How Do I Honor An Abusive Parent?

By Danni Moss
Copyright protected, all rights reserved

(This is written with the parent as male gendered, only because I had to pick one. It applies equally to male and female parents.)

How do I respect an abusive parent?

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

Exodus 20:12

Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.
Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;)
That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.

Gal. 6:1-3

Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.

Col. 3:20

The church teaches “children obey your parents” and “children honor your parents” – but if the issue of domestic violence in marriage is largely invisible in the church, you can bet the issue of honoring an abusive parent is even further off the radar. What do you do when your parent is abusive?

First of all, the situation is different if you are still a minor under their care or if you are an adult. If you are a child and under their care, you need to go to a counselor and tell them what is going on. That is not dishonor, as I will explain shortly.. If you are an adult, that parent does not have as much immediate dominance, and the power of the law, standing behind them.

So what is honor and obedience, in the context of a parent/child relationship?

Honor – to give weight, to promote (Hebrew kabad)
Obey – to hear under (as a subordinate), i.e. to listen attentively; by implication, to heed or conform to a command or authority:–hearken, be obedient to, obey. (Greek hupakouo)
Honor – to prize, i.e. fix a valuation upon; by implication, to revere:–honour, value. (Greek timao)

The church teaches children obey/respect your parents as a necessity for God’s blessing – after all it is the first commandment with a promise of long life! Who doesn’t want that? However, the way this is taught is shallow and takes no account of situations that are not quite cut and dried. This is particularly difficult for children with an abusive parent because our Christian culture has all eyes on children being obedient and respectful, and tends to easily accept the side of a parent who claims their child is disobedient and disrespectful.

Let’s look first at the word obey in the Greek verses. It means “…to listen attentively, to heed or conform to a command or authority…”

The verse says children are to obey their parents in all things. Does that mean in ALL things? If a parent tells a child to commit a crime, or expects their participation in criminal behavior, is that child supposed to obey his parent? If a parent tells or expects a child to participate in behavior which is clearly and directly against the Word, is that child supposed to obey his parent?

Stating the obvious, we cannot take one or two verses out of the context of the whole of the Word and make a doctrine out of them. The Word also says,

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Mt. 10:37

This principle is universal across Scripture. To put any human directive above God’s is idolatry. We can’t put the command for children to obey their parents above our primary focus on loving God. Wherever there is a variance between a parent’s expectations and God’s, the parent’s expectations cannot be met.

A child’s obedience would also be limited to the duration of his childhood, during which he was under his parent’s authority. Once he is no longer a child, but an adult, the directive has obviously expired. Obedience as a child does not extend into adulthood. It would be foolish to assume an adult must obey their parent in all things when they are living separate adult lives. However, this idea is used by abusive parents to extend their authority far beyond reasonable boundaries.

In these verses, obedience and honoring are obviously considered synonymous. However, the church seems to emphasize honoring as a separate action and attitude than obedience.

So, let’s look closely at the meaning the word honor, both in the Hebrew and Greek. Is there any indication or implication present to assume that a child is required by God to remain in relationship with an abusive parent?

I can value my parent as a person and as a person who gave me life, without being in any type of relationship with him whatsoever. Honoring a parent is about my attitude toward him – that is all that is required by the Word.

But honoring a parent does not mean I must accept unrighteousness. Honor will keep me from answering back in kind when someone is treating me inappropriately because, as a person created in God’s image, he does not “deserve” that, no matter his behavior. I respect God’s creation – it is not about the man or his behavior.

However, because I respect him as God’s creation, I will not and cannot enable him to continue in sin by doing nothing when he has persistent sin against me and against God that he will not address or acknowledge. I respect him enough to attempt to turn a sinner from the error of his ways. In a respectful manner.

Let’s take a quick look at what honoring is not:

  • Staying in relationship with someone who will hurt me or those for whom I am responsible.
  • Never saying anything to anyone about the other’s “faults.”
  • Enabling a sinner to remain in sin by my silence and inaction.
  • Thinking a person is “wonderful” when they are not.
  • Having feelings of love.

Giving honor is a choice, not a feeling.

That said, an abuser cannot expect not to have consequences for his/her behavior. Parents are not immune from consequences. When a parent has indicated a persistent pattern of abuse, it is fully appropriate to sever relationship with that person so they do not have the power to continue to cause pain and to continue in sin with the child’s blessing through ignoring or tolerating it.

The book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, by David Cloud and John Townsend is very helpful to learn to see what is and is not appropriate, and how to step away without dishonoring. It is both possible and appropriate to honor an abusive parent without remaining in relationship with that person if he refuses to respect appropriate relationship boundaries or attempts to insist on ungodly behavior. Again, honoring God takes precedence if the parent makes demands in violation of godliness.

In light of the prevalence of abuse in today’s church, this subject needs to be taught with more sensitivity and depth. Hitting the highlights without a deeper understanding has the negative side effect of piling guilt and condemnation on people who have an abusive parent in their life.

Published on April 8, 2009 at 7:20 pm  Comments (16)  

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16 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you SO MUCH for that. I think you just helped me in my path through life. I found you in a google search because I was in distress that I had dishonored and sinned against my parents for walking away from their abuse.

    I pray for them every day and would gladly welcome them with open arms if they walked away from their damaging ways. I also forgive them. I just cannot have them in my life anymore, especially at my husband’s urging because he has seen what his wife has gone through.

    Most people I talk to just assume I rebelled or that I was rude to them or that we just had some big fight and that I’m stewing. That’s not the case at all.

  2. my parents mistreated me so much. Even now as an adult I carry so much pain with me from what they caused. They take no responsibility at all. I have a relationship with them but it makes me sick at times. I can’t decide what to do. Cut ties or not. I feel so conflicted and I ask God daily for wisdom.

  3. At age 55 I am still finding it impossible to have a relationship with a parnet who abused me all my life. She seems to enjoy hurting and upsetting me even though I try real hard to respect and honor her. She can no longer hit me or have sexual encounters with me but her words hit my heart and now she has an influence on my daughter and is turning her against me. Thank you for this website. I too googled it as I was torn and wanted to be right woth the Lord but at the same time, tired of the drama and constant pain in my heart. I have never known her love bit have for the sake of the word tried to keep forgiving and trying again. I have shared the love of God but distance seems to be needed to preserve my walk.
    I really don’t want to go back anymore.

  4. I really needed to read something to take me out of this horrible spiral of condemnation of emotions I have been feeling since going to church yesterday for the first time in about 3mos, sharing with the lady next to me about how difficult it is to deal with my mother. This woman was warm and kind & I really felt good about finding a christian friend. I told her briefly about how difficult my life has been more recently because of my mother, and how I have tried repeatedly for about 3yrs now to make peace/get along with my mother. I shared with her how my mother leaves nasty, threatening (not to my life) messages on my answering machine, how she did that on the very day of my birthday, just a couple of weeks ago and how I cried most of my birthday. My whole family is pretty much in strife and my mother is the only one nearby me.The church lady offerred to pray for me and took my hand, which initially seemed so loving. It was a long prayer, but about 1/2 way thru, it was about me being able to forgive my mother, and over and over again she said,to love my mother and to tell her I love her. Then after the prayer I said, “but I do keep forgiving her, but I just cannot go on like this. I have been having bad headaches and now dizzy spells and in checking my blood pressure at the store I have found it is quite high and I have never had high blood pressure, actually a history of low blood pressure. She just said I need to forgive her, erase the messages, not bring them up to her, call her every so often, tell her I love her. I got home and began feeling in huge emotional turmoil and stress, my heart beating rapidly and a few hours later got another severe headache, as Saturday had been the first day in weeks that I had not had a bad headache. I broke down 3-4x’s since in tears and have been on the internet for 2hrs fo find someone who says I am not damned and wrong and should feel guilty and should do better, because it is a COMMAND by God that I love and honor my mother!!

    I have been thru a lifetime of physical, emotional and spiritual abuse from my mother. To ignore what she does is saying it is okay. I can and do forgive, but she is kind for about 24hrs and then she begins leaving nasty mean messages on my ans machine, telling lies to family in distant states that I am on drugs and am a prostitute, telling me I am a poor excuse for a daughter, when I try so hard to get along and be loving (even when she is so hateful). This church woman says just forget about that, leave it in God’s hands, you cannot change that. I cannot just forget all the cruel things she still says and does to me. They impact my mind, heart and soul. I guess she thinks you can just wipe them like you wipe your nose. I said to her that honor does not mean love. She insists I must tell my mother I love her and ignore how she treats me. I do not believe in my spirit, not just with my flesh, that that type of behavior is what God truly desires FOR ME. That is not God’s best for me. Or then I could not tuly believe he loves me. If he actually expects me to continue to be hurt and traumatized by my mother until she dies and she is never repentant or honest, even, about what she does-then I have the wrong notions about God. I believe he is far more loving than that!

    I am not sure what to say to this church woman, but she is instilling her own damage upon my psyche and I cannot allow anyone else to hurt me.

    • I can SO relate to last person who left a message. Please don’t be swayed by the lady at church, sounds like she is confused and maybe just can’t relate. I can and am now started to say enough’s enough myself. I also have become ill mentally, physically, and emotionally from my mom’s emotional abuse and malicious attempts at control. I will have to love my mom from afar, in prayer, and cards. As soon as I give her a second (millionth!) chance and spend time w/ her she pulls a “viper move” which causes more injury!

      I want to break this cycle of condemnation, it is from the pit!!

      I encourage you and your healing, my sister in Christ, and all others like us!

      Thank you for this website and Danni Moss in particular for addressing this issue. I feel I’ve been given permission (and Biblically sound permission) to be free of this chronic abuse from my mom. Bless you!!!

  5. thank you SO MUCH for this. This really helped me.

  6. Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. But it also says “Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” I try, but I have to admit that I am discouraged. So discouraged that I do not want to live long on this earth. However, since they gave me life, and for no other reason than that, I will try to not to voice my content, but it’s such an uphill battle. Only for God, do I attempt to take the pain of this world.

  7. Thank you Danni for this article. This is an issue very close to my heart. I know that God guided me to break away from my mother and siblings, but it is nice to get a little validation from other people. My story is probably similar to many others. At my mother’s funeral my sister came at me in a rage saying, “You’re going to burn in Hell for what you did to your mother!” This was meant to hurt and break my spirit; but it didn’t. I was just sad for them because I thought about Jesus’ words, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”Mt 7:1,2 Praise God, I have studied His Word enough to have faith and confidence in my actions. There are many Scriptures to support an adult breaking away from parents/family who are abusive or otherwise ungodly. I agree that most people’s understanding of “honor your parents” is lacking. God never meant for anyone to honor a dishonorable person. There are guidelines for parents as well, but those get swept under the rug in favor of the ‘rules’ for the kids. Where would we be today if Abraham and Sarah had honored their father by following in his ways?! He was a moon worshiper. Those of you who have problems with abusive parents, you don’t have to be a victim. Stay strong and pray for guidance from Holy Spirit.

  8. Wow! Thought the relationship w/ Mom was rare. Thank God for this website and prayer. When the topic of pursuing my education comes up Mom becomes belligerent, doubtful, unsupportive, and downright nasty as she begins to downgrade my position of accepting a student loan to continue school. I can not continue with the verbal abuse. I love you Ms. N. Wilson.When I speak of my education, it is not to brag or boast, I am very grateful to be able to attend school w/ the disability of Multiple Sclerosis and all its challenges.It is only by God’s grace I am have made it thus far.

  9. Thank you for this wonderful sermon. It really spoke to my heart. It let me forgive things from my past and gives me a better explanation to those kidz that I speak to about this subject.

  10. I was a victim of violence and abuse from both parents.
    I have cut all ties so both can no longer abuse.. they no more have the opportunity.
    Do I honour my father and mother? .. I think of it more laterally nowadays – God is my Father.. I can try to honour Him. That releases me from the pain.. my real Father wouldn’t do it, my temporary guardian did. If I am at fault in my reasoning, I am only human.. and one day God will correct.. but in the meantime I am not so consumed by bitterness and pain.

  11. I can’t even begin to express how much I appreciate you posting this and how much it helped.

    I HAVE read “Boundaries” which helped a great deal. But I’m in the middle of trying to walk away completely. Which is a whole new set of boundaries that is very difficult to deal with. Growing up in the church imprints a lot of guilt trips.

    I wanted to care for my parents in their last years, but I’m not obligated to do so if my negative relationship with them is causing me to neglect my own family emotionally (therefore causing me to sin), and I’m not obligated to stay in their lives, when I’m causing THEM to sin by allowing them to continue abusing me.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this.

    When I was little my mom made me write (thousands of times) the verse, “Honor thy father and mother, which is the first commandment with promise….” You know the one. They left out, “Parents do not provoke your children…”

    Thank you again!

  12. Thanks to all for your postings. It only confirms for me the need to remain distant from members of my family ie. Mother, brother etc. I endured years of my Mothers affair with another man, 30 yrs to be more clear. My Mother let me in on this little piece of info when I was 18 years old. Needless to say, at 50 years old I’m still suffering the fallout from informing my Father of her infidelity. However, even though he knew and caught her many times with this other man, he still remained in the marriage. This was very confusing and morally wrong, because I too, caught her several times, in our home with her other man. They did go through several separations, and one divorce but still ended up marring again. All three as children witnessed this continual dysfunction in our home.
    Long story short, the bitterness my Mother exhibits is unmistakable. She also suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder which only intensifies her behavior.
    I have been a Christian since I was in 4th grade. One of my teachers lead me to Christ. You can imagine over the years how confusing my home life was for me. It has only been within the past 4 years that I have really allowed God to take hold of my life and to choose a path that is less painful. This has been difficult to say the least, but through prayer and seeking God’s wisdom, I know this is the way I should walk. I can honor my parents for life, but I can do it from afar.

  13. I feel so blessed by this writing. My siblings and I have been battling with this for years, as we have a mother who suffers with borderline personality disorder and has not only been violently physically abusive but also extremely psychologically. My brother and sister both opted to distance themselves from her for years at a time, my brother even moved to another country, while I chose to tolerate the cruel, demeaning treatment….thinking I was “honoring and obeying her.” My brother recently died and under the guilt and pressure my mother lashed out at me and reached as deeply as she could into order to destroy what was left of my tattered spirit. But God didn’t allow me to be destroyed. For the first time in my life I walked away from that behavior which was absolutely NOT in the will of my God! Thank you so much for helping me heal. I never want to turn back, it is not spiritually or physically healthy. And this choice does not stop me from Loving her.

  14. Amanda – hang in there..I will pray for you to be filled with joy and peace and get the healing you need. I am almost 40 and have battled all my life to make sense of the abuse and trauma I went through…physical violence, constant criticism and belittling and a lot of fear. My father takes no responsibility and my mother tells me to “get over it.” When your soul and spirit are wounded as a child, you can’t just get over it. I have tried to protect who I am as a person and tried to protect the goodness in me. It’s hard to feel alone and unvalidated…so I’m so glad I found this site. Thank you.

  15. Thank you, everyone, for sharing your experiences. I feel better knowing that I am not alone in suffering at my mother’s hand. I keep writing stuff about my mother here but keep deleting it simply because I don’t want to disrepect her. I am so full of resentment and pain though. I have spent most of my life praying to God about my mother. I finally accepted that God was okay with me just walking away from her…with conditions. He showed me the following scripture to guide my relationship with her:

    Mark 7:9 Then [Jesus] said, “You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition…”

    I initially planned to do just what the Pharisees said. I decided that I was going to completely walk away from my mother. I decided that I wasn’t even going to send money to my mother but instead would give it to charity. However, Jesus outright said that not providing for my mother is against God’s will. Jesus seemed to imply that I honor my mother by how I talk about and provide for her. I have since repented and try to provide for her and otherwise not talk bad about her. I struggle with it though because my mother is never satisfied with what I do for her. I have reached the point though that whenever I do something for my mother, I do it for Jesus instead. Whenever I send her a check, I pray over it and yield it to Jesus. When I put the letter in the mail, I imagine that I am handing the envelop to Jesus. It is for Jesus and to Jesus that I provide for and do things for my mother. It is for Jesus’ sake that I honor my mother by attributing value/honor to her monetarily.
    I once heard a preacher on tv say, “just do what you can.” I can’t bring myself to speak to her but I can send her a check.

    I don’t know if God will lead you to do the same but I pray that our Lord leads us to behave in such a way that will honor Him.

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