What is meant by the idea of "generational curses" from a biblical and practical perspective?
I remember the time I was preparing a sermon on this topic and a lay leader in the church, an older gentleman, tried to school me on what it meant. I thought this was odd, given I had a theology degree and he did not. But it showed me that this can be a hot topic for many.
In scripture, what does "generational curse" refer to? Let's look at Exodus 20:5b-6, "for I the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments."
Regarding this text, John Calvin states in Harmony of the Law, Vol. 2, "Exposition of the 2nd Commandment," that when "God declares that he will cast back the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of the children, he does not mean that he will take vengeance on poor wretches who have never deserved anything of the sort; but that He is at liberty to punish the crimes of the fathers upon their children and descendants, with the proviso that they too may be justly punished, as being imitators of their fathers."
Likewise, Jeremiah 32:18 states, "You show love to thousands but bring the punishment for the fathers' sins into the laps of their children after them." The Hebrew meaning here has to do with children who continue in the sinful patterns of their fathers. The idea is that there is "personal" accountability to behave differently.
This integrates beautifully with the idea in the behavioral sciences about patterns of dysfunctional behavior in our family of origins being continuous. What people are exposed to in their childhoods can very easily be carried into their adult lives — and their new nuclear families.
Children of alcoholics can easily replicate patterns. Domestic violence and childhood abuse is often repeated. Undiagnosed or untreated mental illness can lead to dysfunctional and damaging patterns in our adult lives.
These are illnesses or dysfunctions that require professional help — much as a medical doctor is necessary when diabetes runs in a family. These behaviors that we are exposed to as we grow up lead to our own dysfunctional behaviors that perhaps are noticed by family and friends. These are our responsibility to deal with, or they will be repeated and passed on to the next generation.
Therapy has the ability to find the root of dysfunctions or illness, bring them out in the open, and then provide resources to help one obtain a better quality of life. Thus, preventive measures can be taken to not expose the next generation. And the dysfunctional conduct can be extinguished. The behavior is the curse. It can be repeated and passed down, and thus the consequences punish us.
Or they can be admitted and healed so there can be emotional, spiritual and even mental health in future generations. But it takes personal responsibility to admit and seek professional help. Prayer is useful, but professionals often need to be sought out to do effective work in extinguishing dysfunction once and for all — not just putting a temporary Band-Aid over it.
So the spiritual and behavioral implications of curses or dysfunction line up well. They are similar in origin and treatment. It is an adult's responsibility to set aside any pride or shame and get the help they need.
The Bible talks about personal accountability, and it is our spiritual and moral duty to stop harmful behaviors being witnessed by our family members, spouses, children, friends and co-workers. In this, health can be obtained, and the curse is broken.