The Sins of Our Fathers – the Epigenetics of Shame

There is a new word and a new idea in science: epigenetics. It is the study of how the environment and experience alters our body – and alters it in a way such that it becomes part of our genetic legacy. It is, to the mind of some, a genetic form of inherited sin. That’s more than I know, and more than I care to say. But it is an occasion for thought. We read:

The LORD is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation.’ (Num. 14:18)

My own understanding of this verse, read through the lens of Christ, is not that God is punishing the children for the sins of their fathers, but that our actions have consequences, most of which are unintentional, and that those consequences go on for generations.

My paternal great grandfather lost a farm in 1928. I have various anecdotes surrounding it. My father said that my great grand never did any work after that, but sat on the porch and let his adult son do the work. That adult son was my grandfather. He worked hard as a sharecropper, the poorest kind of farming.

Later, my father (who began work in the cotton fields at age 4) came back from the war and was advised by his father not to go to college: “All the jobs will be gone by then.” My father followed the advice. It was a decision that did not go down well with my mother who never forgot it or ceased to mention it. It became part of our family lore.

I grew up with some sense of family failure, an echo of the farming crisis of 1928. It has created, at certain times in my life, anxieties (even panic), and any number of other decisions that were related to the ripples set out in that fateful year (which was probably a consequence of some other long ago event).

I write this as a 63-year-old man who has the leisure and spiritual discipline of looking back in order to see the way forward. It is an examination that looks at the sins (wounds) of the generations that went before me.

We cannot repent for the sins of our parents or the generations that went before. We have no share in any guilt of that sort. But we bear the weight of their consequences in a thousand-thousand different ways that we neither fathom nor ken. It is only with passing years and reflection that I can see many things that were far too close at the time to be understood.

There is, however, a “repentance” of sorts that does address both their sins and ours. I once heard it said that a monk “saves his family for seven generations.” I wondered at the time which direction it was describing. For what it’s worth, I think it is both. And it’s not just monks.

When we come face-to-face with the shame and sin of our ancestors, it does little good to blame. For though it may not have begun with us, it now lives with us. I think we are given the grace to see and understand these things for the sole purpose of engaging them and finding the way to healing. This is slow, sometimes quite tedious, and I’ll be writing more about it in future posts.

I will return to my autobiographical example (and my face flushes red as I dare talk about this). My early “career” path was as an Episcopal priest. Some short while after seminary, my older brother asked me, “How does it feel to have the most socially acceptable job in Southern society?” I smiled. Some deep part of me, the part of me that lost a farm, became a sharecropper and didn’t go to college, felt very good about it indeed. But that “feeling good” was only an echo of generational sin. I certainly tried to attend to it in different ways. I did not experience it as a “thing” (at least not most of the time). There was, though, a residual pool of shame that could always be wounded and wanted deeply to “succeed.”

When I wrestled with my conversion to Orthodoxy, a very silent part of the matter was the abandonment of that success and status. A friend who was an Episcopal priest in another state converted to Orthodoxy. His bishop (I was told) sneered and said, “Well, I hope he enjoys bowling.” This is an upper-class mockery of a blue-collar sport: “Gentlemen do not bowl.” Of course, that bishop was by no means a necessary exemplar of his denomination, but his words found an easy affirmation in my inner world. “I’m headed back to the farm.”

What I would observe, however, is that refusing to convert to the truth of Orthodoxy because I had to prove my family’s shame to be unfounded, would have been a devastating sin, one that could continue to echo into the future. But, having said “no” to that path, required that I eventually come face-to-face with an unspoken shame. My parents, interestingly, gave me their blessing as I converted, and followed me some eight years later, being received into the Church at age 79.

I have little doubt that my brothers would tell this story in a different manner. We are all affected by the same waves, but they may doubtless strike us in a variety of ways. I know what took place within my own life.

Repentance (metanoia) means a “change of mind” (nous). That is not simply a change in thinking, gathering and holding new opinions. It means going into the nous and, through prayer and confession, “bearing a little shame,” finding peace and integrity of soul. The mystery of this in our lives clearly reaches forward to the generations to come. The family story has been changed. I think, too, quite mysteriously, this reaches backwards. It plays a part in “re-writing” history, declaring that the consequences of some fixed event are not themselves a fixed event.

Christ dies for our sins – for the sins of the whole world. He does this in the middle of history. He does not do it at the end, nor at the beginning (even though we must say that the Crucified Christ is truly the Alpha and the Omega). But He does this in the middle. His healing and forgiveness reach all the way back to Adam, and reach forward to the very last human being. Christ’s genealogy, recorded in the gospels, is itself a redemption of one entire line of humanity, a story that is a collection of sinners, adulterers, murderers, righteous and unrighteous. It is the story of the whole human race in miniature.

St. Maximus the Confessor said that a human being is a “microcosm” (a “tiny universe”). Each of us endures the consequences of the Fall, in very concrete and particular ways. We are a microcataclysm. But, by grace, we are united to the consequences of the Cross, gathering all that has come before us into the fiery side of Christ, and giving light to all who will come after us.

And that is our joy and our gladness – without shame or fear.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



58 responses to “The Sins of Our Fathers – the Epigenetics of Shame”

  1. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For those who might ask, the photograph is of the trailer my parents lived in before going to a retirement center. This was taken some 10 or so years later. They maintained it much better…

  2. Eric Henderson Avatar
    Eric Henderson

    Thank you for this, Father. It was timely and something I needed to hear and need to hear today.

  3. Chuck Avatar

    Christos voskrese. Beautiful beautiful beautiful. The writing enabled me to see my life and my families through a much clearer lense. The history is full of pain misery and all sorts of suffering, but of course joy and beauty as well. It helps (a d will help) heal. All of the generational trauma.. glory to God. Christ has been with us thru every faltering step

  4. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for “bearing a little shame” and for teaching us to understand shame, also. Your stories help to give shape to a concept that can otherwise be pushed away as too abstract. When I read your stories, I can say, “I think I know what that is like,” and I understand a little better what is needed from and in me. I came from humble origins and I wear my current financial and social success uncomfortably. The temptation is always present to spend a little more and live a little higher (I can afford it) for the sake of proving that I really have achieved what my professional title says that I have. Seeing this desire for what it is helps me to put it in its place.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I was recently given the grace to see that own confession of a besetting sin based on shame of long standing somehow reordered things back to the time it began. Even though many of the people I hurt are now dead.

    That reordering is not transformation just some sort of adjustment. Beyond that I do not know anything of its nature nor how it works nor its eventual effect. Somehow it just is and I know it is true although both my priest and I shook our heads about it when I told him.

    Time is God’s creation too and His Incarnation begins healing that too; as St. Paul tells us in Romans and elsewhere.

  6. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    You have captured the essence of the shame and other dysfunction that is passed on from generation to generation. I became aware of my guilt in affecting my great great grand children through a Protestant preachers similar explanation of the Biblical quote you used. My behavior will have an effect on people who descend from me and whom I will never meet in person in this life. It was a cold slap to my face that truly brought me to my senses and to a state of Metonoia.
    I also became aware in time in how those that went before me have affected me both positively and negatively. You also speak truth that without the bearing of a little change this healing and change of mind cannot take place. I had to confess and bear the same of my behavior in order to begin to heal. Thank you for reminding me of why I am on the journey that I am on.

  7. Byron Avatar

    I came from humble origins and I wear my current financial and social success uncomfortably.

    TotN, I am somewhat the opposite, yet very similar. Although not rich, my family was very well off when I was young. My father made six figures and paid for each child’s schooling (three of us, including my graduate school education) and was proud to do so. I entered the adult world debt-free and am very thankful for all his generosity. He also battled alcoholism throughout his life. I am extremely proud of his turning away from that addiction late in life. But it caused some deep wounds during the trials that came with it. I pray he is well in God’s grace.

    I myself am well off by almost any (economic) measure. But the conflicting desires of spending and living debt free (my father hated debt and spoke hard against gathering it) tend to make me feel a failure in many ways.

    But, by grace, we are united to the consequences of the Cross

    Father, what do you mean by “the consequences of the Cross”? While I expect it reflects the mercy seat of God and His compassion towards us, it sounds just the opposite!

  8. Thomma Lyn Grindstaff Avatar
    Thomma Lyn Grindstaff

    Beautiful, Father. Thank you so much. Your posts on shame are more helpful to me than I could possibly express in words. And this particular post speaks poignantly to issues in my own life that are connected to both personal and generational shame. Truly, in Christ, there is hope and healing for us all.

  9. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Fr Stephen in a previous post I had thought about bringing up epigenetics, but thought the better of it since it seems to me I’m frequently bringing up science and I have had concerns about doing that. The research is fascinating. While we had been aware that the environments that we grew up in childhood can have a lasting impact, the evidence of the cross generational impacts, even if children are removed from their birth parents, is a revelation of its own.

    When reading your post today, many memories of my own came into play. What your brother said to you is not too different from what has been said to me in the past regarding my drive to be ‘a scientist’ or ‘researcher’ or ‘professor’. All of these are terms that, at least some parts of this society, hold some prestige, and exhibit my own way to deal with shame.

    Similar to your background was a situation tied to my life and shame that happened in a time when my parents were children. The events in my mother’s family were interestingly tied to events in my dad’s community although they were quite far apart geographically. My dad’s community (Quakers) paid the lawyers in Florida to defend the land rights of Seminoles against developers who had interest in taking the land. The lawyers won the case against the state of Florida, but this didn’t stay the violence that would eventually take the land from the Seminoles anyway. My mother’s family did not escape the situation unscathed. My mother married my dad for pragmatic reasons, because he had the set of social appearance and attributes that she thought would protect her and her children. When my dad had to leave for extended periods of time related to his work, she would board up the windows and put furniture in front of doors to prevent any occurrence like that which happened to her in her childhood. She slept with a gun between the matrices prepared for any eventuality. To my mind as a kid, I didn’t understand her fears, but as a young and now aging adult, I still fight her wars. Rather than looking to a husband for protection (perhaps because of a frequently absent dad), I sought strength and visibility (and invincibility) to make myself a difficult target. And in the process garnered a hardened heart.

    In the process of becoming Orthodox, the question was put to me again, are you doing this to become part of something publicly acceptable, or to be a part of an institution or corporate public, or to make up for something that I feel that I lack related to my background (and shame). The irony is my involvement in an “institution” having the appearance of hierarchy of a ‘men only club’ (read “paternalistic”) who have “beards and wear funny hats”. I’ve received my share of ‘clobber’ on these ‘fronts’ as I have been a perpetual model of resistance against hegemony. Now I seem to those around me as limp and overly willing to subordinate myself (and my brain–my best weapon) to some larger archaic and potentially dangerous ‘corporate’ will. The proverbial undertow of my past and it’s associated shame is hard to swim against.

    And so I just float, for now. Perhaps this ‘floating’, isn’t exactly proactive, or particularly helpful in the long term, but I’m just beginning to learn to swim in an entirely different sea now. I’ve been reading Bradshaw (online) and find this reading and your posts so helpful. Thank you Fr Stephen, for your willingness to ‘bear a little shame’ for us.

  10. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    oops we slept on mattresses not matrices!

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We are all in this together – literally. I appreciated some of Bradshaw’s stories about himself. When it comes to shame, we all have our stories. Some of my stories will never make it into a public venue – it would be terribly inappropriate.

    I also meditate on this stuff when I think about “free-will.” The simplistic model of human beings as intellects with free-will, a sort of Augustinian caricature that serves the purpose of many popular Christianities – when I think about all this in light of how enmeshed our lives are with shame and other wounds – such that we don’t understand our own motivations, or at least for years, I laugh. It’s not freedom of that sort that I need so much as a Savior. That’s the Orthodox message. I was in hell and Jesus came to get me out. He’s kicking down doors and dragging us if need be. When I first ever prayed a prayer about becoming Orthodox, I prayed, “O Lord, make me Orthodox!” I meant two things by that: one, I want to become Orthodox. two, you’re going to have to drag me but I give you permission (hoping it doesn’t hurt too much). It’s like Edmund inside the dragon. Cut me out!

  12. Anita Ashworth Avatar

    This is a great article and brings to mind so much of my own life’s experiences that have caused me shame and hurt. Thank you for sharing your stories.

  13. Helen Avatar

    I was a full-time mom, after resigning from a corporate career. My buttons were being pushed 24×7 and I found myself yelling at my kids – a lot more than my ego had allowed me to admit when I could run away to work. I confessed my anger issues to my priest, and I also said “I understand that this is what I learned as a child”. He said, “Helen, it’s not just your parents, but generations of ‘skata’ you are dealing with.” Then he added, “But God chose you to break the chain.”

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes! Yes! Yes!

  15. John G. Karas Avatar
    John G. Karas

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for your articles on shame and the one “Look Who’s Talking.” These articles have really made an impact on me helping me understand and deal with the turmoil I feel in my life.

    In yesterday’s article you made the comment “….how we harness the shame of others to control and manage them.” This really made me understand better my parents and they way they deal with us as children and the internal battle I have been having with myself to not go down that road. It has been a major challenge because of the pain that I have lived for a long time over a great betrayal I experienced. I do not want to use this betrayal “to harness the shame of others to control and manage them” so I keep things to myself and become more introverted.

    By prayer and God’s Grace I am dealing with this and trying to pick my way through this minefield. Please keep posting these articles, they are a great help.

  16. Summer Kinard Avatar

    I love this. You’ve put me in mind of the part of the prayer before communion where we ask forgiveness for “sins of my own will, and sins not of my own.” I have often thought that the wounds I bring to Church from my family and the shameful things done to me are healed in that confession. The flattening of the source of sin helps me to forgive and accept forgiveness more freely.
    Thank you for your illuminating posts on shame. They have helped me a great deal.

  17. Richard Avatar

    Many Years! Both ways.

  18. Dino Avatar

    The “free-will in a compromised-will-context” meditation , I believe, boils down to little more than “how we deal with whatever ‘cards’ we have been dealt” at any given moment and all of our lives as wholes.

  19. Cathy Avatar

    “I am the way and the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” Fr. Stephen, your words have illuminated the Lord’s for me. Grateful for the understanding the articles on shame have brought me. God Bless and Keep You.

  20. Tom (aka Volkmar) Avatar

    This article really struck home, Father. Thank you.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “flattening of the source of sin” – very rich, very helpful phrase.

  22. victoria Avatar

    Helen: I think so many of us can relate to your comment.

    Fr Stephen : you really strike a chord with me in the verse from Numbers you reference – for more than the past decade I have been chewing on this verse from Exodus, which is similar.

    “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; 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 20:3-6 )

    Mostly ruminating on it because of the recompensing the sins of one generation upon another which I initially found so disturbing.

    I love what Helen’s priest said to her. The wounds of shame in some families is so out of control, that it is less easy for everyone to miss. In a strange way, they might be the lucky ones. Because there is no denying there is a problem. Unfortunately, they are often looked down upon because of their situation.

    But in contemplating that verse from Exodus, which was initially so disturbing to me, I understand now it is really held together and bound up in the Greatest Commandment.

    A long time ago I heard Dr Phill (yes, I admit I used to watch him) tell an abusive parent that your kids are going to do what you do, even better. So this is why the cycle of abuse and generational sin can get worse and worse and spiral out of control.

    Eventually I think it must get so bad that a generation is born where the children seek the Lord. Miracles can happen.

    Such is the glory of God.

  23. Berlin Vogue Avatar
    Berlin Vogue

    If, by my comment I posted on, ‘Look who is talking’ blog post, I offended or hurt you in any manner, I sincerely apologize. That was never my intent. I know that my manner of interacting is extremely straight forward, and it is often misconstrued as oppositional or defiant. I assure you that’s not the case. I search for answers, I search primarily from those I believe, or want to believe, need to believe that they have integrity. That they will model for me, the words of God they speak. I’ve had some unpleasant experiences with some of our priests in my local church. They told me, in effect, that I’m ‘too uptight; too traditional, when I asked for example for an explanation how our monk/priest could break his vow to God by cutting his hair?
    Lost in this in between chasm I’m caught in, I search for role models, not extremes, not from a judgmental frame of mind, simply to feel not just know, that my actions are a reflection of my Orthodox faith. How far does one go in, bending the rules and still be orthodox? Other small incidents, I believe in what the icons model for me in regards to how to comport myself in church, thus my head is always covered and I put on a long ‘robe’ over my attire. Our priest advised me, I was being influenced by muslim practices. I did not argue my position, I simply withdrew my children from the church and we stopped going.
    I’m now, due to my pride? Obstinacy? Extremism? Justification? Confusion? Stupidity? Seeing the results that, a life without Christ in it, can have for my children . They are not on dangerous paths but they are lost in their hearts and minds.
    I wanted you to understand where the motives for my questions and comments stem from. Please forgive me if I have crossed the line on what is acceptable on your blog.

  24. Matth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    This is a very interesting post. I’ve thought often about these concepts, especially before my wife and I had our children. There was a generational conflict between fathers and eldest sons going back to the first of my family to arrive on these shores in the pre-Revolutionary days. It was something of a relief when we had daughters, but it still weighs on my mind, and no doubt shapes (and misshapes) how I parent them.

    This is beside the point of the article, but I just wanted to let you know the quiet thrill I got when you replaced mattresses with the somewhat rare but correct plural of matrix. It takes a very particular type of person to substitute such a technical term, and we don’t usually comment on Orthodox blogs.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    No offense at all. The struggle with things such as “how much bending of the rules is too far?” is understandable. There are, forgive me, underlying issues of shame that drive this uncertainty in us (this is not simply a matter of a “thinking” disagreement with a priest but something quite “visceral” – something we feel quite deeply). That feeling quite deeply, particularly if we can see an irrational element in it (more energy and resistance than is actually called for or appropriate) is a signal that something, like a wound, has been touched. That wound, generally is rooted in shame. And it takes time and safety with someone trusted to identify and understand such things.

    There is, I fear, a popular misconception about so-called strictness (akriveia) versus economy (ekonomia). I’ll not go into the history of where the misconception began. However, here’s the point. For example, when we think of canon law, there is no true “strictness” versus “economy.” Everything is economy. Absolutely everything. When, in St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy, the priest prays “when in the dispensation of the fullness of times” and continues to speak of Christ’s incarnation and saving work, the word “dispensation” is “economia.” God saves us only by economia. There is no strict rule by which we are saved. God “bent the rules” by becoming human, bearing our sin and dying for us. Everything is economy. Thus we sing in one of the resurrection troparia, “Glory to Thy dispensation (economia), O Christ.” We never praise God’s strictness.

    What we must understand is that even the rules are themselves a form of economia. They are God’s way of helping, not controlling us. When a child is learning to write, you give them paper with lines on it and you teach them how to use the lines to guide their letters. Some children, with compulsive tendencies, could be deeply worried about the lines and extremely upset when each letter was not made correctly. But the line was there to help them, not afflict them.

    The same is true of the canon laws of the Church. It’s not a matter of “how far do they bend,” but “how do they help.” All canon law is given like a medical prescription. It is to be applied by a priest or bishop for the healing and salvation of a person, not for their destruction. The sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, Christ said.

    Is it possible to make mistakes in this? Of course it is. A canon could be so relaxed that it is not allowed to have its beneficial effect. But the measure is by the benefit, not by the canon itself.

    On something like a head-covering for women, I would counsel someone to, generally, do what is common and normal in the congregation. Are there canons on these things? Yes, but the point is our healing and salvation. It is possible to set oneself so apart that it becomes a distraction, or a person falls into judging others for their lack of strictness, etc.

    A priest is tasked with the salvation of his congregation. It’s a fearful thing. My experience is that, in general, priests are trying to do a good job and be helpful. It’s good to let a priest do his job – let him give some guidance. Enjoy the freedom that comes with not having to be in charge of every detail. No priest will do it perfectly. But having priests who are fallible human beings was God’s idea…so it must be ok to let it be the case.

    God give you grace!

  26. Dean Avatar

    My heart goes out to you. especially for your children. I remember fondly a lady in an OCA mission I once attended. She was a convert and by profession a nurse at a prison. Well, she always wore long dresses, I believe bought from a Russian store on- line. They were traditional, but beautiful. And her head was always covered. At the epiclisis, she would do full prostrations. She told me she had gone to a couple other Orthodox churches, but I guess got negative feedback on her dress and prostrations. So, she drove 80 miles to be in our mission…we were all a little eccentric, so she fit in easily! 🙂 I pray you can discover a church like our mission, even if you must drive further. With the pressures of our culture, your children stand a good chance of being sucked up by it without the Church. With a steady mom and the blessed sacraments each week, at least they are more equipped to swim against the current.

  27. victoria Avatar


    My heart goes out to you as well. Find a parish. Don’t go it alone. The Faith is about Christ and the fullness we have been handed down. This may simply be the cross you bear…

    The priest is there to guide the faithful and it sounds like that was just not the right fit for you, and that is absolutely okay. And it is also perfectly reasonable to expect that priest model the God and Good News he proclaims. It’s not okay to expect him to be perfect. We are all sinners, we are all hypocrites. We can all give the best advice and then not follow it in our own circumstance – there are good and bad ways to handle that.

    Shaming another person is not a good way to handle it.

    The expectation of certain behavior by the priest is also Scripturally based and supported by the canons too, I would think (though I have not read them). If you are not being led, then you have to vote with your feet.

    Father Stephen, I do find it strange that an Orthodox priest would equate a head covering with being influenced by muslim practices. Say what?

    To me that is a bit of a red flag that something is not right, sorry. (But I do agree we should blend in with the parish too… I attend a parish where 95% of the women do not where head coverings. The 5% who do stand out as strikingly beautiful to me. I can not ever imagine our priest making those women feel bad about it. But we also have a seasoned priest.)

    The priests are there to shepherd the flock but they too are in need of shepherding (and I have to believe they want pastoral care as well). Having local Bishops would be huge help for the health of our parishes.

    In this country, it is my experience from all of the parishes we have attended, that the Bishops barely see their own priests and the parishes in their care. Most parishes we have attended are visited once a year max, but more like once every two years, by the Bishop.

    Yet shepherding is face to face. These are the growing pains of Orthodoxy in America, that we do not have local Bishops. We should all pray for our clergy, their families, and our Hierarchs whose role in rightly dividing the word of truth and shepherding the priests and laity in their sees, should never be undervalued.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Berlin, Victoria,
    Yes. I think I was guilty of not paying enough attention to the Muslim remark – it was shaming, whether intentional or not. Parish communities are difficult things sometimes, including their priests. We have 3 Orthodox Churches in our area, and I know that I’m not the right fit for some. God give you grace to find a home (without shame or fear).

  29. Anna Avatar

    Thank you for this. I look forward to your future posts . . . as a 67-year-old woman who in the past year has begun to see just how strongly shame has shaped and directed my entire life, I hunger to see/read/hear more on how to continue my feeble attempts at bearing a little shame and then a little more, and a little more, and find some healing of all the crookedness that used to seem so straight.

  30. steve Avatar

    Father, Bless

    Thank you so much for these posts. The topic of shame is something that I’ve been struggling with for a very long time, not very successfully I should add. These posts have given me much to think about… offhand, would you be able to recommend a reading list for those of us interested in further pursuing this from within an Orthodox perspective?

    I’m hesitant to say much of anything about my situation, except I was deeply wounded within my family, by my father in particular, and even after all of these years, well into middle age, it’s something that keeps coming back to haunt me, my own private chorus of logismoi which have roots in the past. My father in his turn certainly was wounded as well, being the son of a cripple who lost an arm in a mill accident, and the son of an angry mother who lived through multiple tragedies as a young woman and had the weight of her past in addition to what happened to her husband, back in a time when there was no such thing as therapy and counseling. Anyway, if it is my part to save my family for seven generations, I have a lot to learn in order to be of any use to anyone in my family.

    In Christ,


  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    On the reading list…I don’t really know of anything that is, strictly speaking, Orthodox. I read quite widely and filter what I read, adding in what seems to be missing. Good things are Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds. He’s predictably contrary to Orthodox teaching on same-sex stuff, but I’ve come to expect that in many writers. Brene Brown’s books are also quite popular. Fishkin’s the Science of Shame and Its Treatment has seemed good. Much of the information on shame is pretty standard. Treatment suggestions will vary but still have lots of similarity.

    For one, find someone you trust. If you find a therapist that you trust and feel comfortable with, it’s good. Shame requires “light.” It festers in the darkness. But we can only do that in a situation where we trust and where we feel safe. Occasionally, someone might feel quite uncomfortable and unable to trust their priest with certain information – not because he’s untrustworthy – only because it’s so “powerful” to share it with a priest. I have stuff that I could not confess until I was 60 years old. But the struggle is worth it.

  32. Niphon Avatar

    Father, Christ is Risen.

    Forgive me for posting this here, but I humbly entreat prayers for my mother’s fiance, Jim, who shot himself tonight in front of my mother, Karen. It is unknown whether he is alive. Jim lost his both his former wife and his son to suicide years ago and has struggled mightily ever since.

    Forgive me. Lord have mercy.

  33. Karen Avatar

    Niphon, may the Lord indeed have mercy on Karen and Jim! (My name is Karen and my husband’s is Jim, so it will not be hard for me to remember them.) I have a 2nd cousin who lost her dad (my cousin) to suicide and then many years later her own teenage son in the exact same manner! She is an amazingly strong woman, who is now reaching out to help others in similar circumstances. May the Lord bring beauty from ashes in your family as well!

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I will indeed pray for him. God’s mercies!

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It seems to be quite difficult to be the one who ends it. I have not succeed.
    My wife did largely IMO although my late wife did not. Although that is not accurate either. I succeeded partially. My late wife succeeded more than she knew.

    Only in God’s mercy, in the fullness of time is all made new and whole. Or so the Gospel seems to teach. Perhaps the effort and the intention are honored more than what we deem a success?

  36. Robert Rubinow Avatar
    Robert Rubinow

    Father Stephen,
    My own struggle with shame began to find resolution with Jesus’ story of the lavish father in Luke 15. “While he [the younger son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him and ran to his son…” (v. 20). I can’t help but think the long highway of generational shame was the same road the Father was running down to meet me too.

  37. Chris Avatar

    Christ is Risen!

    Dear all, I humbly ask for your prayers as I deal with my own shame and how it manifests as anger (both interior and exterior), directed mostly towards my family members.

  38. Anna Avatar

    Father bless,
    Have you read any of Dr. Timothy Patitsis’s work? I read a couple of articles in the journal Road to Emmaus, and some how his thoughts on healing trauma seem to be relevant to the experience of shame.

  39. Byron Avatar

    Blessings and prayers for you Chris.

  40. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen,
    As I been reading your essays on this subject and elsewhere, as well as your responses and other’s comments here, I’ve been considering suggesting some reading that helped me in my journey into Orthodoxy without the support of my family. I know you have read widely already but I offer this that might be helpful in the approach to counseling.

    Since you are familiar with epigenetics and the propagation of shame over generations, the reading I’m suggesting describes and provides examples of the application of systems theory to family and church family dynamics. This reading was suggested to me by my spiritual father and I found it very helpfull especially when I was engaged in conversations dealing with and defending the ‘why’ of my conversion. And it helped me to see the impact of the process of the conversion of one family member (myself) on the entire family and extended family

    The author is Edwin H Friedman (a rabbi) and the book: “Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue”. And the second book that was helpful in a similar way was his book “Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix: A Failure of Nerve”.

    I recommend these books to anyone here if you haven’t read them.

  41. olga Avatar

    Hello Father, Shame has been one of the constant threads running through my personal and spiritual life. Long ago I recognized that I was raised in a shame based household. My parents fed it to me for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. What I didn’t learn at home I learned at church, that man is basically evil and full of sin. As a woman, I grew to resent the overarching message that women are objects of sinfulness because of the ir sexuality. At the age of almost 64 I am still not able to set foot on Mt. Athos. Half of humanity is thus deprived of our heritage. So, long ago I began to reject these teachings–how could I be evil and the object of sin when I was created in His image? I have spent many years reading and learning theology on my own, and the further back in time I went and truer to the words and actions of the living Jesus the more I realized that He taught of a loving God; and that sociological circumstances of cultures and time as well as man-made errors in judgments and prejudices against women promoted false and sometimes political teachings. I am pleased to have found your website and only wish it could be more readily available to a new generation that is being filled with shame, hellfire and brimstone.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    History is full of many and various sins – social, cultural, political. And little has changed. For what it’s worth, I think Mt. Athos does not allow women because of the weakness of monks, not because of anything inherent in women. They would do well to forbid young boys for similar reasons. Indeed, there is a canon that forbids a man from becoming a monk until he can grow a beard. The clear implication in the canon is not about whether he is mature – but that his “girlish” appearance might prove an overwhelming temptation to weak monks. The fathers were far more practical than modern people – and, actually, far less prudish. It is the post-Victorian world of moralistic nonsense that gets read back into a spiritual tradition where it never existed. The same wisdom, I think, is at work when we prefer our parish priests to be happily married with lots of kids. Single priests in a parish setting is often asking for trouble – that’s not a rule, just an observation.

  43. Theophilos Avatar

    Thank you, bless you, I so appreciate you putting into words what so many of us feel, consider, in our subconscious self. I too think about how the choices and events of my life not only impact those who live as my contemporaries, but my children later in life, grandchildren, and all those they may touch in their own lives. We do not live alone, even the most hidden of our actions will blaze across the heavens at His return.

  44. Kristin Avatar

    Fr. Stephen-

    Thank you for these posts on shame. Lately I have been contemplating generational sin, mostly the idea that we sin without awareness, habitually even, and easily pass these on to our children.

    We recently visited our eldest, a 20 yo girl in college. We all enjoyed ourselves greatly. I was struck by the struggles she shared with us. I saw wisps of these things all along as she was growing up, but now they are in full bloom, and I heard echoes of my past, my husband’s past, in her words.

    I believe it was a mercy to have been thinking about generational sin prior to our visit. I was not overwhelmed by despair listening to her, but still felt great sadness. It is also mercy to see that, though I am incapable and fail and sin, the Lord rejected me not, but rather reveals Himself to be all the greater.

    I also began to wonder about generational blessings. Material blessings passed on in my family are obvious. Passing on faith, however humbly and imperfectly, also comes to mind. My husband and I really are first generation Christians, who explicitly practice our faith. My children, thus far, have that same faith.

    Again, thank you. Much that you wrote, along with commenters, resonates with me.

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Kristen, generational blessings. Yes. My parents, although both rejected Christianity managed to point both my brother and I toward not just Christ, but to the Church. From different perspectives through their professions understood the deep connectivity between God and His creation and one another.

    Given what they understood and their seemingly relentless exposition if that understanding in their lives, I could not be anything else but Orthodox. Just took me 40 years to get here. This last Sunday, The Sunday of the Myrrh+bearing Women marked my 30th year here.

    The thankfulness for that gift from my parents outweighs much of the shame and gives me the opportunity to face the rest. God’s grace completes it.

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are so many mysteries within these things. As our children become adults, so much begins to reveal itself!

    My mother and father were not very good church-goers in my childhood and prayer and such were not a part of our lives. On the other hand, I later found that in one line of my father’s family (from a certain ancestor), there were 50 ordained men in less than 200 years. I was surprised to see that I came from a “religious family.” It included missionaries, pastors, etc. All baptist. I have joked that it takes 50 baptist preachers in heaven praying in order to get one Orthodox priest.

    What matters, I think, is that contemplating these things opens our understanding to how deeply connected we are. The doctrine of the communion of saints – that none of us is saved alone, etc. – is patently true, even obvious, if you know where to look. We should, of course, remember, that the head of our family is Christ.

    For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, (Eph 3:14-15)

  47. Kristin Avatar


    I suppose most children go through a time when they don’t like the name given by their parents. I hated my name for years. After I became a Christian in high school I learned my name-Kristin-meant ‘follower of Christ’ and it seemed ironic for years. How could I ever truly BE a follower, with all my sin? (And now I see shame…)

    A couple years ago my perception changed. My unbelieving mother gave me my name because she thought it beautiful after seeing the title of the Norwegian novel, Kristin Lavransdottir (about a medieval Christian girl, btw). Now I see my name as bursting with promise! The only irony is that an unbelieving mother would christen me thus.

    This was, is, a blessing she gave me without even knowing it.

    Fr. Stephen-

    I came across a family letter from the early 19th century in which the passing of a relative was lamented. She also wrote unashamedly of heavenly trumpets, angels, rejoicing in heaven, and entreated the reader to pray for their descendants, which would include me!

  48. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Just a small reflection: I have a sense that part of how God redeems events of shame is in the generations that follow. I have the strong sense that if my mom had just had a bit more kindness as a child she would not have married my dad. Yet as hard as it has been I think it was / is part of how God is saving all of our family.
    Father, perhaps if your dad had gone off to college you would not have been born. How amazing to think of how that decision ripples over and impacts your readers.
    I have been hoping to learn more about Joseph from the Old Testament. It seems to speak of how sorrowful events are redeemed, given value entirely by God. An event that echos across years and generations which God ultimately uses to bring about good.
    Thank you, Father.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Orthodox reading of the Patriarch Joseph is that he is a type and foreshadowing of Christ. He is “buried” by his brothers (they lowered him into a pit). But he comes out of the pit and enters Egypt (Christ leaves the tomb and enters Hades). And Joseph comes to be de facto ruler of Egypt and through that saves his people (Christ conquers Hades and sets us free).

    That analogy also says that we shouldn’t waste time regretting the past, or wondering how history could have been better. Some of the biggest mistakes in my life have led to my greatest joys.

    My father’s decision was not actually a failure. Nor was my great-grandfather’s fiasco in South Georgia (losing the farm). They’re not failures – they’re just life. They become “failures” only when someone attaches shame to it. And that happens all the time and from different directions. The point isn’t the decision or the “failure,” the point is the shame.

    To heal the shame, we have to “go down to Egypt” with Joseph and Christ. We endure the consequences of our lives – but we allow the light of Christ to expose the truth of our existence and dispel the shame. This is long and slow (although sometimes a fast as a brilliant flash). All of us exist because of a long series of “mistakes.” Joseph’s path (“the Lord meant it to me for good”) is the only way forward. Creation, on this side of the Fall, looks like one massive mistake. But God means it for good – including the mistake. Augustine said: “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.”

  50. Helen Avatar

    Going down to Egypt is what you mean by “holding the shame”?

    I don’t know if Richard Rohr coined the phrase, but he said concerning past sin done to us that you either “transform it or transmit it”. I guess when you keep shaming, it’s a defense against holding it. And only by holding it can the love of God transform it.

    I am so grateful for your posts, as many others have expressed. I spent many years in counselling trying to understand and undo some of the past. It’s wonderful to understand it within the church.

  51. Dean Avatar

    In your comment you write, “…we shouldn’t waste time regretting the past….” The last time I saw my aunt, then around 85, she was in the hospital. She never worked outside the home. She and my uncle had raised 3 children. Auntie was a plain, in many ways a simple woman, who lived a very unremarkable life by the standards of our world. A nurses aide was in the room because my aunt was very anxious and kept trying to get up. Her arms were constrained. She talked, but was not lucid. I sat on the bed beside her. I began to speak about her family. When I mentioned a sister, many years gone, she started to calm and responded to me. I spoke of her husband, and she told me that he had been a fine man. We commented about her children. She was now quite lucid. Then she looked at me smiling and said, “You know, I’ve had a wonderful life.” Oh yes, aunt Adeleine. No regrets. She passed to meet Christ shortly thereafter.

  52. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The phrase is “bearing a little shame.” Holding, I think, would be quite different.

    What I mean is bringing shame out of its hidden darkness and into the light. Sometimes that means recovering forgotten shame and bringing it into the open. Shame has at its core the desire to hide. It is a feeling of extreme exposure and we instinctively run from it. When the wounding we run from is dark and deep enough, the wound can be very dark and deep itself and color our whole life.

    Bearing the shame means bringing into the open where we can see it – and where it can be seen by at least one other trusted person. Because its energy is so bound up in hiding, shame can begin to be disarmed and robbed of its power by exposing it to view. This can be very painful and frightening, particularly with what is called “toxic shame” (such as one might have as a result of abuse).

    But with a safe and trusted person, perhaps a counselor or priest, or wise friend, we can dare to expose these things and begin to defuse them.

    To a degree, confession rightly serves this role in the Church – if it is used wisely with a good confessor.

    There are any number of popular books on shame that are reliable and useful. John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You is one, Brene Brown is also very popular on the topic. I take it that these books are popular because people find them helpful.

    I don’t agree with everything in them – thus I don’t “endorse” them – neither author is an Orthodox Christian. But their general knowledge is quite helpful and worth the read.

  53. Dean Avatar

    Should read that her arms were restrained.

  54. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Thank you, Father. It is a real source of hope.

    And thank you Dean for sharing about your aunt. It reinforces the beauty of simply being human and not striving to manage the outcome of history.

    It speaks to a capacity to be beings of song, who sing a joyous song to the Lord, patiently awaiting the unfolding of days and years.

  55. Dean Avatar

    Nicole of VA,
    Your words, that we are creatures of song, created to sing a song of joy unto the Lord, awaiting patiently the unfolding of days and years, were wonderful. I was thinking of the following…. Our life can be seen as an hourglass. The grains of sand falling represent the unfolding of our life, which you note. Sin, the passions, regret, etc., can be likened to water in the sand which impedes its downward course, clogging its joyful flow. However, with repentance and the healing it brings, the sand is dried and once more glides through freely. Our life is renewed, and we can again sing a joyous song unto the Lord as the sand flows, and our lives unfold.

  56. Tammy Avatar

    Hi Fr.

    My husband sent me a link to this blog post… I have always seen this verse (Num. 14:18) as something that inspires FEAR.

    I was born into a family where spiritualism ran in both my mother’s and father’s sides of my family (within the last three generations). I have a Fundamentalist Protestant background, and on the basis of this passage have always feared that that God’s wrath is aimed at me…

    I so want to change / stop this generational habit. I have “run the other way” by ensconcing myself in religion. But I’m half way through my adult life, and the FEAR this verse strikes in my soul is real and raw and has never abated.


  57. Dean Avatar

    Perhaps instead of looking back at the verse in Numbers, you should look at the verse from Jesus’ mother, the Theotokos, in Luke 1:50. This is from her great Magnificat. “And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.” This verse has given me consolation for many years. I pray it does the same for you. And don’t overlook the words also in that verse from Numbers that the Lord abounds in steadfast love (lovingkindness). Also, be mindful of the father running to embrace his son (you, daughter) in the parable of the prodigal son.

  58. Anna Avatar


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