By T.R. Robertson
The book of Genesis tells the story of generation after generation of inherited suffering. Adam and Eve’s sin affected the lives of their children and the generations to follow. Abraham’s poor choices were echoed by the poor choices of his son, Isaac, and trickled on down to the conflicts between Jacob and Esau, and then on to Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery.
If, like me, you were nurtured in the Restoration Movement, it’s likely we share an aversion to anything smelling of original sin mixed with inherited guilt. An unfortunate side effect of this theological bent can be a blind spot regarding the genuine psychological, sociological, and spiritual effects of intergenerational suffering.
Some children inherit a mind-set of victimization from their ancestors. Others continue their ancestors’ tendency toward counterproductive behavior. Many people find themselves unconsciously repeating or overcompensating for the mistakes and sins of previous generations.
Dr. Eduardo Duran is one among many sociologists and psychologists studying the roots and impact of intergenerational suffering. He has done extensive research on indigenous peoples, including Native Americans. As they historically struggled in the face of advancing civilization, these tribes have developed what he calls “learned helplessness.”
“Learned helplessness is a psychological process denoting a state of entrenched victimization and loss of the ability to maintain hope and see a way out of the pain and suffering.”1
Intergenerational suffering isn’t just found among oppressed tribes. Every strata of society includes people burdened with problems rooted in their family tree.
I’m one of them.
To know what drives me and haunts me, you’d need to know me as both a father and a son. Even then you’ll have only scratched the surface, until you also understand my father as the son of his father.
I’m not trying to blame my personal issues on my grandfather, an abusive alcoholic. He’s been gone too long to provide me with a convenient target for a guilt trip, nor would shifting the blame effect any real change in me.
Still, I had to grapple with my grandfather’s sin and suffering—and the suffering he passed along to his descendants—before I could learn to take responsibility for breaking the chain of suffering that continues to threaten my own family.
Many of the women I counsel in the prison chapel are dealing with intergenerational suffering on a much larger scale. Many were raised in a third or fourth successive generation of poverty, addiction, and crime. Breaking away from the mind-set that comes with such a life seems impossible to them.
Intergenerational suffering is a hope-killer for many people. A significant portion of any community, including the membership of the congregation you lead, serve, or attend, is likely suffering the effects of some inherited trauma.
The only question is whether the church has the will and the resources to alleviate intergenerational suffering. Psychologists are certainly addressing the issue, often employing the same sort of treatments used for posttraumatic stress disorder.
Zen Buddhists are paying attention to the reality of intergenerational suffering and are attracting followers to their spiritual answers to the problem. Adyashanti, a Zen teacher, has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about generational suffering.
One of the interesting things to note about generational suffering is that it’s not personal. In other words, it’s more like a virus that infects people within a family. When you’re born, without even knowing it, you’re actually being handed this generational pain. In response, you will complain about it, think it’s terrible, or otherwise resist it. But by doing so, you will come to see that denial or complaints about this pain only makes it sink more deeply into your being.2
Short of referring troubled seekers to a psychotherapist or a Zen guru, concerned Christian leaders should be prepared to offer effective and biblical counseling. The gospel message is at the core of providing hope to those who suffer.
Believe in Your Future
Stop believing the lies in your head and begin believing in who Jesus says you are.
Marjorie grew up being told she was a whore. Her mother had grown up being told the same thing. Words like those convinced Marjorie to be hypercritical of others while also living up to her mother’s low expectations.
Throughout her arrest and imprisonment, she’s been tagged with even worse labels, including sex offender. She’s had every reason to sink deeper into embracing her intergenerational identity.
Then she heard the things Jesus called her: forgiven, transformed, child of God, saint. She still struggles with her inherited self-image, but now she resolves every morning to once again believe she was created—and recreated—in God’s image.
Counselors should avoid presenting biblical hope as a pat answer. Oversimplifying the cure undervalues the depth of the pain and the complexities of changing an intergenerational mind-set.
Someone who has suffered through generational poverty won’t easily overcome the harsh realities of the only life she has known. Promises of abundant life through the riches of God’s grace will sound wonderful. But unless she learns an entirely different set of life skills, success will remain elusive.
One inmate came to me every week with desperation in her eyes. Whenever something bad happened to her, a frequent occurrence in that environment, she would begin thumbing through the pages of her Bible, searching for which verse she had disobeyed to make God mad at her. It took her a long time to accept God as a Father who has a plan for her well-being, and not as an abusive taskmaster like her biological father.
Confess and Claim Reality
Genuine confession begins with being honest with yourself. It includes facing the reality of who you are, both as a product of your family’s unique issues and also the responsibility that is yours alone.
When I found myself repeating with my own son the very things I resented most in my father, I resolved to understand what drove my dad to do those things.
I’d always known his father was a drunk. He seldom talked about my grandfather and did everything he could to limit our interaction with him. I only knew him as a man I saw on rare occasions. My only vivid memory is of him playing the fiddle, a cigarette hanging from his lips.
In my adult life, I find myself talking to alcoholics and addicts on a weekly basis. I’ve yet to come across one who became an addict just because they like the taste or the buzz. The drugs dull their senses so they don’t have to face their pain and their shame. I wish I knew what suffering drove Chick Robertson to become the drunk who has had such an effect on his descendants.
In his book Father Fiction, Donald Miller writes that he not only missed out on the benefits of having his father in his life, but he struggled, as do most abandoned children, with a gnawing suspicion that he was to blame for his father’s departure. When Miller finally met the man, he saw the same kind of emotional mind games in his father that he recognized in himself. That knowledge helped him to understand himself.
It can be enlightening to dig down to discover how your problems are rooted in the choices and suffering of those who came before. But to stop there is to settle for blame-shifting or hopelessness.
Laying the groundwork for true change requires identifying and laying claim to your own corrupt mind-set and your own poor choices.
Repent and Break the Chain
Your ancestors may have handed down a family story of the way life is. But you don’t have to let them dictate the way life will be for you and your children. Repentance means choosing a different direction.
Two writers have been helpful in teaching me how to reimagine my heritage of suffering as a beginning rather than an ending.
Second Corinthians could be called the “Suffering Epistle.” In it, Paul describes the purpose of both suffering and weakness, provides a detailed outline of working out true repentance, and relates story after story of how his own sufferings have helped to achieve the purposes of God.
When I read that letter through the lens of my personal legacy of suffering, I began to see God’s purpose in affliction. It challenged me to pass down a legacy of grace and the power of God as displayed through my weakness.
Donald Miller’s “Storyline” blog (storylineblog.com) is another useful resource for understanding and redirecting your own past, present, and future. He emphasizes plotting out where you’ve been in order to discover both the negative and positive impact of your suffering. He writes:
The idea behind finding a redemptive perspective toward our suffering isn’t about becoming an optimist. In fact, it’s not about turning a negative event into something positive at all. There are very real tragedies that strike us, and there is no reason not to call them what they are: tragedies.
Finding a redemptive perspective, though, is simply about creating two lists rather than one.3
Working to break the chain of suffering for the sake of my children has been transforming for me. I want to be the ancestor my descendants will remember in gratitude for setting a better pattern for life.
1Eduardo Duran, Healing the Soul Wound: Counseling with American Indians and Other Native Peoples (New York: Columbia University Teachers College Press, 2006).
2Adyashanti, Falling Into Grace: Insight on the End of Suffering (Boulder: Sounds True Inc., 2013).
3Donald Miller, “Happy People Seem to Do This Well,” storylineblog.com, June 27, 2013.
T.R. Robertson is a business technology analyst with the University of Missouri in Columbia.