God’s commandments are perfectly clear in what they say and, broadly, in what they require. Yet implementing those commandments in practical ways and in the nitty-gritty of life can pose a challenge. It can take thought, prayer, creativity. This is exactly the case with the fifth commandment—“honor your father and your mother”—and especially so for adult children. Young children honor their parents through their obedience, but what about adults? How do we honor our parents in ways that are fitting?
I’ve taken a long time to get to this point in my series The Commandment We Forgot, and this has been deliberate. Our tendency is to skip over foundational matters to get straight to the practical stuff. Just give me the list of things to do and I’ll do them! But the deepest change to ourselves as well as the most appropriate honor to our parents will come when we first ensure we understand God’s commandment—what it means, why he gives it, why it matters so much. I trust you’ve tracked with me through the previous articles and if you’ve done that, you’re now ready to consider practical ways in which you can honor your parents.
Honor to Whom Honor Is Due
In a previous article I pointed out that honoring parents is a form of honoring all authority, including God himself. As Tim Keller says, “It’s respect for parents that is the basis for every other kind of respect and every other kind of authority.” I have pointed out as well that there is no ending point to this commandment—we are to honor our parents in childhood and adulthood, for we owe them a debt of honor that never ends.
What is the honor God means for us to give our parents? I am going to offer six broad suggestions, though certainly we could come up with many more. I will warn in advance: In every case there will be temptations to say, “Yes, but you don’t know my parents. You don’t know who they are or what they did to me.” I understand that in some cases showing honor may be difficult or very nearly impossible, and in our next article we will discuss some hard cases. But for now, let’s simply consider some practical ways in which we can display honor to our parents.
Perhaps the most important way we can honor our parents is to forgive them. The fact is, there are no perfect parents. All parents have fallen far short of their children’s expectations and, in all likelihood, even their own expectations. Our parents have sinned against us. They have made unwise decisions, they have had unrealistic expectations, they have said and done things that have left us deeply wounded. For that reason, many children enter adulthood controlled by anger and bitterness. They find themselves unable to move past their parents’ mistakes or their parents’ sin.
We can best honor our parents by forgiving our parents. And this is actually possible, for we serve and imitate a forgiving Savior. In the Bible we see Jesus’ willingness to forgive the ones who had wounded him. In the very moment the nails were driven into his flesh, he cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Standing at the foot of the cross and considering such a Savior, who are we to withhold forgiveness from our parents? We honor our parents by extending grace and forgiveness to them.
Speak Well of Them
Another way we can honor our parents is to speak well of them, to refuse to speak evil of them. We live at a time when it is considered noble to air our grievances, when it is considered therapeutic to air our dirty laundry. We think little of telling the world exactly what we think of our governors, our bosses, our parents. Yet the Bible warns us that we owe honor and respect to all of the authorities God has placed over us (Romans 13:7). It warns us that our words have the power to extend honor or dishonor. We cannot miss that in the Old Testament the penalty for cursing parents is the same as the penalty for assaulting them (Exodus 21:15-17, Leviticus 20:9), for the root sin is the same. To curse parents or to strike parents is to violate the fifth commandment as well as the sixth.
We need to speak well of our parents. We need to speak well of them while they are alive and speak well of them after they have died, to speak well of them to our siblings, to our spouses, to our children. We need to speak well of them to our churches and communities, modeling a counter-cultural kind of honor and respect that has long since gone missing in too many contexts. Christian, speak well of your parents and refuse to speak evil of them.
Esteem Them Publicly and Privately
A third way to show honor to parents is to give them esteem both privately and publicly. In a powerful sermon on the fifth commandment Tim Keller encourages children to “respect their [parents’] need to see themselves in you.” Parents long to see how they have impacted their children, how their children are a reflection of their strengths, their values. “You don’t realize how important it is to give them credit where you can. You don’t realize how critical it is just to say, ‘You know, everything I really ever learned about saving money I learned from you.’ To say, ‘You know, Dad, that was one thing you always taught me that I really, really appreciated’.” These are simple measures but ones that bring great joy and honor to our parents.
We can give such esteem privately in one-on-one conversation or we can do this publicly, perhaps through speeches or sermons or even conversations around holiday feasts. Dennis Rainey goes so far as to call children to write a formal tribute to their parents, to present it to them and to read it aloud in their presence. We can honor our parents by esteeming our parents.
Seek Their Wisdom
We honor our parents when we seek their wisdom through life’s twists and turns. The Bible constantly associates youth with folly and age with wisdom (Proverbs 20:29, Job 12:12) and tells us that those who have lived longer lives have generally accumulated greater wisdom. We do well, then, to lean on them for understanding, to seek their input when faced with major decisions. In some cultures this is expected and in some it is eschewed. But either way, it honors our parents when we seek their help, even if in the end we cannot or must not heed it.
We can also honor our parents by supporting them. I am not yet speaking of financial support, but other forms of love and care. I think of David at a particularly low point in his life, weighed down by cares and attacked by enemies. In this context he cried out to God and said, “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent” (Psalm 71:9). David feared the combination of age and isolation, of being old and alone. So too do our elderly parents.
When we are young we gain strength and long for independence. Our parents raise us to be strong and free! But there is a trade-off here, a passing of the baton, for as our parents age they become feeble, they begin to lose their independence (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8). We honor our parents by giving them the assurance that we will not forsake them in their old age. Just as they cared for us, we will care for them. This is our responsibility and it ought to be our joy.
At a time when millions of elderly adults are living alone, consigned to nursing homes and hospitals, cared for by professionals rather than family members, Christians have the opportunity to display special honor. Kent Hughes says that even if parents have no financial needs, “there is still a Christian obligation for hands-on, loving care. Nurses may be employed, but there must be more—the care cannot be done by proxy. Emotional neglect and abandonment is not an option, for such conduct ‘is worse than an unbeliever.’”
Provide for Them
Finally, we can honor our parents by providing for them financially. In 1 Timothy 5 we find Paul telling Timothy how to honor widows within the church. As he provides instruction, he gives two important principles: Children are to make some return to their parents (4) and Christians who will not provide for family members are behaving worse than unbelievers (8). Commentators are nearly unanimous in extending these principles to children and their elderly parents. What is unremarkable in some cultures is controversial in others, including my own. Stott points out that “African and Asian cultures, which have developed the extended in place of the nuclear family, are a standing rebuke to the West in this matter.”
When children are young, God expects parents to provide for them (2 Corinthians 12:14). But, according to Stott, “when parents grow old and feeble, it is then that roles and responsibilities are reversed.” Hughes says, “Christian sons and daughters are responsible for the [financial] care of widows and, as the text expands it, of their helpless parents and grandparents.” William Barcley says much the same: “The raising of children requires tremendous sacrifice and it is only right that children make sacrifices for parents in return.” We might also consider Mark 7:9-13 and Jesus’ harsh rebuke of the Pharisees for their refusal to care for their parents.
Perhaps no form of honor more deeply cuts against the Western grain than this one. But it’s clear: The Bible calls Christians to take special responsibility for providing for their family members. This command applies equally to the parents of young children and the children of elderly parents.
God calls every child of every age to show honor to our parents, to refuse to dishonor our parents. He calls us to honor them as the outflow of honoring him. He calls us to be people who respect his sovereignty by respecting the parents he saw fit to give us. In what ways is God calling you to show honor to your parents?