How Do You Show Honor to a Parent that is Abusive and Non-Christian?

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

We are commanded to honor our father and our mother but how can you honor an abusive parent who is not saved? Are we still commanded to honor parents, no matter what?

Honor you Father and your Mother

Exodus 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

The first four Commandments are given to mankind to show them how they are to relate to the Creator God but the next six are given to mankind for how we should relate to one another.  Which is the first given to mankind relating to mankind? It is the Commandment to honor our father and our mother.  On this Commandment, all the following five depend. Why do I say that?  Because families are the glue that holds society together and if children are not taught to honor their parents, the following Commandments will all likely be broken.  A child that honors their father and their mother will be less likely to not steal, to commit adultery when they become adults, to lie (bear false witness), to murder, or to covet.  That is the reason I believe that God put the first Commandment given to human beings relating to human beings to be honor their parents because a godly upbringing increases the likelihood, though certainly not guaranteeing, that children will be obedient in the society in which they will live.

"... if your parents abused you, forgive them as our Heavenly Father has forgiven us..."

“… if your parents abused you, forgive them as our Heavenly Father has forgiven us…”

The Abusive Parent(s)

The most difficult thing of all in honoring parents is to honor those who were abusive.  How is this even possible?  It isn’t without the power of the Holy Spirit.  Living the Christian life is not hard…it is impossible without the power of God’s Spirit living in us, working in us, and enabling us to do anything good at all. So for unbelievers, this seems completely impossible but for Christians, we are commanded to honor our parents.  God never said to honor our parents “unless they were abusive” or “only if they are believers.”  What about when they are both unbelievers and were abusive?  For one thing, you can’t blame someone for being an unbeliever. It’s like going up to a blind man and scolding him for not seeing where he’s going.   Also, an abusive parent who isn’t saved doesn’t have access to the Holy Spirit so they have no ability to live a godly life.  This doesn’t excuse their abuse, but it makes it more likely to occur in this fallen world.  Perhaps their parents were like this.  If they were beaten as a child, the likelihood of their being an abuser greatly increases.  This doesn’t give them permission of course but it does make it more understandable.  I am not saying that this gives them an excuse for abusing their children but these types of patterns can run through certain families for generations and continue on until someone breaks that vicious cycle.  Perhaps you are that person or you have been the one that has broken that chain of dysfunction in your own family and started a new cycle.  The best thing that we can do for the abusive parent is to pray for them to come to saving faith for only the Holy Spirit can ever cause change in their heart (Prov 21:1).

How we Dishonored our Heavenly Father

To honor someone that doesn’t seem to deserve honor is one of the greatest things that we can ever do but how do we do what seems impossible, especially if the parents abused us as a child?  We must think as God thinks.  Did you realize that God loved us and died for us while we were still His natural enemies, God-haters, wicked, evil sinners, who deserved only the wrath of God (Rom 5:8. 11)?  How many of us were abusing God by sinning and dishonoring our Heavenly Father by lying, stealing, cheating, swearing, and hating others (murdering in the heart)?  Not one of us deserved to have peace with God (Rom 5:1). No, we all rightly deserved the wrath of God (John 3:36b).  There was nothing lovely about us or special about us that made God say “Wow, aren’t they precious, don’t they deserve to be saved, just look at my beloved children.” No, we were hostile toward anything that had to do with God because our natural, sinful mind is at war with Him and hated Him.  You might think that is a bit strong but remember, we were once the children of wrath (Eph 2:3).

Listen to what Paul writes about the Ephesians before they were saved and to us before we were saved:

“you were dead in the trespasses and sins  in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2:1-3). 

Read that again.  We were the children of (God’s) wrath, dead in sins, following the prince of darkness (Satan), and all sons (and daughters) of disobedience.  We were most certainly not honoring God our Father.  On the contrary, we were dishonoring Him to the utmost.

Now, think about parents who were abusive.  They too are or at least were under this same prince of darkness and as Jesus once said, they, like we, will do the works of our father the devil before being saved.  Jesus is clear about what the religious crowd was like and we too at one time: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).  Before we were saved, we can just insert our name where Jesus says “you” and “your” because that was us!

How to Honor Abusive Parents

Now if a parent is physically or sexually abusing their children, they deserve God’s wrath but more than that, they deserve to go to jail, but what happens if that happened long ago and you are now an adult?  How can you honor parents who abused you?  Once again I say; it is not possible in our human strength.  It takes the power of God to overcome our hatred for them.   We should separate the sin from the sinner and hate what they did and not hate them.   Besides, we are commanded to love our enemies and pray for those who mistreat us, even if they were our parents (Matt 5:44a) so that we may be the sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father (Matt 5:44b). God loved us and died for us while we were still dishonoring Him.  If He hadn’t, we’d still be destined for hell (Rev 20:11-15; Dan 12:2).

Also, think about this.  Are they not saved?  Think of where they will go and spend eternity…in a Christ-less, dark place with weeping and gnashing of teeth for all time.  This will never change for them. Doesn’t it make you have compassion on them?  You wouldn’t wish that on your own worst enemy would you?  I would hope not.  To honor those who don’t seem worthy of it (are we?!) we must not speak ill toward them, even though they have done evil.  We must not degrade them in front of others or in front of them but be forgiving and look for something positive that they did.  Surely you can think of something that they did for you; provided a home, food, clothing, and other things.  And there is no time limit or expiration date on honoring our parents so we must do this, even into their old age, and yes, even after they die.

Conclusion

We can never, ever repay what God has done for us.  We can never make right what our parents may have done wrong to us.  So how do we make all these wrongs right?  We don’t. Instead “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:19-21).  If you do good to them by honoring them, God will take that as honoring Him.  If we try to avenge them ourselves then we are placing ourselves in the judgment seat of God.  That is His job, not ours.  Trust God for He will make all things crooked straight and if your parents abused you, forgive them as our Heavenly Father has forgiven us and pray that they repent and confess their sin, and place their trust in Christ.  Praying for their souls is the godliest thing that you could ever do to honor your parents, even if they abused you and were not believers.  By doing that, you will be honoring your Heavenly Father and by doing so, you “may be the sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father” (Matt 5:44b).

Related reading: Honor Your Father and Mother

Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael October 6, 2014 at 10:40 am

The article speaks a lot about parents who were abusive.
What about parents who currently ate being abusive?

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Jack Wellman October 6, 2014 at 10:56 am

Thank you Michael. I know it is hard but there are no conditions to keeping this commandments. God does not qualify by writing “but not if your parents abused you” or “not if your parents are abusing you.” My concern is that your parents might not be saved. Would a Christian parent beat their child relentlessly? I wouldn’t think so. Since Jesus told us to pray for our enemies and those who despitefully abuse you we should pray for parents who are abusing their children but also, these parents are breaking the law because child abuse is illegal and should be reported. No parent has any excuse to abuse their own children. This is a criminal act, punishable by law. Pray that they might be saved because it doesn’t sound like they are! Also, my own mother who didn’t want me, handed me off to relatives but when she did take me back for a time, she abused me but I discovered that she too had been abused but even worse. So we are commanded to honor parents even when they don’t deserve it because God saved us when we were still His enemies and wicked sinners (Rom 5:8, 10) so God gave us what we didn’t deserve (called grace) and withheld what we truly had coming to us (called mercy).

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ellen November 19, 2015 at 6:46 pm

After 48 yrs of verbal aggression and control..i have finally cut her off..my mother..it stops with me..the cycle..i must protect my children..next generation..all i can do now is pray and leave her to God..no more access allowed..sadly..

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DocReits October 6, 2014 at 11:26 pm

A difficult topic Pastor Jack. I can only say “Amen!” to everything you wrote. What has convicted me the most during those times(mostly after) when I have felt un-forgiveness and resentment wrestling with my soul is Matthew 18:21-35,

“21 Then Kefa came up and said to him, “Rabbi, how often can my brother sin against me and I have to forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 “No, not seven times,” answered Yeshua, “but seventy times seven! 23 Because of this, the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared with a king who decided to settle accounts with his deputies. 24 Right away they brought forward a man who owed him many millions; 25 and since he couldn’t pay, his master ordered that he, his wife, his children and all his possessions be sold to pay the debt. 26 But the servant fell down before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 So out of pity for him, the master let him go and forgave the debt.

28 “But as that servant was leaving, he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him some tiny sum. He grabbed him and began to choke him, crying, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ 29 His fellow servant fell before him and begged, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ 30 But he refused; instead, he had him thrown in jail until he should repay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were extremely distressed; and they went and told their master everything that had taken place. 32 Then the master summoned his servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt just because you begged me to do it. 33 Shouldn’t you have had pity on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ 34 And in anger his master turned him over to the jailers for punishment until he paid back everything he owed. 35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat you, unless you each forgive your brother from your hearts.”

I have been forgiven a debt I could never repay. Jesus ask’s me to go and do likewise. Still very, very DIFFICULT (and, as you said, often humanly impossible). My spirit is helped if I can keep the forgiveness which God has showered upon me in my mind, when I face the black-hearts of my life. Maybe that will also help others.

Thank you for your constant encouragement Pastor Jack!!

DocReits

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Jack Wellman October 7, 2014 at 8:39 am

I had this convict me, even as I put this article together. I won’t go into great detail about my real father (whom I have never even seen a picture of) or my mother but yes, yes, yes, it is very difficult. I believe we are no more like God than when we love, pray for, and honor those who least deserve it (like us when God did…e.g. Rom 5:8, 10). May God continue to richly bless you Doc as you so bless me and so many others.

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Jenny May 4, 2015 at 10:07 am

I love this article, it is just so helpful like all of your articles. My four daughters were sexually abused by their father/step father (2 of them were his own daughters). His daughters were age 3 and 8 when it started, and are 6 &10 now, and my two daughters were 7 when it started and are 19 now (twins). He is incarcerated now for the capital sexual abuse. my older daughters and I have forgiven him, and pray for him everyday to come to Christ. We have the younger ones in counseling weekly. This article will be very helpful to use to help them understand Gods view on this.

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Jack Wellman May 4, 2015 at 10:41 am

Thank you Jenny for your encouragement. I pray it does help…the fact is that Jesus died for us while we were still His enemies (Rom 5:10) and wicked, evil sinners (Rom 5:8) so God can forgive anyone and we must do the same thing.

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DocReits May 5, 2015 at 12:09 pm

The sermon this past Sunday at our church was on the topic of forgiveness. I loved the last thing said by our pastor which really spoke to me. This was in relation to those who have offended you and might be dead or living but not likely to reconcile their offence with you : “Real forgiveness is accepting the apology that you will never receive.”

DocReits

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Jack Wellman May 5, 2015 at 12:23 pm

So agree Doc…that is one powerful statement that matches up well with Jesus’ teachings. Wow.

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Patty Gantt May 12, 2015 at 2:14 pm

Powerful!

I too have forgiven childhood pain inflicted as I was forgiven by Christ Jesus. The scarring may be thick but my heart now soft. Bitterness will only add to the toxic acid in multiple injections long ago.

Fortunately I do have good memories to cling to now that they are gone. I understand their circumstances as children also of toxic parents. As you say we are a product of the generations preceding us.

Because of my childhood and also my husband’s we decided we would stop the cycle with us. Some people were not destined to be parents but we can “adopt’ relatives that God has granted us in His mercy and grace.

Those who have trusted Jesus as their Savior have a real Heavenly Father who desires only our good and never to harm us (Jeremiah 29:11). He is “a father to the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5). The Lord will use everything, even horrible acts, for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28).

God bless you Pastor, Brother Jack! People will find this article in their search engines or an email from a friend or family member to help with healing. Through our joint trials and tribulations people will gravitate towards us so that we can lead them to the recovery only Jesus can do.

Great conclusion:
“Praying for their souls is the godliest thing that you could ever do to honor your parents, even if they abused you and were not believers. By doing that, you will be honoring your Heavenly Father and by doing so, you “may be the sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father” (Matt 5:44b).”

Excellent post DocReits and Scripture pointer – Matthew 18:21-35

More Scriptural supports that makeup a net of safety from our FATHER ABBA DADDY!

Our Father in Heaven brought us lost sheep here in this time and this place as souls that Christ Jesus saved… His lost lambs. We indeed have a destiny that was even before creation in our mother’s womb and the contribution material of a biological father.

Exodus 20:12
Ephesians 6:1
Ezekiel 36:26
Mark 10:27
2 Corinthians 13:4
Ephesians 6:2-3
Matthew 10:35-38
Proverbs 13:20
2 Corinthians 5:17
1 Corinthians 9:19
Matthew 5:44-48
1 John 4:18-21
Hebrews 12:14
1 Peter 2:18-20
1 Corinthians 10:13
Colossians 3:20

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Jack Wellman May 12, 2015 at 3:29 pm

Thanks Patty…always the Barnabas aren’t you! 🙂 Yes, Doc’s comments are always so spot on, like stripes on a zebra. We are of one blood Patty…no doubt about that but what I have discovered from my own experience, something that’s broken is twice as hard to break the next time, just like a bone.

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Patty May 12, 2015 at 3:50 pm

Gotcha darling!
You’re really are a bird of a feather and certainly my blood.
God takes care of his own the sparrows and heals their wings.

Adopted relatives are the best!
We get to choose them. Those who Christ brings our way 🙂
I was so blessed when I met you.
Inevitable!
God is good brother, Jack.
So very good and loving to us.

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Jack Wellman May 12, 2015 at 4:11 pm

So true my friend. God is like the eagle in that He protects His own, even at the expense of His own (e.g. as in Jesus). Love to think about adopting relatives, yet wonder if I would be disinherited! Yes, you are a treasure my friend. So precious to me.

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ElizabethCa December 17, 2017 at 5:48 am

What always bothers me about this sort of thing, is that the title says how but the article doesn’t really explain the how much. What always frustrated me is I do not understand what I could possibly do that would show honor to a particular parent. It is clear that, to them, anything short of submission to and cooperation with their dysfunction is seen as dishonor.

I do not know what actions I can take that would be honoring her. It is not possible to interact with them peaceably, except by full obedience, because anything else is taken as a personal attack. Their response to this is to go on the offensive and attempt to berate me into submission, becoming even more angry if I change the subject or try to end the conversation.

I want to honor her, but I am at my wit’s end. It seems that any action I could take causes her pain and to feel that I hate her, except that I participate in her sin. It seems dishonoring her to hurt her by not interacting, but also dishonoring to interact in ways that I know cause her to feel rejected. What can I do?

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Jack Wellman December 17, 2017 at 8:26 am

Hello Elizabeth. THink of your parents eternal soul. Are they not saved? Pray that they will be. Parents like you describe show no evidence of being saved (read 1 John 3). Read Rom 5:6-10 to see if you still feel that way. I’m sure its hard…but Jesus died for us while wicked, ungodly, sinners who were enemies of God (Rom 5:6-10).

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Peggy January 5, 2018 at 8:43 am

My husband is getting ready to retire after48 years of working and supporting 2 families. My very narcissistic mother who has mentally,emotionally abused me as a child and still does with her viciousness,zeros in on me to be the one to take care of her. She has 3 other kids.I need help. I don’t want my privacy taken away or the fact that she expects for me to give up my family for her

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Jack Wellman January 5, 2018 at 11:50 am

Hello Peggy. I am so sorry for you suffering so much in this. Stop and think about your mother who is lost without Christ and faces a Christ-less eternity without Him. Pray for her soul as we are told to pray for those who hate us and do good to those who abuse us (Matt 5) and to remember that Jesus died for us while still wicked, ungodly sinners who were God’s enemies (Rom 5:6-10). Maybe thinking of her eternal state will soften your heart enough to pray for her as Jesus said it is love that others will know we are His disciples (John 13:34-45).

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Jack Wellman January 5, 2018 at 11:50 am

PS….praying for you Peggy and your mother.

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ElizabethCa January 19, 2018 at 4:53 am

It’s hard to explain, because the question really is not “why” but “how.” It seems like I am dishonoring her by attempting to live my faith. I want to honor her, but it seems like any possible choice is dishonoring her. Not just any choice I’m willing to do – I find myself in a position where it seems my own desire to live my faith is dishonoring to her.

She is as far as I know saved. But she is caught in a mentality where she believes her actions are justified and anyone who tells her differently simply hates her and wants her to suffer. My dilemma is – if I speak to her, I am cruel and hateful for refusing to support her behavior. If I do not speak to her, I am cruel and hateful for not being there for her. It seems either action is dishonoring her. I can pray for her, but it still seems that no matter what I do I am dishonoring her.

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Jack Wellman January 19, 2018 at 8:42 am

If living out your faith is dishonoring to her, then you are focused on pleasing the wrong person. We are to please God and Jesus said whoever does not hate his own brother, mother, sister, or spouse cannot be His disciple. Only the Spirit of God can change a heart ((Prov 21:1) so let’s pray for that. When we can do nothing more, we must trust God with everything else.

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ElizabethCa January 22, 2018 at 4:35 am

Thank you. It has been very difficult, because of her insistence that if I do not enable and support her in the way she wants, then I am selfish and simply want her to suffer and have no care for her at all. I guess it comes down to, I want to honor her as a parent, but I recognize her behavior is not honorable.

Unfortunately she will push how badly she is suffering in my face and insist that if I loved her I would support her and help her – but simultaneously insist that only way for her to not suffer horribly is for her behavior to be enabled. I want to help, but she is creating her own suffering.

Cynthia January 8, 2018 at 4:34 pm

I do believe in praying for our dysfunctional and unsaved parents or any family/friend for that matter. What isn’t mentioned in this article is boundaries. I don’t feel God calls us to enable a parent or family member who will not change their ways. Yes, we can love a parent who is abusive, pray for salvation because the alternative is horrifying but, I do feel that we can remove ourselves from their lives and place them in the hands of our Lord while doing so. Sometimes we need others to step into the gap for us and I don’t believe this dishonors our parent or loved one. By choosing not to be on the receiving end of abuse verbal or otherwise we are setting healthy boundaries. If we forgive those who have wronged us we don’t speak ill of them, continue to pray for them, yes love them but, I feel it’s not dishonoring by removing ourselves from their lives until such a time as it is safe for us to return and that may never happen.

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