This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 1 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Mark Twain is rumored to have said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Apocryphal or not, Twain’s comment comically illustrates a fact of life: as we grow older, our opinion of our parents (and how they reared us) changes, and usually for the better. Adults typically see their parents through clearer lenses than children do. Sometimes, and increasingly so, that clearer vision of our parents is painful and provocative.
During my lifetime, there seems to have emerged a cultural proliferation of parental abuse — sexual, physical, and emotional. Of course all parents are sinners who raise other sinners. God does visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation” (Exod. 20:5).1 Patterns of family abuse take generations to erase.
How then does a Christian child of an abusive parent truly practice the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exod. 20:12)? How do we obey parents who persecute our faith in Christ and call us to sin against God? How can a son honor a verbally abusive, alcoholic mother? Can a daughter honor a father who bullied her in anger or molested her sexually? These are the hard questions of real-life situations.
A Command without Options. This command from God “to honor” is repeated, verbatim, at least ten times, in both Old and New Testaments, and is alluded to another dozen times in Scriptural texts. In not one case is the command modified by an “exception clause.” God expects us to honor our parents as an aspect of submitting to His authority. Romans 13 informs us that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1–2). According to Scripture, these God-ordained authorities include faulty parents (Luke 2:51), unjust governments (Rom. 13:1–2), abusive masters and slave–owners (Eph. 6:5–9; Titus 2:9–10; Col. 3:22–4:1), and even Roman emperors such as Nero (1 Pet. 2:17; Titus 3:1–2). No exceptions.
Americans always have been a people who resisted and even rebelled against legitimate authority. It is in our social DNA. Thus we believe that authority must “earn our respect” or “work to earn our trust.” Not so! Legitimate authority — parents, pastors, policemen, magistrates, school teachers, and supervisors at work — have a God-given right to be honored for the position of authority they hold in God’s sovereign providence. As the Army believes and lives: “We honor the uniform and rank, if not the man who wears them.” Anarchy, believe it or not, is a far greater evil than abusive authority.
Parents are to be honored, appreciated, and treated with humble respect because (1) they gave us life and brought us into this world — even if later to abuse us, (2) they cared for and provided for us — even if poorly so, and (3) God sovereignly gave them to us as our mothers and fathers — even if that seems to us a major mistake.
The Problem of Pain. Nevertheless, millions of children — small or mature — face the daily ache, the continuing shame, and the lasting wounds (physical or emotional) left by parents who harmed them rather than loved them. How do these bruised souls ever come to the point where they can honor their abusive parent(s)? I would suggest five biblical practices that can lead to a more tolerable relationship with bad parents.
Seek to Understand. First, remember that people sin for a reason, even if for bad reasons. There was a cause or source that produced an abusive parent’s destructive patterns of behavior. While it may not excuse abusive behavior, understanding your parents’ background will at least aid in understanding their sinful actions. In most cases, abusive parents did not intend to hurt their children, but their inner pain and unresolved struggles spilled over into their little ones’ lives. A reading of Scripture reveals that God always knows why we sin, and He factors that knowledge into His responses to our wrongdoing (e.g., Rom. 1:18–32). We should all try to understand the hearts of our parents more than we do. This is a good beginning point.
Learn to Forgive. Second, we must learn to forgive our hurtful parents, even if they are unrepentant or never ask for forgiveness. The power of forgiveness — of giving wrongdoing over to God for final settlement — is the liberating force of grace in our lives. Jesus clearly states that our forgiveness of others is crucial to God’s forgiveness of us (Matt. 6:12 and 18:35). This is not an easy undertaking. Peter asked Jesus how many times we had to forgive someone for harming us. Jesus responded by saying, in essence, “You keep granting him forgiveness until, in your heart, you feel he is truly forgiven.” (See Matthew 18:21–35.) Forgiveness is a learned grace acquired by practice.
Apply Grace. Third, apply grace to the pain of the past, as well as to the struggles of the present. As a believer in Christ, you have ceased being a victim and have become a “conqueror”: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation [including abusive parents], will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:37–39). Try to see the gospel work of Jesus Christ in your suffering. Every time your father cursed you, he was really cursing Christ. Each violent blow from your mother — verbal or physical — fell on Jesus. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;…and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:4–5).
In some inexplicable, mysterious but real way, the abuse we received as children has become redemptive both for us and perhaps even for our parents. We must believe this: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). And that purpose is our forgiveness, and our ability to forgive, which ushers us into a life with God, unlike any love we’ve ever dreamed of or hoped to find.
Learn from Your Past. Fourth, seek to discover the lessons of life hidden within your broken relationship with your parents. Failure is the forgotten teacher. Our parents’ failures as honorable mothers or fathers, and our failures as respectful children, can be used by the Holy Spirit to enable us to break that pattern of evil that may have held our family captive for generations. “Learn to do good,” Isaiah 1:17 urges us. The Spirit within can turn the history of sorrows into a heritage of joy.
Move Beyond the Bitterness. Fifth, we must focus our lives on what is to come in the future and not on what has happened in the past. Paul exhorts, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the
prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13–14). If we expend our souls’ energy on memories of past injustice, we run the risk of spiritual bitterness. Scripture warns us: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Heb. 12:14–15). If we “fall short of the grace of God” (NASB), then a root of bitterness takes hold in our souls and “defiles” the lives of “many” children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren — to the third and fourth generation!
I admit, these things are not easy to do. In fact, the adult child who first decides to break the power of sin, through grace and forgiveness, does the “heavy lifting.” But a “thousand generations” who follow him will rise up and call him blessed.
Difficult Decisions. There will be tough decisions in this process of restoration. First, we may decide to talk humbly and honestly to our senior parent about his or her past (or continuing) actions. Even if they refuse to meet or deny any wrongdoing, at least we have done all we could to bring resolution to a terrible family dynamic.
Second, there may be times when we must decide to disobey our parents, even as small children. The apostles set forth our pattern of submission to authority: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). But even when we refuse to sin, deny Christ, or violate the Scriptures, we must do so respectfully. Authority can be honored even when it is not obeyed.
Finally, we will more than likely have to decide not to seek revenge of some kind on our abusive parents — through denying them contact with grandchildren, moving away and never contacting them, ruining their reputations by telling family secrets, or holding back acts of respect and expressions of gratitude. Few people are so evil that they should be denied both the kindness and honor due to every person as the image of God. James is right: “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). God will judge our failed parents; what they need from us is mercy.
In the end, what abusive parents need most is redemption in Christ. Those children who have been their victims are uniquely qualified and divinely positioned to lead their parents to repentance, faith, and new life. No one could show them the mercy of God in Christ like the children they abused but who now care for their souls. Mercy triumphs over judgment. ––Michael F. Ross
Michael F. Ross is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), with thirty-five years of experience in pastoral ministry, and a grateful son of a difficult father who is now in heaven.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.