While I was up north this weekend in Tacoma , our retired pastor gave a sermon that two different people independently made me aware of, which makes sense since his topic was the same as my topic of a post that same day , namely the problem of dysfunction. Both in reading the transcript I was sent about the sermon and in hearing, in some detail, the message from a different person, it was assumed that I would want to reply to the message. The assumption was all too accurate. The retired minister gave a lengthy discussion of dysfunction, including painful generational patterns of dysfunction, with the assumption that the Bible does not write a great deal about dysfunction because mankind was not meant to live that way, but that is not an entirely accurate statement. After all, there are a lot of things about the ancient world that were not as they should be, including slavery, polygamy, prostitution, idolatry, economic exploitation, divorce, and numerous unsavory sexual sins, and the Bible talks about them, sometimes very briefly and definitively and sometimes at some length concerning regulation . Biblical times had plenty of dysfunction, and does not hide the dysfunction of the families of Jacob or David, which show the same sorts of problems that we have in our society. So, despite that fact, why does the Bible speak so little about such issues as we care about, specifically when it comes to honor.
The truth, as painful as it is to admit, is that the commandment to honor parents  is entirely unrelated to the worthiness of those parents to be honored. This is both a very difficult thing, and a very easy thing. It is very difficult on the front end because, as we are unjust beings obsessed with being treated justly, we insist like ferocious small children that it is unfair to respect parents who are unworthy of it. Our initial line of justifying any refusal to honor and respect others is their incompetence or their outright wickedness. It is our practice that if we can prove that someone is wicked, that we are absolved in treating them with any kind of respect or honor whatsoever. The Bible gives no approval to this automatic human tendency. When Paul wrote Romans 13, which commanded that authorities be respected and viewed as servants of God, he was writing to Nero, a debauched and corrupt ruler who would, as a point of fact, later execute Paul and many other Christians. Did God command him to be respected by believers anyway? You bet. Paul himself had to accept rebuke for his harsh denunciations of a corrupt high priest who had commanded him to be slapped contrary to law. Did the lawless behavior of the high priest nullify Paul’s responsibility and obligation to honor him as an authority? Not at all.
Seeing then that our native human tendency to wish to dishonor those who behave dishonorably is not supported in scripture, and that, on the contrary, we consistently see it commanded to respect authority and respect those in offices despite the fact that so few of the people who hold offices of responsibility in various institutions are remotely godly leaders, how does this make honoring easy? The divorce of the honorable nature of authorities and our obligation to honor them anyway brings out a necessary point about honor that we forget in our desire to absolve ourselves of any obligation to honor the dishonorable: we do not honor other people because they deserve it; we honor people to show ourselves as honorable. Once we realize that honor is not about who other people are and realize instead that it is about who we are, then we are freed from the tiresome need to justify dishonorable behavior towards dishonorable scoundrels, of which the world is full of, and are freed to devote our energies to being honorable people whether that honor is recognized or rewarded in this life or not, knowing that we have a heavenly judge who sees us and will reward us for our deeds, all the more so if those deeds are not rewarded here and now. Once we see that honor is about us and not about the people we honor, then we are freed to recognize our own need to be honorable, regardless of the circumstances we have to overcome. Energy that was once wasted in denunciation of others can be spent instead in development of wisdom and understanding and in the practice of godly behavior.
What does this have to do with dysfunction? Is it just and fair that a child who is raped and abused by a parent, for this sort of thing does happen, is commanded to honor that parent anyway? That is the sort of question we initially ask, but ultimately, the question is not about what is just or fair at all. Once an evil is committed, the repercussions of that evil live on. We live in a world that has been drastically harmed by millennia of sin, some of us which we have inflicted upon others, and some of which we have suffered ourselves at the hand of others. How is that curse to be reversed? The only way to break the cycle is to break the connection between how we are treated and how we act towards others. If we treat others well even when and after we have been treated poorly, it is then that we can leave a better world than we have found it, so that the nightmares that haunt our existence are not passed on to generation after generation without end. We have to stare the evil we have seen with our eyes and that has scarred us inside and out, and say to it, “I will not sink to your level, God willing,” and to cast the burden of the evils and abuse we suffer onto God and Jesus Christ, to receive their strength and aid in bearing what cannot be borne with our own strength alone.
This is the pattern that we see in the scriptures over and over again. We see God freeing slaves from oppression in Egypt, and commanding them not only to rest for themselves but to allow rest to those who serve them, that all may be able to share in the culture of leisure that most societies only grant to elites. We see God raising the poor out of the dust and seating them with princes, giving children to the barren women who is blamed for her lack of children. We see a God who says that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, reversing the expected order time and time again to demonstrate that none are beneath His care and concern, not even the plants or the animals of this world. The only way to reverse the dysfunction of this evil world is to refuse to pass it on to anyone else, to let God avenge, if He so chooses, in His own time and in His own way, and to stop the cycle of retribution or dishonor. We do not honor the corrupt and wicked authorities of this world because they are worthy of that honor; they are not in the least worthy of any honor. We honor parents, and by extension other authorities, because we are honorable people who are being trained by God to be leaders ourselves, far better leaders than those who now misrule over nations and institutions, who call themselves good shepherds when they are hirelings and bullies. We honor others not because they are worthy of honor, but because we are worthy of honor, and because we must practice giving honor before we are put in the position of receiving it. We honor others for our own sake.
In the end, the only way this world can be brought closer to how it should be is if we act how we should act. To do so requires that we submit to injustice, from time to time, however unwillingly, but that we refuse to be unjust ourselves. To do so requires that we defend the integrity of our beliefs and of our character, and treat others with dignity and graciousness, even when they are less than gracious and dignified in their own conduct. If we want to live in better families, have better friendships, go to better churches, and live in better communities and societies, the leaders that we have in those institutions are generally not possessed of the sort of Spirit of gentleness and peace and graciousness that smooths conflicts, that encourages and edifies others to surpass us in understanding, and that helps build trust and communication that allow us to live better lives. If we want such things for ourselves, and for those who come after us, we have to build a better world through the contagion of our example, through planting seeds that may not bloom for many generations yet to come. Can we dare to live in hope of a better world tomorrow, and so treat others with honor and respect, in the absence of receiving the honor that we are due from others, knowing that our honor and respect ultimately come from our heavenly Father above? God will avenge; it is our duty and glory to honor and obey Him.
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