The fifth commandment says this, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)
Let’s look first at the promise God gives with this commandment, because it is a pretty amazing promise. In Deuteronomy 5:16, also referenced by Paul in Ephesians 6:3, the promise is not only a long life (“that your days may be long”), but a good life, “that it may go well with you.” Paul calls this the “first commandment with a promise.” (Ephesians 6:2)
God is saying, “if you want my favor and a good, long life, you need to pay special attention to this command.”
The command itself is to “Honor your father and your mother.” To honor your parents means to treat them the way you would treat a celebrity or someone who is really important. You would cancel any other appointment that got in the way, proudly saying, “I’m sorry that I can’t make it, [Important Celebrity] is taking me to dinner. You know, THE [Important Celebrity].” You would take hang on every word that was said at dinner. You would be genuinely interested in the things that he is interested in. If he hung out with you for a day, you would let him pick where you went and what you did. That is what it means to honor someone. You treat them as important. You treat them as better than yourself.
God says that this is how we are supposed to treat our parents.
But in today’s world this commandment presents huge issues for a lot of people. So, let’s go there. How do you honor a parent who has abandoned you, hurt you, or abused you? Does this commandment apply to those parents also? I think it does. God didn’t provide us any loopholes. He didn’t preface the fifth commandment with: “(This next command is for those of you with in-tact, two-parent, God-fearing families.)” He didn’t say, “If your parents honor me, then you should honor them.” Here are some ideas I have on how you should honor parents who do not honor the Lord or who have abandoned or abused you:
- Forgive them. When parents fail you, it honors them to forgive them. To forgive is not to embrace. Forgiving them does not at all mean that you justify what they did or that you agree with what they did. Forgiveness is not approving or diminishing sin. Forgiveness is not enabling sin. Forgiveness is not denying a that a wrongdoing occurred. Forgiveness is not waiting for an apology. You can, and should, forgive without an apology. It only takes one person to forgive. Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is not ceasing to feel the pain. Forgiveness is not a one-time event. Forgiveness is not neglecting justice. Leave justice to the Perfect Judge. Forgiveness is not trusting. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Repentance takes one. Forgiveness takes one. But reconciliation takes two. Forgiveness is simply saying, “I am not going to let what you did in the past control me. I am not going to be enslaved to anger, resentment and bitterness.” Forgiveness is leaving the other person to Jesus. Anyone who has sinned against you has ultimately also sinned against God. Either that person will repent, in which case you will get your justice at the cross of Christ where Jesus’ blood was shed in their place for their sin just as it was shed in your place for your sin. Or they will remain unrepentant, in which case your forgiving them does not mean that they are ultimately forgiven. We will all stand before Jesus, the righteous Judge (2 Timothy 4:8), one day. We will either stand there forgiven by His blood on the cross or unrepentant and unforgiven. By forgiving your parents, you are leaving them to the Perfect Judge to enact perfect, and ultimate, justice. (Revelation 20:11-15)
- Commit yourself to (with God’s help and by His grace) being the kind of man or woman that your parents probably wish they could have been. Be a person of integrity. Keep your promises. Obey the laws of the land and the authorities that are over you. Be faithful to your marriage and a parent that doesn’t abandon his children. Don’t let drugs or alcohol or sex, or anything else but God, be your master. Commit yourself right now to make the kind of decisions that won’t put your children one day in the same awkward position of saying, “How in the world can I possibly honor my parents after what they did?”
- Bend your knee to the Lord and honor your earthly parents by recognizing the authority over all things of their Creator – the Heavenly Father.
- Take on the commitments that they abandoned. Are there siblings or other family members for whom you need to “stand in the gap”?
The command to “honor your father and your mother” is not conditional. It is possible to honor them, even if they have dishonored God and hurt you. And if you do, the Lord has promised to bless you and to grant you a long (even eternal) life.