Godwin Adeboye saw something interesting where residents of Ibadan, a city in southwest Nigeria, were dumping their garbage.
At one location where people left trash, the government had posted a sign saying, “Do not drop your refuse here. If you do so, the government will charge you.”
In another spot, someone else had written a different message: “If you put your dirty material here, I curse you in the name of my family god.”
“If somebody says, ‘If you dump refuse here, you will die young, lose your fortune, or lose all your children in one day,’ nobody goes there, because they fear curses,” said Adeboye, a pastor and research director at ECWA (Evangelical Church Winning All) Theological Seminary in Igbaja, Nigeria.
The weight of curses wasn’t just something that Adeboye saw from a distance. When he experienced numerous family members die, seemingly from mysterious causes, many suggested that curses might responsible. These arguments led Adeboye to study this phenomenon from a biblical perspective and author Can a Christian Be Cursed? (Langham, 2023).
“I wrote this book out of my own experience and what I see my African brothers and sisters experiencing,” he said. “Many Africans, even Christians, sometimes believe their financial, moral, or marital failures are because a particular ‘spiritual’ curse is tormenting them, instead of taking personal responsibility.”
Further, Adeboye felt compelled to address a significant issue in African Christianity from an African Christian perspective.
“I’ve read many books written on African Christianity, and many authors are not empathetic to the African experience,” he said. “To make the Christian gospel concrete to Africans, we must dialogue with the African experience.”
Adeboye’s recent conversation with global books editor Geethanjali Tupps follows.
Tell us a little bit about where you are from in Nigeria.
I come from Kwara State, North Central Nigeria, home of hundreds of ethnocultural groups and several religious traditions, with strong interreligious tensions. The Yoruba people are a major ethnic group in Nigeria. There are deeply religious Pentecostal and charismatic African church networks founded and headed by many Yoruba people. Most Christians of Yoruba background, like me, have deep African traditional religious backgrounds.
Kwara is not only a Yoruba state but a mixed religious and cultural state comprised of Hausa, Fulani, Nupe, and Yoruba ethnic groups, as well as Muslims, Christians, traditionalists, and other religious groups.
In my community, people have metaphysical explanations for life experiences. Because I had the privilege of accepting the Lord at a very tender age, I therefore have a different answer to life issues. When I face challenging situations, I do not follow the traditional interpretation that attributes life challenges to curses or the devil.
What is a curse? How does it manifest in African daily life?
Many Africans interpret different life circumstances as expressions of curses. When a married couple can’t have a child, for example, they think their family or marriage is cursed. Someone who struggles with alcoholism might believe their parents are cursed.
In addition, many believe that names can be cursed. They believe curses can be generational, so sometimes people change their names. African societies have a rich tradition of name-giving. A name reflects certain things about its bearer. Therefore, many Africans believe their name is a spiritual entity that must be purified and blessed. When some people become Christians, for example, they change the name given to them by their “un-Christian parents.” Many Christians fear curses will be transferred via family names.
In indigenous African culture, many things can be cursed: a family, a marriage, land, a building, a place of work, even a church.
African Christians become confused because the Bible teaches them that they are new creatures, but when they experience difficult situations, they wonder if what happened to their parents before they became Christians is negatively impacting their lives.
How does the Bible discuss curses?
For Christians, the response to curses must be Christological. The cross of Christ has paid all debts. However, the Bible shows us clearly that both human grace and individual free will are vital to the human end; that is, the way things will turn out for human beings [is] determined by [both] God’s grace and human response. When humans accept Christ, we are cleansed from curses or generational debt.
The first step of deliverance from generational/ancestral curses is to live a transformed life patterned on the Word of God. But the phenomenon of curses can be complicated, and my book outlines how to deal with complex issues relating to curses.
What is the relationship between curses and family?
Generational curses, or inherited curses, are a belief that negative things that happened to one’s forefathers could also happen to those who live in a family (such as sudden death, poverty, accidents, lack of a job, financial instability, family breakdowns).
I interviewed colleagues from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Ghana, Benin Republic, Nigeria, and Congo, and I found that people throughout Africa fear curses, and many Christians believe they are affected by inherited curses.
Family is not just a social institution in Africa; family is also a spiritual institution. Marriage is also a spiritual institution. There is a spiritual connection between the father and son, between the mother and son, and they believe when something happens to the father, it can also happen to the son, because they are connected spiritually.
Generational curses exist today, but only for those who have not accepted the Lord Jesus. If a person is found in Christ, he or she is a new creature. This freedom in Christ does not negate Christian moral responsibility. When a genuine, born-again child of God undergoes life challenges, it is not due to curses but for the glory of the Lord and his or her spiritual growth.
What are witches?
In general, for curses to be effective, most Africans believe that the “cursed” must have offended the “curser.” However, witches are individuals whose curses may go into effect without any offense. Naturally, people fear them.
The fear of curses from witches is not only because they are witches, but many Africans also fear the negative words of any religious leader. African Christians fear their pastors cursing them in prayers. Furthermore, in the prayers in many churches in Africa, curses on enemies take priority. I call this “using curses to cure curses” in my book.
In the Old Testament, we frequently see God proclaim blessings or curses on future generations. How do you reconcile these beliefs of your fellow Africans with God’s words in the Old Testament?
At a casual glance, the African idea about curses is similar to Old Testament (OT) examples where God places curses on people. But a closer look reveals critical differences. Yahweh’s curses in the OT are largely conditional curses and related to the holiness of God. But in Africa, the majority of curses are unconditional. In my book, I argue that God does not curse his children, even in the OT. The famous Genesis 3 curses, for example, are not curses but punishment. God did not curse Adam or Eve. He cursed the ground, human work, and childbirth. And in the very pronouncement of punishment is the promise of the most significant blessing: the promise of the coming of Christ.
My book argues Yahweh’s curses and blessings in the OT are not automatic or unconditional; they invoke moral responsibility, justice, and divine holiness. Yahweh’s curses in the OT should not make us see God as a terrible Being but as a just God. They show that human actions determine their result. African society needs mental liberation on this, because many believe even when the person becomes a Christian, family curses still operate.
Do you believe that generational blessings exist today?
All over the continent, I have seen prayer mountains, prayer centers, and prayer houses all named after curses. In Nigeria, the name of the church is the center for deliverance from curses. I’ve witnessed church programs where instead of preaching the Word of God, the preacher asks members to wash their heads with water so they can be delivered from curses.
African Christians pray negatively and not positively. It is not like in the West, where people say, “May God bless you. May God provide for your needs.” Instead, Africans pray cursing the enemy, such as “God, let my enemies die. God, let my enemies sleep and never wake up.”
So I raised a question in my book: Is it good to use curses to solve curses? My answer is no; we would rather use the Word of God to explain and know God and his Word.
What do you make of the Bible’s imprecatory prayers?
In many respects, African Christians are particularly interested in using imprecatory psalms to reflect and respond to life challenges. These psalms frequently reoccur in the liturgy, sermons, and prayer books of many church denominations, especially the African indigenous churches. These psalms provide a biblical resource for reflection on existential experience and life challenges for many African Christians.
However, many of these psalms are often read, applied, and interpreted without considering their historical and theological context. These psalms are not mere “negative pronouncements” but personal reflections on divine justice by the psalmists on those [they] deemed enemies of God.
However, many Africans use these psalms as a resource for personal vengeance, like calling the name of their perceived human enemies while reciting a specific imprecatory psalm (e.g., Psalm 35) for a number of prescribed times. In many instances, if an African has a conflict with a fellow, he or she might choose some imprecatory psalms to curse his opponent.
I call this “using curses to cure curses.” In their attempt to deal with the fear of curses, they curse their cursers. Prayer books of many indigenous African churches have prayer points related to cursing one’s enemies rather than praying for blessing from God.
African Christian theologians have conceptualized the relevance of imprecatory psalms to reflect on African contextual experience, but practical guides on how to properly use these psalms [are] scarce. My book fills the gaps that exist in African Christian theology by providing theological and practical guidance and has a section with practical steps and samples on how to interpret and apply the imprecatory psalms correctly.
How do you see the idea of curses existing in a Western context?
The phenomenon of curses is not limited to the African context. First, the Western context is no longer purely West due to immigration and intercultural interactions. Second, Western institutional religious beliefs may not have the concept of curses clearly defined, but the idea of curses and their fear is discernible in the lived experiences of some people in the West. The secularism hypothesis—that as societies grow toward technological advancement, humans become less religious—has failed. Being Western is not necessarily equated with being less religious or spiritual.
I will be investigating and comparing Western notions of curses versus the African context.
How do we overcome these kinds of curses, especially as you see it in your own culture?
First, we need belief in and engagement with the Word of God. Christianity is growing in Africa. Some predict in the next few decades, the center of Christianity will be in Africa. But I have concerns.
African Christianity is growing in number, but it is not growing in quality. The quantitative growth of African Christianity must be supported by qualitative growth: knowing the Word of God.
In African Christianity the top leaders sometimes position themselves above the Word of God. This confuses church members. We must give primacy to the Word of God—not only in theory but through practices in our liturgy, in our counseling programs, other activities, and in personal study.
Second, we must emphasize the doctrine of atonement. African Christians must be reminded that the atonement of Christ is final and supreme. They must be cross-centered and Christ-centered. Moreover, Jesus told his disciples they should carry their cross and follow him.
Suffering and poverty could be part of our cross; therefore, when African Christians experience challenges, these may be a cross they must carry, not a curse.
Third, African leaders must emphasize personal contact and confessional experience. If an individual is truly regenerated by the Holy Spirit, then the possibility of being tormented by curses is unusual.
Finally, African Christian church leaders must emphasize missions, evangelism, and discipleship. We must be intentional in discipling new Christians. If we do this, then African Christians will be equipped to deal with the fear of curses.
Can a Christian be cursed?
If committed to biblical spiritual formation and Christian responsibility, a Christian cannot be cursed. Biblical spiritual formation includes continuous knowing, appreciating, accepting, and acknowledging the salvation work of Christ.
Christian victory over curses, whether they are inherited, family, [or] personal curses, is predicated on Christ because Christ is the solution to all our individual and collective challenges. Still, we have roles to play in our personal and collective Christian lives to appropriate our victory in Christ. This is where we must understand and appropriate the Christian concept of moral responsibility.
The theology of moral responsibility is not adequately entrenched in contemporary Christianity. Moral responsibility implies that we know that we must improve our spiritual life as we follow Christ. The Bible is clear on reward and punishment mechanisms for us as Christians. We must not do some things; if we do them, there could be negative repercussions. Sometimes, people refer to these repercussions as curses.
Christians cannot be cursed because Christ has become a curse for us. But if we trespass the lines of Christ’s precept, we might suffer the consequences. The Christian life has some demands, and Christians must follow these.