The Sins of the Fathers to the Third and Fourth Generation

My son was recently told he would need to get a pair of glasses, myopia.  He’s ten. 

He undoubtedly inherited this from me, as I was the same age when first diagnosed as nearsighted.  He’s probably taking it about like I did, which is to say not well. 

But he most likely does not have to fear a threatening condition I became aware was a possibility back when I was ten, another inherited issue, called Retinitis Pigmentosa. 

This is a nasty eye condition in which everything in vision gradually loses its vibrancy, blurring out and eventually disappearing altogether.  I had a number of great aunts and 2nd or 3rd cousins with this condition, so when I had to have my eyes examined anyway, my mother suggested to the doctor to check for RP.   

I remember confusion, what disease was that again, and then the doctor squirted my eyes with a dilation chemical and everything got really bright.  He peered deep into my eyes, but whatever signs he was looking for were apparently not there.  I was clear.    

This became a normal part of future eye exams.  I would go to the eye doctor, get my prescription adjusted, get my eyes dilated, and the doctor would give me the all-clear.  It was about a decade ago at one of these exams that the Optometrist finally said, “You know, you’re old enough now that we really don’t need to check for that anymore.”  I was totally clear.  My eye problems, extensive as they may be, have nothing to do with RP.

So if this potential eye issue was genetic, why wouldn’t my biological child need to worry about it?  

Though I will have him checked for it at some point, better safe than sorry, I am all but certain he needs not worry.  Like eye color or hand preference, a genetic disease only has a percentage chance of showing up.  The less frequently it manifests, the weaker the likelihood that it will manifest later.  Once enough generations have passed, usually designated at 7, the odds of inheriting that particular ailment drop to basically zero.  I am the 7th generation from the last direct manifestation of this disease in my line, so my sons likely have no worries.  Many MD’s have corroborated this. 

My mom enjoyed genealogy, which is a big part of why I know any of this at all, but there is a dark side to the genealogy here.  Retinitis Pigmentosa is often first recorded as a manifestation of the STD, syphilis, though in a slightly different form. 

Syphilis is a nasty disease; it actively rewrites our body’s DNA, in part to evade detection by the immune system.  Additionally, before modern treatments, or if left to progress, it displays in apparently random ways, often disfiguring people’s skin or face or so on.  One potential manifestation is ocular, and the result is a form of Retinitis Pigmentosa

The implications, then, lent weight by family scuttlebutt, are clear.  It is highly likely that this disease became a plague to my family, rendering numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins for several generations blind, because I had one many-greats grandfather who couldn’t keep his pants on. 

               ‘The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation (Numbers 14:18, ESV).’

              In this post, I want to explore the image of sin as chains, fetters, restraints, burdens, enslaving, etc.  I will posit that the verse quoted above reveals a reality of the world we live in, namely that actions have consequences, often unintended, that go far beyond the actors.  Further, sinful actions very often have much heavier consequences.  When we sin, it traps us, those around us, and indeed creation as a whole in a cascade of consequences from which we have little to no means of escape, an image perhaps best illustrated by the image of a man in chains. 

In the last post, I ended with Paul’s quote of the Psalmist regarding the sinfulness of Mankind.  I discussed darkness, the navigational nightmare that pure darkness creates, and the relation of darkness to our hearts in the form of sin.  This is an important analogy because it comments on the way that sin blinds us to reality, and particularly its presence in our lives, but as with any analogy, comparing sin to darkness falls short.  A particularly glaring instance of this is the simple fact that most of us do not feel dark.   

I am writing this presuming a Christian audience, so I can say with some assurance that most readers will acknowledge at least a degree of moral culpability.  All of us have done things that we feel ashamed of.  All of us have hurt other people.  All of us have at times furthered our own wants or ambitions at the expense of others.  And all of us know that was bad.  If you disagree, you might want to try another blog. 

So if we all recognize that we’ve done bad things, why is it that most of us do not feel dark.  No secret Hitlers in this crowd, right? 

I think the root of that is twofold.  1.  We look at most of our sins as personal and, to be honest, insignificant.  For instance, I know it’s bad to run that stop sign on 4th and Walnut, but who’s it going to hurt.  That sign’s presence doesn’t make any sense anyway. 

The same could be said of a myriad of pet sins, from shoplifting to gossip to gluttony (which covers everything from overeating to pornography).  When we suffer one of these as a vice, we don’t quite embrace the sins, but neither do we reject it.  We call these difficulties a “thorn in the flesh” which is code for “something I can’t really beat so I might as well stop trying.”  We convince ourselves falsely that it’s only really hurting me, while the ramifications extend all around us and years into the future.  It is seen as fine so long as it doesn’t genuinely hurt someone else because…

2. When we do something truly wicked, something that genuinely hurts someone else, we feel bad. 

My mom was a shouter.  If you offended her, she let you know at high volumes.  At times her being offended and thus her explosions were not justified, and I eventually learned to tolerate, or ignore some of the coming eruptions.  If she was wrong, it still annoyed me, but I could put it aside because what else could I do? 

But as I got older and snarkier, and hormones and teenage brain development imbalance entered the picture, there were times I was not able to ignore it.  At such times, I could often find just the right thing to say to not only respond, but to stop the conversation.  Sometimes, this led to tears.

Then I knew I was in the wrong. 

When we hurt someone else, if our conscience has not been cynically burned away, we feel bad.  A three-year-old will try to hush the cries of a hurt sibling for just this reason (that and to avoid punishment).  We know, in those moments of shame, that we have sinned. 

And all of us have done so.  It is precisely for this reason that we don’t feel dark. 

Wait, what?  By minimizing the areas of our lives where the darkness of sin is most mature, and feeling genuinely sorrowful at those times when that darkness has manifested itself against someone else, we can be convinced that we are basically good, but still just bad enough to need Jesus.  In other words, we have it all under control, and if that is true, then we’re not really all that dark, are we?

It is quite likely that my profligate ancestor didn’t feel that bad about his visits to the seedier establishments in town.  The darkness in our hearts is there whether or not we feel it. 

The Bible describes sin as chains, because like thorns in the flesh, chains are not just shrugged off.  Sin’s chains are bound to us, locking down our options and restricting our actions.  Chains in general are tough, resilient.  Pull on one.  What happens?  Unless it’s a simply to hold on a locket or the like, probably not much.  An animal chained to a stake will pull loose the stake before they break the chain. 

What do we use chains for?  To secure things, a heavy load to a flatbed truck, a dangerous criminal to a paddywagon, or a precious stone to our necks. 

Likewise, the resilience of chains can damage that to which they are bound.  This could be deliberate, aesthetically in the sense of shaping trees, or as a deterrent in the case of handcuffs.  If we chain something that is too weak for it, the chains will damage that which they bind, crushing flesh, warping wood, and marring metal.  When we chain people, we are sending a message; this person is unworthy of freedom; they have been deemed so either by justice, warfare, malice, or darkness itself. 

 The chains of sin, as the Bible describes them, fit these descriptions.  Psalm 107:10 says, “There were those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, prisoners in misery and chains, because they had rebelled against the words of God and spurned the counsel of the Most High.”  Sin’s chains bind us, make us miserable, and are the result of our rebellion. 

And they grow as our rebellion grows, like Marley’s chains in the Dickens story.  “Do not carry on now as scoffers, or your fetters will be strengthened (Isaiah 28:22).”  The weight of our sins is a consequence of being sinful. 

Furthermore, our sin has an effect on the world around us.  “…for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God… (Romans 8:20-21)”.

But how does seeing sin as chains impact my life in a way that seeing it as darkness doesn’t?      

The notion that sin binds us helps bring clarity to a couple of troublesome biblical concepts brought to light in the following passages.  First, Paul’s frank statements in Romans 7, summed up in vs 19 as “I do not do the good I want to, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing.”  Secondly, the passage of sins along generational lines, i.e. the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.  These are quite related, as we will see forthwith.

Paul tells us a great deal about the good he doesn’t do and the evil he does.  He explains why and what’s going on in our hearts as we do it, but there is an esoteric quality to Paul.  Where does the sin come from?  His answer is “sin nature” or “the flesh,” followed by one of his signature itemized lists of wickedness.  Paul is not wrong, but the manner he has written can obscure the matter somewhat, which succeeds in making us feel smug.  When Paul gives me a list, if I can cross off every or mostly every sin, I’m not that bad. 

I would refer you to James, though, who is much more blunt about sin’s source.  Why do we sin?  James tells us it is because of evil desire.  Simply put, we sin because we want to.  That includes all those petty little thorns in the flesh. 

Both Paul and James are revealing truth about sin.  Paul is looking to the big picture, and how we can’t really beat it but Jesus can, while James is telling us, as he does with anger a moment before describing sin, that this does not lead to the righteous life God desires. 

But by grounding sin in desire, even evil desire, he helps us see a little more deeply into the motives that guide the darker facets of our soul.    How so?  Because James places sin in the realm of desire, he gives us insight into the biology of it.  Our brain has been designed with a little shot of incentive called dopamine.  Whenever we fulfill a desire, sinful or not, we get a hit.  Who needs heroin when God himself gave us dope? 

Why would God make us that way, with our own biological drug dispenser?  Because success is a good thing! It is fitting to be rewarded for success.  God just made some of that reward take place at the neurochemical level. 

In a perfect world, that system would never be abused.  But this is not a perfect world, not anymore.  We abuse that to death, literally.

There was a famous experiment in which rats were given buttons to push that could give them sugar.  They set up all sorts of parameters for the study, and some of the rats were allowed to repeatedly push the button getting sugar each time.  Those that could often did so at the neglect of everything else, sugaring themselves to death.    

Success is like a lever to a drug dispenser in our brains.  This is part of why Facebook games are made the way they are, every little “achievement” gives us a bit of a high, pushing us to keep playing, even when it costs us money.  Welcome to at least 25% of why we keep sinning. 

Furthermore, doing anything repeatedly makes our brains better at it.  Practice does make perfect or darn close.  It has to do with how the brain makes and strengthens neural pathways.  Every time we perform an action, the pathways involved are reinforced. Imagine a road widening and becoming more developed each time it is used. 

Our brain’s use of dopamine and strengthening or culling of neural pathways are natural bodily processes.  It works this way whether our actions are sinful or not. 

But when they are sinful, with whatever added incentive sinfulness itself provides, these features of brain chemistry become detrimental.  Our brain rewards us for succeeding at the sin, and then makes the sinful action easier every time we do it.  This is part of why we come back to “conquered” sins again and again, despite having resolved firmly not to do it. 

Think of when you have fallen into an old sin.  Nine times out of ten it was probably when your chips were down.  Pressure was high.  Life was hard.  And it all just came together.  Before you were even aware, the old demons once again took over. 

Is this because we don’t have adequate will power?  To be honest, yes.  Our will power has never been enough.  Adam, Eve, and Jesus may have been the only people who ever stood before a temptation with wills uninfluenced by anything else.  Resolve alone is not enough.

I can give another familial example of this.  My maternal grandparents early in their marriage allegedly both smoked half a pack or so of cigarettes a day and drank 2-3 cups of coffee a day.  For a variety of reasons, they both resolved to give at least one of these vices up, but each chose the opposite.  My grandfather chose to give up tobacco and my grandmother chose to give up coffee. 

What happened?  Their resolution was firm, but at the cost of enhancing the opposite vice.  My grandfather apparently went from 2 or 3 cups of coffee per day to two big thermoses.  My grandmother went from half a pack to a pack and a half.  They overcame the urge to one vice by heavily indulging in the other. 

Because sin is rooted in desire, there is no way to divorce it from the biological aspect, any more than we can divorce ourselves from our bodies.  But it is not our bodies alone that play a role in our sinfulness. 

I was playing a racing game on our computer recently with my sons, and my youngest, who is adopted, sits on my lap, holding down the button that makes it drive and saying over and over, “You’re cheating me.  Come on!”  That sounded a lot like me sometimes.  Biologically he has no relation to me, but my wife likes to laugh and say, “I wonder where he learned that.”

Biology is a huge factor in what we do, but learned behaviors also play a role.   

And this enters us into a veritable minefield of cause and causation, perhaps the most salient connection to the image of chains.  Individual sins become a part of our lives for reasons that we might have little to no control over.  Maybe I yell at other drivers because of the Irish on my mom’s side of the family, as my father liked to say, or maybe it’s because I remember her yelling at me, and the car is an acceptable bubble separated from all but my most intimate connections in which I can yell with impunity at someone and call them names.  But when my kids start to yell, whose fault is it? 

Maybe I drink or smoke to excess because I watched my dad or uncle or brother do it, or maybe it’s because of my grandma or great-grandfather, or because I watched my cousin or my best friend’s dad drink or smoke and thought it was cool.  Pick any sin that anyone struggles with, and the possible motives for it are innumerable.

This brings us back to the sins of the fathers.  I am not going to spout traducian theology here, I don’t buy it and I don’t think we need it.  The circumstances whereby retinitis pigmentosa entered my family line are clear and scientifically sound, and a fine example of causation in action.   

But how does this play out in our lives?  Must I bear the weight of my father’s sins?  Do they live on in me, either through blood or observation?  Do his chains bind my heart?

The answer to that question must be a giant question mark.  It’s frankly too complex for us to know.  We will hit on some of the philosophy behind why this is so in the next post, but for now I think another analogy is most useful. 

Let’s imagine that you have a family in we’ll say Cleveland who suddenly find out that they are descended from an illegitimate son of Hitler.  Three kids. For simplicity’s sake, three reactions.

One of them is appalled that he has the blood of such a man running through his veins and dedicates his life to the cause of the oppressed, doing significant good for others, particularly Jews.    

One child mulls over the blood connection, eventually deciding that his ancestor had been correct and becoming the leader of a skinheads group, legally adopting his ancestor’s moniker before dying in a shootout with the FBI. 

The last decides that her ancestor was irrelevant to her life, which she becomes very vocal about at family gatherings, until family gatherings stop inviting her; maybe in part because of her marriage to a young Jewish female classmate, which, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with any response to her ancestor. 

These characters are fictional, so their story is easy to manipulate, but they are nevertheless highly plausible. What would you do if you found out Hitler was your grandfather?  Could you, like any of these, really “ignore” the dark notoriety of your ancestor?  Not in the slightest.  But neither could it be clearly demonstrated that this knowledge would direct the course of your life. Like these fictitious characters, the identity of your ancestors do influence you, but only as one influence in many. This is true of all of us, whether or not that ancestor is an ignominious villain.

We are complex creatures, as evidenced by just about every facet of the world we live in.  Our biology is complex.  Our neurology is complex.  Our history is complex.  There are too many factors to count influencing us at any given moment. 

Sin is one of those factors, but it has an outsized impact on our lives and the world around us, even as it hides in the shadows. Sin’s chains reach out to, connect with, and restrict every other factor in our behavior.  Because of our sin, we cannot know if any of our actions are free, even when they seem so. 

Freedom is a subject that deserves its own post. We will concluded here with a reemphasis on the interconnection between my life and actions, my sins, and the lives, actions and sins of those around me, before and after.  My ancestor’s sexual deviance caused much hardship for many in my family, not simply because they were blind.  I don’t know that any of them fell into the same exact pattern of sins that originated their disease, but I do know that many of them drank excessively, and the ramifications of that for their families undoubtedly sent ripples through the lives of their offspring, many of whom still wrestle with the physical blindness resulting from their great-grandsire’s sinfulness.

My grandmother, on the other hand, watched the responses of her cousins and even sisters as they struggled with blindness, and marveled at her own sight, seeing in it the hand of providence in her life.  It strengthened her faith, giving her courage in spite of other challenges such as an abusive drunken father.    

I do not know that my ancestor ever felt shame for the results of his sins in the lives of his offspring.  I doubt it.  But I do not doubt that there were myriad factors history has lost which drove him to find release in the arms of a prostitute.  Some of those were certainly due to the sins of others, even his own progenitors who were likewise responding to the effects of the sins of their forebears, on and on to the beginning, a garden, a snake, and an apple.      

That I am bound in a series of responses to the sins of my ancestors is disheartening, but the fact that rather than shelter my children from this, I am in fact contributing to their own struggles, and that all I can offer up as an excuse is thorns in the flesh or wicked desire – Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

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