Q. How should I treat my abusive parents?
A. First of all, I'm so sorry for your abuse. Coming from the people who were supposed to love and affirm you, it's damaging beyond words. I applaud your efforts to get to a place where you might be able to show them some honor.
When the Bible instructs us to honor our parents (in Exodus 20:12 and Ephesians 6:2, among other places), it's guiding us in a God-honoring direction. But these words were not written as a response to an abusive situation. There are times when the Bible provides instruction for specific situations, and times when it instructs through broad principles. It's important to be aware of this distinction.
For example, in 1 Timothy 5:17, the apostle Paul tells us to give double honor to those who preach and teach in the church. Honoring our religious leaders is a principle found throughout Scripture. However, Jesus often spoke critical words to the hypocritical Pharisees. He didn't apply the broad principle of giving double honor to them. Instead, he spoke to the specific situation, knowing the Pharisees weren't owed this elevated treatment. In a similar way, abusive parents aren't owed elevated treatment either.
The broad principle of honoring our parents reminds us of the important work they do. Good parents create a healthy, God-centered culture in their family. It takes a lot of love, energy, creativity, and time, and this work can shape amazing human beings. But it's also important to note that this command doesn't say, "Only honor terrific parents." No parent is perfect and most are doing the best they can. In God's economy, this effort is such a good thing it deserves great honor, especially from the people who benefit from it most-the kids. It's easy for children to take for granted and/or fail to notice the work their parents do.
Still, a lot of damage has been done in the name of obedience, by insisting that abused children ignore their pain and heap false praise on their parents. Abuse is sinful (Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Ephesians 6:4). Having said that, it's possible to acknowledge abuse and discover ways in which you're capable of showing honor to your parents. This will depend on the work you do to heal, the ability of the parent to admit the abuse, as well as the level of abuse. You need to be in Christian counseling. And the healing process might also include developing deep spiritual friendships within which you can tell your story and rebuild trust.
I've watched a number of friends work through this issue. One experienced verbal and emotional abuse that was quite scarring. I've been moved to tears watching her speak kindly and graciously to the parent who inflicted this abuse. It took her years to be able to do so, but she was determined to not let the abuse shape the rest of her life. She learned that forgiveness isn't the same thing as excusing the abuse.
I have another friend who was physically and sexually abused by a parent. The damage done was, in many ways, irreversible. While she's worked hard to forgive the past, she has limited contact with her parents. Still, I'm moved deeply when I watch her make small, honoring gestures, mostly from afar, to the parent who inflicted the abuse. She's sent holiday cards with warm words in them, and she's been able to separate and acknowledge the good qualities of the bad parent.
We're all a crazy mixture of good and bad, of fallenness and, if we've accepted Christ, redemption. Redemption is a powerful word. It's the idea that even in the midst of a world marred by sin, the strength of God's love and forgiveness is capable of allowing us to offer kindness to people who didn't show that to us. I pray God will give you a grace that surprises even you.
Nancy Ortberg is a church leadership consultant and popular speaker who lives in California with her husband, John, and their three children.
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May/June 2006, Vol. 28, No. 3, Page 38