In one of the most famous first lines in literature, Leo Tolstoy boldly states, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Now, I haven’t read Anna Karenina, but I can say with confidence that, while he certainly captured our attention and still has us quoting him after nearly 150 years, he is wrong about happy families being all alike (although they may look that way from the outside). But he has a point about unhappy families.
Unhappy families can have an endless number of reasons why they are unhappy, and many of us are sadly familiar with one of them: generational sins (a.k.a. generational trauma or generational dysfunction). This is the tendency of persistent sinful behaviors to be repeated or “handed down” from one generation to the next, contributing to the unhappiness of that family and its individual members. This might be a particular problem with one member of the family, or an overall environment that permeates the day-to-day life and outlook of each person.
The causes of family dysfunction are endless. Here’s a by-no-means-exhaustive list – and sadly, every one of these can be generational, or handed down:
- Anger, explosive temper
- Lying, undependability
- Emotional manipulation
- Narcissism, selfishness
- Passive-aggressive behavior
- Excessive sarcasm, unkind speech
- Bullying, threatening speech
- Addiction (everything from alcohol or pornography to eating or shopping)
- Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
- Laziness, sloth
- Greed, envy
- Bitterness, dissatisfaction, complaining
- Adultery, unfaithfulness
So is it inevitable that sins will be passed down from generation to generation? Even if we haven’t experienced this in our own family, we’ve surely seen it in other families. But thankfully, it’s entirely possible to end generational sin with one person, in one generation. And that one person can be (or maybe has been) you.
Remember the No Man’s Land scene in the Wonder Woman movie where she has just learned from a desperate mother and child about the unseen atrocities of war? The scene where her eyes are opened to the toll that the war has taken on people who are not even fighting? (Watch it again here.)
I cried when I saw that scene back in 2017 and I still cry today when watching the four-minute clip. I know I’m not the only one who found it easy to identify with this woman who bravely faced the enemy in order to create a safe pathway for those following behind; who held up her shield and scattered bullets so that those around her and innocent people on the other side would be safe from harm.
If you are fighting against generational sin, that woman on the battlefield is you. Every time you speak or act in love, self-control, gentleness, patience, kindness, or faithfulness, you are deflecting the bullets of whatever sins you are refusing to allow a foothold in your family. This is not easy, to say the least, if you were raised in a dysfunctional environment and may have developed self-preservation tactics as a very young child. Back then, you may have withdrawn, you may have tried to escape, you may have acclimated or adapted yourself to dysfunction in order to be accepted by the only family you knew.
But now, as you commit yourself to putting an end to generational sin, remember this: It’s not only about you holding up that shield day after day, deflecting those bullets of sin that the Evil One continually fires at you; it’s also about those people who are now able to run up behind you in relative safety and those further along the path whom you don’t even know. Your spouse, your children, and those generations to come who will have a very different family life thanks to you, right here, right now.
Wonder Woman’s iconic battle scene lasted less than four minutes; yours may last decades. Thankfully, you’ll get the hang of it long before you wear out or become discouraged, and you’ll begin to reap the rewards of ending generational sin almost immediately. Here are a few things to remember along the way:
The people who most benefit from the ending of generational sin may not know much, if anything, about what you are putting an end to. Your current family didn’t grow up with you (obviously), so they don’t know exactly what you experienced, and you may not want to share all of those details with them. If you are in need of someone to talk to, a better idea might be to find a trusted friend, someone who has experienced something similar, or a counselor who can help you work through your emotions.
While you are busy putting a stop to generational sin in your family, do your best to not create your own. Make sure that while you’re saying, “I won’t succumb to addiction,” or “I refuse to emotionally manipulate my children,” that you aren’t replacing that with anger, a sharp tongue, or a myriad of other sins. None of us are perfect, of course, but the idea here is to not insert a new sin that permeates your family life and creates unhappiness or discord.
It’s an incredible privilege to be the person that gets to say, “This stops here, with me.” If you are just starting out on this path of putting an end to generational sin, I want to encourage you that every single day that you don’t perpetuate dysfunction truly matters – whether the people around you know you are doing this or not. You know that your shield is up and you are deflecting bullets left and right. And if you’ve been on this path for a while now and are reaping the rewards of a functional and happy family, congratulations on a very difficult job well done. God knows the history of your family, and in his wisdom and mercy has declared, “Here is the person who will put an end to this,” and that person was you.
No matter where you are on the path of ending family dysfunction, know that God is with you on this journey. He loves your family more than even you do and he hears your prayers. Let his words to Israel in Isaiah 43 be your comfort and encouragement: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:18, 19)
God has done a new thing in you and is doing a new thing in your family. You no longer have to consider the things of old. Will your family be perfect? Of course not. But you are strong enough to keep your shield raised against the former things and God is big enough to not let the Evil One win this battle.