Principles are Better Than Laws, Part 9 Honor Your Mother and Father

Exodus 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

In these posts we’re exploring some of the key laws of God in the Bible and considering them, not only as commands of God, but also as principles for how life can and should be well-lived on earth and beyond.  

Moving along the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20, today’s command is to honor your father and your mother. The reason is for long days in the Promised Land.

Different cultures have different takes on this. In America where I live, we don’t “follow” our parents for life as they do in other countries. In many cultures, and in most cultures of the past you are born to obey your parents. They will raise you, and then you will spend the rest of your life following them, and eventually caring for them. There are some benefits to this system. One is that it dispenses with the necessity of finding an identity. Your identity is the family you were born into, along with the career that comes with it, that is, the family business.

I recommend the book, The Pastor as Minor Poet, by M. Craig Barnes. In it he explains this idea. Today in the West, we often search for a job with the idea that it will give us identity, while in other cultures and even our culture in the past, the identity was covered already by birth. You grew up already knowing who you were. My name is Miller, so I suppose my ancestors were millers. I’d be born to run the town mill. Work identity covered, I could focus on developing my character instead of “finding myself” in a job.

This applies to our commandment, because this would be part of honoring your father and mother.  But in our context, this just doesn’t happen the same way.  So how does a 21st century American think about this, and more importantly, how do we practice it?

As a son (or daughter): I am nearly fifty. I love my parents, but realized at some point that they were not perfect (nor did they claim to be). I know that I am not obligated to obey them at this point even if they were perfect. In fact, I think it is crucial that a person “leave his (or her) father and mother at some point, and do what they think is right. An example could be when a young person wants to have a career in a certain field that is different than the one his parents wanted for him. If he ignores what he wants because he wants to please his parents, he will not grow up. He will not take his place as an autonomous image-bearer, responsible for his choices and beliefs. This will lead to a sense of instability and anxiety. At some point, everyone must separate themselves from their parents in this way.

Most people, unless they have zero self-awareness, will find themselves resenting their parents for the way they were when they raised them. A lot of that resentment will fall away when a person begins to make their own choices and decisions, especially if it requires “disappointing” their parents. But many of us may find that it is necessary to confront our parents, lovingly and gently, to tell the truth about how they have made us feel, or still are, and then genuinely forgiving them for those things which have caused resentment. We should hope that our own children will do the same to us someday.

In this case it is not necessary to get a certain response from the parents. It is nice if they acknowledge their sin and apologize, but it is not the point. If you think it is, you will not be free. It is enough that you can say what you honestly feel, and then forgive.

That said, we should always be respectful to our parents.  We should not pretend they are something they are not, but the very fact that they are our parents is cause to honor them.  Don’t speak ill of them.  Don’t talk down to them, even when they are old and at your mercy.  You will be judged for it.  

As a father (or mother): Teaching our own children to respect God and biblical wisdom is done by teaching them to respect their parents. You must not try to control your children with shaming and manipulation. Give consequences for disobedience and disrespect and apply them dispassionately. Insist on respectful attitudes, but NEVER take it personally when they fail. Simply discipline accordingly and lovingly, explaining the importance of honoring their parents. Don’t allow sassy tones, eye rolling, disobedience, yelling at you, or anything of the kind. If it happens, stop them and say calmly, “My dear, I love you too much to let you treat me (or your mother) that way. You will be disciplined for it. There will not be warnings.” The discipline must be appropriate and not out of anger.

Valuing your parents’ traditions: Be slow to throw them out. Doing them “just because” can sometimes give you the benefit of taking advantage of the practices without totally understanding them yet. It is often hubris that causes us to assume our parents and grandparents are dumb and don’t know anything. Until you know exactly why you are chucking out their time-honored traditions, seriously consider just continuing them.

The “principle” of honoring your parents is a principle of humbly honoring the God who made the commandment, and who identifies himself as “Father.” It is the opposite of a spirit of rebellion, while it leaves ample room for proper independence as an autonomous image-bearer who can be useful to others, especially his or parents. I invite you to see an earlier post for more details on biblical parenting.

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