The Sins of Fathers and the Hope of Fatherhood

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_ProjectFor Father’s Day, I’d like to spend a little more time on a phrase I’ve mentioned here a few times.  At the end of the First Commandment, God says, “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me” (Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 5:9).  

The idea is repeated when God walks before Moses: “who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgressions and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:7).  

Almost the same idea is repeated in Numbers: “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).

Now, one way to interpret these verses is the standard old heresy of Marcionism: to pretend that what God says in the first commandment or in his self-revelation to Moses is some evil revelation that Jesus undoes.  But I think – and the Church teaches – that the God of Moses was a good God, our God.  And I think there’s a lot we can learn about fatherhood, and Father’s Day, from these strange verses.


In the song, “I’ll Carry On,” Rich Mullins says,

“I’ll carry the songs we learned when we were kids

I’ll carry the scars of generations gone by.”

The first line is positive: we carry on the beautiful things we learned from our parents.  But the second line is painful: we also carry the scars.

My children bear the scars of my father and my step-father, because I carry them.  My father carries the wounds and dysfunctions of his father and grandfather; beyond three or four generations, I don’t know the stories anymore.  I hope my children will be better than I am, in part because I hope I will give them better than my father gave me – but I know my dysfunction will carry on.  

This is a hard topic to talk about.  I don’t want to talk about my father’s failings.  Like the sons of Noah, we are all called to cover our fathers’ nakedness.  But we cover our fathers, and we bear their scars (and songs), because fathers are important.  

All of this can be said, of course, about mothers, too.  But as you think about the scars you carry from generations gone by – and the scars you are passing on to your children, if you are a parent – I would guess you’ll see that fathers and mothers have their own unique ways of wounding their children.  We are scarred by our mothers and fathers, but in different ways.

And that’s what is meant, in these key passages from the books of Moses, about third and fourth generations.  Whatever we believe about the forgiveness of sins, we all know how we have been hurt, and how we hurt.


Now, that’s a pretty negative way to think about Father’s Day: our fathers are the ones who screwed us up.  But that suffering is the reverse side of the awesome mission God has given to parents.

We carry the scars of generations gone by because parents matter.  It is not hard to argue against infant Baptism.  It seems wrong that we should get grace from sacraments we didn’t even know were happening.  But the heart of infant Baptism is the bizarre importance of parents: we are of our parents before we are of ourselves.  We carry their songs before we make any of our own.  We learn the fundamentals of our faith, for good or for ill, whether it is the True Faith or all the alternate things we are brought up to believe, from them.  

Grace is stronger than nature.  All of those Bible verses also say that God sends away our sins.  He can set us free from the wounds of our parents, and he can set our children free from our wounds.  And so another key theme in the Bible, even in that frightening Old Testament, is that we mustn’t judge others based on the sins of their parents.  But those sins do affect us, they are the raw material on which grace works.  We are wounded by their sins, but we must also carry their pain, and be healed by accepting its reality.

This is the mystery of fatherhood.  God has not set us in the world as radical individuals, but as members of families.  And this is the mystery of mission: other people, especially our children, are affected by our actions.  It’s crazy, but it’s true.  We really do have fathers, and some of us really are fathers.

Let us thank God the Father for bestowing such an awesome mission on mere men – and beg his grace to live it well.

And let us reveal to the Father the scars we bear from our fathers and grandfathers.  How can acknowledging those scars make you more open to his healing grace?



One Comment

  1. Thank you for reminding me that, for good or ill, my life makes a difference in my childrens’ lives. It is an awesome responsibility.

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