We know that parents should love their children; to provide for their needs; to raise them with godly instruction; to demonstrate for them what the loving Father-heart of God is like. When we see a parent act in an unloving way toward their own children, we become disgusted and our desire to protect that child explodes within our own hearts. We think of the special place in hell that is reserved for those unloving, cruel parents (Matthew 18; Mark 9; Luke 17).
Now that we agree on the importance of parents loving their children, let’s consider how much GREATER the importance of adult children to have respect for their own parents. I’ll address the adults who are reading this, because we as adults need to have a clear understanding of the importance that God places upon our genuine respect for our parents.
The 10 Commandments (Exodus 20) are considered the pinnacle of all of God’s instructions and commands for us. The first 4 Commandments teach about our relationship with God, and the last 6 Commandments instruct us on our relationships with people. It is to these two distinctions in the 10 Commandments that Christ refers when He answered the question, “Which of the commandments is the greatest?”
“Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.
And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.””
~ Matthew 22:37-40
The very first commandment related to interpersonal relationships (surprisingly) is not in regard to parents loving their children (which does come later as a subordinate command of the 10 Commandments), but is in regard to children respecting their parents!
Let’s face it, we grow up from infancy into childhood, from childhood into teenager, from teenager to being a young adult, and from being a young adult to a mature adult. However, we are throughout our lives the children of our parents. The 5th Commandment applies to us throughout our lifetime, even beyond the eventual death of our parents.
The command to respect our parents is fairly easy to fulfill when we have had good parents. It is easy to reciprocate the love that has been received and experienced in the first decades of our lives.
But, what if you have had a horrible life experience because one or both of your parents have been unloving, cruel, and abusive emotionally, physically, or sexually? What if there was nothing about their parenthood that is worth a single penny of positive value? What if they lived out a cruel parenthood that has subsequently reserved for them that special place in hell for those who have been cruel to children (assuming they do not turn to Christ before their death)?
The word “respect” literally means “to invert.” That is, the adult child should invert their standing over their unloving parent and become a genuine servant that honors them.
This respect does not mean that you deny what your unloving, cruel parents might have done in the past. It does not deny they may still be manipulative, self-centered liers who have never admitted to their cruelty, much less sought your forgiveness. They may still be blamers of others, maybe even blame you for anything that happened (or still happens).
Respect does not mean that we surrender for more physical abuse. We can and should defend ourselves (and our own children, their grandchildren) from any future harm.
But, our respect should come from the heart, and sometimes it’s from a broken and empty heart. They may never change. They may never know the forgiveness of Christ… until you show them your own forgiveness. Respect means that we forgive them while maintaining a solid and centered stance in our own lives.
Too often, adults of an abusive childhood confuse forgiveness and respect with voluntary surrender to being abused again. In that emotionally-charged state, it is an easy confusion to have. But, a child of God whose heart is set upon Christ will seek the help of God to have a calmed spirit and a clear mind so they can truly—from the heart—fulfill the 5th Commandment, the first of the interpersonal relationship commandments.
I know it can be difficult. Though I have had a wonderful childhood and have not had to struggle at all with respecting my parents in my adult years, I have known and worked closely with far too many adult children whose childhood involved parental abuse, lovelessness, and abandonment. Please, for the sake of your own peace of mind and your own right standing with God, seek the Lord’s help in this area of your life. Who knows just how much good will flow from your own journey for the healing of many?
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