“I can’t bring myself to call my dad, let alone visit him and have to look into his eyes,” confessed a friend while we were talking on the phone. Her father had left her family for another woman when she was a little girl. She had very little contact with him when she was growing up, and when he did call or see her, he seemed aloof or at times harsh. My friend, now in her mid-50s, recently learned from a family acquaintance that her dad was in the hospital, having been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
“After I heard the news about my dad, just thinking about him brought back all kinds of painful memories from my childhood,” my friend continued. “I’m also feeling a lot of angst, because I know the Bible tells us to honor our parents, and I realize that means I should probably go see him in the hospital. But I haven’t talked to my dad in close to 20 years, and I really don’t want to be around him. All he’s ever been to me is a source of pain.”
Many people, like my friend, wrestle with the idea of having to honor parents who, for various reasons, don’t seem “deserving” of honor. Their parents might have abandoned, neglected or mistreated them during their childhood, and the wounds have never healed. They may have been physically or sexually abused by their parents and as soon as they reached adulthood, they moved out on their own and cut off all ties with them. Or, their parents might live immoral lifestyles or be involved in illegal or unethical activities and they do not respect them because of that.
When we reflect on Bible passages like Exodus 20:12, Leviticus 19:3 and Ephesians 6:2, which tell us in no uncertain terms that we are to honor our parents, that’s when we can start to experience some inner conflict. From our human perspective, it may not make sense to honor parents who have done or are still doing things that are destructive, shameful or ungodly. We might also be confused about what exactly God expects of us, or how we should show honor.
What honor is and isn’t
What to do becomes a lot clearer when we understand what giving honor really means. Basically, for grown children, it’s a matter of recognizing and valuing our parents’ God-appointed positions. Parents are to be honored because they brought us into this world (even if they later abused us) and provided for us (even if they did so very minimally). There are no exceptions to this command.
If our parents filled their roles well and continue to live by good moral principles, respecting them may come naturally. After all, they have earned the esteem. We may truly desire to maintain close relationships with them when we’re adults, because we value them as individuals, in addition to esteeming their parental positions.
But if we don’t see many admirable qualities in them, and instead, see a lot of attributes and behaviors that are ignoble or sinful, we still need to extend them honor because of their rank as parents. That means being gracious and compassionate in our dealings with them, including how we think about them. We should be concerned for our parents and want to see them repent—because that is how God views them (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9), and because we hope they’ll come to better reflect biblical standards in how they live their lives (including how they function within the extended family structure with their adult “kids” and grandchildren). We also need to remember that God, in His great wisdom, chose to give us life through them. If we disparage or totally reject or give up on them, we are basically second-guessing God.
This is not to say we should excuse or condone our parents’ transgressions, nor does it necessarily mean having a “normal” relationship with them or allowing ourselves to become entangled in unhealthy relational patterns.
In Honoring Dishonorable Parents (2014, Grace Chapel) author Jan Frank, LMFT, explains that we should honor parents in the same way we honor policemen, pastors and government officials, in that we might not agree with or support everything they say and do, but we still need to honor their offices. “God doesn’t ask us to pretend for the sake of honoring,” she writes. “He asks us to honor our parents even in light of what is true. That kind of honor doesn’t minimize, excuse or annihilate truth; it simply acknowledges it and chooses to respect those who are in the God-given position of being our parents” (p. 46).
Biblical ways to honor those who are dishonorable
So how exactly should we honor an alcoholic mother who has long neglected her family and gossips nonstop? How do we honor a father who can’t control his temper or sexually molested his kids? The best suggestions come straight from the Bible, and are generally the same things we would do to show love to our enemies. This includes:
1. Don’t return bad treatment.
Our parents may have committed heinous acts against us, and now we want retribution. So we might badmouth them publicly, verbally attack or ridicule them, refuse to help them, or cut off all communication with them. But this is the exact opposite of how God wants us to respond.
In 1 Peter 3:9 we’re told to not repay “evil for evil” or “reviling for reviling.” If we retaliate or take revenge, that only escalates conflict and makes a bad situation worse. Moreover, we would be giving in to debased impulses and becoming hurtful ourselves.
The Bible says that God will execute vengeance on our behalf (Romans 12:19), on His timetable. In the same chapter, we’re told how God wants us to react to bad treatment: to “bless those who persecute you” (Romans 12:14), and to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Responding with kindness, gentleness and mercy can help defuse tension, in addition to showing honor. And sometimes it’s the only means of eliciting change in others.
2. Practice forgiveness.
We should forgive our parents for the hurt they caused us, even if they are unrepentant or never ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is necessary if we are going to be able to treat our parents with consideration and respect, which we must do in order to honor their positions as parents.
Forgiveness is generally defined as the act of letting go of anger, bitterness or resentment towards others who have hurt us. While we might not like what others did to us and may not trust them anymore, we no longer feel ill will towards them and wish them no harm.
In Forgiving the Unforgivable (Regal Books, 2005), David Stoop makes a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. He describes forgiveness as a “singular activity” as it is something we do within ourselves. We don’t need the offending party to “participate in the process” for us to forgive. In contrast, he explains that “reconciliation is a bilateral process, requiring the participation of both parties. For there to be genuine reconciliation, I need to forgive and the other person needs to show godly sorrow over what he or she has done” (pp. 33-34, 48-49).
Reconciling with toxic parents might not be possible if they don’t have a contrite attitude or see the need to change. But we can and must control our own attitudes towards them, ridding ourselves of bitterness, rage, anger and malice as we’re told to do in Ephesians 4:31.
3. Seek to understand.
Try to understand why your parents are the way they are. If they’ve been abusive, very likely they were mistreated themselves as children, and are continuing to participate in the cycle of abuse. This doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it is important to acknowledge.
“It’s very hard to truly forgive someone without compassion. And it’s very hard to have compassion for someone who’s shown you no compassion at all,” writes Lysa Terkeurst in Forgiving What You Can’t Forget (2020, Thomas Nelson). “So, instead of starting at the place of trying to have compassion for someone who has hurt you, start with having compassion for the pain they had to experience in order to make the choices they made . . . At some point, someone brutalized their innocence. Or made them feel terrified, tossed aside, beaten down, invisible, unseen, unwanted, or shamed” (pp. 115-116). Understanding what hardships our parents endured can take away some of the bitterness we have towards them and pave the way to forgiveness.
4. Pray for them.
God teaches us to pray for those who “spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) and “abuse you” (Luke 6:28, English Standard Version). Toxic parents can certainly be included here. Pray that God would help them see the error of their ways and how their actions have had a negative impact on others. Ask God to intervene in their lives so that whatever factors are causing them to be hurtful to others, will be mitigated.
Praying for our parents is honoring because it shows our concern for them and for the position they hold in the family structure. It also helps us keep the right perspective about them and improves our attitude. We should want them to repent so that we can have a healthy relationship with them. When we pray for others who are hurting us, we start seeing them as “on the same team” and less as our enemies.
5. Be willing to show concern from a distance.
With parents who have a history of treating us poorly and still exhibit abusive tendencies, being in their physical presence may not be wise. Doing so could put ourselves or our families in danger. As long as we’re not motivated by vengeance, we may need to maintain a physical distance from them.
We may also need to forgo seeing our parents if they’re blatantly involved in activities we don’t want to be exposed to, even if they’re not a danger to us personally. For instance, we might tell our parents we won’t visit them if they’re drunk or high. The Bible does warn against associating with immoral people (1 Corinthians 5:9-11).
That said, we should not totally reject our parents and cut off all ties. We can still stay in touch from afar via phone calls, emails and video chats, and by sending cards and letters.
6. Look to God for help.
Admittedly, these steps are not easy to do. They may even seem impossible. And they truly are without God’s involvement. Pray that God will give you the understanding, strength and guidance you need to better honor your parents. Ask God to help you move past the pain they may have inflicted on you and not dwell on their flaws so that you can forgive them.
The truth is, whether we have hard-to-honor parents or if there are other people in our lives who are acting like enemies, we need to be treating them with respect, kindness and concern. That is the kind of people God wants us to be. We should keep our focus on God’s plan and purpose for mankind and remember that even if God hasn’t yet opened our parents’ eyes to His truths, some day He will. Our parents are now seeing the example we set, and we need to make sure it’s the right one. We need to be people who are honoring.