When I was training for the ministry at a theological college in Ndola, I had friends who were Pentecostal/charismatic in their theological orientation. One day they invited me to join them in praying for two ladies who were biological sisters and Christians. These two ladies were in their late twenties, with good careers and with attractive physical features that were above average. These ladies were becoming increasingly concerned that marriage proposals from men were not on the horizon, and this made them conclude that something was terribly wrong.
Fuelled by an overwhelming desire for the accoutrements of marriage, our two dear sisters attended an overnight prayer meeting where their entire world came crashing down. Some self-appointed prophet was supposedly given the powers to discern their past and declared matter-of-factly that these two ladies, their entire family and subsequent generations of the feminine gender in this family line were under a curse which would consign them to perpetual spinsterhood. And that was to remain so until the curse was broken. It was revealed in that prophecy that there were some hidden sins which were committed by their ancestors, and the consequences of that behaviour had unwittingly imposed a life of celibacy on the entire feminine progeny. So they were asking for prayers that God might break this ancestral curse and favour them with the much sought after blessing of marriage.
For many years now, The Post Newspaper runs adverts from some witchdoctors or traditional medicine men (Sangoomas) who, among other things, claim that they can expunge curses that run into families from one generation to another. One of these ‘doctors’ cited examples of curses that he breaks: infertility, miscarriages, poverty and accident proneness.
These two examples are given to underscore the prevailing general belief of many people that underlies our African worldview. As Africans in general, and Zambians in particular, we live in a world that is steeped in occult beliefs and practices. Setbacks, illness, death, and all forms of suffering are perceived as arising from hostile spiritual powers and forces. Ancestral spirits are believed to influence everyday life. Who grew up on Zambian soil and in a typical setting bustling with all its cultural idiosyncrasies and never heard of the spine-chilling terms such as “walitipwa?” (you are cursed). And even in modern Zambia, it is not uncommon to hear people say “Fyaba mulupwa.” (meaning that a propensity towards certain sins, or particular calamities runs in the family, and goes back several generations).
I have run into people who are convinced that whatever misfortune they are going through is as a result of some malediction emanating from an offended evil man or spirit. Often the self-diagnosis or that which is sought from the experts in the juju artefacts invariably identifies a number of misfortunes suspected of arising from a curse. Things like mental and emotional breakdowns; repeated or chronic sicknesses, especially if they’re hereditary, repeated miscarriages; breakdown of marriage, continuing financial insufficiency or poverty, history of suicides or unnatural deaths in a family are high on the list. The very word hereditary is seen as a conclusive sign that there’s a curse coming from generation to generation.

What is a Generational Curse?
According to the Webster’s English dictionary, a “generation” is “a single step in the line of descent from an ancestor; the average span of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their children.” In the same source, we learn that a “curse” is “a prayer or invocation for harm or injury to come upon one; the evil that comes as if in response to imprecation or retribution; to call on divine or supernatural power to send injury upon someone.”
So generational curse is a term used to describe the cumulative effect on any individual or group of individuals of things their ancestors did, believed or practiced in the past. It is a consequence of an ancestor’s actions, beliefs and sins being passed down through each generation to the next. Many believe this principle extends to demonic activity. For example, if one of your ancestors practiced witchcraft or other occult practices, any spirit they talked to, used or dealt with, has the freedom and power to trouble you now. Those under “generation curses” would be born already destined to commit certain sins, dominated by a force beyond human control. This, it is believed, is a different realm from mere parental influence. It is a situation requiring some sort of intervention by a power greater than the force of the “curse.”
And it is from this background scenario that we have seen evolve, a new teaching and ministry of “breaking curses,” or the famous deliverance sessions which our Pentecostal/charismatic brothers vehemently champion. It is becoming increasingly common for Christians to suppose that they are victims of generational curses. They suppose they have inherited sinful and evil tendencies over which they have no control. The proponents of generational curses hypothesise that when multiple cases of the same problem happen in a family line, it is a generational curse.

The Intrusion of Generational Curses Teaching into Mainstream Christianity
Based on texts taken out of context, we have seen the teaching on generational curses becoming more and more popular and accepted by many Christians. This teaching was popularised by British Bible teacher, the late Derek Prince in the mid-80’s, and spread it through widespread public teaching and media. He authored about 50 books and booklets. He died in September 2003, but his teaching continues to be made available in book, video, and audio form through the Derek Prince Ministries website. Here is an excerpt from chapter 1 of his book Blessing or Curse. The chapter is entitled Wrestling with Shadows:

“To the superficial observer, human life presents a confused mingling of light and shadow, arranged according to no recognizable pattern, governed by no discernable laws. Across this scene two men may start out walking side by side. Similar in background and ability, they are headed in the same direction. Yet one walks almost always in the light of success and fulfilment. The other, close by him, scarcely sees the light. He is continually overshadowed by failure and frustration and his life is snuffed out at an untimely age. Neither of these men understands the forces at work in his life. The sources of light and shadow are hidden to them both. Probably they have never even considered the possibility that both light and shadow may have their source in previous generations. The Bible speaks plainly about these forces. In fact, it has a great deal to say about them. It calls them respectively blessings and curses.”

The prevalent teaching on this subject is that generational curses cannot be broken at all, until all sins of all ancestors and predecessors on all sides of all of ones’ family are confessed back to the family’s origin, asking with repentance, for forgiveness for all of those sins and in particular, for the specific sin or sins which brought the generations curse into the family line. Now, you don’t even have to be a Bible scholar to know that something is wrong with this picture. How can you remember the sins of ancestors you don’t even know? It’s hard enough remembering the sins you commit daily, not to mention the sins you committed several years ago. Yet these gurus on generational curse want you to confess the sins of your ancestors or make a daily positive confession, in order to break a curse. How ridiculous!
There are many reasons for the popularity of the generation curse concept. An obvious one is the reluctance of most humans to take blame for their wrongdoing. Psychological theories have convinced many people that they are not really sinners, but rather victims of society in general and parents in particular. Most of those who teach the generational curse concept also claim to be able to break curses for those who come forward in their meetings. In an age of instant solutions to just about everything, the promise of quick moral transformation is appealing. If this teaching is true then every believer should be involved in getting curses broken.

Passages that are appealed to by those holding to this teaching
There are four passages in the OT that speak of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers unto the third and fourth generations of those who hate God” – Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9.
Of these passages, Deuteronomy 5:9, is probably the most familiar. Many interpret these passages to teach “generational curses” – curses on the children resulting from their fathers’ sins. But is this the point of the passage? The context does not favour such an interpretation. Whereas God’s wrath would be visited to the third and fourth generations for those who hate God, His mercy would be visited on thousands of generations for those who love God. Notice the contrast. The point of this passage is not to communicate the number of generations who will be blessed versus the number who will be cursed, but rather to communicate that God’s mercy far exceeds His wrath. Ironically, many people have used these passages to stress the severity of God’s wrath over His mercy!
This observation alone does not clear up the difficulty of this verse; for the point still seems to stand that the innocent could be punished for their fathers’ sins. Let me, therefore, make a few observations that serve to more adequately address this notion, as well as the application of “generational curses” as it is often taught today.
1. First, notice that the curses are on those who hate God.
2. Using a hyper-literalistic interpretation of this passage, if the Lord shows mercy for thousands of generations on the fathers who loved God, then all that would be necessary for us to be in the “mercy” rather than “cursed” category is to find one relative in the past thousand or so generations that loved and obeyed the Lord. Is it not probable that we have at least one distant relative in the last 1000 generations who loved the Lord and kept His commandments? The statistical probability is that we most certainly do. And if we do, then we are part of the 1000 generations the Lord promised to show mercy to, not curse.
3. The third point to consider is that God is the active agent behind divine visitation upon the sin of successive generations. Whereas the common interpretation assumes the origin of the curse is Satan, or even man himself, the text here is clear that the One visiting “the iniquity of the fathers on the children” is God Himself. Why would God break the “curse,” if we suppose this to be a curse, that He is responsible for giving? After all, He wouldn’t have said He was going to curse the third and fourth generations if He did not want the sinner’s third and fourth generations to be cursed. To invoke God’s help in breaking this supposed curse is to ask God to will something other than what He expressly wills. That is contradictory and absurd.
So this text, and other parallels ones – Exodus 20:5; 34:7; and Numbers 14:18, speak of God’s determination to punish successive generations for committing the same sins they learned from their parents. In other words, God will not say, “I won’t punish this generation for what they are doing to break my covenant, because after all, they merely learned it from their parents who did it too.” Instead, God will surely punish generation after generation if they keep doing the same sorts of sins that prior generations did. If the children continue to do the sins their parents did, they will receive the same punishments as their parents. Deuteronomy 34:16 clearly states that “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” (cf. 2 Kings. 14:6). Ezekiel 18:1-5 counters the idea that God punishes the children for the fathers’ sins. People were saying that children were suffering because of the sins of the parents. That is a very common understanding among the heathen and unfortunately among many Christians too who do not know their Bibles. Preachers in Israel were misinterpreting Exodus 20:5 and bringing people into bondage and painting a picture of an unrighteous God Who punished children for the sins of their ancestors. But the Lord replied to that, then, by saying, “You are surely not going to use this proverb in Israel anymore. The soul who sins will die” (Ezekiel 18:3, 4). In the verses that follow, Ezekiel expands on this idea, pointedly declaring that if the son of an evil man does not repeat His father’s sins (which contradicts the interpretation of the “generational curses” passages that the children are destined to repeat their fathers’ sins) he will not be punished, but only the father. The same goes for the corollary in which a righteous man’s son commits evil. The father will be blessed, but the son will be punished. Ezekiel summed up the matter by proclaiming further in Ezekiel 18:20-21.
4. Fourthly, we need to consider Jesus’ statement in John 9:3. Upon seeing a man blind from birth the disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus responded, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Contrary to the disciples’ belief, he was not paying for his ancestors’ sins. In fact, his infirmity was unrelated to sin. It was for the glory of God.
In light of such clear teaching concerning personal responsibility for sin, any interpretation of Deuteronomy 5:9 and other parallel passages that yield a contrary notion need to be refuted. This understanding of generational curses has nothing to do with God. While it is true that the human tendency is for children to repeat the sins of their parents, this is not due to the fact that God has cursed them so that they must repeat the same sins. There is nothing supernatural about it. It is a phenomenon of human nature. We learn from example and influence. We tend to do what we have learned to do by the example of others. Scripture communicates that consequences – not curses – are passed on through the generations.
While the notion of generational curses is foreign to Scripture, there is a sense in which the curse of sin has been passed on from generation to generation. Through the first Adam, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Through the second Adam – Jesus Christ – atonement is offered to all. Paul says “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). Through no act of our own we are condemned; likewise, through no act of our own we are saved (Rom. 5:12-21).
Jesus Christ bore our curses by being made a curse for us, for it is written, “Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree” (Gal 3:13). If any such thing as a generational curse does exist, that curse over our life would have been broken by Christ. In Christ we receive the mercy of God, not a curse.

What are the sad consequences of this teaching?
1. The belief in generational curses denies the sufficiency of Christ for the atonement of sin, as well as denying the Covenant of Grace.
2. It relinquishes people from acknowledging the responsibility of their wrong doing, their sins and their inadequacies and putting them on someone else.
3. The social-economic factor in Africa in general, and Zambia in particular causes many people to look to religion as a means of financial support. The unemployed charlatans with strong personalities can easily claim spiritual encounters and appoint themselves to a deliverance ministry with a profit motive in mind.
4. The process of deliverance which involves breaking links with families eventually divides the traditional extended family system and promotes individualism.
5. It reinforces the primitive animistic belief system that keeps the community in servile fearfulness, especially when repeated problems occur in the family. A Christian lady recently came to see me because she has been unable to find a job, and she thinks this is due to the words of her former employer whom she sued for non-payment of her benefits.

As we evaluate this teaching in the light of Scripture, let me leave you with a few points for reflection:
1. We must not underestimate the fascinating allure and intrigue that the supernatural spirit world presents to all animistic societies, and our African worldview, in its nascent form has all the flavours of animism. We must avoid the extreme of demystifying everything supra rational as just another symptom of social stress or psychological tension. We need to appreciate and take seriously the raging war between Good and Evil, the eternal, actual antithesis between God and Satan, and develop a response that is deeply rooted in God’s revelation.
2. Teaching on the sufficiency of Christ’s finished work. We must not diminish the power of the cross in our theology. As new creatures in Christ, we have no spiritual connection with our ancestors. Our past and all its connections from the past have been done away with. Nothing any person or demon would do will change that. Jesus does not tell us if we want to live a victorious life, we need to examine ourselves to see whether we have any curses hindering us. Paul did not tell the Ephesians after they accepted Jesus, and burnt all their books on magic, to find out which curses may have been left behind to haunt. If tracking out, discovering, and being released from curses is needed to be free, why didn’t God tell us about it? In fact, nowhere in the New Testament do we find any example or instruction on how to deal with curses of any kind.
3. Teaching on the powerlessness of generational curses. Although people attribute tremendous supranatural powers to these curses, it must be brought to people’s attention that God’s power is superior (1 John 4:4). Believers are to continually appropriate the full armour of God, and only then can they steadfastly resist the devil. The prophet Isaiah sarcastically challenged the Babylonians to continue on their incantations and magical practices, in an effort to avert the invasions of the Medes and Persians (47:12–13). But the efforts of Babylon’s magicians and astrologers to save their nation were doomed to failure (47:14–15). This illustrates that no occultist practice/belief is capable of exercising power over God’s plans.