Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee….Exodus 20: 12 KJV
This dilemma weighs heavy on the hearts of many children of abusive parents, and abusers and their Silent Partners never miss an opportunity to remind us that, as Christians, we “HAVE to honor our fathers and mothers”, apparently, and according to their thinking, no matter what. Certainly none of us wants to break one of the Ten Commandments.
But the idea of rewarding abusers with honor seems completely irrational, and contradictory to just about everything else written in the Bible, where evildoers are never honored, but punished time and again. This is God’s Law of Sowing and Reaping (Galatians 6:7, Job 4:8), that those who do wrong will not benefit from their wickedness, but suffer the Natural Consequences of their actions.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO “HONOR” SOMEONE?
Our abusive parents would have us think it means letting them get away with murder, but we have already refuted this in numerous other articles on our website. Do they want us to believe that we have to obey them unquestioningly, even though we are now adults, and even if what they want is evil?
I think we each need to define what “honoring” means to us and find a definition we are comfortable with. To some, it might mean limited contact, an occasional card, or a brief visit. To others, it might mean not calling the police and having your parents arrested for child abuse, molestation, stealing from you, using your social security number to take out credit cards and ruining your credit, stalking you, or any of the dozens of other prosecutable crimes committed against many of us. And to still others, it might mean letting your abusers live their lives in peace and be who they are, while you live yours in peace on the other side of the country. Like my father-in-law used to say, “You stay in your backyard, and we’ll stay in our backyard.”
But one thing honoring does NOT mean is that you have no choice but to tolerate their abuse. Honoring does not mean that you never confront, or set limits on someone’s behavior. Honoring does not mean you have to give up all hope of ever being treated nicely, and sacrifice your own health and well-being for an abuser’s sadistic enjoyment.
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Even if you must divorce your parents and never see them again, it doesn’t mean that you’re dishonoring them. It just means that you accept that they are the way they are and that they’ll never change, which in truth is honoring them as people whose right it is to be everything they want to be, that you’re ok with it, and even that you still feel love for them, but you just can’t stick around for it anymore. Given the unfortunate reality of their innate hatefulness, you can still choose to set limits on them or have no contact with them, because they are destructive people. You can honor them by accepting them for who they are, not expecting change, and letting them live their own way in peace, but at the same time honor yourself and your own right to live in peace as well. Which means choosing NOT to be in their presence when they are abusing you.
WHY DOES IT SEEM LIKE THE BIBLE IS TELLING US TO HONOR ABUSERS?
First of all, the words “father” and “mother”, as referred to when the Lord commands us to honor, mean people who took care of us, nurtured us, protected us, loved us, and still love us. Unfortunately, not all of us have had such people in our lives. They do NOT mean “sperm donor” and “egg donor”. It takes far more than that to qualify as a “father” or a “mother” by Biblical standards. The Bible gives us many examples of the kinds of parents God is referring to when he uses the words “father” or “mother”.
God is not telling us to honor abusers, who don’t deserve to be honored. It helps to remind ourselves that God does not do nonsensical, irrational, or contradictory things. He NEVER rewards evil, and he NEVER says anything to us that would make it easier for evil to thrive, or for abusers to get away with their cruelty. It doesn’t make sense that our God, who is All Good, would tell us to encourage and reward evil. If it doesn’t make sense and we do not feel at peace in our spirit about it, then it is not from God. We need to delve a little deeper into his Word and pray for a better understanding.
The Bible is written for a broad population of God’s children, and some individuals within that population will have unique situations to which broad teachings cannot necessarily be applied. Not everything in the Bible is written for a particular circumstance. Much of what is written refers to general situations rather than specific situations.
For instance, although we are instructed to treat those who preach and teach with double honor (1 Timothy 5: 17), Jesus holds nothing back when sternly and publicly rebuking the Pharisees, who preached and taught. They were not deserving of respect and honor, and Jesus didn’t give it to them. Instead, he spoke the truth about them, took a stand against them, and openly disapproved of their hypocrisy and wickedness. He warned the people about them, telling them to be on guard against their teachings and not to believe them. He publicly rebuked them, comparing them to “white-washed tombs, beautiful on the outside but full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.” He point-blank accused them of being hypocrites, obstructionists, phonies, full of false pride, and even called them “snakes”, a “brood of vipers” and “sons of hell”. (Matthew 16: 11-12, Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 11:37- 12: 3, Luke 18: 9-14).
In Matthew 23, Jesus speaks to the crowd about honoring the Pharisees. “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach….Everything they do is done for men to see….they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi’. But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father’, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher’, for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”….Matthew 23: 2-3, 5, 6-12 NIV. So we see that Jesus specifically instructs the people NOT to give any special honor to the Pharisees, because they are not deserving of it.
Another example of a general teaching is illustrated in Romans 13: 1-2: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (NIV) In Titus 3:1, we are again told to submit to our rulers and authorities: “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good.”(NIV)
However, in a well-known specific instance of rebellion against one individual authority, the three wise men defied Herod’s instructions to return to him after finding the Christ child, and to tell him where the baby was. Instead, they returned to their country by another route (Matthew 2: 7-12). The Magi did not submit to Herod’s authority because he was an unjust, unrighteous, evil ruler. Instead, they did what GOD wanted them to do, and protected the baby Jesus. So, although we are told to obey our rulers and authorities, the exception to this teaching is that it does not apply to rulers and authorities who are evil.
Similarly, what is written in the Bible about family relationships, between parents and children, husbands and wives, and other family members, are God’s instructions for family life in general, but specific circumstances would call for a different, and perhaps even totally opposite, response from us. The Bible is written for GODLY people in GODLY families. It is the Lord’s instructions for godly marriages and a godly family life. It is how God wants his children to behave toward ONE ANOTHER, to be able live together in peace and harmony and show the love of God to EACH OTHER through his grace. It simply doesn’t apply to abusive families, and it CAN’T apply to abusive families. The abusers in our families aren’t reading it anyway, and if they are, they’re certainly not obeying it. You cannot treat an evil person the same way you can treat a godly, righteous person, and expect a peaceful, joyful, godly family to result. God’s instructions to HIS CHILDREN on how to treat one another were never written to benefit abusers. The Bible was not written for the children of Satan to twist to suit their own purposes, and it’s up to the children of God to not allow this.
Just as we are not to give honor to hypocritical, evil teachers and preachers, and just as we are not to obey and submit to evil rulers and authorities, neither are we to honor evil and abusive parents who are not deserving of honor.
A BIBLICAL HERO: JONATHAN DEFIES HIS FATHER AND DOES THE RIGHT THING
Although we are told to submit to governing authorities, the Scriptures contain numerous references to confronting, disobeying, fighting against, and even overthrowing ungodly, unjust, or wicked authorities. One of the most interesting accounts of a child defying his father starts in 1 Samuel, where we begin to read the story of David, who slew Goliath and became a faithful servant of King Saul. Saul’s son Jonathan loved David as if he was his own brother (1 Samuel 18: 1-4). Saul became jealous of David’s heroic exploits and popularity with the people, and began trying to kill him (1 Samuel 18: 1:15, 25, 29 ; 1 Samuel 19, etc.) Saul continued to persecute David and continued trying to kill him, even though David had always been loyal to Saul, and even spared Saul’s life when he had the opportunity to kill him (1 Samuel 24). The books of 1 and 2 Samuel chronicle the many years of this saga. Many of the Psalms written by David tell of his anguish over Saul’s persecution as he pleads with the Lord to help him.
What is interesting about this story is the account of Saul’s son, Jonathan, as told in 1 Samuel 20. Jonathan protected David, helped him to hide, and tried to act as a go-between between him and Saul, and to make peace. What happened next was an eye-opener for Jonathan about the extent of his father’s wickedness: Saul’s anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him, “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don’t I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of the mother who bore you? As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he must die!” “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” Jonathan asked his father. But Saul hurled his spear at him to kill him. Then Jonathan knew that his father intended to kill David. Jonathan got up from the table in fierce anger; on that second day of the month, he did not eat, because he was grieved at his father’s shameful treatment of David.”….1 Samuel 20: 30-34 NIV.
Jonathan was ashamed of his father’s behavior. When Jonathan believed that his father was being unjust, he confronted him. When Jonathan realized that his father intended to kill David, he defied him. The next day he warned David and protected him by allowing him to escape to Nob. At great personal cost to himself (the loss of his own kingdom), Jonathan stepped in and stopped his father from doing wrong and hurting an innocent person. He did not show honor to his father- he showed “fierce anger”. Jonathan did not obey his father. Instead, he did the right thing and thwarted his father’s plans.
Jonathan did not think in terms of “He’s my father, right or wrong, and I have to honor him and do whatever he wants me to do”. In fact, when given the choice between doing what was right and obeying his abusive father, he betrayed his father. Jonathan publicly disagreed with his father, expressed fierce anger to his father, and then went behind his father’s back to do the right thing and save David. And thanks to him, David went on to become king, and a cornerstone of the history of our faith. Jonathan is a biblical hero, not for “honoring” his father, but for standing up to his father and taking action AGAINST him, because what his father was doing was WRONG, and Jonathan would not allow it.
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Jonathan’s story illustrates that “honoring” as referred to in Scriptures does not mean letting our abusive parents get away with anything they want, no matter how harmful, without ever stopping them, or at least making them live with the consequences of their own actions. If your parents were abusing YOUR child, would you not stop them and protect your child for fear that you would be “dishonoring” your parents? Then why would stopping them from abusing YOU and protecting YOURSELF be any different? If you’re not dishonoring your parents by protecting someone else from them, then you’re not dishonoring them by protecting yourself, either.
LET THE TRUTH SPEAK FOR ITSELF
Telling the TRUTH is NOT dishonoring someone. I have always believed that if you don’t want anyone to know what you did, then just DON’T DO IT! If an abuser is so sure that he’s right and that his behavior is justified, then he should have no problem telling everyone, or having YOU tell everyone, what he did, and still holding his head up high. He should WANT you to tell the truth about him to everyone you meet, since it will only make him look good! But if he’s ashamed for others to hear about the things he’s said and done, then maybe he needs to reassess how he acts. If you hide what someone does or cover up the truth, THAT would be dishonoring him, because it would mean that you were ashamed of him or embarrassed by him. An abuser has no right to become angry when you rebuke him, or to accuse you of “dishonoring” him, if you are speaking the truth. HE is the one who did what he did, YOU only told the truth about it.
One of the best ways to honor someone is to help them be the very best person that they can be. Some people need a little push along the path to righteousness and godliness. Allowing God’s law of Sowing and Reaping to bring evil people to repentance is more beneficial to them than interfering with the Natural Consequences of their behavior by giving them a free ride. The Bible tells us to rebuke evil and try to turn sinners from their wicked ways in the hopes of saving them (Ezekiel 33:7-9). This is the biggest favor and honor we could do for them.
However, the Bible also tells us not to do this repeatedly, but no more than once or twice (Titus 3:10-11, Matthew 10: 13-16, Proverbs 23: 9, etc.) Then we are to walk away, and leave them to God’s Natural Consequences. We have treated them in an honorable manner (honored them), and now our obligation is over.
Many of us still love our abusers, but because it is not safe to be with them, we have learned to love them from a distance. The same is true of honoring. If your parents refuse to respect your boundaries and choose to continue mistreating you, then you can limit or end, if necessary, your time with them, “honor” them from a safe distance, and still be obedient to God’s Word. You can speak the truth about your parents at all times and not be dishonoring them. Only people who want carte blanche to get away with anything would accuse you of not honoring them simply because you spoke the truth and set healthy boundaries in your relationship.
“These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against your neighbor, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,” declares the Lord….Zechariah 8: 16-17 NIV
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth….1 Corinthians 13: 6 NIV
For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth….2 Corinthians 13:8 NIV
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ…..Ephesians 4: 14-15 NIV
And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free….John 8: 32 KJV