How do you “honor father and mother” in a toxic and abusive family?

Q. How does one “honor their father and mother” in a toxic and abusive family? I’ve been abused and suffered much damage from my parents. I  feel so unsafe around them that I’ve had to put up boundaries such as never being alone with them. Neither of my parents are repentant or acknowledge that they have done anything wrong. Instead, my mother uses Jesus as a means to manipulate others and shame them for being bad Christians if they don’t do what she wants them to. How do I “honor father and mother” in this situation? It doesn’t matter to me any more that my parents won’t acknowledge their wrongdoings. I just want to love Jesus and love others. But I’m not sure what that looks like in this context.

Thank you very much for your question. During my years a pastor, I unfortunately encountered similar situations. However, out of those situations, I can offer you great encouragement. I have seen Christian women and men escape from the cycle of abuse, heal from the damage they suffered, become free from bitterness, and ultimately exhibit a gracious and loving spirit, honoring their parents from a safe distance in appropriate and healthy ways as a way of honoring God. I already hear something of that gracious spirit in your question, so I think you are on your way there yourself. Let me offer some further thoughts to help you along your way.

First, you are very wise to establish boundaries with your parents. You are not honoring them if you make yourself available to them to allow them to continue acting in a way so contrary to God’s intentions. Honoring them means recognizing who God created them to be and relating to them as those people—even if this means, for now, simply taking away an opportunity for them not to act like those people.

I hope you are getting some good counsel or reading some good books about establishing healthy interpersonal boundaries. This was not modeled for you in your family, so you will need to learn it as a new skill. I should warn you that in any unhealthy system (such as a toxic family), the person who points out that there’s a problem is considered to be the problem. So your boundary-setting resolve will likely be misunderstood and resisted, and you will be falsely accused of having other motives. But stick to it. Create a healthy space for yourself in life.

Second, you will need to forgive your parents. This will be good for your own soul and your relationship with God, since Jesus told us, “Forgive as you have been forgiven.” It will also be good for your health and peace of mind, since bitterness is a toxin that insidiously poisons anyone who hangs on to it. But this will also be good for your parents, too. When we forgive someone, we “let go” of what they’ve done to us. This actually frees them from being frozen in our minds and wills as the people who did that, and I believe it makes grace available to them to change. This is a further way of honoring your father and mother by helping them become the people God created them to be.

In terms of the practicalities of forgiveness, I invite you to read this post, which I wrote in response to a question that was similar to yours. Please consider the main points I make there: (1) Forgiving someone doesn’t mean letting them hurt you all over again; (2) Forgiveness is an act of the will that must be completed by emotional work; (3) Forgiveness is not a substitute for establishing personal boundaries; (4) Forgiveness takes one, reconciliation takes two.

Third, I hope that you have found (or can find) a loving and supporting community in which you can heal and grow into the person God created you to be. I encourage you to get counsel or read books about family systems and about abuse—including spiritual abuse, which seems to be your mother’s preferred means of control and manipulation. Recognize the people in your life who are able to see you as God sees you, and come to see yourself through their eyes. Believe what they are telling you about yourself. This is a means that the Holy Spirit will use to erase the negative voices and accusations in your head and replace them with gracious, life-giving truths.

Finally, under safe conditions, when you are ready, look for the ways God might show you in which you can “honor” your parents through practical means. It’s interesting that the only application Jesus ever made in his teaching of the commandment to honor father and mother was to care and provide for one’s parents in their old age. I have seen Christian men and women who were healed, freed from bitterness, and safely established behind healthy boundaries re-engage abusive parents in this way—putting on a 50th-anniversary celebration, for example, or seeing that repairs and maintenance were needed in the family home and arranging for this and helping to pay for it. These things were done not because of guilt and manipulation on the parents’ part, but because adult children wanted to honor their parents as a way of honoring the Lord.

I trust that these same things will be seen in your life as you come to understand more and more about your Heavenly Father’s love for you, find healing and freedom in that love, and so come to have compassion on your earthly father and mother.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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