“Did you hear that story on the news today?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
But I’d had this conversation before. The first time, I was around 11, setting the table for dinner. This time I was 21, and we sat around the same table.
My father continued: “A man came home to find his wife and kids packing to leave him, so he shot them all dead, and then killed himself. You’d better never try to leave me.”
Soon after, while my dad was at work, I snuck into his closet and stole his .357 Magnum revolver. I positioned the empty case on the shelf to look like it hadn’t been touched, wrapped the gun in a towel, and hid it in a box in my bedroom. I remember thinking, At least this way, if he tries to kill us, he won’t have his gun, so some of us should get away.
That evening, he came home. He went to his bedroom, and I waited anxiously, wondering if he’d notice. Sure enough, he came out and glared at me. I reasoned he must have gone to get his gun and found the case empty. After scowling at me for what felt like eternity, he went back into his room. He never asked where his gun was. He pretended like nothing had happened.
Living a Lie
I grew up in a Christian family. We faithfully attended congregations of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Presbyterian Church in America. My mom homeschooled us and led children’s worship. My dad had a PhD and taught adult Sunday school. In public, he was intelligent and composed. In private, he could go from studying Louis Berkhof to beating his daughter in a heartbeat.
In our family, I was taught to honor my father and mother, forgive others, and not gossip, but homes warped by abuse have their own language. “Forgive” meant pretend you’re happy, even when you’re covered in bruises. “Honor your father” meant obey him, even when you’re terrified he might kill you. And we were repeatedly warned not to “gossip,” which meant telling anyone the truth.
This is spiritual abuse—a type of psychological abuse. The abuser takes a godly word or concept and, usually over time and through teaching, warps the meaning. As a result of the abuse I had experienced, when our pastor preached on forgiveness, I thought he was telling me to accept abuse. When the Bible spoke of honoring your parents, I thought God wanted me to pretend my abuser was honorable. But deep in my heart, I knew this couldn’t be true.
I thought God wanted me to pretend my abuser was honorable. But deep in my heart, I knew this couldn’t be true.
As I matured, I was torn between my desire to please God and my need to escape my father. I agonized over the fifth commandment—“Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12)—and felt like a fake Christian for hating my dad’s behavior. At the peak of my distress, I remember thinking it would have been easier if he’d died when I was a child than watch him become the man he was. At least then, I thought, I could’ve imagined he’d loved Jesus and believed he’d loved me.
For years, I wrestled with PTSD from over 20 years of abuse. I struggled to unravel theology many seminary graduates wrestle with. How could I honor a man who is dishonorable? Surely, God doesn’t want me to obey an evil person, or submit to a dangerous man? But before I could understand the fifth commandment, I had to grasp why God gave the Ten Commandments in the first place.
Spirit of the Ten Commandments
As smoke billowed down the sides of Mount Sinai, lightning flashed, thunder roared, and the people of God feared he’d destroy them. But Moses said, “Do not be afraid! God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning” (Ex. 20:20).
“Don’t fear God, but fear God” seems contradictory, but as an abuse survivor I found it comforting. Now that I was safe and recovering from abuse, I realized it meant: Don’t fear an angry, violent God who will terrorize you like your father did. Fear a holy and just God who wants you to be good because he loves you.
If one function of the Ten Commandments is to enable us to express love to Jesus (John 14:15), then the fifth command is no exception. The primary aim of “Honor your father and mother” is to honor God.
And here’s where we come to the perspective-shifting, abuse-breaking, lie-crushing, heart-healing truth of the matter. How do we emulate Christ when we’re confronted with evil? We reject evil. How do we follow Jesus when we’re commanded to sin? We defy wicked authorities. How do we honor the Spirit of truth (John 14:17) when we’re pressured to lie? We speak truth boldly, even if that means a lion’s den, a fiery furnace, or a blood-soaked cross.
In a beautiful plot twist of grace, keeping the fifth commandment means refusing to submit to evil parents. We cannot obey both God and evildoers. We follow Jesus despite them.
What Does It Mean to Honor?
These days, when we talk about honoring people, we think of awarding them a medal or dedicating a park bench. But there’s more to it than that. When we honor people, we are honorable ourselves, and we do what is honorable by them. Honoring godly people means building them up in righteousness.
In a beautiful plot twist of grace, keeping the fifth commandment means refusing to submit to evil parents.
Honoring ungodly people means calling them to repent of their sin, encouraging them to do what is right, and preventing them from doing further evil. An honorable response to sin is confronting it, refusing to enable it, and reporting crimes to law enforcement.
In the spirit of the law, I honored my father by refusing to succumb to the damage his sin inflicted. I honored my father by reporting his abuses. I honored my father by breaking the cycle and being a godly parent to my children. I honor my father daily by not letting him near my daughters.
My True Father
Ultimately, God comforts the brokenhearted children of evil fathers by inviting them to honor a father who is worthy of all honor. Who is my ultimate father? Is it someone I share DNA with but who treated me terribly, or is there more to fatherhood than biology? To paraphrase Jesus, God is my Father, and whoever does his will is my brother and sister and mother (Matt. 12:48–49). Our biological parents may fail us, but we have a Father who is holy. Through the work of Jesus, we’re adopted as God’s children, and we can cry to him, “Abba! Daddy!” (Rom. 8:15).
When we understand that God is our loving Father, the veil of confusion lifts and spiritual abuse unravels. If our parents are “the wicked” of Psalm 1, God does not want us to walk in their steps, stand in their ways, or sit in their company. He wants us to delight in the law of the Lord, and honor our true Father day and night. Every day is a new opportunity to honor my Father who is merciful and faithful. He is the One of whom heaven’s host sings, “Worthy are you . . . to receive glory and honor and power” (Rev. 4:11). He will never leave me or forsake me.