The fifth of the Ten Commandments says: “Honour 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)
There are parents who are always forgiving, always present, always loving, never yell, always humble, quick to apologise, and slow, I mean extremely slow, to anger. They are very rare, so let’s humour me for a while. For those with such parents would find it no issue to honour their parents. Or at least, they could not say, “But they don’t deserve my honour!”
But what about those with parents who fall short from our imaginary perfect parents? What if my parents really don’t deserve my honour? Should I still honour them? Why should I? Surely, God does not want us to honour our bad parents, does He?
Let me share with you a few things that hopefully may help you think through this issue when it comes to honouring bad parents.
1. The Commandment is without condition.
God commands us to honour our parents – bad, ugly, good, perfect, disgusting, lame, embarrassing, mean, and yes, even abusive ones. Why does God not give any condition? I can think of two reasons.
First, I think if God says, “Honour your father and mother who deserve your honour,” many of us would find all sorts of reason why our parents don’t deserve our honour. Just look at the Terms and Conditions in any advertisement or promotion. They are so long. Why? Because we are so good at finding loopholes or excuses or shortcuts. ]
Second, God has decreed that we should honour our parents not because of what they have done or how good they have been. Instead, we honour them simply because of who they are. They are our parents.
2. The Commandment is the only one with incentive.
God gives incentive because God is pleased when we honour our parents. God commanded Israel to be holy because God is holy. God wanted Israel to be a distinct nation, different from the nations around them. So, one way we glorify God and represent God in this world is by honouring our parents (Leviticus 19:2-3).
Having said that, I also think that God gives incentive precisely because it is not an easy commandment. I don’t need any incentive for eating potato chips. I would gladly eat salt and vinegar potato chips anytime. My wife would be crazy to reward me for eating chips (although I wish she did). On the other hand, we think of all sorts of incentive to encourage our children to do their study or to be kind to one another or to eat their vegetable. Why? Because they are not easy to do. They don’t come naturally. So, when God gives incentive for this commandment, I believe He does so because He knows that it is not easy for us to do this commandment. It does not come naturally because of our sinful nature. So, when you cried, “But it’s so hard,” trust me… God knows.
3. Honouring and obeying are two different things.
Yes, more often than not, honouring means obeying. Apostle Paul commands children to obey their parents as the way of honouring their parents (Ephesians 6:1). However, if your parents ask you to do something that is clearly against God’s law, you must choose to obey God instead of your parents. In Ezekiel 20:18-20, God specifically asked the children of Israel not to follow their parents who disobeyed God. In Acts 5:29, when asked to stop their gospel proclamation, Peter and the apostles heartily responded, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Honouring also does not mean we stay silent when we are abused by our parents. Honouring must not mean enabling their abusive behaviour. Although this is not necessarily our first course of action, in certain situations, the right thing to do may be to report them to civil authorities.
4. You can disobey without dishonouring your parents.
The word ‘honour’ here is the Hebrew word כַּבֵּ֥ד (kab-bed). It literally means ‘to be weighty’ or ‘to be heavy.’ When it comes to God, it is actually translated as ‘honour’ or even ‘glorify.’ So, the command to honour your parents means you must make sure that you give the proper ‘weight’ to your parents’ advice, opinions, and even presence.
I take this to mean that you honour your parents by communicating to them as clearly as possible that they ‘matter‘ to you. To honour them means to make sure they know that their presence matters to you, their words matter to you, their values matter to you, and their experience matters to you. Therefore, if you have to disobey or disagree with your parents, you must do it in a way that assures them that they still matter to you greatly. This means listening to them carefully, understanding their point of view thoroughly, caring for their values deeply, appreciating that their opinion is the product of their vast life experience, and communicating to them lovingly why you disagree while keeping their dignity intact. Why? Because their point of view, their values, their life experience, and their dignity indeed matter to you greatly. They need to know that, and you need to make sure they know that.
5. You don’t deserve their love.
I hear many people say, “But my parents failed me. He abandoned me. She did not love me. They did not do such and such to me. They were this and that to me.” However, with all love and care, I have to ask this to all of us, “Why do we think we deserve to be loved by them?” You might say, “Because they decided to have children. So they have to love us. They just have to.” It is true that it is their decision to have children. Therefore, they have to be responsible. Yes. However, if they employed the same logic that we use, they could (and probably should) also ask the same question: “Why do I continue to love this child who does not deserve my love?” Let’s be honest. All babies are cute and cuddly. But they are no angels. Seriously. All children are very self-centred, prideful, and rebellious. My children are. I was. And I can bet that you were too when you were kids. Let’s not kid ourselves. I still am, and you still are. Sorry to point out the obvious. Are we really that deserving of their love? Have we always acted in the manner that fully deserves their love?
You might say, “But I don’t have a choice. I was born into my family. I could not pick my parents. If I could pick my parents, I would have picked different ones.” Well, do you think your parents picked you? No. The same God who ordained them to be your parents also ordained you to be their child. Ask yourself, “If your parents could have chosen someone to be their child, would they have chosen you?” If you are honest and humble, the answer is most likely to be ‘No.’ Remember though … I said, “Ask yourself.” So, please don’t ask your parents that. It will complicate things.
So, God commands our parents to love us unconditionally simply because we are their children. You want your parents to love you simply because you are their child. Similarly, God commands us to honour our parents unconditionally simply because they are our parents. Yes, perhaps they don’t deserve our honour. But who are you to say that you deserve their love anyway? My point is not to condemn you. But I hope this gives us a new perspective to think through this. We are not as cute and lovable as we think we are. But God commands our parents to love us anyway simply because this is right before God.
6. Ultimately, you honour them because of God.
In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus clearly give the commandment to love our neighbours, even our enemies. Why? He said, “… so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” Jesus continues to say that if we only love those who love us, we are no different from the worst sinners. Because even the worst sinners love those who love them back.
Similarly, if we only honour those who deserve our honour, how are we different from the world? If we only honour those who deserve our honour, we are simply sons of the world. However, if we love those who don’t deserve our love and honour those who don’t deserve our honour, we are indeed sons of our Father who is in heaven. Ultimately, we honour our parents not because of what they have done. We honour them because of who God is. We honour them because we trust God knows what He is doing. We honour them because we trust that God is in control. We honour them because we trust that God’s justice will prevail. We honour them because we trust that God will reward us in heaven. We honour them because ultimately we are God’s children.
Having said all the above, it does not mean it will be easy. Some of you will struggle with this. But I hope the points above give a fresh perspective and will motivate you to move closer to honouring your parents again.
P.S. Talking about the Ten Commandments, I wrote this simple kid song to help my children remember the Ten Commandments. Feel free to share 🙂 The quality is not that great. But I hope the lyrics and the tune are easy to sing.