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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Sinful Tendencies

This is one of my question posts. I'm not trying to prove a point or make a statement. I'm asking. Because I don't know. I just wonder. Maybe you Christian readers can help me out here. (Christians will likely give me a different answer than secularists.)

In my experiences I've seen a lot of what appears to be inherited sinful tendencies in people. A father with a tendency toward alcoholism, for instance, very likely had a father with the same tendency and his children may as well. A child whose parent was an addict may tend more toward addiction. Those are simple examples. It appears that there are categories, areas of sin, that at least appear to carry on. It may be a tendency to overeat or a tendency to covet or a tendency to walk around with a negative attitude or all sorts of possibilities. This is not to say that everyone with a tendency gives in to that tendency. This is not to suggest that there is no escape. But it appears, from experience, that people can inherit tendencies to particular sinful behaviors.

Everyone has their weaknesses. I, for instance, haven't the slightest desire to do drugs or imbibe alcohol. Others do. That's not to suggest that I don't have my own crosses to bear in the arena of temptations, but drugs or alcohol are not among them. Others, on the other hand, don't have my own weaknesses and can't figure out why I would struggle with them. I note, however, that I seem to share similar weaknesses that my father has and it appears that my children tend toward the same ones as well.

Of course, there is the obvious element of nurture. A child growing up in an alcoholic home would seem likely to tend toward alcoholism because that's what was modeled. A boy that grows up with a father that abuses his wife might think that abusing women is normal behavior. Surely nurture plays a part. I'm not discounting that. However, I've seen far too many cases where the parent with Tendency X was not a part of the child's life. There was a divorce, a separation, a distance, perhaps even a death, and the child of this particular parent grows up without the "nurture principle" from this parent. Still, as he or she matures, they seem to develop the same tendencies as the missing parent and not the tendencies of people outside their families. Some I know of have developed the tendencies from missing parents even when they've grown up without them and in the nurture and admonition of good parents instead. I've seen this apparently inherited principle in matters of sin or just personality. "He's just like his father" does not require that he grew up with his father or even ever knew his father. There does appear to be some inherited behavioral tendencies.

Now, I don't really know. I do know that a child is not punished for his or her parents' sins (Eze 18:20). Doesn't happen. Got it. No problem. But that doesn't preclude inheriting tendencies, does it? And there is certainly the fact that we all have the sin nature in us, so we will all sin. That's not what I'm talking about. Nor am I suggesting either an excuse or an inevitability. All types of sins can be overcome in a believer's life. Having a tendency toward specific sins doesn't excuse the sin nor does it mean that it cannot be dealt with (1 Cor 10:13). What I'm wondering about -- what I seem to see -- is the possibility that tendencies to particular sins or sin groups (e.g., addiction, sexual immorality, pornography, etc.) might be inherited from parents, giving a child a greater inclination toward that particular sin or sin group. Is that possible? If not, why not? If it is possibly the case, what might be the mechanism? You see, if it is possible -- if it does happen -- it might be helpful in assisting our brothers and sisters in Christ in dealing with particular areas of difficulty knowing that they inherited this particular tendency, very similar to anticipating cancer in a child whose family line has a tendency toward cancer. It would make you more watchful.

Again, I'm just wondering here. Anyone with any insight on this?


starflyer said...

I'm not sure whether or not certain tendencies might be inherited or not. But I think we are all products of our upbringing. An alcoholic may go that way because that's all he saw his father do. Or abuse, or whatever. I know in my life, I feel like I don't have a proper example to follow (for example, in parenting situations). My parents did not raise me in a Christian home, so sometimes I feel like I'm winging it; no example to follow; and sometimes I think I've acted like my parents did...maybe because that is the example I have to go on.

Sorry, I'm not sure if this is very helpful to the conversation...

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

People do not inherit these tendencies - they learn them. A drunk will teach his children to be drunks, a drug addict will teach his children to be addicts, a glutton will teach his children to be gluttons. The children do NOT inherit this - they are taught it.

My father was an unbeliever and committed adultery while married to my mother, and had numerous affairs between his other two marriages. My mother did the same thing and was also married twice more.

I, on the other hand, became a believer. BUT, long before that I decided that my father's behavior was not something I wanted to copy. I have never cheated on my wife and I have been married to her for 36 years.

If behavior was inherited, then I would be just like my father. I CHOSE whether or not to emulate behavior I learned from him. Children do indeed learn behaviors, but they still have the ability to choose.

By the way, there is no such thing as “alcoholism.” “Alcoholic” was a term invented by the founder of AA to take the responsibility away from the drunk. It is not a disease. The Bible calls the person a “drunk” and the behavior “drunkenness.” We should do the same, placing the responsibility where it belongs.

As for people who take on the “tendencies” of the missing parent, it is nothing but coincidence, since these types of sinful behaviors are not isolated to particular people. People also copy peers and friends.

Stan said...

To both Glenn and Starflyer,

I acknowledged the "nurture" component. We learn what we are taught. But it doesn't answer how it is that kids who, for instance, have never had contact with their alcoholic father (died, left, whatever) seem to have the very seem tendency that he has.

If, as Glenn indicates, it is simply the ubiquity of sin (it's everywhere, so we may be copying peers and friends), then people would have a ubiquity of tendencies. I mean, I've been around drug users and alcoholics and even (gasp!) homosexuals, but it doesn't seem like I have any problem fighting off those sins.

Stan said...

Glenn, I've read many of the arguments against "generational curses". Most of them (including yours) address things I don't. "God isn't punishing kids for their parents sin!" No, He certainly isn't. That's not the idea. "These people claim that if a person is a drunk, then their children inherit their sin." No, they don't. That's not the idea. The argument against it always seems to hinge on the absolute certainty that "visit the iniquity" means "punishing", and I don't understand it to mean that. (If it does, it appears to be saying exactly that God will punish the children for the sins of their fathers. We all agree that's not the case.)

The concept is that the children would inherit tendencies, like in physical terms. Because a mother had breast cancer means that a daughter ought to be aware of it. She may not contract it. She can certainly do things to minimize the problem and potential. (Some are asking to preemptively eliminate the problem.) In the same way, if a father had a tendency toward, say, adultery and a son recognized that and purposely faced it off, knowing about that problem, he need not succumb to the same problem.

I find the "No on generational curses" arguments weak and the answers as to why some kids seem to inherit their parents' sinful tendencies (which is not the same as inheriting their sin) even when they've never been around those parents is equally weak. On the other hand, the fact that I asked the question means I don't know. But so far I'm not finding good arguments against the concept.

Bryan said...

I have been reading your blog for a week or so now, and I really like it. I wanted to chime in on this one.

I don't know the answer to your question either, but I am going to add some to the conversation. A good friend of mine and I were having a conversation a while back about homosexuality and whether people are "born that way" or not. He made a good point that in his opinion, people could be born with an inherent bent towards a certain sin – be it homosexuality, alcohol, violence, addiction, anger, etc. - the choice is theirs if they want to fight that sin or embrace it. I think this would be true of all sins – I mean, like you had stated in a post – I have no problem staying away from alcohol and drugs. But I do struggle with other things, and – while I have never talked with my father about these things, as he is not a believer – I think he may deal with them as well. I can say I didn’t learn these things from my dad by watching him or him sitting down and teaching me, but they were already in me. It gives me a focus when raising my son, as to some things that might tempt him, and hopefully, Lord willing, I can help teach and equip him to better deal with these issues.

Stan said...

Welcome, Bryan. If it is true that there is the possibility that we inherit some sinful tendencies of our parents, that is exactly how I would use that information. "You might have a problem with this particular sin. Keep an eye out. Be very careful. In fact, here is what I've done to try to combat it." (And, as has been said a few times recently, "born that way" is pointless. Choosing what you will do about it is the point.)

David said...

I think Glenn and those that believe that there cannot be inherited tendencies are doing so from a place that they want to give no one an excuse for their sin. While that is commendable, I believe it is a false defense. We are all born sinners, but that is not an excuse to allow us to sin.

And scientifically, chemical dependance is clearly inheritable. There is no doubt, but that doesn't in any way excuse the dependance and behavior that comes from that dependance. While alcoholism is a relatively new term, one can be an alcoholic, and not drink. Meaning, one can have a chemical dependance on alcohol, but through the strength of Christ, not act on that dependance.

Like you said, Stan, the best way would be to identify those things that can lead you astray, and warn those things off, and if you know your dad did A, and you do A, then warning your son about A is a prudent precaution.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

The problem in thinking that we inherit tendencies is that there is no biological basis for it. Children born with fetal alcohol syndrome can indeed have a tendency to succumb more quickly to intoxication, but that is due to genetic defect cause by the mother’s drinking. Chemical dependence is inherited in the same manner, but the body can be weened from it. After that the individual has to choose whether to take drugs or drink alcohol.

No one is ever an “alcoholic.” Again, that is a term made up by the founder of AA in an attempt to take the responsibility for drunkenness off the drunk; “you can’t help it, you are an alcoholic. And you always will be.” Wrong. You are a drunk as long as you drink to excess. You can dry out and even drink now and then and not get drunk. But once you’ve chosen to drink again, you begin to like the feeling again, or perhaps just want to “drown your sorrows” again and before you know it you’re drunk again. But it is not a disease nor is it a propensity - it is a direct choice to get drunk. One cannot “be an alcoholic and not drink.” That is a lie foisted by AA and then the psych industry, with no basis in fact or medicine. Once a person has been a drunk for a long time, will they have reduced tolerance for booze and therefore get drunk quicker? Possibly. But that doesn’t make them an alcoholic. It makes them a person with choices to make. And there are plenty of non-believers who have kicked the habit without the strength of Christ, demonstrating it is a behavioral choice. I have known several!

It may take the strength of Christ to eliminate desires, but any sinner can choose to not behave in a certain way; all behavior is chosen while desires may or may not be.

Again, in response to Stan, whether a person knew their drunken father so as to be drunks themselves has no bearing on a possible “inheritance” of that trait. The majority of our population drinks alcohol, and a large percentage of them drink to excess. So it isn’t surprising that a person who didn’t know his father was a drunk would be a drunk himself.

And Stan, the teaching about “Generational Sin” certainly DOES teach that people inherit sins from their forebears, which is why I was pointing out that particular teaching and why it is wrong.

Inheriting genetic defects is a whole different issue. People with cancer in their family are more likely to get cancer themselves, so a woman with breast cancer may indeed pass her genes to her daughter who will also get breast cancer. But inheriting genetic traits is not the same as inheriting behaviors.

There is absolutely NO evidence that people inherit tendencies and every evidence that people learn them. In fact, I think it is wrong to say we even have tendencies to specific behaviors. We have tendencies to sin, period. As Stan points out, just because you hang around people with certain bad behaviors, that doesn’t mean you will accept that behavior. However most people choose behaviors based on what they were taught by family or friends, or by wanting to emulate public figures etc. When they are surrounded by a particular behavior they are more likely to choose to follow it. But it is still an individual choice. But there is no evidence that anyone is born with a tendency to behave in a certain way unless it is a genetic defect of the brain which makes particular behaviors uncontrollable - but which isn’t the topic of this article.

Stan said...

The teaching about "Generational Sin" that I was talking about doesn't include any requirement that "You will definitely commit the sins your father did" or any such thing. Sin is always a choice. I'm not talking about sins, but tendencies.

"There is absolutely NO evidence that people inherit tendencies and every evidence that people learn them."

I have to disagree with your "NO evidence" claim. You disagree with the evidence or you deny the evidence, but I know too many people who seem to exhibit behavioral tendencies that aren't explained by nurture. Further, if we learn our sin from the sins of those around us, why do we all seem to suffer from specific temptations that are not universally problematic? Why is it that each of us seems to have our own set of temptations we wrestle with that doesn't seem to correspond to any of the ones of others?

And what does God mean when He says He "visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children"?

While nothing in my premise/question offers excuses for choosing to sin in a particular way, it would suggest some helpful clues in what to look out for in particular. It would also offer additional reasons for people to combat particular sins if there is a real possibility that they can pass that predilection on to their offspring. Being able to say, "This could very well be a problem for you and here is what I did to combat it" would be a good thing. As it is, I have to combat everything and offer, "You will suffer from every possible temptation and I will not likely be much help on most of it because I haven't faced it myself."

Stan said...

And the suggestion that "there is NO evidence" and that no one is an alcoholic or an addict laid aside the people I've known with addictive personalities -- people who seem to be drawn to addictions of various sorts -- really doesn't seem to fit with the facts I've observed.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

People can be addicted to drugs, including alcohol. But it is by their own choice of taking that drug. They do not have a "tendency" towards that behavior. If they didn't imbibe, they wouldn't get addicted.

A drunk is one who drinks too much to intoxication. After a while he can be addicted to it, just as with any other drug. But that doesn't make him an "alcoholic" any more than a glutton is a "foodaholic" or a cocaine addict is a "cocainaholic."

Unlike other behaviors, addictions to drugs are due to over indulgence in those drugs, making the body dependent on them. This can only be fixed by no longer taking the drug! It is a choice.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I do not deny evidence - there is none. Just because people choose to participate in a particular sin, that doesn’t mean they even had to learn it. They just find a sin enticing and they follow after it. Different personalities choose different sins, but that is not a “tendency” towards that sin. This is common sense stuff. We all have the tendency to sin.

As I demonstrated, but the idea that we inherit said tendency, both my parents were adulterous and promiscuous, which would mean I would inherit that. I didn’t. It is NOT genetic! To inherit something, it has to be genetic.

BUT, it still isn’t a “tendency” to a particular sin - it is a desire for one type of sin over another.

The issue of God visiting the iniquities of the fathers on their sons has to do with the nation of Israel (or the punishment of any tribe/nation). As long as the nation of Israel was in disobedience to God, the nation suffered. This is not punishing children for fathers’ sins

Stan said...

I'm still unclear on "visiting the sins of the father". We all agree that God doesn't punish children for the sins of their parents (or vice versa). We all get punished for our own sins. Now, if "visiting the sins of the father" means "the punishment of a tribe/nation", then we indeed have a case where children are punished for the sins of their fathers. That doesn't seem right.

But, if I understand you correctly, "visiting the sins of the father on the children ..." is an Old Testament reference and, in general, you don't see Old Testament references (in and of themselves) as applicable to New Testament folk like us. They're commands to the nation of Israel, not something that we have to think about. We're under a different system. (I'm trying to be vague enough not to misrepresent you without being so vague that it makes no sense.) If I understand you correctly, God promising to "visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children" wouldn't be applicable to 21st century Christians anyway since it's an Old Testament Israel thing.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...


Look at the passages about “visiting the iniquity of the fathers...” - it is about idolatry. And the Ten Commandments, which this is from, was part of the law which was only for Israel, and it was part of the covenant between God and Israel in which God many times told what the repercussions would be for Israel misbehaving. The nation would be punished. In that way, the “children” would suffer the consequences of their “fathers’” actions.

The Gentiles did not have the Law, nor were they ever to be given it or mandated to follow it. (Deut. 4:7-8; Lev. 27:34; Ps.147:19-20; Neh. 9:14; Mal. 4:4; Acts 15: 5, 24; Rom. 2:14; 2 Cor. 3:7-8, 11, 14; Gal. 3:25; Heb. 7:12, 18.) So in this regard, this whole thing about visiting iniquity upon the children has nothing to do with anyone but Israel - in context.

Stan said...

"only for Israel"

Yes, that was how I understood you to see it. Obviously I don't agree, but that was how I thought you viewed it.

I don't understand how God can punish the children for the iniquity of the fathers when He expressly says, "When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son" (Eze 18:19-20). This wouldn't strictly be the case since the son will suffer for the iniquity of the father under your interpretation of Exo 20:5.

But, hey, we won't agree here, so no need to beat this dead horse longer.

Marshall Art said...

Jumping in late, but could it be that by visiting the inequities of the father onto the son that it means something more like the effects of the father's sinfulness will reverberate through the generations. That is, the descendants won't be "punished" but be merely affected. To illustrate, imagine a father who is a drug dealer or maybe just a lecher. The affect on the family will be severe and that affect could affect the child's family by virtue of having had a poor upbringing, both financially and lax instruction on living. The child might not be as "sinful" as the father, but still not really live life as the children of a father who lives according to God's Will.

This is different from being "punished" for the sins of the father.

Just a thought.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...


I'd say that is just the natural consequences without any actions by God.

That isn't the same as God's punishment of the nation of Israel, in which even the innocent would suffer the consequences of their ancestors' rebellion.