Not all parents are honorable. In fact, some are downright shameful and abusive, leaving deep wounds that can drastically affect their children’s emotional and mental well-being. In those cases, does God’s command to honor one’s mother and father still apply? Where do healthy boundaries fit in? Is it possible to show honor and still protect oneself from further abuse?
These are questions with no easy answers, but Scripture does offer some guidelines that can help adult children of dishonorable parents navigate this area in a way that honors Christ, prohibits further abuse, and encourages emotional and spiritual freedom.
A freedom might come through pain as we rely on Christ and seek to surrender to His will. This journey becomes easier when we’re grounded in who we are in Christ. God loves us, deeply and always. He sees us. He knows our every thought, our deepest fears, and our most devastating hurts. He who was beaten, mocked, and betrayed to the point of death understands. More than that, He’s for us. Scripture tells us He’s working out all things, even the hard and painful, for our good. (Romans 8:28).
This means our obedience has a purpose, and that purpose isn’t to harm us but instead to grow and free us; to make us more like Jesus, the One who showed us incredible honor when we were completely dishonorable, and in doing so, set a standard for us to follow.
When Christ hung on the cross, after experiencing incomprehensible abuse to the point He was beaten beyond recognition, He looked down upon His abusers and, praying on their behalf, said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
How could He say that? Were the Romans somehow ignorant of their actions as they drove nails into Christ’s tender flesh? Were those who sneered and mocked Him not accountable for what they’d done?
Clearly, that’s not the case. Scripture tells us that God is just and will one day right all wrongs. He’s our avenger (Romans 12:19) and the “lifter of [our] heads” (Psalm 3:3). The Father to the orphan who, when earthly parents abandon us, says, “I will not forget you. Look, I have inscribed your name on the palms of My hands” (Isaiah 49:15b-16a, HCSB).
This is the God who calls us, without qualification, to honor our parents (Matthew 15:4), and He does so with love and empathy.
God gets it. Not only does He understand us as well as our pain, but He’s also able to see the entire situation, evident in Jesus’ final words as He hung on the cross. His prayer reveals an eternal perspective that recognizes the root evil, abuse, and dishonor. Apart from Him, the Bible tells us mankind is enslaved and deceived. This doesn’t excuse abusive behavior, but it does put it into context.
Honor comes when we learn to view the situation through a Christ-centered lens.
Were our parents abused? Are they mentally ill? Are they simply living far from God and displaying behavior consistent with that?
Cindy*, an adult child of abandonment, wrestled with these questions for years. She wanted to obey God’s command to honor her mother, but didn’t know how to deal with the continual pain she caused. She also needed to guard her children, as well as herself, from further hurt. Through prayer, she came to realize her mother was mentally ill and would never be the parent she wanted or needed. Though this understanding didn’t erase her pain, it allowed her to move forward in peace and freedom.
“I’ve gone through periods of pulling away and when I’ve been angry for the things my mom continues to do,” Cindy said. “I’ve felt ugly, nasty, and mean in those seasons when I’ve distanced myself from her in order to protect myself and my kids.”
Eventually, God provided discernment and helped her find healing. “I finally grieved and realized she would never be who I needed. She chose not to be a mother and continues to make that choice. But she’s not a bad person. She’s just mentally ill. Though I couldn’t honor her as a mother, I realized I could honor her as someone created by God.”
Honor the individual as a person.
The Greek word translated as honor means to assign value to someone, or recognize that they have value. Each one of us, the sinful and the godly, the loving and abusive, were created in the image of God by God. (Genesis 1:26-27). This is where mankind’s value is found, and this value is immutable. Cindy realized that she could choose to honor her mother as a person, regardless of how unmaternal she was.
Honor doesn’t mean a relationship.
Honoring someone is an attitude, and not an emotion. It’s viewing the individual as a person of worth. This doesn’t necessarily imply a relationship; in fact, there are times when it’s best to set clear boundaries, perhaps even cutting off contact entirely, in order to protect oneself and their loved ones.
Setting boundaries can feel unnatural and confusing to those who have been taught to love unconditionally and sacrificially. But boundaries aren’t unkind, or unloving; on the contrary, sometimes the most loving thing a person can say to another is, “This is unhealthy, and I can’t be a part of it.” This is speaking the truth in love, and the two—truth and love—must coexist.
Honor doesn’t mean excusing the behavior.
Sin is sin. Hurt is hurt. Wrong is wrong. Honoring one’s parents doesn’t mean pretending that their behavior was okay. Though living “in truth” doesn’t necessarily mean calling them out; in fact, many times that will only make the situation worse and amplify our hurt.
There might be times when God asks us to address an issue, but we must be careful that He is truly the one leading us to do so and that we are speaking with gentleness and with an eye on restitution. If our goal is vindication, we’ve stepped out of God’s will and are attempting to take on a role specifically assigned to Him (Deuteronomy 32:35). He’s promised to avenge us and, one day, to make all things right. Resting in this truth can help free us from the bitterness that often comes from being mistreated.
Pain suffered as a child, when our identities, worldviews, and perceptions are just taking shape, can cause deep and lasting wounds because they hit us at our core. Children internalize everything; therefore, when a parent is distant or abusive, the children often assume the blame. Those wounds and beliefs take root and can persist into adulthood. To heal, we need to counter whatever false labels we’ve accepted with truth. Recognizing that we have abiding value can help us release expectations and find the healing and emotional freedom that enables us to show honor to everyone, including those who hurt us.
Millions of adult Christians who experienced abuse or neglect wrestle with God’s command to honor their parents. Though there are no easy answers, we can trust that God understands and is walking with us as we prayerfully take steps to grow and obey our Savior. He only wants what’s best for us, and He knows honoring our parents by recognizing their God-given worth can lead to peace, healing, and freedom.
*Name changed for privacy purposes.