When 'Honoring Your Father and Mother' Is Challenging
“Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
Honor your father and mother. Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
When my parents were alive, I dreaded getting mothers’ and fathers’ day or other special cards for them. So many of the messages inside were syrupy tributes to the sacrifices that parents had made and thanks for the wonderful lessons that were taught to them. I did love my parents and they did do some things right, but there are lots of things that hurt me such as neglect, painful “spankings,” and verbal abuse.
The command to honor my parents has caused mixed feelings in me. Like many other victims who suffered parental neglect and/or abuse, I have wondered if this commandment meant that pain and violation I felt from my parents’ harm should be ignored or suppressed. My natural inclination is to only honor other people who have earned it through their actions or choices.
The meaning of the word 'honor'
The word “honor” does not mean that we tolerate abuse and obey our parents like mindless robots. It does not mean we have to love parents who chose to abandon, reject, or abandoned us. The original Hebrew word kābēd that is used for the word for honor has many meanings according to the New Interpreter’s Bible, including to “be heavy.” This can be interpreted as “giving weight to” or seriously considering a relationship. It does not suggest being subordinate or obedient to parents who harm us.
Jesus said that he came to set a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother in law, and that anyone who loves their parents more than Him is not worthy of Him (Matthew 10:34-37). Clearly, our relationship with God is more important than those with our parents.
Still, honoring our parents in some way is also important. People often miss the second part of the commandment, which says that if we do honor our parents, we will do well and live a long life. So how do we do this in a healthy way? Here are some ways I have obeyed this commandment without denying or failing to deal with the harm that they had done.
Pray for my parents: Jesus commanded that we pray for people, even our enemies. We need to lean on God for the strength to be civil to parents who may be abusive alcoholics or let us down when we needed them the most.
Face and deal with the pain they caused: My parents both had anger issues that did me a lot of harm. I was told I was stupid and could not do anything right. I was never praised or encouraged by them while I was growing up. They believed in “spankings” which sometimes left me black and blue. I was often on my own as a teen and was neglected. I was full of resentment and righteous indignation over the way they treated me.
How could I honor parents who had hurt me so badly? I had to face the fact that the people who were supposed to build up my self-esteem, and love and nurture me actually harmed me. I had to acknowledge it and let go of my pain in order to be emotionally healthy. One way to do that was through forgiveness.
Forgiving my mother and father: When I was in my twenties, I was an angry person. I could explode like an erupting volcano – sometimes hurting innocent bystanders, or my mom and dad. I traced a lot of my resentment back to how I was treated as a child.
My healing from child maltreatment began when I decided to forgive my mother and father for what they did to me. Forgiveness is a process that I needed to revisit when triggers reminded me of past injustice and abuse. I eventually was able to have a good relationship with my parents without the shadow of bitterness or unforgiveness.
Does forgiveness mean that parents are not accountable for the harm they caused? No. Everyone must weigh whether they feel they need to take action against their parents for the harm their parents had done. Some may choose to not have contact with verbally abusive or parents with substance additions. Others may report mistreatment to child protective services or law enforcement.
Try to understand my parents and accept their flaws: When children are young, parents are almost godlike to them. As children grow into adulthood, however, they realize that parents are not perfect and make mistakes. Some parents may have been deliberately cruel and mean so it is a mystery why they acted as they did. Others may have done harm unintentionally.
In my case, I do not think that my parents deliberately set out to hurt me. I have come to believe that my parents were angry and abusive because, in part, they had untreated post-traumatic stress disorder because of horrible experiences during World War II. I do not excuse their hurtful behavior, but having some idea where my parents were coming from helped me to extend mercy to them and forgive them.
Find things to be grateful for: For some of us, the only thing that we can be grateful for is that our parents gave us life. There are parents who reject their children or drop out of their lives. In my case, while my parents could be neglectful or abusive, they also did some things right.
I had a nice home, clothes, and my Christmas wish list was usually fulfilled. My mother could be loving at times. My father changed late in life and became more loving towards me.
Should hurtful parents be confronted?
Every situation is different and should be carefully analyzed. In some cases, parents may be unaware of the harm to their children caused by hurtful behavior such as constant criticism. They may honestly think that they helping their children to learn life lessons. Other parents may unconsciously favor a sibling, causing their children to feel rejected and lowering their children’s self-esteem. In these situations, grown children may find healing by telling their parents how the parents’ words and actions impacted them. Parents may apologize when confronted and vow to change their harmful behaviors.
In many cases, however, confrontation does no good. Many parents are in denial about the harm they have done and may even try to justify it. My situation falls into this category. I tested the waters with my mother, for example, by bringing up a situation in which my mom hurt me. She responded with total denial that the event occurred.
I realized that I would just had to accept her state of denial and avoided talking about certain events in order to have a good relationship with her. I never lost hope, however, that she would change. Sometimes, parents do come around. They apologize for the harm they had done and reassure their adult children who feel unloved that they are, in fact, loved.
So, did it “go well with me and I enjoyed long life on the earth?” Yes. I was able to have a good, loving relationship with my mother as an older adult. She came to live with me during the last few years of her life. After my father left my mother for another woman, he completely changed towards me – at that time, an 18-year-old. In his happiness, he was loving towards me and proud of me. My relationships with both my parents in adulthood enriched my life with their love and care until they passed away.
My parents never acknowledged the harm they had done to me. I never heard an apology from my parents for the hurtful things they said and did to me. In spite of that, I was still able to forgive them and honor them through the steps I had taken toward healing.