Since Father’s Day is this weekend, I’ve been thinking about what God says about the father/child relationship. Within the Ten Commandments He says “Honor your father and mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long and that it may go well with you...” (Exodus 20:12). This command is reiterated in the New Testament by Jesus in Matthew 15:4, Matthew 19:19, Mark 10:19, Luke 18:20, and then by Paul in Ephesians 6:2. It’s a big enough deal in Old Testament times for God to have written this as one of His top ten guidelines for life, and in the New Testament time period for Jesus to have quoted it, and for Paul to have cited it when giving direct instructions for children and fathers on how to pursue right relationship with one another.
This is where all the questions begin. Do we honor fathers who are terrible fathers, who have wounded their children greatly? Do we honor fathers whom we sharply disagree with over fundamental faith issues or political issues? Do we honor fathers who are only “good enough” fathers, but aren’t exceptional?
An answer can be found by looking carefully at the command. There is no clarification as to which fathers and mothers to honor and which ones not to honor, other than the word “your”. Honor YOUR father and mother. What it doesn’t say is just as instructive as what it does say. The command does not say “Honor those fathers among you who everyone wishes was their father” or “Honor your father if he has done a great job all throughout your life” or “as long as he has been a man of good character and behavior.” It just says “YOUR father”, and for many of us that can be very complicated.
My mind races with potential exceptions. I know many difficult situations where a father has deeply wounded their son or daughter. Here are 10 painful scenarios that come to mind as I wrestle through initial objections:
Honor your father, even if he isn’t/wasn’t the man of character you thought he should be.
Honor your father, even if he disciplined too harshly and wasn’t there for you emotionally.
Honor your father, even if he made some giant mistakes that impacted your entire life.
Honor your father, even if he did not do right by you in his final Will.
Honor your father, even if he cheated on your mother.
Honor your father, even if he is a ___________ (fill in the blank with the political party you do not ascribe to) and you two cannot agree on important issues.
Honor your father, even if he has an anger problem.
Honor your father, even if he did not/does not support the family sufficiently.
Honor your father, even if he suffers from mental health issues.
Honor your father, even if he has/had an addiction.
The tone I hope to convey is one of compassion if you are the child of any of these difficult circumstances. I am one of them myself. But I am also a mother who understands how deeply flawed we can be as parents. We can extend grace to those who raised us, and we are commanded to honor the position, whether or not we can celebrate the specific individual. I do not mean to negate or ignore any wrongs done to us by our fathers. Those are matters that require examination, forgiveness, and healing. I will also add a disclaimer here that it would be wrong to force someone to honor someone who has abused them. I know the term ‘abuse’ has come under some revisionist definition lately, but I am speaking of the kind of abuse that is severe and punishable by law. I believe that if there is not a history of very harsh or neglectful treatment toward his family, a father can still be honored.
As my husband and I talked about this topic before I ever began to write, he shared a story from the “Band of Brothers” miniseries about an army division during WWII. The details are too lengthy to line out here, but in a very dramatic part of the story there had been a role reversal which involved a subordinate moving into a position of authority over a once-higher-ranking officer. At one point the demoted officer refused to salute the newly promoted officer who now outranked him. In this powerful scene, the newer officer turned to the angry, demoted soldier who failed to salute him and says quietly “you salute the rank, not the man”.
My husband told me this story to help put some flesh on the bones of how to honor someone whom you don’t feel is honorable. You honor their position, not the flawed person they are. For many, in order to honor a flawed parent, we have to require ourselves to love unconditionally (without a checklist for that person to meet before we honor them) and focus on whatever is good.
Relationships are complex, and demanding perfection from another person prior to recognizing their position of honor in our lives is not for us to choose. God did not open it up for debate in the Old Testament OR the New Testament. He just said “do it”. “Honor your father and mother.”
So, put on your Nike’s this Father’s Day weekend and go visit your father’s grave if he is deceased, or if he’s still alive pick up the phone and give him a call, or drive to where he lives and flip some burgers with him over the weekend. Bake him his favorite pie or write him a meaningful note of thanks for what you saw as positive about him, or take him fishing, or look through a photo album with him. Whatever it is that honors his place in your life and is meaningful to him and to you, just do it. Salute the position if that’s all you have in your heart. If you can do more than that because you believe you have a good father, you are very blessed. Be grateful you can celebrate the reality of a good dad.
Finally, I want to be sure to stress that this honoring of our fathers is not for one day out of the year. I don’t want to blur one of the Ten Commandments from roughly 2,000 years ago with a U.S. holiday established in 1972. Father’s Day is only 1/365th of when dads should be treated with honor. Honoring our parents is a lifetime heart posture. Our national holiday is just a formal opportunity for saluting the position.
Happy Father’s Day to all you dads!