As I began teaching about the fifth commandment, I saw that the fifth commandment was touching a powerful nerve with adult children.
By Dennis Rainey
Many of us go our entire lives without fully understanding the connection we have with our parents. Whether you want to put your parents on a pedestal or leave them stranded on a deserted island, one thing is certain: Their words and actions have shaped you. They live in you.
This is more than inheriting their mannerisms, their habits, or their values, and even more than DNA. You are connected to your parents at the deepest level of your soul.
Think of it this way: Some of you are proud to call your parents Mom and Dad, and you revel in that relationship. You want your connection to be stronger.
Some of you don’t know how to relate to them as you grow older. Sometimes you enjoy them, and sometimes they hurt and anger you. And the reason that pain is so acute is that you are connected to them. No matter what, you can’t give up on the relationship; you want that connection to be stronger.
And some of you feel nothing but pain when you think of your mother or father. You may have been abandoned. Perhaps you’ve been consistently mistreated or abused. Perhaps you have a parent who is evil and unrepentant. And yet for some mysterious reason, though you may never admit it to anyone, somewhere in your heart you may wish you could reconnect.
That’s the power of a parent.
Touching a nerve
During the early 1970s, I worked with teenagers in a ministry in Boulder, Colorado. One of my favorite messages to communicate to these teens was titled “How to Raise Your Parents.”
Actually I camouflaged the real message behind the title. The real challenge was for these teenagers to obey God’s fifth commandment to “Honor your father and your mother.” As I spoke to those teenagers I realized that I was touching a raw nerve. Many had such difficult relationships with their parents that the command to honor them presented a challenge of immense proportions, a major step of faith.
As I have worked with youth and adults since then, I’ve realized that the church rarely talks about what it means to honor our parents. We’ll talk about the need for children to obey their parents, but what does it mean for an adult child to honor them? The fifth commandment has become the forgotten commandment.
This is particularly puzzling because, for many of us, the relationship with a parent goes on for decades after we’ve left the nest. What does it look like to honor parents once you’ve become an independent adult?
Teaching about honoring parents
During the 1980s, my interest in the forgotten commandment continued to grow. For several summers I taught a class about family to over five hundred students preparing for vocational ministry, and the lecture on honoring parents always brought the greatest response. I talked about honoring parents by thanking them, by forgiving them, by praising them, and by taking the initiative to build a relationship.
The responses were fascinating. After one lecture three young women came to me and described their dads, and each man sounded the same: successful in providing for material needs but aloof, detached, distant, and unexpressive. All three women had tears in their eyes as they expressed their desire to somehow build a loving relationship with their dads.
I counseled each woman to honor her father by taking the first step to change the relationship. “Don’t expect your father to come to you, begging for your forgiveness,” I said. Instead they should spend some time alone evaluating how there were responding to their father. Then, when appropriate, call their father, and if appropriate, confess to being ungrateful, ask for forgiveness, and say, “I love you.”
Later I learned that each young woman took my advice. And in each case, the father’s heart melted. One woman told me, with tears streaming down her face, “For the first time in my life, my father and I communicated. In the past, my father gave me cars, jewelry, piano lessons, nice vacations, everything. I told him, ‘I don’t want all this stuff, I just want you. I love you and I want to know you.’ He began to cry, and I began to cry. For the first time, he told me that he loved me.
“I don’t think our relationship will ever be the same. I can’t wait to go home.”
Over the next few years, I continued to receive responses like that as I spoke to adult audiences on honoring their parents. I remember thinking, God has something in this commandment we are missing today. He wants to do something profound in our relationship with our parents I don’t even begin to understand.
Honoring an abusive father