One of the most shocking revelations I ever had about my parents was that they’re real people. When I entered adulthood, I realized they don’t know everything. When I took on more adult responsibilities, I realized I didn’t either. As my world shifted, the questions rained: Did this mean my parents really knew what was best for me? Were their judgments, life choices, and advice truly applicable to my life? The Bible says, “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12), but as an adult, no longer subject to household rules and obedience, what does it look like to honor my parents now?
Now, according to biblical scholars, is just the time this command applies. The Ten Commandments were originally written for a Jewish audience whose culture highly valued respect, honor, community and elders. This command was an address to adult children to care for the needs of their aging parents—honor and community were hospice. We might not yet be at that lifestage, but anyone transitioning from child/parent to adult/parent relationships may wrestle with the above questions. Some of us might even spend our whole adult lives trying to answer them. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I have learned a few lessons. Here are four:
LESSON 1: HONOR GOD
I sat alone in my room one night blaming God for my clueless, loveless, career-less state. “What did I do wrong? Why are you punishing me?” I asked. A whisper replied, A punisher—is that how you see me? Where did you learn that? “Good question, God. Let me get back to you.”
I recognized I built an image of God that looked more like an earthly parent than a heavenly father. It was no wonder I had heavenly-daddy issues. I also realized I held my parent’s counsel above God’s, which is why I got frustrated when I didn’t agree with them. Thirty-two year old Amanda recalls a similar struggle: “As I became an adult, it was a challenge to recognize I did not have to obey my parents. At 23, 24, 25, 31, I still struggle to recognize that every word out of my [parents’] mouth is not the gospel truth . . .”
My desire to honor and obey my parents overshadowed the need to honor and obey God, and life felt wobbly. God addressed this very thing in the first of his Ten Commandments to the Israelite nation. “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). And again in the second command, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4). God wants the place of greatest honor—put anything but him at the center and life is going to feel off balance. Our central desire should be for God, only then can we properly honor the things that surround.
LESSON 2: HONORING DOESN’T MEAN PLEASING
A woman called into New Life Live, a radio show that addresses mental, emotional, and relational issues. She wanted to know how to honor her elderly parents. “What do you mean?” asked guest host, psychologist Dr. John Townsend. “My parents tell me I’m a horrible person, and am not honoring them when they call needing groceries and I can’t drop everything . . . when they ask.” The woman confused pleasing with honoring, and so did her parents. While the outcome of pleasing seems selfless, it’s rooted in a fearful and insecure desire to be liked and accepted. Pleasing can be easily coerced. Honor, however, takes the focus off of self and places it on another. It doesn’t bend to pressure because it’s a choice to love and respect that is rooted in confidence and sincerity.
My desire to honor and obey my parents overshadowed the need to honor and obey God, and life felt wobbly.
As a chronic people pleaser, this is one of the most difficult things for me to learn and relearn. As we grow into adulthood and learn to critically evaluate, we may draw our parents’ own beliefs and ideas into question. Disagreements range from school or career choices, body art and piercings, whom and how to date, whom to marry, and how to raise children. And that’s OK, as long as we disagree respectfully. But since these are intensely personal subjects, an unheated debate is easier said than done. First, it’s helpful to remember our growing independence is difficult for our parents too. They must grieve the loss of our dependence and adapt to our adultness.
When Amanda realized her parents were the only people she fought with, she began to approach them as she would any normal Joe. “I’ve quit arguing with my parents when I disagree . . .” she says, “Those arguments were futile and unnecessary and drove wedges between us.” In her disagreements with friends or her husband, she solves differences through rational conversation or a simple “thanks for your thoughts.”
Another respectful approach is to gain understanding. Ask your parents what experience led them to a particularly strong opinion, then, if it’s appropriate, share what shaped yours.
Twenty-eight year old Anna was considering a tattoo. Although her mom was opposed to body art, Anna was interested in her latest thoughts and called her up before committing. They still disagreed, but Anna had a hinge moment. “I was mad at her, because I felt like she should be more supportive in our relationship, in respecting me as an adult,” says Anna. “But . . . I tried to think unselfishly. . . .” Anna says the biblical command to honor our parents is a calling as much as an admonition: While we’re free to live as we please, we’re also called to not consciously disrespect our parents. Anna recalls a rebellious streak, remorseful of her teenage disrespect for her parents. As an adult she better understands and appreciates the sacrifices and choices her parents made for her. “It became more important to me in that moment for [my mom] to know I want to honor her, even if it means sacrificing something I really want.”
Shared understanding softens hearts and strengthens bonds. This can help you come to a conclusion based out of love and selflessness—which might lead to pleasing your parents after all.
Honor, however, takes the focus off of self and places it on another. It doesn’t bend to pressure because it’s a choice to love and respect that is rooted in confidence and sincerity.
But what if it doesn’t? Many adult children will make choices that go against their parents’ wishes. These choices may not be wrong or sinful, but the question about honor remains. I know several couples who married despite their parents’ strong objections and even attempts to sabotage their dating relationships. The couples first sought God, then asked themselves if their choice to remain together would honor him. Saying “yes” to this question meant saying “no” to pleasing their parents and accepting the painful consequences that followed. Together, they traveled the bumpy road of respectfully disagreeing with their parents—choosing understanding over criticism, love over fear, and kindness over bitterness. This may be difficult to accept, but whether or not your parents recognize your actions as honor doesn’t always bear weight on reality. To choose otherwise under the pressure of their disapproval, is to confuse pleasing with honoring.
This radical behavior requires a solid support system. If you find yourself in this situation, sandwich your interactions with your parents between visits or chats with close friends who know your situation, the counsel of a trusted pastor or therapist, and a lot of prayer.
LESSON 3: HONOR WHAT IS HONORABLE
Some of us have parents who, frankly, don’t deserve honor or respect. God tells us to honor them anyway. This is probably the most universally difficult part of this command (see Exodus 20:12). How do you honor someone who has left a hole in your family and a scar on your heart? How do you honor a parent who has turned his or her back on you, abused you, manipulated you? I know too many people wrestling in this reality. Dr. John Townsend offers great advice in this situation, “Honor what is honorable.” Guilt, control, and manipulation are not honorable.
Twenty-five year old Joanna, whose dad left his wife and four kids after twenty-some years of marriage, gives a beautiful picture of the tension in honoring what is honorable:
“By leaving, [my dad] gave up his responsibilities as a father—his responsibility to protect, provide for, teach, and guide . . . he gave up the right to be honored or respected by his children. [But] there are ways I still honor him, even though we don’t have any contact. I honor him by choosing not to let anger take root in my heart (sometimes with more success than others). . . I honor him by praying for his safety and praying he accepts God’s gift of grace. I honor him by hoping, one day, he will be healed and restored, covered by God’s grace and forgiveness . . .”
Joanna is intimately aware of her father’s dishonorable actions and chooses to love him the best she knows how—by daily practicing grace and forgiveness, by hoping and praying for his best, and by recognizing the parts of him that are worthy of honor. Sometimes that’s all we can do.
LESSON 4: HONOR WITH WORDS AND DEEDS
Merriem-webster.com defines honor as “something given in recognition of achievement.” Honoring our parents is a practical endeavor, including both words and deeds. How can you recognize your parents’ sacrifices and lifetime of love? The following are a few ideas:
Speak highly. When you actively and publicly acknowledge your parents’ strengths, character, and accomplishments, your own appreciation for them grows. If you cannot speak highly of them, resist the urge to share your grudges with acquaintances and strangers—work your issues out with a counselor, pastor, or close friend.
Ask advice. Even if you don’t take it. Asking advice demonstrates deference, plus our parents have learned a thing or two in their lifetime—they might just surprise you.
Pick up the phone. Talk-time is important, especially if you live far away. Make it a priority to call home at least once a week.
Send gifts. Send a note, flowers, or something that says “thinking of you.” You’ll make their day—I promise!
Accept them. “Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves together with peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3). My relationship with anyone is more enjoyable when I stop expecting them to change their minds or their ways, and accept them unconditionally. Isn’t this what we all want?
Take a trip. If you live far away, schedule regular trips home even if it’s only once or twice a year. Better yet, travel together! Is there a place your parents have always talked about going? Is there a place particularly meaningful to them? Trips together can produce profound bonding and lasting memories.
Maintain good boundaries. Boundaries are crucial to protecting any relationship and maintaining a healthy, balanced life. As Christians focused on loving unselfishly, we may forget our limits and sacrifice our boundaries, which leads to burnout and bitterness.
Pray. This is the best and most accessible thing you can do for your parents, no matter the state of your relationship.
Honoring our parents is a conscious, sometimes hard choice. It means giving respect, valuing opinions, seeking wisdom, appreciating sacrifices, and, above all, loving selflessly.