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How do I honor a toxic parent?

Michelle from Middle writes, “I know that the Bible says that I am supposed to honor my mother and father, but how do I do this if one of my parents is toxic, emotionally unavailable and distant?”

Before I begin and respond to this question, I want to make something clear. Honoring your parents is not synonymous with obeying your parents. Exodus 20:12 commands us to honor our parents, and Ephesians 6:1 says for children to obey them, but the word for children there is just that - youths under a parent’s home and provision. There comes a time when you need to step out from under your parent’s authority - especially in unsafe circumstances or situations where you are being led into what is dishonoring to God. I believe that you can honor your parents, and even forgive them for prior hurt, without subjecting yourself to their authority. In a truly toxic environment, where you are the prey, honor your parents by breaking the cycle of abuse.

In 1 Peter 2:13-17, the Apostle Peter, who walked with Christ wrote, “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

Peter explains that we must honor the emperor, the governor, everyone (including parents). What makes this such a striking statement is that Peter is not writing under a pleasant regime, but under the boot of an empire that despised this new movement of Christianity. Peter is writing to encourage those who are being persecuted for their faith, suffering great evil at the hands of evil men. Still, he says to honor them. Indeed, to honor everyone.

Respecting people that you like and look up to is simple. Honoring people who are abusive or cruel seems impossible, which is why I believe that you need the grace of God in order to do it. In the case of an abusive parent, you must begin by realizing that your parent is an inaccurate reflection of your heavenly Father. Many people make the mistake of taking their parent’s inadequacies or failures and then projecting them onto God. The thought process goes something like this: “If my dad was distant, God is distant. If my mom was always waiting to smack me with the ruler, God must be the same way.”

On the contrary, the Bible teaches us that God desires to lead us into eternal joy and that he desires to give us good gifts. He is called the Father to the fatherless and the defender of the weak. The only way that you can be free from a distant, borderline abusive parent - free enough to honor them - is by drawing your joy and identity from the deep well of the love that your heavenly Father has for you. He is your parent. Your earthly parents will never compare or live up to what you need or want. Many people don’t come to grips with this and live their entire lives (even after their parents have passed away) trying to earn an abusive parent’s love.

Once you grasp the reality of who God is, I believe that the anger and frustration melts into pity and mercy for those who are the offending parties. They are broken people in need of hope - something that as a pastor I believe can only be found through the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As for you, however, if you have tasted the forgiveness of Christ, tasted his love, tasted his tenderness, then you must choose to eagerly show it to others, not because they deserve it, but because you want to be like Him. Drawing your identity from God frees you to love like that.

Practically speaking, how do you honor a distant parent? As you draw your love and identity from God’s love for you, you can demonstrate love your parents where they are. When the fiery jabs of insults come, you can ignore it because you know that God’s opinion is the one that matters. When they don’t respond to phone calls, you can rejoice that your God will never abandon you. You can call them regularly and remind them that they are loved by you and by God. You can write to them weekly even if they never respond. You can talk to God about them even if they won’t let you talk to them. All of the yearning for love, acceptance, and connection that you don’t get from your parents must be found in God. Then, and only then, will you truly be empowered to honor a borderline abusive parent. And, as you do, you reflect a loving God to them - one who has the power to change their hearts from the inside out.