Anyone who knows a fair amount about my own life history will recognize that my own relationship with my parents, and with authority figures in general, is far from a straightforward and pleasant affair. I have never considered myself to be a particularly rebellious person, but I am intensely critical of others (and myself), and those in power seldom view criticism as a sign of respect or honor. Having written about the parent and child dynamic from the point of view of children, and having reminded parents not to discourage their children , I would now like to examine why it is that God commands respect for parents in the first place.
In a recent online debate with an acquaintance of mine, my debate partner made the rather inane statement as to why nine of the ten commandments were still applicable by saying that we should honor parents “because it makes them happy.” And no doubt, honoring parents (and, by extension, those in authority) does make them happy, at least certain types of honor and respect do. Only a godly person is made happy by the sort of respect that is rebuke from the godly (Psalm 141:5), but everyone is made happy by the fawning and flattering and attentive behavior of others. And yet this manipulative use of honor to flatter others is only the smallest part of the reason why we are commanded to honor our fathers and mothers. In fact, the commandment itself is not only about our physical fathers and mothers, but is designed to teach spiritual lessons.
In talking about the Fifth commandment, the Apostle Paul made an interesting statement in Ephesians 6:1-3 that relates to the fifth commandment: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “That it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”” We may note briefly that the command to obey parents is limited to what is in the Lord. That is to say, if parents command their children to do something against God, that we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). For the most part, though, parents do not command their children to disobey God, nor are most parents abusive or neglectful, so we ought to expect that in a healthy family that such difficulties as arise between parents and children over commands will be those where the children will be expected to obey their parents.
Why does the fifth commandment come with a promise, though? Both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 record very similar wording for the fifth commandment. Exodus 20:12 reads: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” Deuteronomy 5:16 is slightly longer: “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may be well with you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” The commandment in Deuteronomy adds that this had been a previously given command and adds the promise that not only will believers live long in the land if they obey this commandment but that it will be well for them.
What does this mean? Why would God connect a blessing of long life and well-being to honoring one’s father and mother? There are several possible meanings, so let us explore them at least briefly. For one, by learning to respect other people (especially imperfect people) we ourselves become worthy of respect. One of the chief psychological barriers for many people in respecting others is the imperfections and flaws of others. People often think (mistakenly) that if they can dig up dirt on an authority figure, whether political or religious or within the family, that this dirt will negate the biblical commandment to honor those in positions of authority. We have to recognize that the commandment to honor our father and mother is designed to use the family as a way to teach God’s ways so that someone may learn from the habits of honoring their parents to honor other authority members in their lives later on, and ultimately to honor and respect our Heavenly Father. Since all human authorities (by virtue of being human) are going to make mistakes, and since the purposes of God are inscrutable and hard for people to understand and accept, having a bedrock of honor and respect for authorities that does not require perfection is essential for us to honor and respect authorities at all. If we demand “perfection” by our standards from authorities in order to show them honor and respect, we will never find it and thus we will never honor anyone in authority. The fruits of that disrespect are to be seen everywhere in this present age.
The wise person will reflect on the fact that we will be judged by the same standards we judge others (Matthew 7:1-5). If we demand perfection from our leaders and authorities in order to avoid treating them with scorn and contempt, we can expect that we will receive the same treatment when we are in positions of authority, and that our own mistakes and flaws and shortcomings will also be treated with scorn and contempt in a downward spiral of incivility and disrespect. As in so many other situations in life, the golden rule applies concerning honor and respect. If we wish to have honor and respect for ourselves, we will honor and respect others. Admittedly, this is a rather selfish motivation for showing honor and respect, but it is often necessary to remind us to put ourselves in the place of others, and to recognize that though we may not have the same flaws and shortcomings that so irritate us about our parents or other authority figures, we certainly have flaws and shortcomings of our own that someone else could be very frustrated in having to deal with. Recognizing this fact ahead of time and giving those in authority respect and honor (even in criticism) when we do not feel they are worthy of respect can develop the sort of habits and character that will make us worthy of respect and honor ourselves.
In our lives we have three stages with regard to our capabilities. When we are young we are dependent at least somewhat on our parents and other authority figures to provide instruction and safety and shelter and survival. If our parents have done a good job and provided us with the resources for independence and success, we spend a great deal of time in the middle decades of our lives capable of taking care of ourselves, marrying, and raising families, and even taking care of our parents when they grow old. Then, toward the end of our lives as our health declines we become dependent on our children (or other relatives) to take care of us in our old age as we can no longer fully take care of ourselves. Given this sort of life cycle it is fairly obvious how respecting our fathers and mothers can very quickly impact our life. If we know that our own standard of living requires on the care that our children will provide us when we are old, we will be much more likely to show and model respect for our own fathers and mothers and take care of them to the best of our abilities during the sunset of their own lives. It is good to have motives higher than mere self-interest, but in such matters as these even our selfish instincts ought to lead us to threat others better in the knowledge that we too will be dependent on others, and so it pays to be generous when we have more than enough for ourselves.
We ought to remember as well that ultimately the fifth commandment is about a lot more than simply our flesh and blood parents. We learn how to see God and authorities in general by how we see our parents. Dysfunctional and abusive families do not teach their children how to show proper honor to authorities, but rather teach people that authorities are capricious and abusive, do not care for the people under their charge, and seek to gratify their own selfish lusts through positions of power. Mind you, many authorities do act this way. However, thinking that all authorities act this way greatly hinders the development of our own capacity for self-government and fitness for governing others, since we need good examples of leadership and authority to follow for ourselves in leading others. Without real-life models of godly leadership, we only have theories in our head that have never been tried out in our experience that cannot serve to improve our practice and behavior. Needless to say, this is a tragic situation, and one that is all too common. Parents have a vitally important and immensely difficult job in teaching their children godly ways and behavior, and our responsibility is to show them honor and respect for their honest efforts, however imperfect they may be, in the knowledge that we are being trained to rule over others, and that our own efforts will be imperfect as well, however much we wish it were not so.
And our health and long life and well-being may be dependent as well on how we respect and honor those authorities outside of the home as well. Not a day goes by where I myself do not feel at least some concern that my own lack of ability to trust in the authorities here in Thailand and the fact that I am very outspoken about my concerns may dramatically affect my own well-being and long life, given that most governments are made of insecure people who cannot handle rebuke. If we act in a rebellious and dishonorable and disrespectful way in our political behavior, we face the threat of prison or exile or (in extreme cases) even death. To show honor and respect for authorities may be necessary to live a long and healthy life, if we do not wish to be beaten for our faults in some dungeon or prison. Needless to say, I do not think anyone really wants those things, but I do not believe we (and I include myself here) are often serious enough about our obligations to show respect and honor to authorities, try as we might .
Therefore, we may see that the promise of the fifth commandment for long and a good life for those who show honor and respect to our fathers and mothers (as well as authorities in general) is a very appropriate promise for a variety of reasons. For one, by learning how to honor and respect others we develop the character and to be worthy of honor and respect ourselves. For another, we ourselves will be dependent on the honor and respect shown to us by our own children (or the children of others) and so modeling respect and honor ourselves helps teach others of behaviors that are necessary for our own life and well-being. Additionally, our health and well-being and life may depend on our treating authorities outside the home with respect, lest we face the wrath of the state against us. Clearly, there are enough reasons to treat authority in general with respect. It is far more difficult to develop those qualities that are worthy of honor and respect, and to model the right behavior as a leader, including recognizing that rebuke and criticism are not necessarily signs of disrespect, but sometimes of the highest level of concern. But that is a subject for another day.