What Does the Bible Really Mean by 'Honor Your Father and Mother'?

The command to honor our father and mother is important to God. He’s given us guardrails to live our lives to the full, but He does not expect perfection from us.

Meg Bucher
mother and daughter in law walking outside on hike

“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”  Exodus 20:12

Children bust through boundaries and break rules repetitively. The natural rebellion in our humanity surfaces through questioning “why” and testing our consistency to enforce consequences. Parents and caregivers put rules and boundaries in place for the protection of their children, but we make so many mistakes along the way! Our Heavenly Father has given us commands to serve as guardrails in our lives. God doesn’t lose patience with any of His children. He always forgives, never loves us less, and provides the strength and wisdom we need to obey His command to honor our parents.

What Does Exodus 20 Mean by 'Honor Your Father and Mother'?

“Honor your father and mother so that you’ll live a long time in the land that GOD, your God, is giving you.” Exodus 20:12 MSG

God gave the Ten Commandments to His people through Moses as they camped around Mount Sinai in the desert after He freed them from slavery in Egypt. Thunder, lighting, billowing smoke, and trumpet blasts announced the presence of the Lord atop the mountain as He called Moses up (Exodus 19:16-20). These commands were never meant to be legalistic, but to draw us closer to God. Honor your father and mother, specifically, means to “prize highly, care for, show respect for, and obey" authority in our lives. When we are young, we rely on our parents for food, care, and comfort. As we grow, the natural rebellion in us pushes against their authority. But still, we often learn to listen as they keep us safe from dangerous situations (crossing the street and touching the stove) and provide basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) for us.

The Hebrew word for honor means to be heavy, hard, burdensome. The Greek word means to set the value of. As we grow up, we become more independent, and our parents' and caregivers' authority over our lives takes on a different meaning. They are still our source of comfort, provision, and safety, but as we grow we are tempted more and more to question and go our own way. When we do, we often learn the hard way that their rules are in place to protect us. “Since all authority belongs to the Lord and since He instituted the family and established all human authority structures into human social relationships,” Kevin D. Zuber explains, “all such authority structures are to be respected” (Moody). God’s commandments guide us to His feet, including honoring our father and mother, and the authority figures in our lives.

Why Should We Honor Our Father and Mother and How Do We Do It?

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

God put the Ten Commandments in place as guardrails for our hearts. It’s for our own benefit to follow and obey them to the best of our abilities. “Rebellion and insubordination to parents, governments, teachers, and others, ultimately is rebellion and insubordination to God,” Kevin D. Zuber explains, “The commandment is not just applicable to minor children but teaches that adult children are to have respect and to care for their aged parents” (Moody).

The power and ability to obey doesn’t come from our own sheer will, as Paul reminded the Ephesians in the above verse, but stems from our faith in God, through Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit. There’s no way we’ll follow the commandments perfectly in this life, but every day we can choose to try. When we turn to God through Christ daily, through Scripture and prayer, we do often find the strength to accomplish things beyond our capabilities.

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” Matthew 19:17-19

We honor our parents by obeying God’s command through the power of the Holy Spirit in us. It’s a choice we make, not to earn our faith, but as an outward sign of if. James wrote that faith without works is dead. We are saved by grace, but our lives illustrate our trust in God. “Jesus moves the man from the topic of what is good (what commandments to keep) to contemplating who is good- God himself” (NIV Study Bible). We honor our parents because God is good, and the commands and guardrails He puts in our lives are out of His love and care for us. Paul wrote we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. “The reason there should be reverence and awe for a mom or a dad is so that a child will learn what reverence and awe for God is like,” Pastor John Piper explains.

The Bible reminds us when we seek Him with all of our hearts we will find him. When we put God first in our lives, we become sensitive to the Spirit’s leading, and the Bible says, “those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” (Romans 8:14) Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” 

There isn’t a soul alive besides Jesus Himself who was able to follow God’s commands perfectly. Through Christ, we can rely on the conviction of the Holy Spirit to alert us, and depend on the forgiveness and mercy of God when we fail and fall short. (Romans 3:23)

Is There Ever an Exception to This Command?

“Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.” Colossians 3:21

The fallen world full of sin we live in yields easily to the betrayal of trust we place in our parents. Abuse runs rampant in our world. 700,000 children in the United States are abused each year, and 78% of those children are victimized by a parent (National Children's Alliance). Clearly, this grieves the heart of God. Though Scripture is clear about honoring our parents, it does not in any way command us to stay in harm's way. “Civil authorities can be used by God to provide justice, protection, and healing,” CompellingTruth.org, “Reporting abuse is required of certain professionals and may serve to save the life of a child.”

Jesus commanded us to love one another. There are no exceptions to this command to love, even concerning enemies and abusers. Honoring abusive parents is a heart issue, not a toleration of abusive behavior. Get help to get away from abuse, and counseling to allow healing from it. In order to protect our hearts, God commands we forgive, and leave reconciliation in His hands. Scripture tells us to pray for our enemies, and we certainly should pray for our parents who have abused us, in order to clear any bitterness from our own hearts. We are to care for our parents when they are elderly and cannot care for themselves, but we do not have to have close relationships with them. God is not asking us to be perfect, even in forgiveness and love for those who took advantage of us in deplorable ways.

We can apply these truths and God’s wisdom to other authorities and political leaders, as well. Christ tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can keep a watchful eye out for children who are too young to cry for help in abusive situations. And we can be ears for older children to confide in, and guide them toward a way to escape from abuse. Christ-followers are called to speak up, care for and look out for those victimized by injustice at the hands of those placed in authority in society.

A Prayer to Honor your Parents

Father,

Help us to honor our parents, and the authorities in our lives. Let us not get caught up in dragging each other through the mud, but seek counsel, help, and wisdom in all situations. Father, we trust You with our lives and know if we faithfully follow Your commands You will be there to make sure goodness and justice abound. If not on this earth, we know one day all wrongs will be righted, when Jesus returns once more. Until then, guide us by Your Spirit to know what to do and how to help in hard situations and tempestuous times.

Father, today we pray for all the children in abusive situations. We pray for them to find a way to safety, and for others to find and rescue them. We pray for counselors, authorities, and medical professionals. We pray for neighbors, church family, and communities to be aware and to link together in love to watch out for abuse and report it. For those who have lived through abuse, Father we pray You would soften their hearts to forgive their abusers, so they can live life to the full as Jesus died to give them. Release any bitterness and hate in their hearts from the betrayal of trust those who were supposed to care for them damaged. We pray forgiveness and repentance over the lives of all abusers, Father. Convict their hearts to turn from their behavior and towards Your love and healing.

We pray for the rulers and authorities of this world, God, knowing You will be the One to serve them justice for misleading people in their care. We pray for blessing over their lives and for hearts to follow what is fair and just in Your eyes, on account of all of us. Help us to honor authority without compromising our faith, Father. Lead us daily, as to what that looks like and how to accomplish it. Above all, we pray love and forgiveness would rule our hearts. Father, help us to obey Your command to honor our fathers and mothers, caregivers, and authorities.

In Jesus’ Name,
Amen.

The command to honor our father and mother is important to God. He’s given us guardrails to live our lives to the full, but He does not expect perfection from us. The Father’s love always forgives, and never loves us less, no matter the struggles that are thrust upon us, or we delve into ourselves. Our salvation in Christ is not dependent upon following rules to perfection, but on our belief in Jesus, alone. Life within the love of Christ leads us to God’s wisdom in every area of our lives. He is with us, through it all.

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Photo credit: ©GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages

meg bucher profile pic bioMeg, freelance writer and blogger at Sunny&80, is the author of “Friends with Everyone, Friendship within the Love of Christ,” and “Surface, Unlocking the Gift of Sensitivity,” She writes about everyday life within the love of Christ. Meg earned a Marketing/PR degree from Ashland University but stepped out of the business world to stay at home and raise her two daughters, which led her to pursue her passion to write. She has led a Bible Study for Women and serves as a Youth Ministry leader in her community. Meg, a Cleveland native and lifelong Browns fan, lives by the shore of Lake Erie in Northern Ohio with her husband, two daughters, and golden doodle.


This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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Originally published March 31, 2021.