When I Learned to Honor my Parents

by J. R. Cuevas

As I packed up my tiny white Hyundai Accent with the last of my belongings the evening of September 5, 2003, I told my mother that it was time for me to go. We had been switching gears back and forth that evening between loading my car and watching the U.S. Open semifinals. But the drive from Las Vegas to San Diego would be close to five hours long, and it was already a few minutes passed eight. Mama knew just how excited I was to be starting college, so she didn’t delay. She simply asked if I wanted to take a picture with my dog, Shadow—who I would be leaving behind with her—before hitting the road. I obliged, not thinking much about anything else except for which CDs I was going to play in the car to entertain myself during the boring evening desert trek.

Then, it happened. I didn’t think it would, but it did. Mama started to cry. She was a single mother who worked two jobs to support her children and was tough as nails emotionally, but this time was different. There was a pain, a crumpling in her face that suggested something different about the emotions that she was experiencing at that very moment. I stood there—stunned and scowling. Mama never demanded hugs, kisses, or “I love you” salutations from her children— particularly not from me, the most stoic of the bunch. I reached over anyway and embraced her, assuring her that I would be “ok” and that I would call her as soon as I reached San Diego. But she continued to cry.

I quickly got into the front seat of my car, shut the door, backed out of the driveway, waved goodbye…and started to sob. Alone in my car, finally on my way to college, I wept audibly for the next two hours. All I remember thinking was, “I wish I could turn back time ten years, so that I could be her little boy again and she could be my mom again.” I thought that the beginning of college would mark the end of the parent-child relationship chapter of my life.

After all, I was now an adult—no longer under the financial provision of my mother, and having not seen or spoken to my father in six years. Little did I realize that leaving home and starting my adult life would, ironically, mark the beginning of what has been a long journey of learning to honor my parents (yes, both of them).

Exactly twenty days after I left home for college, I was saved and became a follower of Jesus Christ. From that day, the seed of the Word was implanted in me and has continued to grow. As it grew, it has changed my perspective on honoring my parents. More specifically, it has changed my perspective and practices with how I should honor my parents as an adult.

I’m thirty-six now—myself the head of my own household and father of two young children. I take charge of life decisions for myself and my family. Today, my parents never nag, never demand, rarely request, and rarely—if ever—give their opinions as to what I ought to be doing with my life. I see my mother, at most, about three times a year, and my father once every year-and-a-half or so (purely for logistic reasons; he lives in Asia).

But by the grace of God, my relationship with them has been preserved through the thunderstorms of our crazy lives. And, though I’m no longer a child, I’m still their son. I still refer to them as Pa and Ma—not as Vicente and Emecita. And with that comes the biblical and binding command to honor them. Yes, even when they never demand to be honored, and even when they restrained themselves from rebuking me during those numerous times that I had dishonored them.

That fifth commandment—the first of the ones that directly address human relationships—is unique among the Decalogue (Exod 20:1-17) in that obedience to the specific command takes on a different expression depending on a person’s age. The call to honor one’s parents looks different for a ten-year old and a twenty-five year old.

Part of the problem is that many cultural traditions equate honoring to obedience. But while obedience is an expression of honor ascribed (and a mandated one for children), the two are not synonymous. Consider, for instance, that the Scriptures call a man to honor his wife, but not to submit to her as authority (1 Pet 3:7). It also calls the church to honor widows, but doesn’t say anything about widows ruling the church (1 Tim 5:3). And it also calls for fathers to manage their children with dignity (or honor), but not to obey their children (1 Tim 3:4). So also does God call us to honor all members of the church, but not necessarily to obey all (1 Cor 12:23).

Here’s where some morphology may be helpful. Having looked up the original Greek and Hebrew words used in Exodus 20:12 and Ephesians 6:2, the verb “to honor” literally means to ascribe value. To honor someone then, would mean to treat someone with a sense of “weightiness.” It implies giving someone the care, love, esteem, and respect that their value demands.

But honoring is more than a duty; it is a disposition of the heart from which particular actions flow out. Jesus makes it clear that it is possible to honor someone with your lips, but to dishonor him with your heart (Matt 15:8). Surely, then, to honor one’s parents encompasses more than whether or not you obey them or defer to their wishes and desires. It has to do with how much you truly value them from within.

As mentioned earlier, the expression of honoring changes as one transitions from childhood to adulthood. Children living under the provision of their parents are mandated to obey their parents (unless, of course, they are being asked to sin). Adults, on the other hand, are not required by Scripture to obey their children.

I know that this may rub some the wrong way, but I do believe that the Scriptures are clear that adults are no longer under the authority of their parents and are expected to take full responsibility for their actions, decisions, and ambitions (cf. Num 32:11; 1 Cor 7:39; Mark 1:20; John 9:21; and more). This includes decisions from where they go to college, what they choose to study, what career path they take, who they decide to marry, what they choose to name their children, where they decide to live, and where they choose to spend Christmas and Thanksgiving. (I don’t have the space to expound on this issue of holidays, but here’s a good interview with Jim Newheiser.)

Personally, I’ve had to think long and hard about this from a biblical perspective due to some life circumstances that my wife and I had to endure, but that’s for another story. But all to say, the mandate to obey one’s parents is a temporal command that no longer binds those who have crossed over into adulthood. Generally speaking, this move into adulthood coincides with the the time when the adult child is able to provide for himself or herself.

Understanding the difference between honoring and obeying is crucial mainly because of a presently existing familial paradox—that there are many young adults who both obey and dishonor their parents. I’ve seen it all too often. I’ve watched young men and women “of age” submit to all of their parents’ wishes and expectations in just about every area of life. Yet, these same people defame their parents behind their back—belittling them if they’re “old-fashioned” and “unreasonable,” and sometimes even “dumb.” I’ve heard them speak of their believing parents as “immature Christians who need to grow,” as nagging and annoying, as hypocrites, and more. They follow instructions, but not without a good heated argument with hurls of insults and door-slamming. They outwardly obeyed their parents as if they were God, but talked about them as if they were idiots if not devils.

Conversely, I’ve also witnessed many (and praise God for them) who, once they reach the age of adulthood, have learned to go against their parents’ wishes on many significant issues—particularly larger decisions—but who have continued to honor them in the process. These are the saints who speak of their parents with high esteem, who treat them as if they were the most wonderful and important people in the world apart from their own spouses and children. These are the saints who, though they make their own decisions, truly value their parents’ counsel and wisdom and refrain from arguing—even if they choose to go against it. These are the ones who do all they can to protect their parents’ reputation, take into due consideration their parents’ emotions, and are more than conscious of providing for their parents’ physical needs.

From the latter, you’ll see that honoring parents takes the form of listening to them when they give suggestions rather than arguing back when you don’t like what they say. It means showing understanding and compassion when they struggle with having difficult days. It means picking restaurants that you know suit their likings and preferences (even if they insist on you choosing). It means valuing the wisdom they offer, rather than insisting that they “don’t know what it’s like” (see Moses’ response to Jethro in Exod 18:17-27). It means respecting the values they have for the home and home preferences. It means helping them vacuum the house when you know that they’re tired (if you still live with them) rather than going straight to your room or plopping in front of the TV.

It means speaking highly of them in front of your friends. It means thanking them for all that they do for you—from paying for your education to adding cheese to your spaghetti. It means teaching your own children how to value the presence of their grandparents more than they do their school friends and video games (Prov 17:6). It means showing consideration (even when you don’t agree and won’t submit) when they’re having a hard time with a life decision you are on the brink of making. It means refusing to retaliate when they criticize or insult you, but rather returning a blessing instead. It means refusing to hold their wrongdoings against them, but covering whatever multitude of sins they committed with love.

It means providing for them monetarily and financially when they get to the age that they can no longer do so for themselves (cf 1 Tim 5:8). And it means that, though we as adults must have boundaries, we treat them so that they always feel welcome into our homes and our lives rather than despising them in their old age (cf Prov 23:22).

Honoring your parents means doing all of these things for them until the day they die.

Like I said, leaving home for college marked the beginning of my journey of learning to honor my parents. Up until that point, I honestly never thought about it much. But post-salvation, I realized just how much I, unknowingly, had disrespected them—even if I hadn’t intended to. From my sharp remarks; to disregarding when they would request for me to spend vacations with them; to my annoyed demeanor when I was asked for favors; to my barking back when they’d give advice about school. I was convicted by the Spirit of what had been a historically dishonoring heart attitude towards two of life’s most precious jewels. I have since vowed to change, and have been working hard year after to year to show them the honor that the Lord commands (and because I realize that they actually do know what they’re talking about!)

How can I not, when I remembered the Savior Himself—in His last, dying breaths while absorbing the wrath of God on the cross for our sins—calling out to His mother to ensure that she would have a place to live in her old age?

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