Monday, May 04, 2020

Anonymous Asks (91)

“How can I honor an abusive parent?”

Well, they say third time’s the charm. Let’s test that theory.

This is my third attempt at answering a question which is more than loaded: subtext hangs over the post like giant flapping leather bat wings blotting out the sun. It also doesn’t help that I probably misread it first time round. I took it to mean “In what ways should a Christian child honor an abusive parent?” (a relatively easy one), when the author is far more likely asking “How can anyone possibly expect me to give honor to someone who has mistreated me so egregiously?”

Different question, right? And not so quick and easy.

Abusive parents are a shockingly common problem, and one that needs talking about. And yet there are too many ways to get the answers wrong, to oversimplify the complexities of abusive relationships, or to be misunderstood by not saying what you mean, by saying it with insufficient force and emphasis, or by trying to apply a one-size-fits-all solution to a problem that really must be approached on a case-by-case basis.

The Things We Don’t Know

My failed Take Two on this subject got very long. I talked about the various ways parents may abuse a child, about exactly which behaviors do and don’t constitute abuse, and about Canadian reporting laws and the complexities of dealing with Children’s Aid Societies (CAS). I’m going to leave all that aside, partly because it doesn’t address the question asked, and partly because the person asking it doesn’t give us the slightest hint about his/her own situation. We can assume the person asking is a believer, or else there is no point is attempting to deal with the question here at all, but we don’t know any of the following:
  • Is he/she grown up now, or still living at home? “Honoring” may require different things of a Christian victim of abuse depending on whether he or she is in or out of the abusive situation, looking back at it or still living through it.
  • Is the parent saved or unsaved? Yes, there are abusive professing Christian parents, and we do not simplify things by in any useful way by merely declaring all abusers raw pagans. “Honoring” looks different depending on whether the church has anything to say about the parent’s behavior.
  • Is the parent a father or mother? Both can do permanent damage, but rarely can a mother inflict the kind of raw physical carnage a father can. An abusive mother certainly cannot sire a child or force an unwanted abortion on a daughter anywhere near her own size. Some aspects of “honoring” may have to be approached differently depending on whether the damage inflicted is ongoing.
  • How old is the writer, and does he/she have abused siblings? The issue of staying or leaving home may turn on the answers to those questions, and therefore the specifics of “honoring” a parent may change.
  • And then there is this: What is the nature and frequency of the abuse? That’s certainly relevant to the degree of difficulty in honoring a parent.
With all these undefined variables behind the question, we can really only attempt to consider it in the most general terms.

Clearing the Deck

Let’s clear the deck first. The word “abuse” is often hurled around illegitimately. A parent who restricts a teen’s weeknight or weekend activities, or who obliges him or her to do chores at home should not be considered abusive just because the teen in question doesn’t enjoy doing chores or having his style cramped, and definitely not just because the teen’s school friends are not subjected to the same household rules and restrictions. One aspect of the role of a parent (who is, after all, paying most or all of the teenager’s bills) is to make decisions the teen is not yet equipped to make, hopefully in their child’s best interests. Whether any particular behavior rises to the level of abuse has more to do with the motive of the abuser than the specific restrictions imposed or inappropriate freedoms granted by way of inattention or neglect.

For our purposes, let’s define abuse as the selfish use of power by an authority figure to the serious injury of the person obeying him/her. In the context of family, it is a parent who consistently puts his or her own desires, moods, whims, goals and preferences ahead of the good of the child. It is not just someone in authority giving us directions we don’t like.

How to Live Long in the Land

So then, the child of an abusive parent who asks, “How can I honor my father or mother?” is formulating a question that requires a great deal of grace to even consider. And yet we must recognize that the Bible’s commands, while sometimes very difficult to obey or feel good about, are not complicated.

The “first commandment with a promise” is “honor your father and mother”, the reason being “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land”. “Living long in the land” is an Israelite promise, not a Christian promise, but it shows us a little bit about the sort of behavior God prefers from children. There is also nothing conditional about the command. It is a general principle of scripture that human powers-that-be are to be obeyed and treated respectfully because they are God-given authorities, not because they are good at their jobs. Even the archangel Michael did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment on Satan because of the God-given authority he possesses. Satan’s God-given position is still respected by the angels of God even after all he has done to attack and undermine the work of God.

So fathers and mothers are to be honored because they are fathers and mothers, not because they are good at their jobs. There are certain things we owe them simply because they brought us into the world. That remains true even if they are loathsome human beings.

There are also things we Christians owe to our enemies by virtue of confessing Christ as Lord of our lives. They remain obligatory even when those “enemies” are members of our own household. Following Christ demands we live like Christ did. God shows the unique character of his love for us — the same love he wants us to display to the world and to our families — in that while we were still sinners and enemies of God, Christ died for us. So we have not only God’s command to love our enemies, but the perfect illustration of God’s love in the most extreme of circumstances to serve as our guiding principle in dealing with abusive parents.

Honoring a Parent

So then, despite the difficulties and resentments involved, how does one honor an abusive parent? Whether you are still enduring abuse daily or looking back on it from outside the home, honoring a parent still involves many of the same things:
These are not easy things to do, and expecting them of early teens and new or immature Christians with perfect consistency is probably unrealistic. But honoring an authority figure means giving them everything they are due because of their God-given role. Of all the things we owe our parents (even the bad ones), love is the one debt we can never pay off.

What Honoring a Parent Is Not

Let me close with a few things honoring a parent does not mean, in case we think the scriptures demand things of us which they do not:
  • Honoring a parent does not mean covering up for them. You can speak respectfully about your parents while describing honestly and accurately what is going on in the home. In fact, if the parental behavior is criminal, or especially if younger siblings are affected by it, you have not only a moral but a legal obligation to report what they are doing.
  • Even in a non-criminal situation, after age sixteen, honoring a God-given authority does not mean you have to stay and put up with abuse if you can find somewhere else to go. Despite his resolute determination to respect Saul’s authority, David still had to climb out a window and go on the run to save his life. The age of majority in many Canadian provinces is eighteen, but in Ontario at least, no police officer will return a sixteen year old to a home he or she doesn’t want to live in.
  • Honoring a parent does not mean obeying all commands unconditionally. If you are living outside the home and self-supporting, you are not under the rule of your father and mother anymore. Even if you are still at home, God-given parental authority does not extend to forcing a child to become complicit in criminal activities or participating in things the child knows are morally wrong.
  • In the home, honoring a parent means submitting to them. It does not mean you have to pretend to agree with them. That would be dishonest. Likewise, the biblical obligation to love someone is not an obligation to like them or to pretend to have feelings for them which you don’t. That may be quite impossible. What loving them means is that you seek their good even when you don’t feel like it.
  • Honoring a parent does not mean unconditionally forgiving them. Forgiveness in scripture is not about manufacturing good feelings for an abuser. It is transactional in nature, not unilateral. It takes two people: one to repent, and a second to permanently write off his claims against the first. It is not forgiveness unless you have the involvement of both parties. Without being gratefully received, the transaction remains incomplete. Further, you do not owe forgiveness to anyone who does not seek it. Even God does not forgive those who do not ask for forgiveness. There is also a distinction to be made between personal forgiveness, which should be granted if asked for, and legal forgiveness. Crimes like rape, battery and assault are the domain of the state. An injured party can withdraw a civil complaint, but it is not within his purview to “forgive” the legal penalty of a criminal act. An individual who presumes the authority to forgive a crime is making a category error.
  • Honoring a parent does not mean you have to keep seeing them regularly once you have left the home if they are still engaging in destructive behavior that could be harmful to you and your family. This is especially true if the parent claims to be a Christian. It does mean you help them financially to the extent you are able when they are no longer capable of providing for themselves.

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