Visiting the iniquity unto the fourth generation.

October 22, 2004 | 23 comments

God sometimes speaks in a terrible voice. Hear this:
I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.

He has spoken these words to old Israel in the Old Testament. He has spoken it to new Israel in the Doctrine and Covenants. We must believe that the words are meant. The innocent child of the innocent child, the baby’s baby, is a vessel of wrath. Theodicy trembles.

Our usual approach–we are all amateur apologists– is to deny that God really meant the active voice. He is simply describing a sociological fact: unusually righteous parents give their children good teaching and good example and love. The effect is that the children flourish and in turn likely become good parents. The effect is felt for three to four generations. Unusually wicked parents also have an effect for that long. The pathologies raised by their wickedness, spitefullness, hate, abuse, misuse, and domination are not likely to breed out for three to four generations.
The usual approach may well be true. But it is cold comfort when you are a primary teacher to a sweet child who struggles to pay attention; who does not give trust easily; who feels like an outsider at church because everyone here is so different from home; who becomes defensive or skeptical when you preach love and morality. You can hardly bear the lashes scarred across their innocence.

Plus some scriptures just don’t fit the ‘sociological fact’ model.
Here God promises to protect the children’s children of the man who turns away from wreaking vengeance on the agressor, if the agressor were to attack them in their turn. It’s hard to recast this protection into some sort of ‘natural’ cause. It reads more naturally as a phenomena very much like prayer, in which God gives extra protection and help to the people the people he cares for care for.

So here’s a different approach. Call it the ‘Savior on Mount Zion’ model. Because my mind right now is full of the withering rules of habeas corpus, I can’t guarantee that it will make sense. I cannot even be sure is this approach supports or contradicts the usual approach or, like those geometric lines that are neither parallel nor perpendicular, if it is simple skew to it. Here it is.

I have noticed that many of the pathologies these children suffer comes from their love for their parents. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know you or love you at all, but if you belittled me, attacked me, or paraded your addictions in front of me, or made me a pawn in them, I don’t claim that I would be totally unscathed. If you kept on doing it, it would bring me down. But children love their parents as I do not love you, and that love makes a difference. The betrayals, the abuse, the emotional stones where they sought for bread, are all the more disheartening.

What’s more, I wouldn’t at all feel that I was rejecting you and your relationship if I broke away from you, or rather I would feel that way and I wouldn’t care. You and I are just pixels passing in the night. Kids on the other hand–I’m sure you’ve noticed this–oftentimes feel like they love their parents so much that they have to embrace their deadly influence. It’s the despair of bishops and teachers, and in some ways the delight too. You see that there’s something strong and good down there in the child, even if it’s dangerous. They have a mad love, a shadow of the Love that surpasseth understanding. You just have to pray that someday the child will finally hear the voice that says, yes, breaking from your parents’ behavior and influence is breaking away from the relationship with them, can’t be helped, and yes, you living cleanly and religiously is going to be an implicit judgment on them and they’re not going to like it, that’s all true and I’m sorry about it, but if you just do it for your parents’ sake, if you do it to be an example to them, or to live true to the good things that were at the heart of your relationship, even if so much evil accreted around it, why then all the pain you feel at the break-up of your relationship is pain you’re feeling for their sake, which means you’re standing to them like Christ stands to us and that, let me tell you now, is a fountain of love that never ends. You’re making your relationship less to make it more.

Until that someday, these children are probably wiser in their generation than we in ours. They should love their parents. They should let themselves be hurt and betrayed and led at least a little ways down dark paths. The resultant burden is salvific. Oh, I don’t mean its salvific for the children, though I’m sure that it is. On earth, Carlyle noted, every noble crown is and always will be a crown of thorns. I mean that its salvific for the parents.

There’s lots of ways that good kids save bad parents, I’m sure. I mean to discuss only one. The prophets have promised us that parents who have done their all will have all their children with them in the Kingdom. In some way that I do not purport to understand, the unclean vessels parents carry in are purified by their embrace. But I do not think the only children can be vessels and only parents can embrace. It works the other way too, I think, if only the children love their parents enough. When they’re young, that means suffering because of them. When they’re grown, that means struggling hard first to overcome, then to forgive, and then once again to embrace–a spectacle that softens even justice’s heart. The pain is, throughout, the seal on the relationship. They were wounded in the house of their fathers and now by their stripes are their fathers healed.


23 Responses to Visiting the iniquity unto the fourth generation.

  1. anon on October 22, 2004 at 11:08 pm

    Adam, may I ask if you grew up in a family where child abuse and child neglect was the norm? Because, fi , like me you had suffered at t he hands of your parents, I dont think you would have said that children ought to let themselves be victimised in order for the parents to be saved from whatever!!!! I think it is totally ludicrous for you to even suggest that some amount of chile abuse ought to be OK, and that children ought to allow that to happen. That is just a case of “blame the victim”, and is a statement that folks like me who suffered horribly at the hands of our parents, actually find very offensive!!! I hope you will reconsider your views on this matter. I think this is a case where being overly religious has led to your inability to realise what kind of damage child abuse does to a person. I sure hope you pray and ponder, and reconsider. Child abuse is just not acceptable in a civilised society, and one ought not to be making excuses for that kind of negative behavior on t he part of the parents who abuse their kids.

  2. David King Landrith on October 23, 2004 at 12:34 am

    I always took the 3rd and 4th generation stuff to be directed at a slightly different target than what you describe. You seem to define in terms of family, while I tend to look at it in terms of community. When God pronounces judgment on an unrighteous community, it throws the community in a tailspin that lasts at least 3 or 4 generations. The moral responsibility for the sufferings of these victims is upon the heads of the sinners in the first generation. And innocent people everywhere suffer because of the sorry state of the community in which they live, so this poses no additional moral dilemmas. (You’re one example seems to specify family, and I’m not sure how well this fits with that.) I also think that this is more in keeping with the pre-modern notion of personal identity originating in community (rather than the individual) that would have prevailed in biblical times.

    That said, I have a hard time understanding how Laman and Lemuel are going to obtain the highest glory given (a) that they didn’t partake of the tree of the fruit of life (in the dream or in life) and (b) that they generally wreaked havoc.

    Likewise, if Lehi had a grandson through Laman or Lemuel that was exactly like his grandfather, I don’t see how Lehi II would help Laman or Lemuel any more than Lehi I.

    Maybe I’m just a vindictive SOB (or maybe a bit self destructive?), but I’ve always identified more with the fire and brimstone talk of the Bible and the Book of Mormon.

    I’m not saying that it’s my place to understand any of this stuff, and I’m quite happy it won’t be my job to pronounce the final judgment.

  3. Adam Greenwood on October 23, 2004 at 2:28 pm

    Mr. Anon:
    I’m not advocating throwing the sheep to the wolves. I’m trying to understand why kids so often cling to bad parents; I conclude that its love and that the love may be redemptive.

    Mr. Landrith:
    Your instincts mirror mine. Every time I read the prodigal son parable I wish the father had took his son out to the woodshed before he put on the feast. And I think its important to remember other parables like the parables of the sheep and the goats or of the talents (“you wicked and unprofitable servant . . . . That which you had will be taken from you”)
    But the prophets keep promising us that the children of righteous parents won’t be left behind. I don’t know what this means–maybe only that children who are taught right and fiercely loved are very likely at least to eventually end up in the Celestial kingdom, if not the highest degree–but it certainly seems that when we love someone fiercely that has some power to redeem them.

  4. specks on October 23, 2004 at 7:06 pm

    Those are interesting insights. I think they’re a lot more sensible than mine, but I’ll share it anyway. I take it a lot more literally. Most parents, I think, don’t like watching their children suffer. Seeing your offspring suffer for choices you made probably wouldn’t be so pleasant, but would probably be a strong driver to repentance for those in the post-mortal world. I think that sometimes the consequence of a parent’s sin will sometimes cascade down a few generations (or a lot of generations (see Cain)).

    That’s not so different I guess. ^_^

  5. Gary Lee on October 23, 2004 at 8:10 pm

    Adam: Is it your opinion that the love of earthly parents has some redemptive power that is incremental to the redemptive power of God’s love? It seems odd to me that the love of earthly parents could accomplish something God’s infinite love could not, but I think that is the implication of your remarks.

  6. anon on October 23, 2004 at 9:42 pm

    Adam, I dont think that the “love” you children have is real love at all. In many cases, it is some kind of weird psychological problem, like Stockholm syndrome, or some other weird diagnosis. And in some other cases, a small number of people can overcome all the problems caused , and actually look beyond their parent’s flaws, and come to “love” their messed up, abusive parents. If you can call it “love” that is.
    But, I submit, your saying that somehow, children ought to be willing to suffer child abuse for their parents sake, is actually highly offensive, whichever way you try to justify it. You probably have no experience either being atthe recieving end of child abuse, or in having to deal with the aftermath of such behavior by irresponsible and flawed parents. No one who has experienced any of those experiences would say what you did. And quoting Scripture to try to do justify yur ststements just doesnt cut it!!!!! Sorry to be so obtuse, but, if you had been severely beaten and kicked around till age 15 like I , and many others like me have, you woudl never say anything as irresponsible and outrageous.

  7. David King Landrith on October 23, 2004 at 10:46 pm


    You say, “it certainly seems that when we love someone fiercely that has some power to redeem them.” Perhaps, loving them fiercely just gives them a letter of safe passage and visiting rights.

    You are certainly correct that official teachings seem to indicate that there is a kind safety net for the children of righteous parents. It seems like you share my gut-level discomfort with universalism, and I must admit that I don’t quite get this safety net idea.

    Perhaps this is the point. I may sound like Dan Vogel here, but from what we learn about the true nature “Eternal punishment,” God may be happy to have us think that there is much more on the line than there is, if that’s what it takes to make us righteous.

    Incidentally, what is the history of this notion/doctrine? For some reason, it strikes me as a fairly recent innovation. Am I totally off-base here?

  8. Rosalynde Welch on October 24, 2004 at 12:09 am

    Anon, I can’t read your comments without hurting for you, and I can’t write anything without acknowledging your pain. I don’t think Adam is advocating that children tolerate abuse for their parents’ sake. I hope you can find safety in this life and solace in the atonement.

    Adam, this is skew to your post, but it’s on my mind. Tonight at stake conference Elder Terry Smith (6th quorum of the seventy?) gave a masterful talk on the atonement. He’s a physician and mental health professional, and speaks with the gentle weariness of a person who’s witnessed whole galaxies of suffering and pain, absorbed it, and reflected back hope and faith. His entire talk was remarkable; I learned more about the temple ordinances than I have in a long time. Anyway, he suggested that difficulty in this life is of two sorts: sin (our fault) and adversity (not our fault, even if of our own making). The Aaronic priesthood and its ordinances of baptism and sacrament access the atonement to overcome sin; the Melchizedek priesthood and its ordinances of confirmation and the temple ordinances access the atonement to overcome adversity.

    More to your point, he specifically talked about abuse (the getting of, not the giving of) as an instance of adversity, though often mistaken for sin. Victims of abuse feel guilty, try to repent, but get no answer from the Lord and are cast into despair. The problem, Elder Smith suggested, is that repentance is the wrong path to the atonement for adversity. Adversity is best overcome by faith, temple ordinances, and service. He pointed to 2 Nephi 2:1-3 as an episode of abuse and restoration: Jacob seems to have been abused in some way by his elder brothers, and Lehi exhorts him to serve diligently in order to experience the redemptive power of Christ.

    It’s late, and I’m not sure I’ve communicated his ideas clearly, but I found it to be a deeply moving and doctrinally profound address.

  9. Jack on October 24, 2004 at 12:13 am

    Anon, turn down the thermostat a notch will ya.

    I met my biological father for the first time last summer. (I’m in my forties) We spent many hours talking over our divergent paths in life. When I told him about the abuse I had experienced as a child, he came back with a glib “that’s happened to everyone I know”. I thought, F you! If you had been there it may not have happened! And, no sir, it hasn’t happened to everyone *I* know. All the same, I have the almost impossible task of having to learn to forgive my father. And yet, I find myself agreeing with Adam in that, if it were not for an odd intrinsic kind of familial “love” that seems to be there, I would’ve said adios after our first encounter.

  10. Jack on October 24, 2004 at 12:34 am

    Rosalynde, I wish I’d been there. I know the burden of unnecessary repentence. (of course, I know the burden of sin as well) I wonder though, if we make God a little capricious by implying that help was witheld because we were simply asking for the wrong thing. In my experience, the effects of abuse can be so cumbersome that the victim cannot allow him/herself to receive that kind of help because of the weight of unnecessary guilt. I’ve learned over the years that even though I may have been misguided in my appeals to God because of the effects of abuse, that help has been there all along in some degree and that if it were not so, things would be much worse at present.

  11. jayneedoe on October 24, 2004 at 5:21 am

    >They should love their parents. They should let themselves be hurt and betrayed and led at least a little ways down dark paths. The resultant burden is salvific. Oh, I don’t mean its salvific for the children, though I’m sure that it is. On earth, Carlyle noted, every noble crown is and always will be a crown of thorns. I mean that its salvific for the parents.<

    This statement astonishes and repulses me. It displays an obscene lack of understanding of the life-long, disastrous, agonizing and often permanent affects of childhood abuse.

    I’m also amazed at the responses to those posters who are also angry at this statement because they have been abused. Telling someone who has been abused and is coonsequently, and justifiably, angry at any suggestion that they have done something “salvic” by enduring the abuse is only perpetuating the pain and isolation the initial abuse created.


  12. jayneedoe on October 24, 2004 at 5:30 am

    >>They should love their parents. They should let themselves be hurt and betrayed and led at least a little ways down dark paths. The resultant burden is salvific. Oh, I don’t mean its salvific for the children, though I’m sure that it is. On earth, Carlyle noted, every noble crown is and always will be a crown of thorns. I mean that its salvific for the parents. <

    Sorry for the duplication. My additional comments didn’t make it.

    I am astonished and repulsed by your words I quoted above. It shows an obscene lack of understanding about the life-long, overwhelming and agonizing affects of childhood abuse.

    I’m additionally astonished at the posted responses to Anon, who is also justifiably angry at your post. Telling Anon, who has endured the anguish and desolation of the affects of childhood abuse, to “tone it down” only perpetuates the pain and isolation the abuse initally created. His comments, and his anger, were perfectly appropriate to your outrageous comments.

  13. jayneedoe on October 24, 2004 at 5:36 am

    I’m sorry for the duplicate posts. I’ve made additional comments, but for some reason they’re not making it into the posts.

    I am astonished and repulsed by your words that I quoted above. It shows an obscene lack of understanding about the life-long and agonizing affects of childhood abuse.

    I am also astonished at the responses to Anon, who is justifiably angry that you would make such an outrageous comment. Telling him to “tone it down,” only exacerbates the pain and isolation initially created by the abuse.

    You’re really playing with fire here.

    Anon, my heart goes out to you.

  14. Kaimi on October 24, 2004 at 11:50 am


    I’m with the others here. Playing with sin in order to experience salvation is not the Lord’s way.

    We might as well say that members should tolerate and allow adultery (or some other major, hurtful sin), because then they will be able to experience the eventual catharsis of forgiving the sinner. That’s similar to Satan’s reasoning — let’s play with fire a little, because then the healing will feel so much better. Of course, many will never heal, will be consumed by the fire, and will never feel the joy.

    It’s a deceptive argument, but one that has been advanced for a while by some thinkers. (Rasputin, certainly an intelligent guy, was able to bed a number of previously virtuous married women by convincing them that they needed first to commit some dark sin, in order to then be able to feel the bliss and joy of repentance.) I don’t buy it.

  15. Anon on October 24, 2004 at 12:00 pm

    Jack – sorry brother, I wont turn down the thermostat. solely becasue, I see people such as you and Adam seem to be so complacent about what abused kids have to suffer, and some actually have to die, and then what they have to deal with as adults.
    I am vert glad that you have been able to deal with your demons, more power to you, and I am thnkfull that Heavenly father gave you the strength and mental resources to recover and succeed.
    And Adam – a recommendation – try reding this book – it is not a Church or a Deseret Books publication. It is actually a secular, mystery book by Robert Crais, called “L.A. Requiem” And then probably you will realise why your comment about why kids ought to go along with child abuse, because the results would be “salvic”, is so very wrong and so very offensive!!!! I showed your comments to a friend in our Stake who is a very experienced Psychiatrist, (a specialist in Forensic Psychiatry, with over 30 years experience teaching at a top-5 Medical school, and with over 30 years of research experience), and he too was taken aback, and shocked, at your comments implying that somehow, child abuse is a good thing, approved by the Scriptires, an experience all kids ought to go through!!!!!
    Anyways, I guess, I will take time off from checking Times and Seasons, cant take this kind of irresponsible and offensive ideas, justified as Scripturally justified any more. See y’all.

  16. Rob Briggs on October 24, 2004 at 1:28 pm

    Ahh, if I might intrude? I think we have a serious miscommunication. Adam had specific situation(s) in mind which he raised at a fairly abstract level. Two other gentlemen, Anon & Jayneedoe, responding from bitter personal experience, have (mis)interpreted Adam’s general statements. I didn’t interpret Adam’s post as a defense of child abuse & I doubt that he meant it that way. However, Anon & Jayneedoe have conveyed how painful their personal experiences have been & that something in Adam’s post triggered a painful response.

    Anon & Jayneedoe, I’m sorry to hear about the trouble your childhood experiences have caused.

    Perhaps it would help if Adam were more concrete in describing the situation he’s considering.

  17. David King Landrith on October 24, 2004 at 2:04 pm

    I agree with Rob Briggs, here. I don’t see anything sinister in Adam’s post.

  18. Jack on October 24, 2004 at 4:46 pm

    Anon, I’m afraid that the process of healing will last for the rest of my life. I still have surges of murderous rage. I still have many unanswered questions about my past. Please do not consider my position on child abuse a complacent one. You of all people must know that it’s virtually impossible for victims of abuse to overcome their burn for such gross injustice – which burn, at times, comes out of my very pores unbidden. However, If one wants to matriculate oneself into a community of sorts, then turning down the thermostat a notch or two will be necessary so as not to flare up at the slightest hint of offense, especially when it is completely unintended.

    Kaimi, Adam is in no way suggesting that “playing with sin” is necessary to salvation. I’m with Rob. I don’t see anything sinister in Adam’s post. As a matter of fact, I find his post rather illuminating. As one who has experienced some of the horrors of abuse, I’ve had great difficulty understanding why God would allow such things to happen to innocent children. It’s been difficult to accept the fall doctrinally. At times I’d rather believe that human experience is at the whim of a cold and godless universe than believe in a God who will stay his hand at such grievances. That said, I like the sense of redemption that Adam’s approach brings into the what appears to be an almost hopeless condition.

  19. Last_lemming on October 25, 2004 at 2:24 pm

    They should let themselves be hurt and betrayed and led at least a little ways down dark paths.

    Sorry guys, I’m with anon, et al. Use of the word “should” in this context is highly problematic and at least potentially sinister. An abuser reading those words could easily find justification in them, whether such is intended or not.

  20. Adam Greenwood on October 25, 2004 at 2:56 pm

    “The Aaronic priesthood and its ordinances of baptism and sacrament access the atonement to overcome sin; the Melchizedek priesthood and its ordinances of confirmation and the temple ordinances access the atonement to overcome adversity.”

    What a remarkable thought. Every once in a while I look over at my computer and think, thar’s gold in them thar hills, even if they’s mos’ly granite. Today I was proved right.


    “I think we have a serious miscommunication. Adam had specific situation(s) in mind which he raised at a fairly abstract level. Two other gentlemen, Anon & Jayneedoe, responding from bitter personal experience, have (mis)interpreted Adam’s general statements.”

    This is more or less it. When it comes to sexual abuse or starvation, cigarette burns, and trips to the emergency room, I think of millstones. I don’t know but what at the last day Christ might not make some good out of it, but not me, not now.
    I said what I did in response to some relatively milder bad parenting I’ve come across.

  21. john fowles on October 28, 2004 at 12:23 am

    Adam, I think it’s a case of your poetic penchant getting in the way of your message–in this case the prose really obscured your meaning. Anon is not in any way wrong in his/her indignation about that one key sentence. Last-lemming was right that use of the word “should” was truly the semantically wrong choice. But take heart, I think that most of the readers–those who do not have the same horrible scars as anon.–understood your point and winced at the syntax but didn’t hold it against you.

    I agree with you on your millstone statement: the thought of child abuse so fills me with rage that I wish I weren’t constrained by the laws of human justice and could take care of some of those problems with my own hands, tanning the hides of those who ruin the pure and innocent. Millstones are very merciful compared to what I would like to do with these reprobates.

  22. Adam Greenwood on October 28, 2004 at 12:45 am

    Bless my soul, I think you’re right. The real reason I want to post on a board where everyone already agrees with me is that then I can indulge my flights of fancy without anyone misinterpreting me.

  23. Jack on October 28, 2004 at 1:37 am

    In my experience as a victim of abuse I would not say that children letting “themselves be hurt and betrayed and led at least a LITTLE WAYS down dark paths” is the same as letting themselves be lead into HELL. An example of a ‘little ways’ might be a care giver shouting “you don’t have the brains god gave a jackass!!!”, and still loving them inspite in spite of the harshness.

    Adam, your in the clear with me.


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