As I began teaching about the fifth commandment, I was amazed at how this commandment was touching a powerful nerve with adult children.
By Dennis Rainey
Many of us go our entire lives without fully understanding the “spiritual” connection we have with our parents. Whether you want to enshrine 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 Divinely connected to your parents at the deepest level of your soul.
You may be proud to call your parents Mom and Dad. You may revel in that relationship. And you may desire your relationship with them to be more authentic.
Or you may not know how to relate to them as you grow older. Sometimes you enjoy them, and sometimes they hurt and anger you. No matter what, you know you can’t give up on the relationship. So you yearn for that connection to also be deeper and more robust.
Or, like some adult children, you may feel nothing but pain when you think of your mother or father. You may have been abandoned … 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 truly connect.
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 I shared with these teens was “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 found in Exodus 20:12,
“Honor your father and your mother,
that your days may be long in the land
that the Lord your God is giving you.”
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 to truly honor them.
As I have worked with youth and adults of all ages since then, I’ve realized that the faith community 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 month-long class about family to over 500 single university students preparing for vocational ministry. The lecture on honoring parents always brought the greatest response—positive and negative. I talked about honoring parents by seeking to understand 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 connect and build a loving relationship with their dads.
I encouraged each of those women 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. “He may have no idea how he may have wounded you or failed as a dad.” Instead they should spend some time alone evaluating how they 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.”
Then wait for his response. Lower your expectations and don’t be discouraged if he doesn’t respond. He may not know how.
Then I added, “You may never ‘see’ your mom or dad’s true response, but God will use your pursuit of your parents for His purposes in their lives.”
Later I learned that, after a couple of weeks, 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 in my life, 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 about 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. And I begin to understand just a fraction of all that’s packed in the fifth commandment.
Honoring an abusive father?
One woman wrote about the pain she had experienced in her family. Her letter vividly described the payoff she received as she sought to honor her father. I must warn you this is a raw, tough letter to read about the evil done to this young lady, and not every situation ends up as hers did, but it’s a powerful illustration of how God can use us to “take honor home” and give it to our parents.
How thankful I am for the message you shared today. The truth of it rings loud and clear in my life. Growing up, my father physically abused me. Oh, he would beat me so bad that at times I didn’t think I was going to live. At other times my mom would be in such fear for me that she would call the police. But perhaps even worse than the physical abuse was the mental abuse.
Oh, how he hated me! He would cuss and scream at me every possible thing you could think of and a lot that you probably couldn’t think of. I hated my father with a hate that few people probably ever realize exists.
My freshman year in college I became a Christian. Over the next year and a half God took me from a tremendous hate of my father to a dislike to a like until I could say I loved my father. Then I began to find certain things out. My father was abused as a child. No one ever told me that before. His father kicked him out when he was 17.
Does this excuse what happened to me as a child? No. Does it make it more understandable? Yes.
My father still yells and cusses at me. But you know what? Not quite so loudly. I call him on special occasions. I share my life with him and ask his advice. His response? Not so good, but that’s okay.
The other day I heard he was bragging about me at work. There’s hope. You know why there’s hope? Because God loved us enough to send His Son to die on the cross for our sins, and because people like you care enough to share life-changing messages like you did today.
Most people would have counseled this young woman to turn her back on the father who physically abused her. “He’s not deserving of your love,” they’d say. And yet she chose to honor him anyway by expressing her love and giving him the hope of a relationship that he didn’t deserve. When I reflect on stories like this, I realize that the commandment to honor our parents is far more important, and far more powerful, than most of us realize.
So I have a little assignment for you. Mother’s Day is about a month away and Father’s Day is more than a couple of months from now: I want to encourage you to begin to pray about giving your parents the greatest gift you’ll ever give them—a tribute to your mom and another tribute to your dad … both written by you. Print it out on nice paper, mat it, and frame it … I think you may be surprised at where your parents hang it.
Some who read this may be feeling what one woman experienced as she read my book, The Forgotten Commandment. She wrote and told me that she was so angry at me and my book that she threw it across the room where it landed and formed a “tee-pee.” For days that book mocked her and she cussed at it, unwilling to write a tribute. (This is not exactly the kind of response an author wants to elicit from readers!)
She finally picked that book up again and decided to begin the difficult journey of forgiving her parents and ultimately giving her parents honor.
Another reader had a similar experience and wrote to tell me, “I didn’t realize it, but I resented my mom and had her locked up in my heart. When I forgave her and wrote a tribute to honor her, I realized that I was the one who was imprisoned, and the jail cell door flew wide open. I was free!”
Let me encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to give you words to honor you parents. He is more than capable of breaking through some very dark jail cells.
Expect God to show up … you are doing what He commanded you to do.
Next week I’ll share Barbara’s tribute to her parents and my tributes to my mom and my dad.
One more thing…Over the years I’ve written and spoken on this topic many times, and it remains one of the most powerful messages God has given me the privilege to pass on. The book, The Forgotten Commandment, along with its earlier versions, never was a best-seller, but I’ve probably received more stories of life change from readers than any other book I’ve written. Something powerful happens when you honor your parents…
This blog post was adapted from The Forgotten Commandment, by Dennis Rainey with David Boehi. Copyright © by Dennis Rainey. All rights reserved.
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