For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:5-6
The phrase “Jealous God,” is one of those knee jerk phrases, and this is one of those knee jerk verses. Automatically it puts a sour taste in the mouth of modern Americans. We have a problem with God being jealous, and we have a problem with God punishing children for the sins of the parents. How can a loving, merciful God punish an innocent child for an infraction of His cosmic preferences that he did not even commit? How can this be the action even of a just God? And yet, the people who hate this verse tend to hate it on face value without considering the context, and in this instance I am not talking of the context within Scriptures. I am talking about the context of real life. People who hate this verse (myself included, since I wrestled with it a bit at one point in my life) hate it without pausing to think about what this would look like in the world we live in.
In life, actions have consequences. This is how God designed the universe. When I act, that act ripples outward and outward, both in the results I expect and in the unintended consequences. There is no way human wisdom and foresight can predict all the consequences of an action, or a series of actions, or a life.
So what does that verse look like in real life?
A week ago, my maternal Grandfather died. He was 74 years old. He was born in 1937 in a state mental institution. His maternal grandfather was committed to the violent ward of a state mental institution following a head injury that left him with a complete and dangerous personality change. His mother had suffered a mental breakdown following some months after her divorce and was also committed to a state mental institution. There is no way of knowing at this point who his biological father was, but Grandpa was born in that institution about eight months after her commitment, and immediately turned over to state custody. Before he was 18 months old he had been scalded with boiling water and struck by a car. He never knew his biological parents, and was never adopted, though he eventually spent his childhood and youth with a single foster family. On face value it would seem that Grandpa was dealt a bad hand right from the get-go. The choices of his parents and their parents had consequences in his life, real consequences that really hurt him. That is real life. Our bad choices hurt people who come after us.
But, fast forward 74 years to the day of his death. Grandpa died, beloved of his family, a faithful member of the church, wise, at peace, ready. He served in the Air Force during the Cold War, he remained a faithful Catholic, married in the Church, raised his children in the faith, designed and built electronics, made furniture, fixed cars, followed the fortunes of our nation through good and bad, with prayer and work right up to the end. His 8 children, 42 grandchildren, and 7 great-grandchildren are all souls that would not have existed otherwise. The life of faith, family and country are our life blood. We have soldiers and sailors, artists and business men, actors and students, movie makers, activists, entrepreneurs, farmers, mechanics, designers, husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, teenagers, children, and babies.
Think about that for a second. In some ways he was dealt a bad hand. In fact, if Grandpa were conceived under similar circumstances today, there is a large segment of the population who would consider it an act of mercy to abort him. He was reaping the consequences of the choices of those who came before him, but God was also working. Grandpa was put in good foster homes, and allowed to grow up in one home for his whole childhood. He took what he was given, and he made his own choices, and now we reap the benefits of those choices.
That is what I see when I read that verse from Exodus. God is not sitting up in heaven trying to keep bad things going for three or four generations. He doesn’t need to. Bad things keep going by themselves. That is not a threat of vengeance, but a promise of mercy. It is only because of God’s intervention that the consequences are limited to those few generations. On the other hand, no one can know, no one can even begin to imagine the good that will come from one life lived well. God longs to pour out blessings, good things, life to the full, if only we would cooperate. A life lived with faith is an open door. Through that door God is allowed into the world, and runs riot with good things for everyone, until other doors, closed and shut by selfishness or ignorance or fear, stop Him.
Mercy is the fundamental reality, or to put it another way, Love is all there is. Live that reality, and let God into the world. You have no idea what will come of it, but it will be good. It will be greater than you can possibly imagine.