She couldn’t handle her mother-in-law. The eccentric woman hoarded craft supplies, collected duplicates of every household knick-knack in case the original broke, and maintained an extensive catalog of coupons organized by date and category. When the family came to visit, everyone pitched in to make paths between boxes of bric-a-brac and clear the rooms of surplus, just to make things safe for the grandkids.
He couldn’t stand his dad. The retired Vietnam veteran was ornery and set in his ways. Obsessed with politics, chewing tobacco, and classic cars, he marred every get-together with rants about the latest government conspiracy, political scandal, or trending propaganda. The family had respectfully asked him not to discuss the news over dinner. They’d also asked him not to leave coke cans full of tobacco spit on the porch. But Dad was Dad. And he would not change.
As children, we often view our parents as superheroes. They’re the nicest, smartest, best people ever, because we’re their kids, and we love them. But we all mature, and we come to view our parents differently once we’re adults. We notice their faults, and their previously endearing quirks now grate on our last nerve. This shift in understanding—the humanization of our parents—can be extremely painful.
My transition to an adult understanding of my parents is probably more extreme than most. As a child, I remember thinking my dad was a brilliant scientist and God-fearing theologian. It wasn’t until I grew up and could see my dad with adult eyes that I realized he was a violent sexual predator.
I’ve forgiven him, although I’ll likely never let him back into my life. I’ve forgiven many people who either enabled, ignored, or failed to prevent his evil. So, as a veteran soldier on this battlefield, let me presume to offer some practical advice.
Maybe your parents have ongoing sin issues, or maybe they’re just obnoxious. Either way, my hope is to help you dust off the irritation, sweep away the disappointment, and dispose of the anger inhibiting your relationship with your folks.
1. Humble Yourself and Pray
Whether it’s our parents’ irritating quirks and foibles, or full-blown sin and crime, our first step as we set out to relate well to our parents must always be to draw near to God in prayer. We repent to Jesus for any known wrongs or sinful attitudes we harbor. We also ask God to reveal and forgive the sins we cannot see, the behaviors and thoughts we don’t immediately perceive as wrong.
Maybe you’ve idolized some ideal of an Instagram-worthy family, secretly holding your parents to unrealistic standards. Maybe you harbor resentment, and every time your folks annoy you, bitter insults pop into your mind. Maybe you covet the incredible parents of your friends, to the point that you struggle to appreciate who you have.
These sins will trip you up and hold you back; these low-dose poisons, pills hidden in jam, sicken us before we realize what we’ve swallowed.
Any time you try to fill God’s shoes, you doom yourself to failure.
Satan’s first line of attack is usually to blind us to sin. But once we’ve perceived sin in others—once we’ve diagnosed their problems—he can leverage that too. Our justified anger and moral indignation can quickly become sin’s foot in the door of our souls. Righteous anger is easily twisted into malice and revenge. Justified disgust festers into self-righteous condescension. Our hearts trend toward wickedness. Our best intensions are petri dishes for depravity (Isa. 64:6).
Pray fervently that God would protect you. Then, guard your heart. Nip bitterness in the bud. Repent of sins committed, ask for him to reveal sins unknown, and beg God to bolster you against weakness and temptation. There is certainly a time and place for godly anger (Eph. 4:26), but we need the help of the Holy Spirit to navigate it without sin.
2. Fight for Joy
It’s not your job to fix your parents. You can honor them. You can love them. You can ask them to never give your toddler 10 lollypops again. But you cannot change them. It takes humility to understand this, but it’s also incredibly freeing. Knowing these things are outside our control, but inside God’s, can relieve much of the pressure fueling our frustration.
So, the next time your dad-in-law puts butter in the coffee, or your mom rearranges all the drawers in your kitchen so you can’t find anything, you can groan, and then you can laugh. Pray that God would help you let go, and enable you to find the humor in the predicament you’re in. Your life may be a lot more like The Office than you realize!
The quirks that drive you up the wall may be the exact memories you cherish and laugh about after your parents are gone. The idiosyncrasies that make you nuts now may be blessings to others or strengths under the right circumstances.
3. Trust God to Save, or Not
Sometimes our parents have ugly sin that grieves us. I remember as a kid being told that if I was a good enough daughter, my dad would see Jesus in me, and stop being abusive. This was a lie, and it placed far too heavy a burden on my young shoulders. You cannot save your parents. Their souls are God’s responsibility, not yours.
Any time you try to fill God’s shoes, you doom yourself to failure. We must trust God enough to acknowledge that he will have mercy on whom he will have mercy (Ex. 33:19), and that everything he does is righteous, regardless of whether it’s what we want. He may save our parents. He may not. He may sanctify and heal them. He may not.
I had to come to a place in my faith where I prayed, God, you might not save my dad, but I’m at peace with your will because whatever you do is holy. Not only can we not control our parents, but we can’t control God or his plan for their souls. We can love our folks, we can grieve their sin, and we can model Jesus to them, but we are not Jesus. Take yourself down off that cross.
4. God Is Still Growing Up Your Folks
Just as we entrust our unbelieving parents’ salvation to God, we can entrust our believing parents’ sanctification to God. He who began a good work in your parents will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6).
Your parents may be old and set in their ways, but they aren’t spiritually “grown up.” They’re a work in progress, just like you. All believers need to “grow up in [their] salvation” (1 Pet. 2:2). Rather than trying to sanctify your parents, rest in the knowledge that God is at work. Your parents aren’t now the people they will be in 10 years, let alone in eternity.
5. Cherish Your Childhood Naïveté
Part of the frustration we feel toward our parents is rooted in the fact that we once idealized them. Maybe even idolized them. As a result, we aren’t just disappointed in Mom and Dad; we’re disappointed in ourselves. How could we be so gullible? Why did we adore someone who was a product of our childish imagination? Consequently, we feel foolish for being kids, and we take that out on our folks.
But what does the Bible say about the heart of a child? “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother” (Ps. 131:2). God desires us to rest on him the way little child falls asleep on her parent’s shoulder. That contentedness, that faith, that unquestioning trust is how God wants us to feel about him.
Never forget that you were once like the little children Jesus welcomed and honored (Matt. 19:14). Don’t beat yourself up over your naïveté. Innocence isn’t a bad thing. Love is not a failing. Rather, memories of our childish hearts teach us how our trust in God should look. Youthful exuberance, innocence, and idealism give us a precious picture of how we’ll someday feel again in heaven.
6. Learn from Their Mistakes
Everyone leads by example. Some are just great examples of what not to do. Thankfully, we have a God who works all things together for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). We can trust that God will work good for us even through our flawed parents, and we can follow God’s example by using bad experiences to learn and grow.
When we’re disappointed that Dad went golfing instead of attending our child’s birthday party, we can make a note to prioritize attending our own grandkid’s parties one day. When Mom insta-pots the fatted calf for dinner, even though we reminded her just yesterday that our spouse is vegetarian, we can commit to honoring our kid’s future spouse, even if they’re different from us. Learn from your parents’ mistakes. Trust that God will work good for you—and those you love—even through these frustrating experiences.
7. Joy Set Before Us
Peter reminds us:
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” (1 Pet. 1:22–25)
Our parents’ time on earth is limited. Whether they’re saved or not, whether their flaws are irritating quirks or devastating evil, like grass they wither and like flowers they will fall. Sometimes loving our parents means learning to laugh over harmless eccentricities. Sometimes loving our parents means putting up boundaries so they can’t sin against us further. But this is only a season; a time that will pass into memory. Take comfort and find peace knowing that now is not forever.
And one day soon, we too will pass into completion, wholeness, and sinlessness. On that day, Jesus will wipe away every tear from our eyes—tears of sorrow, tears of rage, tears of worry, tears of exhaustion. There will be no more death, mourning, frustration, or pain, for the old order of things will pass away (Rev. 21:4).
Evil and sin, foibles and flaws, eccentricities and neurotic quirks will be alleviated and set right. If our parents are unbelievers, God the righteous judge will call them to account. If our parents are saved, they’ll be made whole and healed. Our relationship with them will be set right as we join the glorified family of God. The maddening buildup of sin and the battle fatigue from this darkened world will be gone forever. We too will be made completely holy, experiencing the fulfillment of our childlike optimism as we delight in the only perfect Father.