Seemingly, the most repeated Bible passage in our house is either “honor your mother and father” (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:2) or “obey your parents in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1).
But I don’t know anyone who is saying this back to me as a father with a father.
The first commandment with a promise attached is clearly made to children, and something changes when the child becomes an adult. Culture plays a role in when that change should occur and what exactly that looks like practically. In many Eastern cultures, the thought of not honoring one’s parents is completely alien. In the West, dishonoring one’s family is more acceptable, as we tend to value youth culture more than experience and wisdom. Before you begin to romanticize the honoring of parents in Eastern cultures, just know that it is often enslaving and moves from honor to servitude.
Yet the command to honor is never rescinded, even when the child becomes an adult. At the time when children transition to adulthood we feel the tension as kids begin to explore their independence. When I worked more directly with teenagers, they would often wonder about the will of God for their life. I would always tell them the same thing: honor your mom and dad.
But somewhere in the time when a child leaves home the application of this passage gets muddled. We come out from under our parent’s authority to stand on our own two feet. So how are adult children supposed to honor mom and dad? My parents and my wife’s parents do not share our evangelical faith. What does honor look like then? What if the parents are just unwise? What if there is tension in the relationship?
Honoring generally means showing esteem or respect for a person. It also means “to weigh” or “make heavy.” In Proverbs, honor is tied to humility (15:33, 18:12) and kindness (21:21). Scripture teaches us not just to honor our parents, but all those in authority (Rom. 13:1) as well as all people (1 Pet. 2:17). Double honor goes to the elders of a local church (1 Tim. 5:17). Honor is even tied to love (Rom. 12:10).
Honoring your parents does not mean ignoring how you have been treated in the past or by placing yourself in harm’s way. Parents treating children poorly is not new. Just read the Old Testament. A generation ago, C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves that he was “far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parents.” It was not lost on him that sometimes parents are difficult.
Parents have a unique place in a child’s life. Generally speaking, to honor them means that their opinion matters more. If you are seeking out counsel, your parents are to be shown greater deference. It means seeking them out, even if they are abdicating their responsibility. I have tried to think through ways of honoring my adult parents as I teach my children to honor me. As you head home for Christmas this year, here are four considerations.
1. Try to understand who they are.
Somewhere in a person’s transition to adulthood we try to understand why we are the way we are. Yes, we are all of Adam’s sinful race, but there are peculiar things about each of us that are instilled by our parents—good, bad, or neutral. This includes communication styles, expectations in relationships, living standards, generosity, rules for fighting, and much more. In these self-reflections we see how our parents have affected these areas. But have you ever considered how their parents affected them?
Might you be more patient and a better listener if you can finally understand how your grandparents treated your mom and dad? Have you ever asked about their upbringing beyond the simple questions? I know many parents with broken relationships with their adult children who wish their children would just listen to them and show that they care. Even if your parents have a hard time talking at all, consider ways to learn about who they are and where they come from.
2. Thank them.
Do you think your parents messed up your childhood? My wife and I shared our testimonies in our wedding, and both sets of parents heard us as repudiating how they had raised us. Looking back, while our intentions were good, there was a better way to deliver the message without making our parents feel like we hated them. Consider verbally thanking them. Look them in the eyes this Christmas and offer specific reasons you are thankful for them. A quick survey of the Bible will find that not being thankful is tied to unbelief.
3. Involve them in decisions.
I don’t feel required to ask my parents about decisions I need to make about my family, but I would be foolish not to seek their counsel. We all feel honored when someone comes to us for advice. As a way of honoring and even deepening your relationship with your parents, consider bringing them into family decisions (with your spouse’s permission if married). I am not suggesting doing this for every decision, but certainly important ones.
4. Spend time with them.
Everyone will be busy this Christmas, but consider spending focused one-on-one time with your parents. If you have kids, have someone watch them. Speak to your parents face-to-face. Take them out to dinner. Your parents will probably enjoy the gift of spending time with you. If you have not talked about anything important in a long time, consider choosing one thing to talk about or just asking questions.
There are so many scenarios, rules like this can never account for every situation. I know some families that are wonderfully at peace and love each other. Others are at war with no end in sight. But for both, the command to honor your parents is not rescinded, not even if you think they have abdicated their role. Might this be a way to consider others before yourself, as Christ did, making himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in the likeness of man (Phil. 2:7)?