for their idolatry.

Third, this verse is only part of a sentence. The rest of the sentence comes in Exodus 20:6 when God says that he will show “love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” We go from God talking about sins affecting three to four generations to God talking about love being shown to one thousand generations. As the commentary in the NIV Starting Place Study Bible puts it, the end of the sentence shows that “God’s mercy is greater than his wrath. The lingering effects of righteousness will last far longer than the lingering effects of wrath.” 

To sum everything up, Exodus 20:5 is talking about God punishing a specific nation if they break their special contract with him by worshipping other gods. With the Old Testament covenant changed, this form of punishment no longer applies to people who follow God. We live under the new covenant of grace.

Still, the passage reminds us today that sin is never private; it affects spouses, children, and anyone close to us. If our parents led sinful lifestyles, that affected us in many ways. We may have trauma caused by abusive behavior. We may have learned to live in foolish ways (spending money all the time, being gluttons with food). Whatever the effect was on us, we must overcome it, which could be called “overcoming a generational curse.”

How Can We Get Rid of Generational Curses?

There are many resources out there to help you see how your parents’ struggles have shaped you, and how to overcome the wounds you received from that.

Some of these tools are ones you’ll need to get professional help to navigate (such as what kinds of therapy or medication will help you). Every person’s trauma is a bit different, so you’ll need to carefully consider what will help and what won’t. With that said, here are basic things you can do to understand and heal from your “generational curses” or “generational sins”:

Seek Forgiveness. If your parents did things that hurt you (not necessarily things they meant to be hurtful, but still caused damage), then you have trauma from it. Forgiveness allows you to affirm that a traumatic event happened, that you were hurt, and it was wrong that it happened, but you let go of the anger toward who caused it. This doesn’t mean you have to trust them or pretend nothing happened. In cases where your parents aren’t stable or have shown they can’t be trusted, it’s very wise to have boundaries. But forgiveness sets you free of the anger, which left unchecked will eat away at you. Once you forgive, you can admit what happened without being controlled by what took place.

Seek Guidance. Most of us don’t find our families strange or toxic when we are growing up. We view whatever we grew up with as normal because we don’t know anything else. We may even rationalize the bad things away to avoid dealing with them. Therefore, to understand our trauma we need other Christians (they could be trusted elders, good friends, or licensed counselors) who are wise and willing to hear our story. They can help us see the problems that are too close for us to notice (like whether we react to certain things based on our trauma).

Seek Help. Once you have an idea of what you’re struggling with, you can begin seeking tools to help you heal. Depending on your situation, this could mean many things. Christian therapy can help you uncover trauma and heal from it. Accountability groups can connect you with people who understand your struggles and help you deal with them. In some cases, medication may help you handle problems that have a chemical component.

Above all this, we must seek God. We can only forgive with God’s help, and (especially at the start) we will need help from him day by day to overcome these “curses.” With God’s help, we can learn to recognize our pain and begin a renewal process.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Ridofranz

Connor SalterG. Connor is a freelance writer and journalist, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. He has contributed over 600 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.


This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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