“Honor your father and mother.”
Dallas Willard emphasizes how vital this biblical command is to helping people grow as disciples. He says that when helping people live as disciples of Jesus, “A major point will often be to help them honor their parents. This is not something that can be bypassed.” It’s a crucial part of our discipleship, which may be why it is literally central to the Ten Commandments!
When children are young and living at home, what it means for them to honor their parents is fairly clear. It looks a lot like submit to, obey, and respect.
But what does it mean as an adult?
Does honoring mean always taking their advice and doing what they say regarding money, jobs, how to raise your kids, and anything else they deem important for you to know?
Does it mean you must spend lots of time with them, whether you enjoy their company or not?
Does it mean you need to allow your kids—their grandchildren!—to spend lots of time with them, even if the environment in their home runs counter to the values of your home?
Does it mean you never speak with them about any concerns you have about them or expectations you have for them?
Does honoring your father and mother as an adult require you to have feelings of affection for them? Or to tell people how great your parents are regardless of how you feel about them?
“Does honoring your father and mother as an adult require you to have feelings of affection for them?”
Is it dishonoring to think negatively about some aspects of your upbringing, or to wish that your parents had treated you differently? Are you the one who’s doing wrong for thinking that way? Are you to pretend that hurtful things never happened or weren’t that big of deal?
What does it mean to honor your father and mother as an adult?
A Weighty Command
This biblical command first appears in Exodus 20 as commandment #5 in the Ten Commandments. The basic idea of the Hebrew word translated “honor” is to give weight to, and in the context of honoring your parents, this makes good sense. They have weight because of the position they hold in your life: you wouldn’t be here without them.
If they were and are wonderful, wise, godly parents, that only enlarges the weight they hold in your life. But even if they weren’t, they still hold a weighty place by virtue of the fact that you exist because of them. In fact, some psychologists have pointed out how there is something fundamentally wise about this command, because to dishonor your parents entails devaluing and disliking your own existence, and that will create all sorts of issues which will make your life miserable. Thus, as with so many of God’s commands (actually with all of them!), honoring your father and mother is right because it is good for our well-being. It enables human flourishing!
Furthermore, the context of Exodus 20 is laying the foundation of God’s covenant with his people Israel. That means the command states a covenant ideal. Thus, honoring your father and mother is central to being in and living out God’s covenant. This same perspective is reflected in Proverbs with the many appeals to follow the instruction of your mother and father because the ideal is that they impart the wisdom of God.
“Honoring your father and mother is central to being in and living out God’s covenant.”
And even though the original command shows up there in God’s covenant with Israel, it is restated in the new covenant for God’s people in Christ. Paul quotes it in Ephesians 6:2 and even notes that it was the first command with a promise, namely that it would go well for them and they’d live long on the earth. The force of the promise in its original Old Testament context is that honoring their parents was necessary to passing on the covenant faith to the next generation, and all the blessings which God promised to Israel—including the promises concerning the land—were contingent on each generation keeping the covenant. The fact that Paul restates the command and the promise for the new covenant faithful indicates that the same is still true: honoring your parents is still crucial to carrying on the faith throughout the generations.
And If They’re Not Honorable?
So, the position parents hold in life carries a definite significance and brings with it a certain weight that deserves honor. I think it’s important to note that neither Moses in Exodus 20 nor Paul in Ephesians 6 qualified the command to say honor your parents if they live up to the ideal of godly, wise parents. Certainly, they knew not everyone’s parents would live up to the ideal, but they called them to honor their parents nonetheless. Why?
It seems they understood that the significance and weight of the position of parents is intrinsic to the web of human relationships to such an extent that to violate the honor principle damages society, undermines the community of faith, and corrodes our own well-being. Therefore, whether we had godly parents or not, we as adult children need to feel the weight of honoring our father and mother.
In some cases, honoring comes easy. Your parents were good and wise in the way they raised you and treated you. And they continue to treat you with wisdom and respect. So you probably don’t even think about honoring them. It just comes naturally. It’s easy to speak well of them. You like to be with them. Having them babysit your kids causes no stress. They listen to you, so you want to listen to them. They honor you so it’s easy for you to honor them.
“In some cases, honoring comes easy.”
Others of you, however, may have grown up in traumatic situations, enduring things no person, especially no child, should have to endure. You hear the description in the previous paragraph, and you can barely imagine what that must be like. So, the thought of honoring your father or your mother is intolerable and might even make you angry. Or it might feel intolerable—and yet you have a strange urge to want to do it…and you don’t know why.
The biblical command speaks to this by showing you that the urge is because honoring your parents is hardwired into the human soul. It’s the way things are supposed to be; it’s the way human families are designed to function. So, the fact that your family assaulted that place of honor has left you all at once hurt, angered, and yet wishing you could honor them (or at least feeling like you should).
And some of you, perhaps most of you, are somewhere in between those two. There’s some good (maybe a lot of good) but also some real hurt. Maybe there are some things you really appreciated about your upbringing but there are also some things that really wounded you. Or maybe your childhood wasn’t too bad, but moving into adulthood hasn’t gone well. They haven’t been able to let go. They still treat you like a child. They don’t listen to you. They speak to you and about you in ways that feel disrespectful. It seems like they still try to control your life. And you’re confused and conflicted about your relationship with them.
“There’s some good (maybe a lot of good) but also some real hurt.”
A Few Suggestions
So what does it look like as an adult to honor your father and mother by giving weight to them, especially when it doesn’t come naturally because the relationship is strained or broken? Let me offer a few suggestions.
Recognize Their Significance
First, we need to recognize their significance in our life. That means being grateful for our existence and their role in it. It also means that who we are—the good along with bad—has been greatly shaped by them. Whatever good they passed on to us, as well as the things we definitely want to do differently, has formed us in important ways. Honor that by giving weight to it. Don’t overlook the good or minimize the bad. Acknowledge it, all of it. And offer it all back to God in thanksgiving and prayer.
Speak with Respect
Second, we should speak to our parents with respect. Just because we’re now an adult and out of their home doesn’t give us license to be rude, unkind, or disrespectful. So, we must speak to them in ways which treat them with honor and give weight to their position as our parents. Practice basic courtesies, such as saying please and thank you. If you want your parents to babysit your kids, be considerate and ask, rather than just expecting them to always be available. If you want to borrow something, again, ask and don’t demand or just take things.
The apostle Paul actually assumes that people speak to their parents when he gives instructions to Timothy on how to speak to the people in the church. He writes, “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father…to the older women as mothers” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). Notice that Paul takes it for granted that adults will appeal to their parents rather than sharply rebuke them, and this assumption is instructive to us. So, even when we disagree with our parents or have to set some important boundaries with our parents, we ought to speak with respect. Indeed, “The Lord’s bondservant must not be quarrelsome” as Paul once again instructs Timothy (2 Tim. 2:24), and that certainly applies to how we interact with our parents, whom we are called to honor.
“Even when we disagree with our parents or have to set some important boundaries with our parents, we ought to speak with respect.”
What about when we’re talking to others about our parents? If your relationship with your parents is good, this will probably just come naturally. But even if it’s not, the call to honor our parents means we should speak about our parents with respect as well. In fact, Peter instructs us to “honor all people” (1 Peter 2:17), and in 1 Peter, a huge part of honoring and respecting people is how we talk about them (e.g., blessing and not cursing). That means no gossip, slander, or continual stream of running them down, which are consistently listed in the New Testament as sins to be avoided. There may be a person or two with whom we need to be honest in an effort to gain counsel and wisdom, but everyone else doesn’t need to know all the faults and follies of our parents. To run them down is contrary to honoring them.
Another aspect of honoring our father and mother is being grateful for any and all good that they brought into our life. Depending on our own parents, that may be easy and a lot, or it may be hard to find much good. But typically there will be at least a few things, so acknowledging them—even out loud or in writing to make it concrete—is critical to having a heart of honor.
One thing I mentioned above that we ought to be thankful for is our own existence. In addition to that, maybe there is a particular memory. Or maybe it’s a particular skill or trait. Maybe it was a positive period of time in your life. Identify the things you are grateful for and express that to yourself, to God, and maybe even to your parent if that’s possible and a good idea. As parents of adult children, it has meant the world to my wife and me when they have expressed gratitude for things from their childhood.
My final suggestion is to grant grace. No parent is perfect because not one of us is perfect. So, reject pride and condemnation. Give mercy, and even seek mercy for your own sins against your parents. Jesus calls us to “bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28). And Peter instructs us to not return “evil for evil or insult for insult, but [give] a blessing instead” (1 Peter 3:9).
So, out of mercy and grace, we seek to bless in whatever concrete ways we can. We also choose to forgive rather than be bitter and angry. This does not mean we sweep their sins and misdeeds under the carpet or minimize the damage they did. But it does mean we choose to let them off of our hook and leave them on God’s. God alone has all the facts and God alone is the perfect judge. So, we’ll let him sort it all out. We choose to get rid of resentment and hostility and replace it with grace and peace. We follow the example Jesus gave while he hung on the cross and cried out, “Father, forgive them.” We grant grace.
“We choose to get rid of resentment and hostility and replace it with grace and peace.”
A Little of My Own Story
Can I speak honestly and personally for a second? My own dad walked out on the family when I was 3 and a half years old. The night he left is my earliest childhood memory. I didn’t see him again until I was 7. Between the ages of 7 – 18, I only saw him 4 – 5 times for very brief stretches. In fact, the total amount of time I spent with him after I was 3 was right around 10-12 hours. I barely knew him. He never paid child support—except one time he gave my mom some money.
He obviously wasn’t much of a dad. And that had a huge impact on me. So, in my early 20’s when I learned that he had died, I didn’t want his sins and shortcomings to control my future. I sat down in a chair and placed another chair in front of me, and I imagined my dad sitting in it facing me. And I said out loud, “Dad, I forgive you for not being there. For abandoning mom and me and my siblings. I forgive you for …” and I listed off some of the specific wounds his sins had created in me, and I spoke out my forgiveness of him. And I entrusted it all to God.
And I think that was critical to dealing with the hurts so I could appropriately honor his place in my life and move forward.
A New Family Unit
One last and very important thing on this matter of honoring your father and mother. If you marry and if you have your own kids, you are creating a whole new family unit that is separate from the family you grew up in. That’s why Scripture says, “A man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).
You are forming a brand new family identity which has its own perimeter, and your family of origin is outside of that. So, you can and you must leave your family of origin in so many concrete ways, and it’s important to recognize that honoring your parents does not negate this. This leaving happens in physical, emotional, social, and financial ways, and a number of other ways as well. There’s a turning toward and being united with your spouse that is so comprehensive that you two are now “one flesh”—a whole new family identity.
This doesn’t necessarily mean complete independence from your parents, because mature, healthy adulthood looks more like interdependence. But it does mean your family identity, values, practices, and priorities are your own. And your parents don’t get carte blanche access to your life, your marriage, or your kids just because they are your parents. Of course, this doesn’t justify adult children who are unkind and selfish in how they treat their parents. That’s not honoring. But it does mean that the relationship must change and your parents aren’t entitled by right to complete access to your life.
“Mature, healthy adulthood looks more like interdependence.”
Some adult children may have a close and wonderful relationship with their parents (but even in this case, it’s still important to differentiate yourself and your family from them). Others may have a limited relationship with certain boundaries in place. Still others may have little to no relationship. For example, take note of Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3:5 where, after listing off a bunch of wrong behaviors, he says “avoid such people.” Sometimes that’s necessary even with our parents. Honoring our father and mother can include all these different kinds of relationships, depending on the specifics of our own situation.
In an ideal world, our parents would be people whose love is profound. Their advice is wise and sound. Their character reflects Christ. And honoring them is easy, even as adults. And for some of you, that’s the case and that’s a reason for great gratitude. But we don’t live in an ideal world. So ,for others, honoring your parents is fraught with difficulty; and you are going to have to humbly and prayerfully wrestle with what that looks like in your specific situation. So, I pray the reflections and suggestions above are helpful to you as you seek to honor Christ by honoring your parents.
For more from John, see johnwhittaker.net.