Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Honor Your Father and Your Mother*

Sixth Day of Christmas
December 30, 2009

The Lord be with you

I was asked the following question in a comment on an earlier post: “How do you honor an estranged parent?” This question deals with the Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16), as St. Augustine numbered them (Fifth Commandment as John Calvin numbered them).

There are many reasons why a person might be estranged from their parent. The parent may have left home when the children were young and is now seeking reentry into the adult childrens' lives. The parent might have been cruel and abusive when the children were young and is now seeking reconciliation. The child might have fallen in with undesirable companions thus driving a wedge between parent and child, and the parent might still want to keep the child at a distance. There are many other possible scenarios. Because of the various reasons, this answer can only be a general one.

First we should note how God starts the Ten Commandments. He says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6). Keeping the Ten Commandments does not flow from what we can do, or should do, or have done, nor from what others can do, should do, or have done, but from what God has done. The Commandments begin with a clear note of grace. God delivers, we therefore … The ultimate deliverance, the one of which the Egyptian deliverance was a type, is the deliverance from sin, death, and the devil Christ achieved for us. We receive that deliverance from “the house of slavery” when we receive Christ as our Savior. Without God’s grace in Christ Jesus our keeping of the Ten Commandments will only be superficial.

Therefore the first step in keeping any of the Ten Commandments is repentance. We recognize that we are poor miserable sinners deserving nothing but God’s wrath and condemnation. But we sincerely repent of our sins and trust in God’s grace in Christ Jesus for forgiveness. To keep any of the Ten Commandments, even in a partially God-pleasing manner, begins with repentance and forgiveness.

This is much more difficult than it first appears. We may feel we have nothing of which to repent. In the examples I made-up above, we may feel the offense of the other party is so great that our lack of repentance is justified, or our desire to hold on to grudges, nurse wounds, etc., is more than reasonable. We can easily end up thinking that God is the one who needs to repent for asking such an unreasonable thing from us. As long as we focus on the offense (either perceived or real) of the other party, and hold on to the idea that we are the main (only?) offended party, we will not repent. (God is offended by all sin.)

Another way to hold on to a wounded spirit, instead of letting God’s grace heal you, is to set up some sort of requirement for the offending party to fulfill before reconciliation can be achieved. Often such requirements can remain unspoken or are impossible to achieve.
“If my parent would just do this,” or “If my child would just do that,” then we could be reconciled. Typically if “this” or “that” is done, it is not enough. Two possible reasons why it is not enough occur to me. First is the sinful desire that the offending party be made to suffer for their past transgressions for the rest of their lives. This is taking the role of God as your own (Romans 12:19). True reconciliation prevents this retribution from taking place and therefore reconciliation is not desired. The other reason I can think of why “this” or “that” is not enough is because what is really desired is that the cause of the offense never happened. The past, though, cannot be changed. However grace can bring healing. That grace comes with a repentant heart before God.

Next we note the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7). As Luther explained this in his Small Catechism, it means “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

This is the most broken commandment. Every time we break one of the other commandments, we break the first, for we have exalted our will above God’s will. We have either feared or loved or trusted in something more than God. This again drives us back to repentance and forgiveness. Because we recognize that we will always fail, we recognize that we must always live in repentance and grace. Luther certainly recognized this in the first of his famous 95 Theses when he wrote, “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

When reconciliation is lacking we often see that one or more of the parties involved is focused on the faults of the other. These faults may be (and often are) very real. Take the hypothetical example of the parent who abandons their children given above. The abandonment was real. We are not simply talking about a father who didn’t play ball with his son. No “reason” will ever make sense to the child, nor will it ever make-up for what the parent did. Nothing the parent might also do in the present can make up for their abandonment in the past. Therefore the child may feel justified in holding on to their injured soul, forever holding the sins of the past over the parent in the present. This pattern will result in some dark sense of retribution, but never bring healing. As the old saying goes, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Being focused on the sins of others simply keeps you stuck.

This does not mean the sins of the past are necessarily forgotten. They may have ongoing present importance. Let us say that the parent above abandoned their children because they were involved with illegal drugs. It might certainly be unwise for the adult-child to leave their children unattended with the estranged parent. Such action would be honoring the First Commandment for parents are called to protect and provide for their children by God. This would include not putting your children into inherently dangerous situations.

So far I’ve written about what is the essential foundation for keeping the Fourth Commandment. In reality, this is the foundation for keeping all the commandments; you just need to change a few words here and there. The question given me does not indicate why the estrangement exists. Not does it indicate who is perpetuating the estrangement. In some ways it doesn’t matter which party is perpetuating the estrangement, it is both parties' responsibility to seek peace. However if the other party is unwilling, then we have the recourse of prayer, hoping that the unwillingness will one day be changed. Until that day, prayer for the unwilling parent is one of the best ways to honor them. It is always a God-pleasing thing to pray for others asking God to bless them.

As this question seems to be coming from an adult-child whose parent does not wish to be reconciled, holding out that olive branch might be all that they can do. Such estrangement can be caused by numerous things. Perhaps the child married someone of whom the estranged parent didn’t approve. Perhaps the child engaged in a life-style of which the estranged parent didn’t approve. Perhaps the child stole money from the parent. Perhaps the child somehow brought great shame to the family. A Christmas card, an occasional letter, sending a photo once in a while, and prayer, prayer, prayer, are ideas that come to my mind about how such an estranged child could honor their parent. When the opportunity to do more arises, step up.

There are at least two other possible motives for this question of which I can think. First, the child might be the one perpetuating the estrangement and, feeling the weight of the commandment, desire reconciliation but not know how to go about it. The second is again the child is the injured party, feels the weight of the commandment, but really does not want reconciliation. The question then is, “How can I remain estranged and still honor my parent?”

In the first case, where the child has been perpetuating the estrangement but now desires to bring it to an end, the first step is at the foot of the cross. Confession and absolution provides the bedrock of the foundation needed. Follow this up with prayer for wisdom. The estranged parent may now feel they have ample reason to punish the child seeking reconciliation because the child continued so long in holding their grudge. That “punishment” might be a lot of finger-pointing and even refusal of reconciliation. The child’s forgiveness will need to set no preconditions. In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) we see human reasoning in both the elder son and the prodigal son. Both thought that some kind of preconditions needed to be fulfilled before forgiveness could be extended. However the hero of the story, the Father, recklessly extended forgiveness without preconditions. For both the elder and younger sons, forgiveness was the only way forward.

This being said, the “restored” relationship will not be what it would have been if it had never been broken. The memories lost due to the estrangement will remain missed opportunities. Whatever caused the estrangement cannot be undone. What you are working for in the reconciliation is a better future, not a different past.

In the next possibility the child has perpetuated the estrangement, desires no reconciliation, but also desires to keep the Fourth Commandment. This situation might not be as unusual as it first appears. Let us take the example of an abusive parent. Such abuse can, and often does, have long lasting negative results. These negative results not only impacts how the adult child relates to their peers, but also colors the ongoing relationship with the abusive parent. Such an adult-child might truly wish to obey the Fourth Commandment, but still have the negative baggage of their childhood. No amount of picnics or Christmas cards will effectively jettison the negative baggage, nor heal the damage.

What I am about to say is not so much biblical as it is logical. Therefore, I could be wrong. It seems to me that, in such a case, the first step in honoring the parent is healing the damage done. This may well take some encounter with the parent, but it may well not start with that encounter. Availing oneself of skilled counselors is a wise move. God’s grace will need to be brought to bear on the damaged. That could mean relearning how to think about and approach self and others. This might be considered a first step in honoring, for you are seeking to get to a place where you can establish a positive relationship.

In the end, we all fail in relationship to the commandments. Some we struggle with more than others. In the end, though, our sin returns us to the cross of Christ and the forgiveness we find there. As that forgiveness brings healing and health to us, we are equipped to bring healing and health to our relationships.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert
(* In looking over this post I noticed a few spelling errors. I have corrected them.)


  1. It is a difficult topic for someone like me who is not in the situation and so cannot draw on first-hand knowledge.

  2. Some of us have been discussing this on Facebook. It is a deep, and often touchy, subject. My childhood had its ups and downs like everyone else's, but I couldn't have asked God for better parents than the ones He graciously provided. Since I can't put myself in the shoes of abused kids, I can't very well say "well, he IS (or WAS) your father, and without him, you wouldn't be here, so you should at least be thankful to him for that." I tried that one with my Mom; didn't work. Forgiveness doesn't seem to rank high on the lists of things to do of people who have been subject to horrors and terrors I can't even imagine. And I find it hard to blame them. I can pray for them, but I know there will be no tears shed for a number of these parents who did the unthinkable to their own children.
    Wonder what Luther would say...? "Sin boldly!"?
    {that's my favorite Luther quote, ever}

  3. In a very real way, not being able to forgive means that the sins of someone else in the past are having a continuing negative impact on your present life. The best thing for all of us is to forgive. That breaks the power old sins have over us. But, as you know, easier said than done. Still, prayer is not a last resort but a first line in the battle. Those of us who have had good parents may not be able to truly relate, and we should thank God for those good parents and pray for those whose parents were not (and if those parents are still alive, for them).