Mark Twain reportedly said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.” He was a wise twenty-one year old.
It’s a mistake to assume the 5th Commandment has a twenty-year shelf life: Honor your parents by doing (mostly) what they say while at home, and then you’re out on your own so don’t worry about it.
Like the other nine, the obligation is ongoing, though the way it is kept changes with seasons of life. This isn’t unique. The 7th Commandment requires chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage. So honoring your parents primarily means obedience when you live in their house, but respect and gratitude once you are out. Of course respect and gratitude are always important, but the emphasis changes. Interestingly, Paul quotes the 5th in writing to a New Testament church and alters the setting of the promise:
Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long on the earth. –Ephesians 6:2-3
The promised land has become the promised world, including Ephesus. If they want it to go well there, they would have to honor their parents, and that doesn’t change after going around the 18 times. The 5th Commandment is mostly kept (or not) in adulthood, because for the average person, most of life is lived as an adult. Put another way, God wants to bless His people living in the world through the end of their long lives. Here are five ways to honor parents in adulthood.
This is listed first because it sets the tone for the entire relationship. Children who aren’t grateful for the gift of life can’t honor God who ultimately gave it. He gives it through parents, and even if those parents did nothing else, you came here by and through them. Most parents do far more than just bring us into the world, but this foundational thanksgiving allows us to honor parents even in the rare situations when there is nothing else. You don’t honor and thank your parents because they’re honorable. You don’t honor them because they’re Christians. You honor them because they’re your parents. They gave you life. Having this pushes back against the sin of refusing to forgive and resulting bitterness that is often made a barrier to honoring parents. Imagine if God loved you based on how lovable you are! Thanking parents for life and then everything else is the first and fundamental way to turn your heart toward them (Mal. 4:6). The attitude test is to check if when you think about them you are prompted to thank God for them. Of course this has to work it’s way out into actually thanking them, but if it’s there, it will.
2. Seek their Advice
Twain realized his dad knew a lot. What he learned from 14 to 21 was that he knew very little. The promise of the 5th Commandment isn’t disconnected from life. Part of the reason it will go well with you in the earth is because you’ll learn how to live wisely from your parents. They might not be wise in every subject, but often they know a lot, even in areas they made mistakes in. Cue the quote about refusing to learn from the mistakes of others. This is why people become like their parents in ways they swore not to, because they wouldn’t honor and learn from them. Resolve isn’t enough.
3. Speak Well of Them
It’s cliche to complain about your parents except sadly no one introduces it by saying “Forgive my cliched parent-bashing .” Proverbs 17:6 says “Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of children is their fathers.” You talk about your glory, and a wise son wears and prizes his mom’s instruction like a pendant (Prov. 1:9). Want to go against the grain? Love things about your parents and say as much when they’re not around as well as when they are.
4. Include Them
They think you are too busy to bother you, and you think they have all the time in the world and will call you if they want to do something. Infrequent contact results. You’re not responsible for what they do, only for what you should do. Honor your parents by keeping in touch, issuing invitations, making them know they welcomed and invited at the right times. Some people have way too involved or intrusive parents and in-laws, and in this case clear invitations are also helpful. Come this time.
5. Plan for Their Care
Homes of various kinds for the elderly can be a great blessing, but abandoning them there is atrocious and it happens all the time. God doesn’t bless a people who ditch their parents. We know what happens when the government tries to take care of veterans and should be wary of what’s to come. Children bear the responsibility to serve aging parents when they need help, and this requires planning and forethought.
We are constantly teaching the next generation to treat us like we treat our parents and elders. Honoring them honors God and invites His blessing on the land.