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.

Brainstorming on Parenting (after five kids)

I have five children. Their current ages are nine to eighteen.  I love being a dad.  It is one of my very favorite things.  I think I have become a good one. How do I know? I really like all my kids, and they seem to like me too.  Of course, I also love them.  I would love them even if I didn’t like them, but I do like them.  

Here is some brainstorming on how this came about: 

  1. I see myself as an image bearer of God.  Furthermore, I am a redeemed image bearer because Jesus saved me and gave me his Spirit.  This has many implications, but importantly for this topic, it has caused me to like myself a lot.  Why wouldn’t I?  God does.  He has made me, and made me clean.  I am so thankful.  I’m not perfect, but I seek to grow, and will seek to grow until I’m out of time for growing—either dead, or with Jesus at the judgment.  
  1. I see everyone else around me as image bearers.  This impresses me to no end.  This means I will not be justified to dominate any of my fellow image bearers.  This means that all my relationships are horizontal, not vertical (except the one with God.  He is higher than us. He created us out of nothing). But other humans are my impressive equals.  If they are messed up, they could begin growing by the grace of God and by concrete biblical principles applied with power through the help of the Holy Spirit, a gift of God in Christ.  It also means, btw, that I would not allow a fellow image-bearer to assume any power over me personally.  If he or she is a vested authority from God, such as the cop who pulls me over for speeding (right?  —- because he represents the state, who in a sense represents the God who has empowered them to make and keep laws, and protect his people (Romans 13)) I will obey them because I obey God. So there is no one to fear, and there is no one to dominate us, or be dominated by us.  
  1. Therefore, I also see my kids as impressive fellow image bearers.  I am in awe of them because I am in awe of the God who created them.  And therefore, I will not dominate my kids.  I will, however, wield my vested authority as God’s servant (Ro 13:4-5).  I will make rules and enforce them as God’s agent.  But, that doesn’t leave room for anger or insecurity on my part to get in the way of my job.  It’s not personal.  
  1. This means that I can focus on what is most important and that is building our loving relationship. If I don’t have to personally dominate them, then they don’t have to feel that they were dominated, and they don’t have to rebel. Do you think your kids won’t rebel if they feel dominated by you? Think again. They will definitely rebel, and you will start to dislike them as much as they dislike you.
  1. Another way to say this is that I respect my kids, and I make sure they respect me and their mother. I don’t do this by dominating them, but by personally not putting up with any, at all, of any kind, words, tone, body language, disrespect. I say, “hey bud, I respect you, you need to respect me, especially because God says your life will be awful if you dishonor your parents. So, I love you, I’m not personally threatened (this is important, although I don’t actually say that part), but you are going to have a consequence for the disrespect (or disobedience). And then I give them one. It is how I can respect them, teaching them that consequences have actions, even for saved Christians.
  1. I spend an inordinate amount of time teaching them to think in principles, have courage, love the truth, and make their own choices whenever possible.  If I have to pull rank on them, I say, “I’m only going to tell you what to do until you are eighteen, so I’m going to take advantage of that while I can.”  
  1. I never ever take our disagreement personally, and I pastor them to do the same.  I have no problem with them disagreeing with me.  We’ll talk, and then if I have to pull rank, they understand that I would not do that if I didn’t have to, and if they don’t like it, just wait until they are grown and they will no longer have to deal with it. 
  1. It also means that I hold my kids with an open hand.  They don’t belong to me, but to God.  My job is to teach them the truth by instruction and example.  This means I am responsible TO them, but not FOR them.  I’m sure this is where most of us screw up in our responsibility of leadership in any sphere (I am also a pastor in a church).  I’ve heard it said it’s like that old adage, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”  I think it’s better said, “You can lead a horse to water but IF YOU MAKE HIM DRINK IT YOU ARE COMMITTING EVIL AGAINST HIM.”  When you force personal will and power on another human, you dehumanize them.  I’m not talking about the consequences from breaking rules.  I’m talking about any yelling, manipulating, rewarding behavior that makes a kid behave the way you want them to. Instead, teach them to make their own choice whether-or-not to obey and avoid the consequences or disobey and face them.  That preserves both their dignity and your relationship with them. Isn’t this the way God Fathers us? 

Bonus: Consider never saying, “Good job (or especially good boy or good girl)” to your kids. It sets you over them in a dominating way that makes you the judge of their personally. They will learn to love pleasing you, instead of loving to do a job well done for the sake of it. It also creates a fixed mindset. I want them to have growth mindset (see Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset).

If I can think of anything else to say, I’ll post a part 2. Feel free to comment if you disagree. We can sharpen each other.