Relationships 101: Parents

Craig Carter

These days it seems like there is a holiday for just about everything and everyone. Just this past week we’ve had Teacher’s Day, Star Wars Day (May the 4th be with you!), No Pants Day (hopefully you celebrated that occasion at home), Cinco de Mayo (or as my brothers-in-law of Mexican descent call it, “Drinko de Mayo”), and Mother’s Day. 

Most holidays are for a select group of people but Mother’s Day is one that applies to everybody – we wouldn’t be here without a mom … and a dad. 

There’s an old adage, “You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.” That phrase commonly describes men’s and women’s frustrations with the opposite sex. But it’s even more true when applied to our relationship with our parents. We definitely can’t live, or at least exist, without them. 

But the other half of the statement generally applies as well – “you can’t live with them…”

Whether it’s a toddler’s frustration with her parents’ inability to tolerate her newly developed sense of independence (declared by saying, “No … mine!”), a teenager’s exasperation with his dad’s embarrassing behavior, or a grown daughter’s “love-hate” relationship with her mom, at one time or another, to one degree or another, we all find it difficult to live with our parents. 

And since we can’t live without them, we often feel stuck. What are we to do with our parents? How are we to relate to them?

In our current series, Relationships 101, we’re attempting to learn how to obey the Great Commandment as it relates to our relationships.  

The Great Commandment as shared in Mark’s gospel is this: Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mark 12:29-31a NLT)

According to Christ, life is all about relationships – with God, with others, with self. 

So far, we’ve looked at how to have loving relationships with God and our friends. For the next few weeks we’re going to explore how to love our family members. 

Interestingly, the Bible gives considerable guidance to parents on how to raise their children, but it is virtually silent on how children are to relate to their parents. Perhaps that’s because of the nature of the world at the time it was written. In the ancient world, parents had absolute control over their offspring. In fact, children were considered nothing more than mere property. 

In the Old Testament, there were often listed as economic assets. For example, we’re told that Job had 7 sons, 3 daughters, 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, and 500 donkeys.  At least the kids were listed first!

In that sort of environment, children had little choice about how to relate to their parents and so not much needed to be said. As a result, the directions that Scripture gives are rather simple. 

In the Old Testament, one of the Ten Commandments says, “Honor your father and mother…” (Exodus 20:12a NIV)

In the New Testament, Paul restates the Fifth Commandment and adds to it: Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” – which is the first commandment with a promise – “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy a long life on the earth.” (Ephesians 6:1-3 NIV)

So what does that tell us about how to develop a loving relationship with our parents? Not much … but we can glean some insights from the surrounding material. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul gives a lot of guidance on relationships with others, including but not limited to immediate family members. 

We can apply some of his general relationship principles to our relationships with our parents, and much of what is said may even apply when our parents are no longer living. 

We develop a loving relationship with our parents by giving them…

1) LOVE

A loving relationship implies that love is present and that is precisely what Paul suggests. 

Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us… (Ephesians 5:2 NLT)

As I’ve said on many occasions, biblical love is more than a feeling, it involves action – doing whatever is necessary to serve another’s best interest. 

Of course, the supreme example of love is Jesus. As His followers, we are to go and do likewise, even when it costs us something. In regard to loving our parents, Scripture suggests we can do that in two primary ways. 

First of all, children are to “obey [their] parents” (Ephesians 6:1).

The Greek word translated “children” refers to youngsters living under their parents’ roof, so the primary way youngsters and teenagers are to relate to their parents is by submitting to their authority. But notice Paul gives us a condition for obedience: “in the Lord.” This means there are limits to the authority of parents. As Christians, our ultimate allegiance is to the Lord. When necessary, our obedience to Him takes precedence over compliance with our parents’ wishes … when they are in conflict. But generally speaking, we are to obey our parents, especially when they are believers because in doing so we are actually submitting to God. 

Also, obeying our parents teaches us to obey other higher authorities. Like it or not, throughout our lives, we must submit to governments, laws, and bosses (to name a few). Unless we learn to obey at home, we probably will never be disciplined enough to exist peacefully with others. 

Could that, at least in part, explain the state of our world today? Could I be writing to some of you who have a problem with authority?

When we learn to obey our parents, we learn to obey others, and we ultimately learn to obey God. That’s what makes this practice “right.” 

Jesus once said, “If you love me, obey me.” (John 14:15 TLB) Young people, show your parents that you love them by obeying them. 

While children are instructed to obey their parents, no such requirement is placed on adults. That’s why you and I can run with scissors if we want to and go outside with our hair wet. That being said, it’s still not a bad thing to obey our parents at any age. Even when my mom was 90 and I was 60, I obeyed her (at least some of the time ☺  ). 

Regardless of our age, we are all to “honor [our] mother and father” (Ephesians 6:2-3). 

Honor means giving them the respect and recognition they deserve. The same Greek word is sometimes translated, glorify, when related to God. That means all honor is not created equal – it is dependent on and proportional to the worthiness of the object (e.g. God deserves more honor than any human). 

The way we honor parents who are “in the Lord” may look much different than the honor we give to parents who are abusive, or morally degenerate. And while obedience is fairly cut and dried (you either do or you don’t), honor can take a variety of forms. It is definitely related to love, meaning honoring our parents involves doing whatever serves their best interests. Just ask the Lord, He’ll reveal how you can honor your parents and what form it needs to take. 

Regardless of our relationship with our parents, no matter how they’ve treated us, whether they are living or dead, we can honor them in a specific way that Paul suggests: “Give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:20 NLT)

If your parents are still living, say “thank you.” It’s the best gift you can give them.  If they’re not, give God thanks for them and the difference they made in your life … at the very least, they gave you life. 

2) LOYALTY 

Make every effort to keep yourselves together united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. (Ephesians 4:3 NLT)

People who are “united” and bound “together” have a sense of loyalty and are committed to one another. In fact, love and loyalty go hand-in-hand and I’d suggest you can’t have a loving relationship with someone without being loyal to that person. 

Let me share two ways we can demonstrate loyalty to our parents:

The first one is to listen. 

Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other… (Ephesians 4:2a)

It takes humility, gentleness, and patience to be a good listener. So when your mother tells you about a friend (you don’t know) and the intimate details of their bout with gout, be patient and pretend to be interested. 

Or when your dad drones on and on about how much better athletes were back in his day or how he worked three jobs to put himself through school (without student loans), be humble and gentle and nod in agreement. 

Actually, we’d all do well to follow the wisdom given in the Book of Proverbs: Listen to your father, who gave you life, and don’t despise your mother when she is old. (Proverbs 23:22 NLT)

I’m thankful that, more times than not, I listened to my mom and dad. Since they were good and godly parents, I gained a lot of helpful and useful insights from them. I can identify with Mark Twain who once said: “When I was 18, my father knew absolutely nothing. But ten years later, I was amazed at how much he had learned.”

Long after their deaths, I still hear my parents’ voices and listen…

The second way we can show loyalty to our parents is through our language. 

Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. (Ephesians 4:29 NLT)

We can be loyal both by the way we talk to them and by how we talk about them. Is what I’m about to say to my mom or dad “good and helpful”? If they heard what I say about them, would they be encouraged by my words?

I have a feeling we’d enjoy more loving relationships with everyone, not just our parents, if we asked those two questions before opening our mouths. Maybe we need to follow the advice our parents gave us as children: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” 

But if we can say something nice, let’s do it and show our parents loyalty and love. Here’s an assignment: write down something you love or appreciate about your mom (and/or dad) and give it to them with a magnet to put on their fridge … or put in on your own as a reminder.

3) LATITUDE

Latitude is a synonym for “slack, or leeway, or leniency.” In other words, give your parents some wiggle room or cut them a little slack. 

Paul puts it this way: “Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.” (Ephesians 4:2b NLT)

A couple of years ago, my wife Lee and I shared some family one-liners that included this one for parents: “They did the best they could.”

There are no perfect people so that means there are no perfect parents. Every parent has made mistakes, some more than others. But because of our love, or better put, Christ’s love in us, we need to be patient and make allowance for their faults. 

Besides, we don’t know all they experienced or are experiencing, so it’s probably better that we not judge (lest we be judged). 

Let’s resolve not to compare our parents to other parents or what we perceive to be the model parent and instead, be thankful for whatever they have done right and assume they had good intentions when they came up short. 

We also give our parents latitude when we operate according to Jesus’ words spoken from the cross: “Forgive them, for they don’t (or didn’t) know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Someone has rightly said, “Becoming a mom or dad is easy, but being one is tough.” Parenting doesn’t come with an instruction book so most of us make plenty of mistakes. 

A friend recently told me that after he and his wife had their first child, they realized that he had no idea what to do, so they asked everyone for advice. I can attest Lee and I felt the same way and didn’t feel any more qualified when I had our second, so we quit then … we weren’t going to let our children outnumber us! 

We made a lot of mistakes and I know many of my mistakes hurt my kids, so all I can say is, “Forgive me, I didn’t know what I was doing (and probably still don’t)”.

Less than perfect people make plenty of poor choices and others get hurt as a result. God’s remedy for dealing with the harm that is done is called forgiveness. 

When Jesus spoke the words I just quoted, he was being crucified by what the Bible describes as evil people who knew exactly what they were doing. But Christ gave them the benefit of the doubt and paved the way for a chance at redemption and restoration. 

We need to give our parents the same benefit of the doubt and forgive them.

Forgive them for speaking harshly. They didn’t know how much their words hurt. 

Forgive them for not being there when you needed them. They didn’t know how much you longed for their presence. 

Forgive them for choosing work over family. They didn’t know their time and attention was more valuable than things. 

Remember, forgiveness is not forgetting or ignoring the pain. It is acknowledging the hurt and harm done, and choosing to let it go. It is canceling the debt that is owed and wiping the slate clean. It is treating others as we want to be treated and how God has treated us. 

Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:32 NLT)

Since we all need forgiveness, we must be willing to extend it. It’s the loving thing to do – for our parents and for ourselves. Until you and I let them off the hook, we’ll still be on the hook, tormented by their transgressions and the pain they have caused.

On this holiday, most of us have considered what to give our moms or women we love. Since life is all about relationships, the best gifts nurture those relationships. So give your mom (and your dad) some love, loyalty, and latitude – today and always. I promise that if you do, it’ll help you establish and maintain a loving relationship with your parents. 

So give your father and mother joy! May she who gave you birth be happy. (Proverbs 23:25 NLT)