The holiday season is one in which happy families get together to eat lovely meals and have laughter-filled conversations followed by games of charades or meaningful talks around a fireplace – or at least that’s how Hallmark portrays the holidays. For many of us, however, the holiday season is one in which we face a very difficult problem. As a pastor, I’ve had many young people or young parents ask the following questions in different ways:

“They’re alcoholics… I just don’t want my kids around them in the holidays because they’re always drunk.” … “My father curses so much and even throws out racial slurs and comments that I just can’t stand to be around.” … “Mom seems to always think she has to bring up some way that my wife is ruining our lives. I just can’t let her disrespect my wife that way.”

To many, this probably doesn’t seem like a hard decision to be made. Still, it is invariably followed by something uniquely Christian to worry about: “But I know the Bible says I should honor my father and mother… So, I don’t know what to do.”

Does God Expect Us to Honor Our Parents?

There’s simply no confusion on the matter that God expects us to honor our parents. Exodus 20:12 sets the foundation (and that would really be enough), but it is also affirmed by Christ no fewer than five times (Matthew 15:4; 19:19; Mark 7:10; 10:19; Luke 18:20) and is again affirmed by Paul in Ephesians 6:2. So, yes, we are expected to honor our parents.

Why Should They Get Honor?

One question that perhaps doesn’t occur to many people is why they should be honored. We generally honor someone who has done something good (or something honorable, we might say). So, it follows that if my parents aren’t “honorable,” then I wouldn’t have to honor them! This is where the doubt begins to creep in.

But the Bible doesn’t set it up that way. Honor is not given because it is earned. For example, 1 Peter 3:7 tells husbands to show honor to their wives – but the weakness of the wife is given as a reason to honor her. Rather than saying, “Honor your wives because they are so very, very strong” Peter says to honor your wife because she is weak.

Now, many of us have weak parents. Losing one’s temper (being abusive or saying hurtful and destructive things), is a sin and a manifestation of weak self-control (one of the fruits of the Spirit; Gal. 5:22-23). And yet, the Bible says that we should honor people even in their sinful weakness. Why? Because they’re not the only weak ones! 2 Timothy 2:20-21 says that even in us as Christians, we have some things in us that are dishonorable that we are called to work on. We all have our own weaknesses that Christ is sanctifying in us.

Because we are all weak and bear some dishonorable traits, Peter can say in 1 Peter 2:17, “Honor everyone.” Even the weak? Yes. Even the evil (like the Emperor Nero)? Yes. Even them.

What Does It Mean To “Honor” Someone?

So, if our dishonorable parents are still deserving of honor (as all people are), then what is God expecting us to do? What does it mean to “honor” them? Do we ignore their flaws and throw them a party? Certainly not.

Instead, the Bible describes “honor” as a behavior. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4 says that it is an aspect of sanctification for a man to “control his own body in holiness and honor.” (ESV) In that context, controlling ourselves is an act of honoring God. But what would honoring a parent look like? Well, look at a couple of the passages we have already quoted.

2 Timothy 2:21 calls us to make ourselves fit for honorable use, and 2 Tim. 2:22-25 describes what honorable use looks like: “Flee youthful passions… pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace… have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies… The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents in gentleness.” Why would we act these ways? Because, as it says in verses 25-26, “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil….”

Notice that none of this entails confirming someone in their sin or even accepting the danger they present to you or your family. It is personal holiness. Specifically as it relates to families, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies… not quarrelsome…” Not prodding them with subjects you know they will explode at (politics probably being a major one) is one way to honor them. “Correcting his opponents with gentleness.” Another way to honor them is not being rude or overly aggressive and argumentative when a difference of opinion arises. And remember, you’re doing all this so that they may become different by the work of God!

Another passage is 1 Peter 3:8, regarding how a man honors his wife even when she is weak. “Have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, a humble mind. DO not repay evil for evil, nor reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called.” Some of us may have such bad relationships that we no longer see or talk to our parents. How can we honor them? Don’t talk down about them. Don’t “revile them” repaying their “evil for evil.” That is one form of honoring a dishonorable parent.

One final passage, Romans 12:9-21. I hope you’ll read this passage to avoid a lengthy block-quote. In verse 10, Paul commends us to “outdo one another in showing honor.” And he describes some ways to do that. In verse 9 he says to “hold fast to what is good” – try to talk about the good times instead of the bad ones when it comes to your parents. Verse 12, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” – be patient and never give up hope, always praying for your parents. Verse 16, “Live in harmony with one another… never be wise in your own sight” – make an effort not to fight and be aware that you might be wrong. Verses 17-19, “Repay no one evil for evil… never avenge yourselves” – refuse to be mean back. Refuse to be ugly back. Verses 20-21, “If your enemy is hungry feed him… do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Be nice even when they are not.

How do we honor dishonorable parents? By being an honorable person ourselves. If it is towards them, then great – God may change them by our honoring them. Suppose our relationship is broken, and we no longer have a connection. In that case, we must do our best to live honorably anyway for the glory of God. 1 Peter 2:12 says, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

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