By Amy Simon
Deuteronomy 5:16 and Ephesians 6:2 say to “Honor your father and mother.” God is pretty clear, both in the Old Testament and the New, that we are supposed to honor our parents. If my parents are godly, supportive, adore my children, and embrace my spouse with love and admiration, then honoring them would be easy.
But what if that’s not the case? How am I supposed to honor them if I really don’t respect or even like them? What if they don’t know or follow God? I don’t have to honor them, right? I sort of wish that were true, but I don’t see any biblical evidence for it. We’re commanded to honor our parents. There don’t seem to be any loopholes.
Many people have relationships with their parents that are far worse than mine. My parents weren’t alcoholics. They weren’t abusive or negligent when I was growing up. They stayed married until my mother passed away, which was a feat in itself. Intellectually, I’ve always known they love me. Even so, honoring them has been a challenge for me.
My big problem is that I don’t respect them. To be brutally honest, I think they’ve made poor financial choices and raised my brother to have few personal boundaries in his life. They would bail him out of any trouble he got into, which has enabled him to stay dependent on them even into his adult years. I didn’t respect my mother’s lack of self-control in regard to her health. That lack of self-control eventually killed her. My father isn’t involved in my life and was never very affectionate to me growing up.
Our house was generally chaotic, both physically and emotionally. When my husband, our toddler, and I went to visit them several years ago, we decided we couldn’t stay at their house because it was so dirty we didn’t feel our son would be safe there.
Yet I’m commanded to honor them. How? I looked up the word honor in my Greek and Hebrew dictionaries, hoping for a way out, but I couldn’t find it. Honor means to place value upon something. I was confused about how I could honor what I didn’t respect. If respect is earned, they hadn’t earned it.
Respect Versus Honor
As I reached adulthood, God began to convict me about my disobedience to his command, so I prayed and asked him to show me how to honor my parents. After prayer and study of his Word, I believe he showed me that respect is earned, but to honor is a choice. When you respect people, you look up to them because of what they’ve done or how they live. Honor is something you choose to bestow on people because of their position or authority.
When you’re in a courtroom and a judge enters, everyone stands. If you don’t like the judge or think he makes poor decisions, you still stand. You choose to show him honor because of his position as judge. If you were to meet the president, you would be respectful and gracious to him, even if you didn’t agree with one decision he’s ever made.
I believe that is what God asks of us as children, whether we’re independent adults or still living under our parents’ roof. We are to honor our parents for the position God has put them in. They gave birth to us and raised us—that earns them honor from us, whether or not we like them, respect them, or ever want to repeat anything they’ve done. God says to give them the honor their position is due. That may be a challenge at times, depending on your relationship with them, but God has commanded us to do it anyway.
Putting It into Practice
What does that look like? That’s a very individual decision and it depends on the situation. For me, I decided I needed to make it a priority to call them on birthdays and holidays. I also started sending them a Christmas gift. I had a hard time sending them Mother’s and Father’s Day cards because I couldn’t agree with most of the sentiments written on the cards! Rather than be a hypocrite, I decided just to call them on those days. I live halfway across the country from them, so doing anything involving my physical presence didn’t happen often. I did commit to pray for them regularly. I tried to focus on the good things they did and still do, rather than on the bad, and did my best to maintain a relationship with them.
If you live closer to your parents, you could take them out to dinner or get them a gift on holidays and birthdays. Help them when they need it, whether it’s housecleaning, a ride to a medical appointment, or raking leaves. Be kind to them and love them, following the model in 1 Corinthians 13.
Sometimes all of that isn’t so easy or even wise, depending on your situation. I have an adult friend who struggles with various mental illnesses. His mother puts him down and criticizes him every time she sees him. He has deep bitterness against his parents for some things that happened while he was growing up. In order for him to heal emotionally, I believe he needs to put some distance between himself and his mother’s negative attitude toward him. Wounds seldom heal when they’re constantly reopened. He needs to find some creative ways to honor his mother while setting up boundaries in his life so he can heal. Perhaps prayer and an occasional phone call is all he can do for now.
Maybe you’re a recovering alcoholic and your parents drink every time you see them. You may need to limit your personal time with them if they won’t put the alcohol aside when you’re around. Or perhaps they’re violent and you’re concerned about the safety of yourself, your spouse, or your children. Don’t spend time with them, but find other ways to honor them.
God told us to honor our parents, but he didn’t tell us to lie to them by showering them with unwarranted praise. I don’t believe he wants us to sacrifice our own emotional or physical health in order to have dinner with them every Sunday. I would encourage you to get alone with God, look at your specific situation, and ask him to show you the best way to bestow honor on your parents.
The command is coupled with a promise: “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth” (Ephesians 6:3). When we choose to obey God’s commands, no matter how difficult, we honor him because of his position as Lord of our lives. He will bless us as we follow him.
Amy Simon is a freelance writer in Jackson, Wisconsin.
Seven Ways for Adults to Honor Parents
Thank them. Be specific. Challenge yourself to thank them regularly for things they’ve done in the past and continue to do in the present.
Pray for them. They can always use it; and God will use prayer to change the way you see them.
Take care of them. Whether it’s a bad cold or Alzheimer’s, show your parents care and nurturing.
Spend time with them. Keep them company if they can no longer get out often, or make time to participate with them in their hobbies.
Raise good kids. Parents love to see that their kids are good parents. Make sure your kids are loving and respectful to their grandparents.
Ask them for advice. You know now more than ever that parents don’t know everything, but each one has expertise to pass on. Let them share what they know.
Forgive and let go of bitterness. Make a deliberate choice not to let past baggage weigh you down. Work toward forgiveness day by day and year by year.