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Character Formation in Children:
Reversing the Effects of the "Sin of the Fathers"

BY DONALD A. LICHI

Refer to: Deuteronomy 5:22; 6:1–9; Psalm 78:1–8.

"When you sow an action, you reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny." As this popular adage relates to parenting, it suggests that every decision we make should be made with at least three generations in mind.

What does Scripture mean when it refers to "the sin of the fathers" (Exodus 20:5*) being passed along to the third and fourth generation of a family? Why and how is the sin transmitted? How can we stand in the gap to reverse generational trends and sinful patterns and then pass on a more godly lifestyle to our children and grandchildren?

Personality vs. Character

To understand how the effects of sin are passed along from generation to generation, let’s look first at the difference between personality and character. Personality is what others see when they look at us. Character is who we really are when no one else is around. Although personality elements may be transmitted to our children or their children, character elements are certainly transmitted to them. They look at us—and see into us—in those moments when we think nobody is watching. This is how each of us learned from our parents and grandparents in our own family of origin. From our family, we learn about ourselves (our self-esteem), about others, and how to have relationships. We also learn important family values including: level of spirituality, attitudes toward money, attitudes toward personal health, communication style, conformity or nonconformity to what are considered normal behaviors in society, competition vs. cooperation between family members, level of honesty, and approach to education.

Children tend to practice what we practice

As children grow into adulthood and enter marriage, they tend to recreate the kind of family atmosphere in which they have grown up. Many are fortunate enough to be raised by cooperative parents who work at communicating clearly with each other and who place themselves under the lordship of Christ. They have parents who are supportive of each other, honest in their business dealings, and fair in their relationships. These children are likely to grow up into the same kind of adults. However, children raised by parents who are always looking out for No. 1 tend to grow into yet another generation of adults who think of others first only when it is convenient or self-serving.

Of course, some children raised in the most devastating home atmospheres manage to create more Christlike homes when they become adults. The reverse is sometimes true as well. Children raised by loving, considerate parents may grow up to be selfish and inconsiderate.

Teach Carefully

Because God has created each of us with an individual will, no parent is entirely responsible for how his or her child turns out. If a child turns out well, the parent doesn’t get all the credit. Likewise, parents don’t deserve all the blame when things don’t turn out so well. At some point, we all choose how we will behave and what we will value in life. However, no earthly individual has more influence over another’s choices in this area than the influence parents have over their children. And when a second or third generation carries sinful attitudes and behaviors forward, this is how the "sin of the fathers" is passed from generation to generation.

As earthly parents, we teach our children—consciously and unconsciously—primarily in the same way God has taught us through His Son Jesus. Our most powerful teaching tool is that of modeling. Our children are far more likely to do what they see us do than they are to do what we tell them to do.

What character qualities do we want to pass on to our children? We must ask God to help us find ways to model the qualities in our own life that we want to see in our children and grandchildren 20 and 40 years from now. Ask Him to help you find substitute behaviors and learn new attitudes to replace the things you don’t want to pass on to your heirs.

The battle for Christian character begins in the transformation of the mind by the empowerment of God’s Holy Spirit. Christian writer and speaker Zig Ziglar has often said, "You are what you are, and you are where you are as a result of what has gone into your mind.… You can change what you are, and you can change where you are by changing what goes into your mind."

Dallas Willard explains in his compelling book The Spirit of the Disciplines the truth, "as a man thinks, so he is" (see Proverbs 23:7).

We can become like Christ by doing one thing—by following Him in the overall style of life He chose for himself—by practicing the types of activities He engaged in—by arranging our whole lives around the activities He himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of His Father.

Admittedly, these are lofty goals and difficult to achieve. But they are goals worthy of pursuing in His strength because they will help us model for our children the kind of life pleasing to the Lord—a life benefiting future generations of our family.

Along with prayer and the determination to become more like Christ’s example, there are some practical disciplines that we need to build into our lives to help reverse the generational effects of sin. Until we are willing to accept responsibility for our behaviors and attitudes, we inhibit God’s healing power to bring our lives in line with His Word and His example through Jesus.

Time for a checkup?

Here is a brief look at five areas of our personal lives that need to come under the discipline of Christ—areas that lead to practical sanctification and godly character development. A mental checkup will allow us to see where we may need to make some adjustments for our own sake and for those we love.

1. Physical. This includes: body purity, moral purity, personal hygiene, exercise, rest, nutrition, health care. Depending on how well we care for our body, it can enhance or diminish the pleasures we experience in life (cf. Psalm 139:13–16; Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 6:20).

2. Intellectual. The mind is what we think about and how we feel about ourselves (our self-talk). The cognitive part of us is heavily influenced by anything we allow into our minds—what we read, what we view, and how we allow ourselves to be entertained (cf. Romans 12:1,2; Philippians 4:8).

3. Emotional. Our feelings are the affective part of us that can be constructive or destructive depending on how they influence us to act. We need to be aware of our feelings and be responsible in the way we express them (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:4,8; Proverbs 14:30;17:22).

4. Social. Our relationships with our spouse, family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors are built on our attitudes of kindness, courtesy, respect, submission where appropriate, and personal accountability (cf. 1 John 3:11,16–18; 4:19–21).

5. Spiritual. This is the foundational area on which the other four are built. This is our personal relationship with God the Father through Christ the Son in the Holy Spirit. Our love for Christ is the impetus for our prayers and Bible reading and is the inspiration for our desire to align ourselves with God’s Word and God’s will. We need to be as holy in our lives as we are in our prayers (cf. 1 Timothy 4:7,8). Books such as Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Donald S. Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life offer help in developing the disciplines of the Christian life.

Conclusion

God has charged us to be models of godliness in creating a family atmosphere and to be aware of which values are being transmitted to our children. As parents, we must enter into the process of practical sanctification in each area of our lives. As God changes our character, the generational effects of sin in our own lives will begin to be reversed, and godly character will be passed on to the next generation. This is God’s design. May He help us pass on a godly heritage to the generation to come.

"Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands" (Deuteronomy 7:9).

*Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.


Donald A. Lichi, Ph.D., is vice president and director of education for EMERGE Ministries, Inc., Akron, Ohio.