Honoring the Dishonorable

Some time ago I published an article online about the Biblical command to honor your parents (cf. Ephesians 6:1-3). A reader wrote to me, explaining that her now-elderly mother had always been…well, a pretty terrible person: spiteful, abusive, ungrateful, manipulating. Her question was, How can I possibly honor someone like that?

I’ve found that many people wrestle with this same question: how do you show honor toward someone whose personal conduct is anything but honorable? Let’s see if a couple of related concepts from the Bible can help us find an answer.

Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, even those who mistreat us (see Matthew 5:43-48). The love He commands is not so much a sensation of the heart as a disposition of the will. It may be impossible to feel tender affection for someone who treats you with contempt or abuse, including a parent. But you can still show love toward them by repaying their evil with mercy and kindness (see Romans 12:17-21). We’re not commanded to like them, but we are commanded to love them.

God teaches us to honor government officials (1 Peter 2:13-17; Romans 13:1-7). Whether or not those officials are likeable, moral people, is not the issue. I doubt that first-century Christians were impressed with the character of many people in government, but God still expected those disciples to be respectful, obedient citi­zens. The same is true for us. We don’t have to like them, but we do have to honor them.

God’s command to honor one’s parents is much the same. Admittedly, in the case of a parent whose behavior is just rotten, honor doesn’t come easily. It may be impossible to feel any genuine respect for their character. But that’s not really what the Lord asks of us. He asks us — commands us — to treat that person with dignity and compassion. The command to honor is not so much about how we feel as how we behave.

That still doesn’t make it easy. It’s difficult to be kind, compassionate, and respectful toward someone who treats you like dirt. Doubly so if that person is a parent. But that’s the way our Lord has taught us. It is that very expectation that sets Jesus’ teaching — and His followers — apart. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?…If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Luke 6:32-33). Anybody can love those who are easy to love, honor those who are easy to honor. But bestowing love and honor where they are not deserved? It takes a Christian to do that.

However, honoring your parents doesn’t mean you give them a free pass when they sin. In fact, I would contend that it’s a dis­honor not to confront them if they have wronged you (see, for in­stance, Matthew 18:15; Luke 17:3; Galatians 6:1). You may need to be pretty direct (though not ugly or hateful) with someone who persists in sinful behavior. That does not show dishonor; it shows that you value that person’s soul enough to want them to change.

Jesus expects His disciples to do the unexpected — to show love toward the unlovable, to show honor toward the dishonora­ble. In short, He expects us to follow His example. “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the un­godly…But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6,8).