Blog, Healing, Parenting, Spiritual Formation

When Honoring Your Parents Gets Complicated

July 9, 2015

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We tend to view the commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” (Exodus 20:12) as being intended for children, but the primary audience here is adults caring for aging parents.

Providing loving care certainly falls under the category of honoring, right? Sounds pretty simple. Mom or dad need help —we should help. Then why is it that many of us struggle less with helping complete strangers than we do our parents?

Because there are wounds.

Muddy Waters

Walking out this commandment becomes complicated when the relationship with our parents is strained or broken. We see our parent’s failures as we emerge into adulthood. Things we didn’t notice as children, things we couldn’t have made sense of, now become a source of inner turmoil. Often we’re still grappling with unresolved issues —asking questions like, “How could she have?” or “How could he not have?” well into adulthood.

It can feel like a complicated layer of confusion and guilt as we struggle with the tension of honoring our parents while acknowledging their brokenness.

When it’s Personal

It was my mother.

I went through a period a few years ago when I started to deconstruct my childhood and judge my mother for her failings.

Withheld affection. Isolation. Words.

At first, I tried to ignore it. “Nothing good comes from digging up the past.” But I started to connect some dots between present struggles and childhood deficits. It’s sort of like the saying, “Once you know some things, you can’t un-know them.”

The pain was there, and something needed to happen if the layers were going to stop piling up. Realization. Judgment. Detachment.

For a while I kept the relationship between us mostly surface, but that wasn’t the answer. Detachment was just a temporary detour from the pain. The only true solution was to forgive my mother while also receiving forgiveness for my own judgments.

This required God’s grace.

Empathy

The truth is, my mother did an incredible job in light her own upbringing. My childhood was nothing like hers. There were 11 or 12 spouses between her biological parents and she didn’t spend much time with any of them. She was treated as a nuisance and grew up fending for herself. She met my dad at a bar and the news of my existence came as quite the surprise. Throughout my childhood, my mother sacrificed almost everything to give my brother and I what she never had growing up. Her gifts weren’t time and affection, but rather opportunities and possessions. No one had ever loved her. No one taught her to love. But what she had to give, she gave generously.

Forgiveness (charisomai) is a form of grace (charis), and when grace takes hold of our hearts, empathy is a natural result.

Forgiveness was a lengthy process for both of us that included dusting off painful memories, acknowledging truth, repenting and expressing sorrow, and connecting with suppressed grief. It wasn’t fun or easy, but it was well worth the pain because it restored our relationship. We couldn’t believe the difference once we cleared out the minefield.

Restoration

Forgiveness doesn’t always lead to restoration. Restoration requires a degree of humility to be able to listen well, put another above oneself, and extend grace. The great news is that forgiveness doesn’t require restoration. You can choose to forgive as an act of your will and allow God to fill you with His grace and heal the effects of sin.

But restoration is worth the risk of failure whenever it’s possible. My mom and I had a pretty dismal track record with conflict resolution. Healing family relationships is tricky because of the lengthy history involved and patterns and roles that become so deeply ingrained in us. It’s easier to tip toe around a minefield than risk detonating one in an attempt to clear the field.

What my mother and I found however, was that God used the conflict to grow us. Our default tendency is to ignore the past and/or to judge our parents harshly for their shortcomings. For us, risking the pain of conflict was well worth the tremendous healing that awaited us on the other side.

Recently, one of our mentors held a public tribute for her aging father. She gathered family members and friends for a living eulogy. It made me think of how I’m going to honor my parents in the days ahead. Honor holds several dimensions, but one of them is certainly blessing.

What would it take for you to bless your parents? How will you choose to honor them? If you haven’t done it yet, a great place to start is a forgiveness process where you learn to neither minimize childhood pain nor judge your parents for their shortcomings. And if there’s the slightest chance for restoration, it’s worth the risk.

This is my tribute to my mother,

“You decided early on to protect us from the brokenness in our family legacy. We were going to thrive in ways you were never able to. You made sure of it. You were our first line of defense, and the coach who constantly called out our best. You never stopped fighting for us. We never knew a day when we felt what you felt most days as a child, ‘I have to fend for myself.’ We were always able to risk because we knew you and dad built a home that would always catch us.

The more clearly I see the past, the more grateful I am for you. You have been refined in the fire like gold and we are the beneficiaries. A Liberian peace activist once defined Ubuntu as the recognition that “I am who I am because of who we are.” You’ve changed our family legacy into a story of redemptive grace where God’s love is made visible. And for who you are, not just what you’ve done, we honor you!”

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