Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)
Why might God, with every conceivable possibility available to him, decide to create and nurture new life through parents? Why would he bring us into the world through a father and a mother?
As with everything God does, he has many reasons (and most of them unknown to us, at least for now). Genesis might give us the highest, most overarching reason, though: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). And then two verses later, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Genesis 1:28). Parenthood takes its pattern from God himself. New life comes from the intense and intimate love between a husband and wife because human life began from the intense and intimate love within God. He did not make man and woman because of any deficiency in himself. He wasn’t lonely or needy or bored. Life was the natural overflow of his love.
Within the Trinity, God himself — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — was devoted, enthralled, and overflowingly happy. Adam and Eve, and you and me, are the fruit of an unparalleled love. Therefore, God, wanting to deeply, even inescapably remind us why he made the world — why he made us — made us the product of love (however broken, immature, or unwise the love of our particular parents may have been). Even when they fail to love us (and each other) well, parents remind us of the better, purer, more reliable Love that made us. God has children look up to parents, for a time, so that we might see far beyond them to him.
Parents are a vivid reminder of the fullness of God, the kind of fullness that spills over in creation. And good parents, like the wonderful father and mother God has given me, are especially brilliant reflections of that loving fullness and creativity. Parents are also, however, a first opportunity for children to receive, submit to, and obey God-given authority, another compelling reason for God to make the world — and the family — as he did.
Honor Your Father and Creator
When God says, “Honor your father and your mother,” he is also saying, Will you trust and submit to me? — to my wise, sovereign, and specific plan for you, however hard that plan feels along the way? He chose your mother’s womb as your first home (Psalm 139:13), and then wove pieces of your parents together into a new person. “[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth,” the apostle Paul reminds us, “having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26) — and whose children we would be.
So, will you take this man and this woman, the parents he has chosen for you, to love and to honor for as long as they both shall live? Teachers will come and go, bosses will be hired and retire, governors and presidents will be elected and leave office, whole nations will rise and fall, but your parents will always be your parents. Because God, with literally billions of options, chose this mother and this father for you. So, will you honor him by honoring them?
God ties together these threads of honor through the prophet Malachi: “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear?” (Malachi 1:6). His people had grown reluctant in their worship, treating him with less honor than their favorite politicians (Malachi 1:8). So God retraces the logic of honor written into humanity: As a son honors a father, so should my people honor me. Honoring our parents is a picture of our relationship to God, and a preparation for it.
Honoring our parents is about honoring God, first because God has told us to honor them, but also because honoring them builds deeper and wider channels in our hearts for honoring him.
Only Father and Mother?
When God calls his people to honor father and mother, though, does he mean only father and mother? Is he implicitly setting a larger and wider trajectory, in the fifth commandment, of submission and honor in society? The Westminster Confession, seeing a world of relationships in that simple phrase, answers this way:
By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.
According to Westminster, embedded in the command “Honor your father and mother” is a principle that extends into all of life as we grow and mature. In other words, “Honor anyone God has placed over you.” The principle holds in the New Testament. The honor we show to our parents, Christian wives also show to husbands in marriage (Ephesians 5:22; 1 Peter 3:1), congregants to pastors in our churches (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Timothy 5:17), and citizens to the rulers and authorities (1 Peter 2:17). Most broadly, the apostle Peter charges us, “Honor everyone” — everyone (1 Peter 2:17).
If we truly are to honor everyone, especially those in authority over us, the muscles and instincts of that honor will most often be developed in the home.
Becoming Human at Home
Parents, then, become our first education in submission. Quoting the fifth commandment, the apostle Paul writes to children, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’” (Ephesians 6:1–2). Parents are our first personal and tangible (and unavoidable) encounter with the rule of God over us. Will we obey or rebel, submit or defy, honor or despise?
“Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20). God watches children (even children!), and whenever he sees obedience, pleasure swells within him. Imagine how much more motivated our children might be to listen and obey, all the way and right away, if they could feel the warmth of his burning heart and see the brightness of his matchless smile. Imagine how much more motivated we might be to persist in disciplining them if we experienced the same. Discipline is a drawing of our sons and daughters into the unimaginable delight of heaven — into the overwhelming and never-ending waves of his pleasure.
If we refuse to obey at home (or are never disciplined to obey), though, we will be that much more likely to disobey rulers, bosses, pastors, and ultimately God himself. As Herman Bavinck writes,
A person’s becoming human occurs within the home; here the foundation is laid for the forming of the future man and woman, of the future father and mother, of the future member of society, of the future citizen, of the future subject of the kingdom of God. (The Christian Family, 108)
The seeds of who we become are sown and nurtured in the trenches of the parent-child relationship. That’s why so much counseling of adults focuses on our “family of origin” — in other words, on our relationship with our parents.
Realizing the deep and inescapable influence of our parents on us can breed at least one of two reactions: fatalistic victimhood or faith-filled vigilance. Will we go on blaming our parents for whatever is wrong in us, or will we receive our weaknesses as opportunities to boast in the power of God? Will we crumble into resigned self-pity that our parents weren’t someone different, or will we receive what God has done as a unique and personal invitation to trust, follow, and honor him?
Honor will look different in different relationships, and honor may not always feel like honor to some parents, especially with parents who have wounded or abandoned us. Part of becoming truly human, though, is learning how to embrace and steward (and sometimes endure) all the providences of God, including the very personal providences of parents.
Seasonal Authority, Lasting Honor
The education we experience as children under our parents — learning to obey and submit to God-given authority — is both pivotal and temporary. Pivotal, for the reasons described above. Temporary, because honoring our parents will mature over our lifetime. God has chosen for children to honor their parents differently than adults do.
For adults, I have heard one seasoned counselor make the distinction between honoring our parents and obeying our parents. Jesus calls us to always honor our parents; he does not call us to obey our father and mother once we establish our own household. This distinction (and transition) is actually critical for healthy honoring of our parents, especially if and when we leave and cleave to a spouse: “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). To honor parents as God demands, a husband or wife must leave them as God demands, establishing clear lines that weren’t there before.
Parents are given a seasonal authority over children, but they are endowed with perpetual honor. No matter how old, mature, and independent we become, God still says,
Listen to your father who gave you life,
and do not despise your mother when she is old. (Proverbs 23:22)
If, in leaving our father and mother, we stop listening or start despising, we have not left them as God would have us. Real leaving is vital to faithfulness as we age, mature, and marry, and real, enduring honoring — listening, esteeming, celebrating, caring, blessing — is still every bit as vital.
To Those Who Honor Well
Because God commands us to honor our parents, we can assume we will be tempted to not honor them. We can assume honoring our parents will be at times hard, confusing, and even painful. If parents were always easy to love, we wouldn’t need commands to honor them. As a relatively new father myself, I already know I will not always be easy to love. We have commands — to honor our parents, to practice honesty, to refuse sexual temptation, to deny covetousness and envy, to love our neighbor — precisely because faithfulness will not be natural, simple, or effortless.
Because honoring our parents will often be challenging, God gives us a command — and a promise. Again, Paul rehearses the commandment:
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.” (Ephesians 6:1–3)
To those who honor father and mother, God promises a life and joy and security that others will not experience. Notice that this is not only for Old Testament Israel, but for the church today. Paul revives both the commandment and the promise. The Promised Land, however, is no longer in Canaan, but in the open fields and upon the towering mountains and along the pristine shores of a new land — a new heavens and new earth where God lives (Revelation 21:1–3). And our souls breathe that air and taste that pleasure even now, as we walk through this cursed and crumbling world in Christ.
The promise here does not guarantee that if we honor our parents our earthly life (or our relationship with them) will necessarily be any easier or better. But persistently honoring our fathers and mothers, especially when it is not easy or comfortable, does prove that we are miracle children — children of promise, children of heaven, chosen and precious children of our heavenly Father.