What Does “Honor Your Parents” Really Mean?

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”—Exodus 20:12 (NIV)

Honor is the unsentimental moral nucleus within complex relationships between any child and his parents.—Lewis B. Smedes

In Exodus 20:12, we are given the commandment to honor our parents along with the reason for the command—so that we may live long on this earth. Some scholars suggest that in this verse “we” refers to humanity as a whole. 

The Hebrew word for honor in Scripture conveys the idea of “weightiness” (Kabad). Parenthood is an office that should hold a certain weight, receive a defined honor, just for its mere existence. 

In His sovereignty, God provided weight, dignity, and honor to the office of parenthood. RC Sproul explains, “God doesn't say, 'Honor your father and mother only when they're honorable.’ Theirs is a position. They hold an office. And even if they are unworthy of that office, the office itself is still to be honored.” 

Let’s take a look at the relationship between Jesus, the Son, and His Father, God. The Lord announced His Son to the world by saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 NIV). From that point on there would be no doubt, or at least there should have been no doubt, to Whom Jesus belonged. Much of a child’s identity is wrapped up in the knowledge of where they came from. In fact, many Christians tend to see their heavenly Father through the lens of their earthly father. Jesus, knowing Who His Father was, honored and glorified Him by living in ultimate submission to Him.

However, unlike the relationship between God and Jesus, the Bible is filled with far less stellar examples of parent-child relationships. Instead, it’s filled with stories of flawed humans like you and me. Subconsciously we attribute super human powers to our parents when we are young, and when those images come crashing down, their humanity is often too much to bear. And yet there is no caveat in Scripture for this command. 

Society breaks down on a grander scale when honor is not practiced in the home.

Society breaks down on a grander scale when honor is not practiced in the home. This world cannot sustain itself on a foundation of families without honor. So, if honor is so fundamentally crucial, why is it so rare? Exodus 6:4 (KJV) may provide some insight: “And, ye Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” 

And just because Scripture doesn’t add “mothers” into that verse doesn’t mean they can turn around and provoke their children without harm. The call to build up and nurture our children is the responsibility of both parents (or caretakers) and single parents as well! Training up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is the key to producing honor within their hearts (Proverbs 22:6). 

Therefore, parents have the unique privilege to model respect and love to their children and to provide security in their identity. When that doesn’t happen, children struggle to understand the true meaning and value behind honor. Additionally, with the breakdown of the family, and hundreds if not thousands of children being removed from their homes daily, we have a nation of children and adults who have no idea what honor even means. 

Sometimes honoring parents means speaking hard truths to bring about great change. 

How does a man like Jimmy Hinton, who discovered his father had been abusing children for 40 years, show honor to his parent? Some believe that to honor parents we can never say a negative word about them. Yet the most honoring thing Jimmy could have done was to call the police and do just that. Now through a weekly podcast, Jimmy goes into great detail about his father’s sins with the hope of educating the masses to prevent abuse and bring about positive change in the world. 

Sometimes honoring parents means creating distance to heal so you can live a life of virtue.

Yesterday was a difficult day for a friend of mine. It would have been her mother’s birthday had her mother not died 18 years ago. My friend’s heart ached to see her mother despite the tumultuous relationship they had. Due to her mother’s alcohol addiction, there were times in their lives when a relationship was impossible, not only because of the mother’s addictions, but because the daughter needed space to heal from living in an abusive environment. And although her mother is no longer on this earth, my friend honors her by living a life of love and forgiveness. 

One way to honor our parents is through forgiveness.

We live in a fallen world. And while there are truly situations in which distance, whether temporary or permanent, provides the best situation for honoring parents, the reality is that most parent-child relationships break down because of personality conflicts and character flaws. When this happens, the best way to honor our parents is through forgiveness.

Whether you are a parent struggling to teach your child how to honor or you are a child struggling to honor your parents, the answer is the same: We need to be willing to admit that we’re all sinners in desperate need of a Savior. 

Son or daughter, acknowledge that your parents are human, that they have made and will make mistakes, and that part of honoring them involves showing them the same grace 1) that Christ showed us and 2) that we want to be shown by them and others. Even when our parents aren’t necessarily being honorable and we have to put up healthy boundaries, we can still honor them by praying for them (even if it's from a distance, interceding on their behalf that the Lord would do a work in them), speaking well of them and not tearing them down to others (this refers specifically to bashing them and being disrespectful behind their backs. If there is any sort of abuse, whether physical, verbal, sexual, we implore you to please speak up and report it to the proper authorities and leadership), offering encouragement and appreciation as the opportunity arises, and having the compassion of Christ towards them. We need to forgive as we have been forgiven. We need God’s Word to mold and shape our hearts. 

Parents, we need to be honorable! There is no way around that. This involves 1) setting the example for our kids by honoring our parents, 2) remembering every single day that our children were given to us by God Himself, that they are a gift from Him, 3) striving to nurture and train our kids up in the ways of the Lord and modeling it for them, and 4) showing them grace, love, compassion, empathy, respect, instilling healthy, appropriate discipline, offering encouragement, and showing trust. They need to know that, as their parent, you are doing everything you can for their good, to help them grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, to help them grow into healthy, humble, productive, purpose-driven, disciple-minded, and disciplined adults who will one day raise their children with honor in the ways of the Lord. They need to experience the gospel through you, see it lived out so they can know how to live it out. 

So today, whether you’re a parent or a child (or both), we encourage you to consider the Lord’s heart for us in this, to remember that as parents we are meant to represent our good, perfect, and loving heavenly Father to our children, and as children we are instructed to honor our parents as if honoring our Heavenly Father. Remember that there is great reward and a promise attached to this command, “so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12 NIV).