The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures. (Proverbs 30:17)
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” – this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” (Ephesians 6:1-3)
Today, on Father’s Day, I feel led by the Holy Spirit to address parent-child relations.
Let me make clear that I do not share with you from the authority position of one who has mastered biblical teachings in my own life as either a father or a child. But I am endeavoring to wrestle with these issues along with you. God forbid that there be any attitude of arrogance or superiority. The starting point of everything I teach and preach is that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. None of us is perfect. That’s another way of saying that all have sinned. Each of us, myself included, is part of this local organization, the church, which could just as well be referred to as “sinners anonymous.” We are a group of men and women of all ages who acknowledge that we are sinners and need the forgiveness provided through Jesus Christ and the help and strength of the Holy Spirit and each other to make it through one day at a time.
Once this ground rule is clearly established, that I speak as one of you, not as one separate from you, we can move on as we endeavor to confront these very important teachings of God’s Word.
The message has two parts. Part one is addressed to parents. Part two is addressed to children.
In part one of this message I would like to draw your attention to five biblical reminders for parents.
Biblical reminder #1: Adolescent rebellion, to some extent, is both healthy and normal.
One of the biggest challenges facing me as a pastor is parents who come scared of their children as they move toward and into their adolescent years. Their speech changes, their dress changes, their tastes in music tend to push the limits, and some of the friends they hang out with are pretty scary. Remember this: The teenager who acts like her parents, thinks like her parents, dresses like her parents, enjoys the same music as her parents, is a most unique character and may not be the healthiest of young people. This is a time to stretch. This is a time to differentiate and see one’s self as separate from Mom and Dad. It is a time to think. It is even a time to doubt the entire presuppositional basis of your parents’ lifestyle, philosophy, spirituality and practical matters of conduct. It is a period, within the safety of home, to prepare to move away from home. All of this is part of what we call adolescence. It must happen.
The extent to which it can happen and be encouraged within the healthy dynamics of the nuclear family, the better off both children and parents will end up being. Hopefully, much of this coming to a sense of autonomy can be worked out through the teenage years, culminating in one’s emergence into young adulthood, in which one can rediscover one’s parents as friends.
Some young people don’t go through this until they are about to graduate from college, or even older than that. They begin to have deep struggles with their parents, going through what is called “postponed-adolescent rebellion.” That may mean that this young person didn’t go through the normal upheavals at the time that is most healthy. In fact, I know some men and women who now, in their forties and fifties, are experiencing what they should have earlier in life. There is a difference between a young adult who has honest disagreements with his/her parents that calls for communication and dialogue in which the various parties treat each other in an adult fashion. If such efforts fail and rebellion continues, it may be helpful to pursue, in a therapeutic way, some dynamics in the parent-child relationship that have made this individuation difficult. It must come for there to be health in the parent-child relationship.
Biblical reminder #2: The Bible encourages loving confrontation.
Loving confrontation is necessary if God’s grace is to be operative. Ephesians 4:26 states that we are to express our anger in a way in which we sin not. Jesus was quite specific in Matthew 5 Matthew 18, as to how we were to get together with our brother or sister in Christ with whom we have a difference and endeavor to work out those differences. Even as husbands and wives are brothers and sisters in Christ, so are parents and children. Honest confrontation and love should happen within the context of the nuclear family.
For example, I discovered when our daughters were teenagers that there was a considerable disparity between the music tastes of some parents and some teenagers. Going along with that, I discovered that usually one of the two parties prefers one volume setting, and the other prefers another. When one of those parties happens to be away at school in a dormitory, where others share similar taste in music and volume preferences, there is a fairly quick adjustment. It isn’t any great problem. However, when that person comes back into the family of origin environment and practices what is normal in another environment, the normalcy of this particular family is knocked off kilter. There had better be some substantial confrontation and love that deals with the realities of two human beings, fine persons, created in the image of God, who at least for a period of time need to make adjustments so as to share the same space.
Another example I found with our girls in their teenage years were occasions on which I had made what I thought were marvelous plans for our family to do something together, when the response was one of such multitudinous alternative viewpoints that I began to question whether or not I should ever again try to plan a family event. I had to fight the tendency to retreat into my own little place of safety and never again re-emerge. Anne helped me to realize that I was much better off to encourage a frank negotiation that dealt with the realities of the individual needs of each family member before I had set in concrete my own well-intentioned plan for the family.
Issues of dress, standards, curfew and many others must be dealt with honestly and in a straightforward manner.
Biblical reminder #3: Human individual responsibility is one of the major themes that goes throughout the entire Bible.
You and I live in a day in which we can benefit from the psychological understanding that sees family problems as being intergenerational, passed on from one generation to another. Actually, this is nothing new. There is substantial biblical basis for that conclusion.
However, there is also the tension with that intergenerational reality, a biblical call for personal assumption of responsibility for one’s own life and actions. With all the psychological insight we receive, we dare not relegate to others the responsibility for our own actions if we are to function authentically as adults, exercising the God-given freedoms that are ours.
My thoughts keep being directed to Ezekiel 18, which brings these two dynamics into healthy tension. God quotes a proverb, which perhaps had been misused by the people of Israel. He writes:
The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. (Ezekiel 18:1-4)
God goes on to distinguish between the parent and the child, acknowledging that although there are family issues that move from one generation to another, God has given freedom. He describes a man who lives in obedience to the law of God, who has a son who doesn’t. The father is faithful to the decrees of God. Ezekiel gets very explicit in how that father was faithful. Then he goes on to describe how this man has a son who is violent, who sheds blood and disobeys the teaching of God’s Word, living a very different lifestyle. He declares the right of this young man to live a different lifestyle from his father’s and to face the consequences of such actions:
If he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though his father does none of them), who eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, takes advance or accrued interest; shall he then live? He shall not. He has done all these abominable things; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18:10-13)
Then God tells how this second man has a son who sees the misguided ways of his father and how he, with the help of the Lord, lived according to the Word of God. He declares:
But if this man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise, who does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, does not wrong anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no advance or accrued interest, observes my ordinances, and follows my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, he died for his iniquity. (Ezekiel 18:14-18)
Do you catch what is being said here? There are three generations. Even as there are influences that go from one generation to another of a psychological, physical and spiritual nature, it is essential that you and I assume responsibility for who we are before God, and not simply blame what we do wrong on the previous generation or walk around feeling guilty for that generation’s sins.
Biblical reminder #4: You and I are not to provoke our children to anger.
Ephesians 6:4 reads: “And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
You and I have all witnessed the classic scene at the supermarket, the harried parent is trying to meet all the usual expectations of life, including shopping, where one child sits in the cart and the other follows along, grabbing items off the shelf, grabbing at the parent, whining, sometimes even screaming. You have seen that sight. Perhaps you have participated in it, when the parent wheels around and slaps the child in an uncontrolled outburst that breaks the heart of any observer.
The story is told about the father who is shopping who had a youngster in the cart who wanted to be out and was on the verge of putting on a scene. The father quietly was saying, “Calm down, Tom.” “Everything’s OK, Tom.” “We’ll be out of here soon, Tom.” “Tom, be patient.”
The observer was so impressed that he followed the father around the supermarket, overwhelmed with the kindly way in which the father was functioning under the exasperating circumstances with the child who was giving him quite a bit of difficulty.
Finally, the observer went up to the father and said, “I’m so impressed with the calm and patient way in which you are dealing with your son Tom.”
To which the father responded, “What do you mean, my son Tom. I’m Tom. His name is Johnny!”
If we are in the supermarket with a rambunctious toddler or dealing with a teenager trying to come to some sense of their own identity, we need, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to be talking to ourselves, endeavoring to see the large picture, asking the Lord’s help to remain reasonably calm in the exasperating circumstances of parenthood.
Biblical reminder #5: The best gift you can give your child is a mother and father who love each other.
Very little produces as much insecurity within a child today than to be the product of a home ripped apart by marital discord. It is difficult for pastors to address this issue in a society in which divorce is so prominent and marriage breakups are so frequent. We don’t want to inadvertently heap guilt on a single parent who is trying to recover from the unwanted pain of divorce and, in the process, neglect responsibility to remind each other of the pro-active privilege of building healthy marriages and working through the difficulties and ways in which our children see us, claiming God’s help, forgiveness and strength to build healthy marriages.
I can bear testimony to the fact that wherein Anne and I have not been loving to each other and have shown discord and acrimony to our children, we have let them down. The flip side of this is that this love is not to be a sentimental, mushy denial of differences, but a love that is so strong it is prepared to confront the tough, hard realities of human existence.
A child can be just as injured by being raised in an environment that denies differences, where a husband and wife are enmeshed in each others neuroses and pathologies to the point that they have not differentiated.
The best gift that we husbands and wives can give to our children is to raise them in a loving environment, in which we admit our own weaknesses and we honestly work out who we are in front of our children, in a way that they are participants in the good times and in the tough times of our family odyssey.
Now we come to part two of this message, which centers on four biblical reminders for children.
Just as handling children is not an easy job, handling parents isn’t either. Everyone, at some time or another, has hassles with their parents. You are not at all different if you experience such problems. And these challenges are not limited to teenagers. They go on throughout the adult years.
Recently I received a phone call from a young woman in her thirties who was troubled by her mother’s increased drinking.
About the same time, a businessman in his fifties was telling me about a problem he was having with his father. He had succeeded in a business and now his father was becoming extremely critical of his wife and was making intrusive demands on his family life.
And how often these days I spend time counseling men and women of my own generation who are trying to deal with the housing, health and emotional needs of their own aging parents.
There are all kinds of different problems in the parent-child relationship. Difficulties will always be present. Once again, I must underline the basic Christian truth. It is this: As long as you are a human being, subject to sin, living in a world of sinners, relating to parents who are also sinners, there will be problems. In fact, there is something wrong with your life if you have been exempt from child-parent difficulties. They are normal!
However, you are not just a sinner. If you have accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, you have the potential to move beyond bondage to these difficulties. Yours can be a liberating Christian maturity.
The question is: “How do we cope with child-parent trouble?”
Occasionally, a teenager comes to me, expressing great concern about their relationship with their parents. More frequently they share these concerns with our youth ministers, Dave Rockness and Ivan Klassen, or with one of our youth interns.
One 14-year-old told me, “My parents bug me! What can I do about them? They are impossible!” You know something? Inwardly, I had to agree with her, although I couldn’t tell her this. I knew her parents. They were impossible. They were bugging her. Her complaint was legitimate. Her perceptions were reliable. What should I say? Agree with her and leave it at that? No! My young friend had missed the fact that she was part of this problem. Not only were her parents giving her difficulty. She was making life impossible for them. She had not learned some basic facts about her mom and dad. It was only when she learned these that she was set free to experience a much more exciting lifestyle. Let’s take a look at four biblical reminders for children.
Biblical reminder #1: God created our parents for our benefit.
Can you grasp that fact? Your father and mother, as tough as they are to understand at times, are God’s gift to you. You are part of an authority structure that helps you be the person God wants you to be. In this world there is authority. This authority is ordered by God.
The Ten Commandments state: “Honor your father and mother.”
The Apostle Paul wrote, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ – this is the first commandment with a promise: ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth'” (Ephesians 6:1-3).
Do you catch the positive element of that command? We are to obey. In the process we will find a full, positive life.
Paul notes that this is the first commandment that gives a promise. The promise is that if you obey, respecting the authority of your parents, your lifestyle will be blessed of God. Whether this is simply a psychological fact of life or whether God himself goes out of His way to reward you is not clearly specified. I am inclined to believe it is both, for the Bible is God’s clear expression of how to live the life He created you to live.
On the other hand, the author of the Book of Proverbs warns of what will happen if you don’t take your parents seriously. He states, “The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures” (Proverbs 30:17). That’s tough language, isn’t it? The person who disobeys the commands of God finds out that this actually happens. Your life is destroyed by your failure to live within God’s authority structure.
What are these authority structures? The Bible teaches that God is able to accomplish His purposes in our lives through those He places in authority over us. In the family relationships, this authority is entrusted to God and parents. Every teenager has an enormous potential for either beautiful living or chaotic ruin. In God’s eyes, every child is a diamond in the rough. The father and/or mother serve alongside with God as master diamond-cutters, working to bring out the finest qualities of the young person’s God-given selfhood. If you refuse to submit to the sometimes painful experience of being shaped by the authority of God and parents, you can end up realizing so little of your ultimate potential.
Biblical reminder #2: God instructs you to obey your parents, not to spoil your fun but because it is the smart way to live.
God knows how you function best. He is the One who made you. Through His Word, He alerts you to a plan for living. He knows that your mother and father have insights that can be of enormous help.
If you are a young person struggling with your relationship with your parents, why don’t you try a new approach? Put aside for a moment some of the differences you have with them and take an opportunity to go to one or both of them for some advice. Get their opinion on some issue with which you are struggling. You might be surprised at how helpful they can be.
I am speaking now specifically to teenagers, although we of all ages can continue to learn from our parents. As a teenager, you have your dating problems. You talk them over with your friends. Have you ever stopped to think that Mom and Dad can give you a lot of good advice?
This is especially true if you are doing the asking. Remember, they were young once too. Remember, they have gone through the insecurities, frustrations and problems that you are experiencing. Remember, they made some mistakes. Confront them with your questions. You will be surprised at the wise answers they may give.
I realize you may chuckle and say, “I don’t have to ask my parents. They are loaded with all kinds of advice without me even having to ask!”
Why is that? Do you really want to know? It’s because they really care!
Mom and Dad have a lot they can share with you. Even the worst parents have a God-given instinct as to what is best for their child.
I discovered this way back in my seminary days when I was serving at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, as an assistant to Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. One Sunday afternoon, I was counseling a prostitute. She came to the church with her five-year-old boy, Michael, who had been born out of wedlock. This young woman had come to New York from the Midwest, aspiring to be an actress. Her plans didn’t work out. In a sad story of downward spiral, she ultimately resorted to selling her own body in order for her and her boy to survive financially. She was so mixed up. Yet, one thing that impressed me about her was that she was determined that Michael would be free of the mistakes she had made in her teenage years. I will never forget the sincerity of this young woman, who did not have her own act together but wanted what was the best for her child.
You say, “But I can’t get my Dad’s time long enough to have a good talk. He’s so busy in his work. And my mother, when she is not working, is in the gym or somewhere with her covenant group.”
Harold Mallett suggest writing a note to your parents. I’ll guarantee it will catch their attention. He says to write something like this:
Do you mind if I make a suggestion? We don’t talk enough. I realize how much “Go” and “Do” there is in your lives, and I know it’s important. But, frankly, I need some of your time. It’s not that I’m in a jam, or intend to be, but somehow it seems that we belong to different denominations! I go my way and you go yours. We get along fairly well, but I’m like your roomer.
I’d like to discuss dating with you, and some problems that come up about school, parties, drinking, and such. I really need to know what you would say and do.
Could we agree on a time, soon, to fix other times when we can “get with it” more? Yours for the talking!
Your parents were created for your benefit. Obey them because God tells you to and because God knows what is smart. You’ll be a lot happier that way.
Biblical reminder #3: There are circumstances in which you are entitled to disobey your parents.
I would be totally dishonest if I pretended the Bible leaves you forever in bondage to your mother and father. There are two specific contingencies which free you from their authority.
The first contingency is that you don’t have to obey your parents when what they are demanding goes in direct opposition to the Word of God, the Bible.
Jesus put it bluntly when He said, “‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me . . . .'” (Matthew 10:37).
God is the ultimate authority over your life. Jesus Christ should be first. You are to be free to disobey your parents when they force you to do something that goes against the Lord.
For example, there are some fathers and mothers whose lives are so perverted by sin that they enlist their children’s aid in illegal activities. I know parents who have urged their children to lie, to steal and to cheat.
And, hardly a day goes by that we do not hear a case history of a young person whose parent has used them sexually.
God never expects you to obey your parents when this goes against God’s instructions for creative Christian living. Remember, though, you are going to have to know the Bible. You should be growing in your relationship with the Lord so as to know what is right and what is wrong. I believe that in most cases the requests of parents do not go counter to the Word of God. But when they do, the highest authority is God, not Mom and Dad. Please don’t use this as a copout. Use this as a responsibility. In most cases, your commitment to the Lord will only increase the quality of your relationship with your parents as you, in a healthy way, acknowledge their authority.
The second contingency is that you don’t have to obey your parents forever.
The day comes when you leave your father and mother.
If you are a single young adult, you will have the privilege and responsibility of making your own decisions.
If you are married, the Bible urges you to leave your father and mother and cleave to your partner.
As an adult, you will be primarily under the authority of God and His Word. Maturity in a young person means that you are able to develop in your relationship to God and your fellow human beings so that you are able to live as a responsible adult.
As long as you are dependent on your father and mother for money, you have a responsibility to them.
A young man I know is 20 years old and has many hangups with his father. He went away to college. He and his dad continued to get along like cats and dogs. It all boiled down to the fact that my friend wanted freedom from his dad. Yet he was content to have his father pay all his expenses. When Dad made a request, he resented it. He was in bondage. Physically, he was an adult. Emotionally, he was a dependent. He wanted his freedom from everything except financial support. The fact is, he’s not going to be ready for full freedom until he is no longer dependent upon his parents for financial support.
Biblical reminder #4: Don’t be surprised if you, as an adult child, still have problems with your parents.
There are three kinds of problems I see quite frequently.
The first problem: Possessive parents.
So often I have heard this refrain: “My parents are so possessive. They try to dictate my life.” I have heard this complaint from people in their twenties, thirties, forties and even fifties.
One friend went through 30 years of professional life hounded by his father in a business relationship.
I know another man in his forties, with a lively brood of teenage children, who still is taking direct instruction from his parents, resenting it all the time. His mother has gone so far as to dictate where he lives and who his friends should be. He is being torn apart inside.
Frankly, this happens because the child doesn’t have the sense to really leave home when he becomes an adult. He may get married. She may live thousands of miles away from her father and mother. But, at the same time, they have left a link of vital connection that keeps them in bondage. In most cases, I have discovered that link is money. Most adults who have problems with their parents have them because of a bargaining situation in which the parent-child ties never mature to the point of adult-to-adult friendship. If I am dependent upon my father for the home in which I live, the job which is mine, and the inheritance which will someday come, I will find myself involved in a “love-hate” relationship. I love him because he is my father. I hate him because my relationship with him is distorted. I am still a teenager, dependent upon him, instead of living as an adult who is self-sufficient and self-governing.
Nothing is more pathetic than an adult who is dependent upon his parents for financial and emotional support. If you are caught up in that situation, get out of it. Allow your parents to be free and allow yourself to be free. Or, negotiate some kind of an understanding whereby you have clear boundaries.
The second problem: In-laws.
One psychologist states that 40 percent of the problems during the early years of marriage are related to in-law difficulties. He says there are two major causes of this. One is when the parents do not emotionally release their child. Two is when the child does not emotionally break away from the parents. The parent-child problem becomes extremely complicated because it involves someone else’s parents.
There is a strange phenomena that I have detected in counseling and in my own marriage. It is easy for your wife to criticize her own parents. She can make a list of her mother’s weaknesses and her father’s weaknesses. But if you begin to list those weaknesses, you are in trouble! Why? Because you have criticized her when you thought you were criticizing her parents. After all, she is a product of people whom you are criticizing. She expresses her independence when she analyzes them. She is depersonalized by you when you analyze them.
The smart in-law is one who gives complete freedom to one’s son or daughter to establish their own life with their new family. This means no financial support. Or if there is some financial help, such as a down-payment on a home, make certain there is a clear understanding of the implications and that you will not manipulate them in the years ahead by reminding them of the help you have given. Make it clear. It’s a gift or a loan. Let them be free from your control.
The smart young couple is one that realizes that no set of in-laws is perfect. His parents are people. Her parents are people. They love their son. They love their daughter. I believe you can best accept that love if you are free to let it be known that the two of you are primarily committed to each other. You have left your parents to make a husband-wife commitment. In turn, you are going to be loving to the parents of both, yet independent of them. This independence may require that you make material sacrifices in order to achieve complete emotional freedom.
The third problem: Aging parents.
I am spending an increasing amount of my time in pastoral conversation with people in their fifties, sixties and seventies as they are endeavoring to cope with the issues facing their aging parents who are now well into their eighties and nineties.
I am close to one couple in their seventies who have spent a major amount of their time since their retirement providing support for his aging mother and her aging father. The roles have changed. The once care-receivers have become care-givers. The question now is how to establish firm boundaries, which guarantee responsible support for one’s parents yet the capacity to continue to live one’s life meeting other responsibilities that also are important. Fortunately, we are learning more and more about the aging process. That knowledge is much needed.
Yes, the child-parent relationship is fraught with potential problems. There are hassles. At the same time, it is worth whatever work we put into maintaining healthy relationships with those who have brought us into this world. The day will come when they are no longer with us.
My friend, Joe, found this out. During his twenties, thirties and forties, he turned on his mother in revenge for her domination of his adolescent years. He belittled her, ridiculed her lifestyle and talked about her behind her back. Then she died. Joe couldn’t accept her death. Burdened with guilt, he went into severe depression. The mere mention of her name brought tears to his eyes. He would break down, sobbing. He had abused the special trust relationship. It was only when he accepted God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ that he was set free from his bondage. Still, he longs to have her back again to express his love and appreciation. He will never be able to do it in this life. He let his problems with his mother get the better of him in a way that has clouded the rest of his life.
Let me conclude with this bit of whimsy that sort of describes this fascinating child-parent odyssey. It is titled “Father.”
4 Years: My daddy can do anything.
7 Years: My dad knows a lot, a whole lot.
8 Years: My father doesn’t quite know everything.
12 Years: Oh well, naturally, Father doesn’t know everything.
14 Years: Father? Hopelessly old-fashioned.
21 Years: Oh, that man is out of date. What did you expect?
25 Years: He knows a little bit about it but not much.
30 Years: Must find out what Dad thinks about it.
35 Years: A little patience, let’s get Dad’s meaning first.
50 Years: What would Dad have thought about it?
60 Years: My dad knew literally everything.
65 Years: I wish I could talk it over with Dad once more.
I don’t know where you are in this child-parent odyssey. Hopefully something I have said has been helpful. Perhaps now is the time, before it is too late, to pick up the phone, write a letter and say “I’m sorry.” Or perhaps all you need to do is re-establish or maintain communication in a way that takes your parents seriously as God’s personal gift to you.
If it has been a troubled relationship, one with abuse, you may just have to keep those boundary lines clear. Talk to the Lord about those issues and get therapy if you continue to be troubled. Hopefully you will come to the day when you will forgive your father and/or your mother for the mistakes they made, even if they are incapable of understanding the full degree of those mistakes. Hopefully you can identify the wonderful qualities in your parents and take the initiative now to express your appreciation to them. If they are not alive, thank God for His gift of parents!
John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.