In the bible there are numerous passages in the old testament that reference later generations bearing the iniquity of their fathers (Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 5:9, Exodus 34:6-7). When I first read these passages I thought this was especially cruel and unfair. Why should those who have done nothing suffer because of the sins of others?
What I realized recently while working in mental health is that this is not an order of divine punishment but it is the unfortunate effect of sin. When a father sexually abuses his daughter she will likely suffer greatly in this life through the destruction of her self-image and sense of safety. She may have lifelong depression, borderline personality, an eating disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Other verses point that one should not be punished for the sins of their abuser (Ezekial 18:20) in this present world. Justice should be fair- the victim should not suffer further or be blamed.
Unfortunately blaming the victim has been part of our world for some time, even in Jesus’ time people were looking to understand suffering and illness and pinpoint to a person’s sin. For example Jesus is asked whether it is the sin of the blind man or his parents that caused him to be blind from birth. This seems so foreign today to us as we know that blindness is a generally a genetic condition.
However mental illness is a good comparison: even counsellors find ourselves asking is it this person’s “negative thinking pattern” or “lack of motivation”,or “personality traits” that keeps them ill or is it “genetic” or due to childhood abuse/trauma. We want to know the why because we think it can free a person from its trap.
Jesus does not buy into this dualistic thinking as he simple states that “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” This statement alone would seem to mock the person’s plight and suffering if Jesus did not continue to bring miraculous healing and restore the man’s sight. In this instance Jesus not only cures the sight of one man but brought new perspective to the discliples, the man’s family, and the larger society on illness, sin, and God’s restoring love for broken and wounded people.
Judging from the last few posts you may start to understand that I am starting to feel the weight of trauma, hardship and suffering that I am beginning to witness in my work. I grieve the sins of fathers, neighbors, mothers, grandparents, wars, and societies that have hurt children; I wish that children did not have to bear that heavy burden as alluded in the old testament. I have clients that say they cannot remember anything from their childhood and call it “horrible” and “awful”. Although Jesus does not join in the condemnation of parents or the blind man in the aforementioned story he does have strong words for those who harm children.
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. ” (Mark 9:42)
For all those affected by the sin of their fathers that I work with I hope to develop Jesus’ view of seeing them as instruments of God’s grace and restoration, rather than just as people I am “helping” or providing “psychoeducation”. I hope that Jesus’ promise for freedom could be experienced by all like the woman who had bled for twelve years. That those who have been hurt and metaphorically bleeding out could courageously reach forward to Jesus and receive these words “Daugther[son], your faith has healed you. God in peace and be freed from your suffering”. (Mark 5:34).