How do we honor an abusive parent?

Question: "How do we honor an abusive parent?"

One of the thorniest questions that a Christian may be asked or have to face up to is how to honor an abusive parent as required by God in the fifth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12). It would be so much easier if God had asked only that we honor our parents if they are good, kind and loving to us, but unfortunately this commandment says honor your father and mother, period. There are many, many hurt and damaged people who find this well near impossible to obey.

The word 'abuse' is wide-ranging in its definition. A child can be brought up well clothed and fed with all its needs supplied except the all-important need for love and approval. No physical harm is ever done to him, and yet as each year goes by his spirit shrivels up inside him more and more as a plant will shrivel without sunlight, desperate for the smallest demonstration of affection, until he becomes a seemingly normal adult, yet is crippled inside by the indifference of his parents.

Then again, a child's spirit may be broken at an early age—even though he suffers no physical abuse—by being constantly told that he is useless and a waste of space who will never be good for anything. Everything he attempts is sneered at until he gives up trying to do anything at all. Because children naturally believe what their parents say about them when they are very young, the child who suffers this treatment will gradually withdraw into himself, retiring behind an invisible wall and simply existing rather than living. All these are the children who grow up into people who have never suffered physically at the hands of their parents but nevertheless have become crippled in their spirits, find it difficult to make friends, and are unable to relate normally to other adults.

What is described above are the more subtle forms of child abuse, and moving on from this there is, of course, the obvious kind—the child who is neglected, kicked and beaten and worse still, sexually abused. So now comes the big question: how to obey God's commandment to honor parents who behave with such cruelty to their own children.

The first thing we have to remember is that God is our loving Heavenly Father who does not just slap down a rule and sit back waiting for us to obey it, but whose rules are there for one reason only - our ultimate good. If we truly desire to obey Him no matter how impossible it seems, He is willing and anxious to help us find the way. First and foremost, of course, we must develop a loving, trusting relationship with our Heavenly Father which may be extremely difficult for those who have never known what it is to love and trust. Those in this position must just take one small step and say to God in their heart “I want to learn to love and trust you - please help me.” He will move to answer, because that heart cry from one of His children is all He needs. He is the only one who can change emotions and attitudes and mend damaged relationships and broken hearts (Luke 4:18).

Once this relationship with Him is established we can confidently go to Him and pour out our problems to Him, knowing that He will hear and answer (1 John 5:14-15). It will not be long before any child of God willing to trust Him in this way will begin to sense the Holy Spirit at work on his heart. He will take the heart that has been turned to stone by the abusive childhood he has suffered and begin His wonderful saving work of turning that heart into one of flesh and feeling (Ezekiel 36:26).

The next step is to be willing to forgive. This again will seem to be utterly impossible, especially for those who have suffered the worst kind of abuse, but with God ALL things are possible (Mark 10:27). Bitterness will have sunk into the souls of these tragic victims like iron, yet there is nothing the Holy Spirit cannot soften if the person concerned is willing. All that is necessary is to daily bring the situation before the Father of all mercies and talk to Him about how, from a human viewpoint, it is impossible that such wicked behavior, particularly from parents that were entrusted to love and nurture us as children, could ever be forgiven.

There is no need to be afraid to admit to God a total inability to forgive because it seems to us to come under the heading of sin. It is true that unforgiveness is sin, but that is only deliberate unforgiveness, where we have set our hearts like flint and vowed that never again will we ever consider forgiveness for those who have hurt us so badly. A child of God going to his Father for help with something he cannot do for himself will find not an angry, threatening God with a big stick waiting for him, but a Father who has only a heart full of overwhelming love, compassion, mercy and a desire to help.

Once the Holy Spirit has gently and tenderly begun His healing work on us, we will find ourselves looking at our parents in a different light. Perhaps the Spirit may reveal that the parents concerned, or at least one of them, were treated the same way themselves in childhood and either have no idea of what they have done to us emotionally, or were themselves neglected and beaten and their treatment of us was the outlet of a tremendous buildup of anger. Even if there was no reason behind their behavior and their treatment was simply an outlet for their pleasure in cruelty to helpless victims, God requires that we go to Him for help to forgive so that our own souls and spirits will not become gradually poisoned and twisted by the root of bitterness that unforgiveness produces, which will sink itself deeper and deeper into our hearts and minds as time goes on.

There are incredible testimonies from those who suffered unbelievable cruelty and lack of love at their parents' hands and yet—having learned to depend utterly on the mercy and strength of Almighty God—they have gradually found healing for their hearts and spirits and forgiveness and a loving attitude towards their parents. In releasing their parents to God in this way, these parents also began to change and the glorious ending to the story was a loving family happily united together under God. Ephesians 6:2-3 tells us, "Honor your father and mother - which is the first commandment with a promise - that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth."

Recommended Resource: The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness by John MacArthur.

Related Topics:

What does it mean to honor my father and mother?

How do you balance leave and cleave with honoring your parents?

What does it mean to leave and cleave?

What does the Bible say about caring for our old parents?

Dealing with a mother-in-law...?

Return to:

Questions about Family and Parenting

Return to: Home

How do we honor an abusive parent?