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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

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Adults Honoring Their Parents

June 03, 2013

In certain circles a big fuss is made about the relationship between parents and their children, and rightfully so. Although at times in what I have found to be a cursory way, even in our purportedly postmodern society, we are all too familiar with the biblical imperative of honoring one's parents. Likely in frustration at one point or another, parents of all stripes[1] have chided their children about how for fear of reprisal they need to, or better honor them. The fifth commandment[2] and God of course are the likely, easy scapegoats. Nevertheless, I don't want to address the unavoidable riffs that arise between adolescents and their parents because no matter the rhetoric, the general conclusion is pretty clear: under the umbrella of accountability as a minor, one must follow their parents' rules. So long as a parent's expectations aren't criminal (or immoral, many of us would add), the child must endure until at least their high school graduation, or earlier if legal emancipation is enacted. Therefore, the relationship between parents and their adult children seems like something more worth of exploration.

As transitions occur from leader to follower, from adult to child to one of equal footing between two adults, things can get sticky. Most everyone can testify to that. Children grow up and do crazy things. They go off to college in strange places and relocate near and far following their dreams. They get married, have children of their own, and buy homes. Many develop friends, mentors, and other supporters outside of their family of origin. They come into their own. And some make really injurious decisions. But perhaps the scariest development is that they often develop values and lifestyles -- no matter how good or bad -- that aren't exactly to their parents' liking. An adult child's independence from (or dependence upon) their parents is debated within the family system, and it is from there that a melee can commence. Often this power struggle is rooted in the parents' desire to feel honored juxtaposed with the adult child's need to set their own normative conduct.

So what is honor all about in this relationship? To care for one's own children takes precedence over what their grandparents feel is best. An adult child pursuing their calling vocationally, spiritually, emotionally and such speaks to honoring one's own values regardless of their childhood foundations. Surely it means something very different to honor one's parent versus to honor one's spouse. And whatever honor is will definitely look different in each person. Honoring one's parents in antiquity primarily had legal and socio-cultural implications, ensuring that they (mothers especially when widowed) weren't left out to dry, so to speak, when households were commonly more nomadic, intergenerational, and patriarchal. The biblical idea seems to always be about adult children living their best, most obedient life for God, and thus not shaming the family name. For all generations, however, the eternal reminder according to J. Wesley Brown is that,

Both God and parents are powerful authorities throughout our lives. But God is holy, the unnamable, wholly other. Parents are creatures, instruments of creation, deserving of honor but not to be confused with the final authority, the final power, which is God's alone.[3]

Both parties must grow up in a sense and keep their eyes on God, who after all is the ultimate creator and ruler of them both. When raising adolescents many parents set firm expectations and guidelines, which is appropriate. But in relating to their adult children this is no longer a viable option. Parents' opinions become optional at best because now as adults themselves, their offspring ought not inform them of nor seek their counsel or approval on every life decision. That just isn't appropriate or healthy, as independence in this way is a necessary ingredient for mature adulthood.

Knowing their lives are their own to navigate as they see fit and as God leads, it is imperative to not merely tolerate but respect the decisions adult children make. It is similarly critical that adult children agree to disagree with their parents as needed about what their parents might classify as their past or present "best efforts" in the relationship. Since everyone's an adult at this point, everyone needs to be treated as such and be appropriately held accountable. These relationships can become tenuous, however, when parents or adult children overstep their boundaries; which reminds me of a sermon I preached a few months ago at Eastern Mennonite University. While some adult children are ingrates, the story of the prodigal son being a good example,[4] in Genesis 27 we read about a mother who persuades her son to dishonor God.

In a scene parallel to Eve's defiance in the Garden of Eden, in verse 13 Rebekah tells her son, "Only obey my word..." The implication is that she was well aware that her word in that moment contradicted God's precepts. But no matter how ill-gotten the gain, meddling in her son Jacob's life was too attractive to forgo. A core tenant of Christianity, however, is that the Bible -- God's word -- is the source for distinguishing truth from error, and good from evil. Navigating the relationship between adult children and parents can easily make either one feel like Sisyphus, reduced to pushing a boulder up a hill only for deep disappointment to grow each time it rolls back down. Many parents express a desire for "the best" for their adult children, but in the end it really amounts to some distortion based on their unmet needs and unfulfilled dreams.

Due to unaddressed issues (such as insecurity, fear, pride, regret, etc.) and then the maladaptive behaviors that follow, parents sometimes are the biggest stumbling block in their adult children's lives. Rather than inspiring and supporting them to live within God's parameters of grace, deep faith, selflessness, and service, they instead push them towards their own flawed rubric of success. Of course, not all parents do this, but it is precisely what Rebekah did. And she is certainly not alone. No one I know has parents like Cliff and Claire Huxtable, forever affirming and flexible with comforting comedic relief. That is make-believe and as G.K. Chesterton told us: "Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves."[5]

We don't like to talk about conflict. It scares the bejeebers out of us. But the truth is some parents are a "hot mess," with unaddressed shortcomings and sins that leave them bound to immaturity and ineptitude of various kinds. They refuse to seek their own healing, which can, if we are honest, severely limit the ability of adult children to have as close of a relationship with their parents that might otherwise be possible. But in the real-world, this is life. So what do adult children do when their parents try to force their values on them, when they encourage them to stunt their own growth and thus violate God's principles?

Adult children doing what their parents think they ought to do, seeking their approval at all costs doesn't bring honor to anyone. It is ultimately only by honoring God that honor is bestowed on one's parents, whether or not one's parents understand or agree with their adult child's interpretation of that paradigm. In classic intervention lingo, it may be necessary at some point for either party to tell the other that doing life together up-close isn't possible and so, "From this point forward our relationship will need to change in the following ways..."

That may be a hard pill to swallow, but life, even the Christian life with Jesus at the helm is not as cozy and comfortable as often advertised. There are times, yes, even in relationships where all we can do is accept what is, hope for what could be, pray for strength, and go on pursuing the all-inclusive health that God intends for us.


[1] From agnostics and atheists to liberal and conservative Christians, and everyone in between as well as those of other faiths.
[2] Exodus 20:12.
[3] J. Wesley Brown, "Good News for Parents," Christian Century 98 (May 16, 1981): 513.
[4] Luke 15:11-32.
[5] Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton: Volume 1 (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1986), 66.


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