God uses three very common relationships in our lives—marriage, family, and work—as laboratories to make us more like himself.
In each of these relationships, we learn a very important quality that defined Jesus, too: submission. When these relationships are focused on the gospel, we submit to one another out of respect for Christ and as a way of serving him.
Paul describes one of these laboratories as the family, where children learn to obey God by obeying their parents: “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 ESV).
“Honor your father and mother” is the fifth commandment, which means it’s right in the middle of the 10. The first four commandments are about our relationship to God, and the last five are about our relationship to others. Right in the middle is this commandment, because it joins the rest. It acts as a hinge, reflecting both our relationship to God and our relationship to others.
When we are young, our parents represent the authority of God to us. In a way, they stand in for God for a time. We first learn to obey and submit to God by obeying and submitting to our parents.
That means, for those of you living at home, how you submit to the authority of your mom and dad is how you submit to God.
Parents, this is one of the reasons we take discipline seriously. How our children learn to respect us and submit to us is how they will learn to submit to God. By the time they leave our homes, they should shift the authority they recognized in us as parents to God. (Of course, it’s also one of the biggest reasons that we shower our children with love and affection—so that our kids don’t grow up imagining God as a divine taskmaster.)
The idea of “standing in for God” as a parent actually brings up a question that I get a lot: What about when you are older? Do you still have to obey your parents?
This is where it helps to understand that parents are only a temporary stand-in for God. They are like the training wheels for learning how to obey God. When you’re learning to ride a bike, training wheels are critical. But the training wheels were never the point. Riding the bike was. In our relationship to our parents, the goal isn’t mere obedience. It’s a healthy and honoring family relationship—and, more importantly, a trajectory toward God.
The easiest way to see this is to watch the ways it goes wrong. For instance, we have adult couples in our church on the mission field whose (Christian) parents tried to forbid them from going, even when they knew God was telling them to go. I’m glad that they chose to obey God rather than their parents. But they also did everything they could to honor their parents in the process.
As a child, you honor your parents by obeying them. As you get older, you honor them in different ways. When you are older, you honor them by being the man or woman that God designed you to be and by obeying God, even if that means sometimes you go against your parents’ wishes.
By obeying God, you are honoring the institution of parenting. Which means that for some of you, the best way to honor your father and mother is to defy their wishes and do what God says.
Here are some other practical ways adults can honor their parents:
- Call them. Keep them involved in your life. No parent ever feels like they are consulted too much or invited into your life too much.
- Ask their opinion. They have the benefit of a lot of years of experience, and there is usually no one who knows you as intimately or cares for you as deeply as they do.
- Say “thanks”—for the big things and the small things.
- Make caring for them in their old age your priority.
I’ve heard it said that you can measure the progress of your Christian life by how well you relate to your spouse, your children, and your parents. The truest measure of your Christianity is how you are at home!
If you based your spiritual progress solely on how well you lived it out at home, how do you think you are doing?
Note: Satan loves to take the things that God meant for good, distort them, and use that as a way to hurt us personally and cause us to doubt the goodness of God’s design. If your struggle to honor your mother or father has more to do with their abusiveness than your resistance, here is a collection of excellent resources that may be helpful.