Must the Children Suffer?

Arriving at the border of the Promised Land, the Israelites sent out 12 spies to reconnoiter the areas. When 10 of the 12 spies brought back an “evil”(Numbers 13:32) analysis of Canaan’s conditions and the people accepted their faithless assessment. God condemned the population to 40 years of desert meandering until all those 20 years and older had died (Numbers 14:29). God would only permit the next generation to enter the land (Numbers 14:30-31).

But what, in the meantime, were these children, the younger generation, to do? Must they actually suffer for their parents’ sin and wander in the desert for 40 years as well? Notice God’s answer: “And your sons shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and bear the brunt of your infidelity…” (Numbers 14:33). Other translations render the last phrase “suffer for your unfaithfulness” (NASB, NIV; cf. ESV, RSV). The children would suffer for the unfaithfulness of their parents. Many people simply do not accept this biblical principle. They cannot see how the innocent can suffer for the sins of others. This misconception easily leads to further error: seeking to offset the unavoidable consequences of man’s disobedience to God (cf. Numbers 14:40-45).

When parents forsake the assembly (Hebrews 10:25), their sin takes its toll on their children in the form of lost teaching, poor parental example, absence of Christian association, etc. The children suffer for their parents’ sin.

When parents abuse their bodies by taking drugs, drinking alcohol, smoking, contracting venereal disease, etc., their children experience physical problems at birth and later hardships in the form of inadequate nutrition, insufficient finances, neglect, etc. The children suffer for their parents’ sin.

When parents hypocritically instruct their children to conduct themselves in certain ways, but then fail to follow their own advice and excuse their behavior by telling their children to “do as I say, not as I do,” the children grow up rejecting the parents’ good instruction. The children suffer for their parents’ sin.

When parents divorce and remarry in violation of God’s law, forming an adulterous union that, in God’s sight, cannot continue, the children experience rejection, loneliness, bewilderment. If the parents obey God and terminate the unlawful marriage, the children will live in a home environment that’s not all it could have been. The children will suffer for their parents’ sin. But such is no justification for encouraging the parents to continue committing adultery in order to minimize the children’s suffering.

Must the children suffer? Sadly, tragically, yes—when parents sin. But rather than change God’s law, doubt God’s mercy, or dodge the consequences of sin, put the blame where it belongs: man’s defiance of God. Then, obey God—no matter what.


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