I think most of us would agree that as kids, the stories from the Old Testament scared us! At least they did for me! Reading those ancient, historic tales kept me up at night. They juiced my imagination and instilled the fear of God in me... literally! In fact, they shaped me into the man and Pastor I am today.
One story in particular stayed with me. It is so familiar that you might know it yourself: Exodus 20 - the Ten Commandments! Now, you might be thinking that this story does not consist of the battle scenes and death blows like some of the other passages in Exodus. True, but God says something here that frightened me as a kid, and if I am honest, still frightens me today. The author writes in verses 4-5:
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 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."
Did you catch the scary part? I agree with everything said in this passage, but the part that still makes me feel unsettled, says: "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."
As a kid, I used to think that if I did something wrong, then my great, great grandkids would feel the wrath of God! I suppose that could be one parenting technique to use on a kid... "Hey, Johnny, if you don't eat your green beans, then God will punish your great, great grandkids!"
Obviously, now as an adult and Pastor with 8 years of theological education under my belt, I am not so fearful of God punishing my grandchildren for not eating my greenbeans, but I must confess that I am still just as nervous now as I was then. Why? Because I know 3 things about God and life that this passage points out:
1. God always makes good on his promises.
2. The wisdom of Scripture always proves true - time and time and time again.
3. I am just 3-4 stupid decisions away from this promise proving true in my own life - and so are you!
One of the great privileges of serving as a Pastor means that I get backstage access into a person's life. It is a wonderful pleasure. But most important, during these moments, I try to help individuals make observations about how they landed in their current predicament. More and more, I am discovering the truth of what God spoke in Exodus 20 - that most of the sins people commit today - whether they be kids, teenagers, or adults - each one of those sins can be traced up the generational chain several links into the past.
Several years ago in college, I started my work in student ministry. There, I gained my first exposure to this truth. I can recall mentoring a young man who struggled with anxiety. From my point of view, this seemed sort of odd for him. He came from a great family, did well in school, and worked very hard in every area of his life. Yet, he carried this deep sense of 'not feeling good enough,' along with shame and uncertainty. This made no sense to me, so I decided to dig a little deeper as to why.
One day, I asked him if I could meet his family after school. We had become good friends (I was only 2 years older than him), and I thought it would be fun to meet his family, introduce myself, and ask share some of my observations with his parents. He agreed, so I picked him up after school, took him home, and ate snacks with him and his mom. For the next hour, I asked questions, learned about his family culture, and shared some great laughs.
Just before I left, though, his mom began to open up to me about his anxiety. This piqued my interest! I hadn't even brought it up. I asked her for more information, and within minutes, she told me about her husband's long history of anxiety attacks, stemming all the way back to his father... his grandfather... even all the way to his great grandfather who I learned was abused by his father, my friend's Great, Great, Great Grandfather!
I sat in my stool stunned! Mind blown!
I asked how she even knew about this situation from so long ago - I am talking pre-Civil War era. She responded by saying that every man in the family alleges this happened. This 'family secret' has been passed down to each boy - no one can prove it for certain - but this claim had created a tidal wave of anxiety handed down to every adolescent from generation to generation like an old sweater.
I remember closing the door of my car feeling overwhelmed for my friend, while hearing the echoes of Exodus 20:4-6 in mind.
I stewed on this conversation for days. Could it be that our disobedience really does receive the wrath of God for the next several generations after us? I absolutely think so! Not necessarily because God wants to punish the innocent generations after us, but quite honestly, the natural consequence of our disobedience to God creates generational ripples that can carry on for years! Just think about it: abuse, divorce, and every other atrocity that trespasses against those core basic boundaries in Exodus 20 each incite so much instability in the family unit that the consequences can afflict wounds for years.
And more than 12 years later, I can attest to this truth with a hundred more stories just like the one I told. So what is the Good News for families like this one?
Listen to the good news of living a life of obedience to the Father, as written in the very next verse, verse 6:
"But [I show] love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments."
A THOUSAND GENERATIONS!
We must fear the wrath of God. No doubt! But the wrath of God pales in comparison to his infinite love for us! We should fear the choices that we make as parents, leaders, Pastors, friends, and caring adults when the fate and faith of our kids matter. Because the well-beings of generations after us is on the line. Yet, we should also feel so free to live and serve our kids and families, knowing full well that when we raise them in the way they should go - in the direction of Christ - then our influence and faith can ripple on for scores of generations!
I want to parent my daughter today - I want to lead my students and families today - I want to Pastor my church today - like the next four generations (and the next thousand after them) all matter!
That makes me feel excited about what I do because what I do today matters!
QUESTION: Name one practical way that you can parent today like the next four generations matter!