I can’t remember the date, but I remember the moment, the feeling when I realized God was not my parents, and my parents weren’t God.
Up until that point, I had such bitterness, confusion, and turmoil in my day-to-day. I carried the hurt and tension between my parents and me. It’s not that I have bad parents. I wasn’t physically abused, neglected, or anything observers would say make for bad parents. (If you’re reading this, mom and dad, I am thankful for your role in my life and I love you, probably now more than ever!) But the painful moments preceded my interactions with them. I wanted to honor and respect them. However, I had a difficult time doing so when behaviors or interactions seemed… wrong. Honoring my parents meant submitting and accepting their parenting as right and just all the time. Right?
Then an argument would happen. I would feel invalidated. Or I would hear a comment regarding my character and worth. Or I would see a behavior or interaction with another person that was sinful, based in selfishness.
But I had to accept it, because God commanded us to honor our father and mother. When I wouldn’t accept it and experienced conflict with them, I grew frustrated. My thought process went something like this: “What my parents just did was wrong. It just was, by any standard. But they were my parents, so they were right, because they were in authority over me, and if I am calling them wrong, I am calling God wrong, right?”
Even after leaving my parents’ house, I still felt the tension, because I couldn’t approach God. He felt unjust. I attributed the sins of my parents to my Heavenly Father. God didn’t care unless it was important or uncompromised praise. I shouldn’t be vulnerable because it was a burden that I needed to deal with myself. I was lucky that my basic needs were met; I shouldn’t ask for more.
When I realized that God was not my parents and my parents weren’t God, this freed and healed me. It even healed my relationship to my parents. Most importantly, it healed my most important relationship: the one I have with God.
Parents Don’t Form God
The first people that we encounter and have regular reactions with after birth are our parents. Even if we were abandoned by our parents at birth or given up for adoption, we have a relationship with them that is defined by their absence. (And then foster care or adoption play a significant role as well…) Our relationship with them significantly influences our perception of social and emotional reality. We learn from them how to interact with others, how to respond to ups and downs, how to process the world around us. And when we are introduced to God, we look to our parents for how to perceive and interact with God.
Naturally, based on these perceptions and interactions, and the fact that our parents have authority over us similar to the ways God does (He does refer to Himself as our Father) (Galatians 3:26; Psalm 103:13), we will see God as an extension of our parents. Our parents, in a way, form God in our minds. Are our parents quiet, of few words, and affectionate? God will most likely be seen that way in His personhood. Are our parents quick with discipline, critical, and uninterested in our victories? God will probably be seen as distant and lacking in grace.
Parents do have a lot of responsibility in introducing us to God. (Proverbs 22:6; Ephesians 6:4) I think one of the most powerful things they can do is teach their children this: God is His own person, a parent that may have some similarities to them, but is ultimately far above and separate from their humanity in His character.
But as independent people ourselves, we need to take responsibility for our spiritual perspective and realize this: parents may form our perceptions of God, but they do not and cannot form God Himself. It is on us to test what our parents imply or say about God against the truth of who God Himself is. Because here’s the thing: sometimes your parents are simply wrong. And you can’t be bitter toward God for what He isn’t, nor can you love a false impression of Him. In either circumstance, you will be living in a lie.
[bctt tweet=”We need to take responsibility for our spiritual perspective and realize this: parents may form our perceptions of God, but they do not and cannot form God Himself.” username=”helloemilyurban”]
The person that God is stands independent from any indoctrination that we may have received from those He has placed in our lives as our parents. And there is a freedom here, once we come to this realization: we are not trapped in this parental impression of God. We can seek to find out what our Heavenly Father truly is like.
God Forms Parents
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
Our parents were once children, too. Just like we are to them. They endured the same wrestlings of discerning where their parental authority ends and God’s authority begins, where the character of their parents are testaments to truth and where they are fallen.
Your parents had parents, and their parents had parents, and so on and so on. Why is this important? Because it’s important to realize that they are carrying the burdens of the generations behind them. When we stop and consider it, hardly anyone is qualified to be a parent. Certainly, there are healthy and good parents, but none are perfect or without the ways they are broken.
We are quick to forget that, just like us, our parents are individual souls in need of Jesus, just as needy as we are, walking the same road of sanctification that we walk, created from dust just as we are. Taking this reality to heart allows us to give our parents so much more grace and even minister the beauty of Christ to them (see I Timothy 4:12!). Our parents are put in authority over us, but they are imperfect authorities, and we need to acknowledge this, not in order to hold it over them, but to release that expectation of infallibility from them.
We can also then freely forgive them, even without an apology. Even if our parents claim infallibility, whether explicitly or implicitly through withholding apologies, we stand on the truth that they are fallen, just as we are, and we can extend to them the grace that we are so desperately in need of ourselves.
Honor Your Father and Mother
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’”
If not a blind obedience, what does honoring our mother and father look like?
Let’s explore a few practical ways and then look at the heart of parent-honoring children.
Do Not Slander Them
This is one I see all too often, especially with the prevalence of social media. Rants about how terrible our parents are has been normalized. It isn’t even always from a valid reason – they were sometimes inconvenienced by their parents, or had conflicting desires from their parents’ instruction. Taking that unfiltered frustration to a listening ear, or an online audience who will give unquestioning support, is incredibly dishonoring to your parents. God does not take this lightly.
If one curses his father or his mother, his lamp will be put out in utter darkness.
The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures.
This is not to say, “Do not talk about when your parents wrong you,” or even “Do not talk about when you have conflict with your parents.” Surely it is better to share burdens with each other and to seek insight for how to deal with inner turmoil. What this does mean, though, is to use discernment with sharing our troubles, being cautious not to allow bitterness or judgment to take hold as we speak, and to present the problem without embellishment. It also means being discerning with whom we choose to share. Not “yes-man” friends, and not anyone who will listen, but wise, caring, truthful people who will point us to genuine healing.
This one I will precede with a disclaimer. I am well aware that there are circumstances where parents had to be left behind due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Serving your parents – being there, ready to give of your time and resources and love – is difficult, if not impossible and ill-advised, in these circumstances. For those of you in this situation, you have left to you the greatest service one can provide, which I will explore next.
For those who are in contact with their parents, find ways to honor them by serving them. This could mean practical things like cleaning their house and doing yard work, or unquantifiable things like inviting them out to dinner, sharing in an activity, or just talking about their lives (they are people with interests and routines, after all).
If your parents come to a place where they cannot care for themselves, you, as a believer, can look different from the world by caring for them (I Timothy 5:8).
Give Them to God
Before completing this post, I asked a friend of mine for his insight on honoring dishonorable parents. He had experienced a tumultuous relationship with his parents growing up, and only in adulthood has begun to grasp loving his father and seen healing in their relationship.
“How do you honor your father and mother when they are dishonorable?” I asked.
He sat deep in thought for a moment, then looked at me with firm, but gracious eyes as he delivered his answer. “Give them up to God.”
“Give them up to God,” he repeated. “And keep giving them to Him, over and over, because there is nothing you can do to change them. Even though it hurts and you can’t see an end in sight, all you can do is bring it before the Lord and rest in His grace for them and for you.”
“So you would say, honor your parents by not expecting them to be God…”
“… and honor them by giving them up to God.”
Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
I Peter 5:6-7
No matter your relationship to your parents, you can give them this great honor and service: give them the Lord by placing them in His mighty hands. Entrust those who are not God (your parents and yourself in your pain) to the One who is, the One who resurrects the dead into new life.