Honoring your father and mother is being respectful in word and action and having an inward attitude of esteem for their position. The Greek word for honor means “to revere, prize, and value.” Honor is giving respect not only for merit but also for rank. For example, some Americans may disagree with the President’s decisions, but they should still respect his position as leader of their country. Similarly, children of all ages should honor their parents, regardless of whether or not their parents “deserve” honor.
God exhorts us to honor our fathers and mothers. He values honoring parents enough to include it in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12) and again in the New Testament: “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 be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:1-3). Honoring parents is the only command in Scripture that promises long life as a reward. Those who honor their parents are blessed (Jeremiah 35:18-19). In contrast, those with a “depraved mind” and those who exhibit ungodliness in the last days are characterized by disobedience to parents (Romans 1:30; 2 Timothy 3:2).
Solomon, urged children to respect their parents (Proverbs 1:8; 13:1; 30:17). Although adults may no longer be directly under their authority, we cannot outgrow God’s command to honor our parents. Even Jesus, Gods only Son, submitted Himself to both His earthly parents (Luke 2:51) and His heavenly Father (Matthew 26:39). Following Christ’s example, we should treat our parents the way we would reverentially approach our heavenly Father (Hebrews 12:9; Malachi 1:6).
Honor parents with both actions and attitudes (Mark 7:6). Honor their unspoken as well as spoken wishes. “A wise son heeds his father’s instruction, but a mocker does not listen to rebuke” (Proverbs 13:1). In Matthew 15:3-9, Jesus reminded the Pharisees of the command of God to honor their father and mother. They were obeying the letter of the law, but they had added their own traditions that essentially overruled it. While they honored their parents in word, their actions proved their real motive. Honor is more than lip service. The word “honor” in this passage is a verb and, as such, demands a right action.
We should seek to honor our parents in much the same way that we strive to bring glory to God—in our thoughts, words, and actions. For a young child, obeying parents goes hand in hand with honoring them. That includes listening, heeding, and submitting to their authority. After children mature, the obedience that they learned as children will serve them well in honoring other authorities such as government, police, and employers.
While we are required to honor parents, that doesn’t include imitating ungodly ones (Ezekiel 20:18-19). If a parent ever instructs a child to do something that clearly contradicts God’s commands, that child must obey God rather than his/her parents (Acts 5:29).
Honor begets honor. God will not honor those who will not obey His command to honor their parents. If we desire to please God and be blessed, we should honor our parents. Honoring is not easy, is not always fun, and certainly is not possible in our own strength. But honor is a certain path to our purpose in life—glorifying God. “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20).
It would be so much easier if God had asked only that we honor our parents if they are good, kind and loving to us, but the command of Exodus 20:12 is “Honor your father and mother,” period. Ephesians 6:1 says to “obey” them. There are many hurt and damaged people who find these commands nearly impossible to obey. Should we honor and obey an abusive parent? Where do we draw the line?
Abuse comes in many forms. A child can be brought up well clothed and fed with all his needs supplied except for the all-important need for love and approval. No physical harm is ever done to him, yet, as each year goes by, his spirit shrivels up inside him more and more, as a plant will shrivel without sunlight, desperate for the smallest demonstration of affection. Eventually, he grows to adulthood; everything seems to be normal, yet he is crippled inside by the indifference of his parents.
A child’s spirit may be broken at an early age—even though he suffers no physical abuse—by being constantly told that he is useless and a waste of space. Everything he attempts is sneered at until he gives up trying to do anything at all. Because very young children naturally believe what their parents say about them, the child who suffers this treatment will gradually withdraw into himself, retiring behind an invisible wall and simply existing rather than living. These children grow up never suffering physically at the hands of their parents but nevertheless crippled in their spirits. As grown-ups, they find it difficult to make friends and are unable to relate normally to other adults.
Child abuse can be subtle. There is, of course, the more obvious kind—when a child is neglected, kicked and beaten and, worse still, sexually abused. The damage such abuse causes can last a lifetime. Now for the big question: how do we obey God’s commandment to honor parents who behave with such cruelty toward their own children?
Those who have trusted Jesus as their savior have a real Heavenly Father who desires only our good and never to harm us (Jeremiah 29:11). He is “a father to the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5). The Lord will use everything, even horrible acts, for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28). When we surrender our will to Him, we will see His work in our life. Trusting God may feel disconnected or impossible for those who have never known what it is to love and trust. Someone in this position need only take one small step toward God saying something like.. “I want to learn to love and trust you Father—please help me.” Jesus is “meek and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and we can confidently go to Him and pour out our problems, knowing that He will hear and answer (1 John 5:14-15). It will not be long before any child of God willing to trust the Lord will begin to sense the Holy Spirit at work in his heart. God will take the heart that has been turned to stone by an abusive childhood and replace it with one of flesh and feeling (Ezekiel 36:26).
The next step for someone who has been abused is to be willing to forgive. This, too, will seem to be impossible, especially for those who have suffered the worst kinds of abuse. Bitterness can sink into their souls, weighing them down like iron, yet there is nothing the Holy Spirit cannot soften and cleanse. With God all things are possible (Mark 10:27). The Lord understands our pain; He “was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power” (2 Corinthians 13:4).
There is no need to fear being honest with God. If you find it difficult to forgive the wickedness of a parent’s behavior, talk to God about it. It is true that unforgiveness is sin, but only deliberate unforgiveness, where we have set our hearts like flint and vowed that never again will we even consider forgiveness for those who have hurt us so badly. A child of God going to his Father for help with something he cannot do for himself will find not an angry, threatening God waiting to punish him, but a Father with a heart full of overwhelming love, compassion, mercy and a desire to help.
What does honoring an abusive parent look like in real life? First you must be willing to forgive. A willingness to forgive honors both God and the parent. Second, pray for your abuser. Let go of expectations that your parent will ever be the parent you want him or her to be; replace your disappointment and sadness with acceptance of who the person is. Third, cultivate an attitude of compassion for the things your parent did right, and express gratitude for even slight efforts to show love. Fourth, refrain from making disparaging remarks about your parent. If it is safe to be in communication with your parent, establish wise boundaries to reduce sinful temptations for you and your parent.
One thing forgiveness and honor are not, though, is a permanent submission to parental authority. The Bible commands honor but not remaining a prisoner in a dysfunctional family. Families with a destructive cycle of sin are dangerous, and children who break free need to find safety in the family of God—which is every Christian’s true family (Matthew 10:35–38). Dysfunctional families are fraught with codependence, addiction, violence, and an absence of safe boundaries. These traits will be like a millstone around the neck, dragging the child toward the same sinful patterns. Removing oneself from an abusive situation is much like overcoming addiction; when a person desires sobriety, he cannot associate with people who abuse drugs (Proverbs 13:20).
Also, in cases in which the grandchildren are exposed to the threat of physical harm or sexual assault, it becomes the adult child’s responsibility to protect their own children. There is no guilt in keeping one’s distance from abusive parents, as long as the separation is not motivated by vengeance. You can honor your parents from afar. It's a reality that some parents do not value their children enough to maintain a relationship. The void left by a broken relationship should be filled by Christ rather than pining for a parental relationship that will never be.
By focusing on your own relationship with Christ, you can experience real healing. Without salvation there is no hope for anyone, but in Christ we are new creations able to do anything He calls us to do (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is also possible that the parent will repent; only then can a relationship be formed based on Christ’s. It is possible that you could be the light that leads your unsaved or wayward parent to repentance and salvation (1 Corinthians 9:19).
Just as Jesus loved us in our sinful state, we can honor an abusive parent. It means showing grace and compassion to those who don’t deserve it so that God is glorified and the obedient are blessed and rewarded (Matthew 5:44-48; 1 John 4:18-21). Remember, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord:” Hebrews 12:14