Light for our path: Suffering for our ancestors’ sins?

Why do some Christian families tend to suffer so much more than others? In a short time, my best friend has lost several family members to cancer and accidents. Does God make us suffer for our ancestors’ sins? 

James F. Pope

Since Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, suffering has been a common human experience and, as you indicate, more familiar to some than to others. Scripture provides insight into the subject of suffering. 

God whose ways can be mysterious 

There is no question that God’s ways can be mysterious to us (Isaiah 55:9; Romans 11:33,34). While God reveals all-important information about himself in the Bible, he does not explain his every move in our lives. Consequently, his action or inaction can puzzle us. 

Consider Job, for example. In the course of one disastrous day, all his children were killed and his possessions stolen by raiders. Later, sores covered his body. To the casual observer, guided only by human reasoning and no biblical knowledge, Job must have done something wrong.  

Yet, nothing could be further from the truth—biblical truth. God described Job to Satan in a conversation one day: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). The tragedies Job encountered were not divine punishments for his sins. They took place only because a wise and loving God allowed them. Christians today experience suffering for similar reasons. Guided by wisdom and love, God can allow some Christian families to experience more suffering than other families. When he does that, such troubles are not punishments for sin—theirs or their ancestors’. 

A God who treats people individually 

The Bible verse you might have in mind with your question is Exodus 20:5. At Mount Sinai God described himself: “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” If we stop right there in that verse, we can greatly misunderstand God and his ways. However, the verse ends: “. . . to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” That ending helps us come to an accurate understanding of suffering and sin. 

Certainly, those who reject God will face eternal suffering and punishment for their sins (Mark 16:16). What God can do, if he so desires, is to mete out punishment already in the earthly lives of unbelievers. And, if there are successive generations of unbelief in a family, God can intensify those sufferings from one generation to the next, if he so desires. 

How different it is with Christians. Followers of Jesus will not experience punishment for sin in this life or the next (Romans 8:1). That is because Jesus Christ was punished for all the sins of the world and Christians are beneficiaries of that saving work through Spirit-worked faith in him. The sins or unbelief of ancestors will not bring about divine judgments of punishment in the lives of Christians.  

God so loved the world, yes. The human race is the object of God’s forgiving love in Christ. God sends suffering into the lives of believers too, but not as punishment. He disciplines us as the writer to the Hebrews says (Hebrews 12). We cannot always know why God sends suffering to believers, but we should remember that his purpose for believers is always guided by love.  

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

James Pope also answers questions online at Submit your questions there or to [email protected].



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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 09
Issue: September 2018

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