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Relationships with Parents

by Jim Wilson

Of the many talks I frequently give, there are two which have received the most favorable response and the most fruitful application among young and old alike.

The first is "How to Be Free from Bitterness" and the second is "Relationships with Parents." Right now I am sitting in a study room at the Illinois Street Residence Hall at the University of Illinois. Last week, at Urbana '93, I conducted a workshop on "Relationships with Parents." Only about 50 students attended the workshop (both sessions). The shock, the incredulity, the rebellion, and the impossibility of putting this teaching into effect showed in the tears, the questions, the comments, and the follow-up conversations. This is why I am here writing it down.

I would first like to draw your attention to two passages in the Old Testament. I will first comment on them and then I will make a few suggestions for applying these Scriptures in your life.

    You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to thousands who love me and keep my commandments. (Deut. 5:8-10)

    Yet you ask, "Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?" Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him. (Ezek. 18:19-20)

When we read in Deuteronomy 5:10, "punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me," we could conclude that this is not just by our sense of justice. However, in the whole eighteenth chapter of Ezekiel we see that children are not held responsible for the sins of their fathers. Then what is the second commandment saying? It is saying that sin flows downhill and the sinful influence of our ancestors affects us, overlapping and passing through several generations. This is generational bad news. The sentence, however, does not end with verse 9; it continues with "but showing love to thousands who love me and keep my commandments." This word "thousands" is really "thousands of generations," in contrast to three or four generations. How do we know it is "thousands of generations"? For two reasons. First, it is the only way the sentence makes sense, and second, two chapters later we have an explicit statement to that effect.
Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. (Deut. 7:9)
Sin and hatred of God cause the downward movement to three or four generations and obedience and love of God cause the upward movement to a thousand generations.

I have heard the following many times. "I had decided I was not going to be the kind of father (or mother) who raised me. I would become a Christian, marry a Christian, and do it right. I became a Christian, married a Christian and I am doing it wrong, just like my parents. I am in the second bad news generation; do I have to wait for two more bad news generations before there is a possibility of turning this descent around?" No, you do not have to wait, but unless you change your relationship with your parents and grandparents you will have to wait two more generations. Becoming a Christian and preaching the gospel to your parents does not change the relationship. Home, with parents, is one of the places where Christians think that they are allowed to lose their temper. The relationship then gets worse.

About 400 years before Christ, the prophet Malachi gave a negative conditional prophecy. It is found in the last two verses in the Old Testament.

See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:5-6)
The angel Gabriel alludes to a portion of this prophecy in Luke 1:17 -
And he [John] will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Notice: To stop the curse from happening, hearts must be turned both ways. Although most of my illustrations are speaking to and about children, I am really speaking to parents about their relationship with their own parents. If you are a Christian parent, turn your heart toward your parents, and turn your heart toward your children.

Now we will look at the second instance in the Ten Commandments where we read of generations.

Honor your father and mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you. (Deut. 5:16)
Application is next:
  • Love God (Deut. 5:9)
  • Obey God (Deut. 5:9)
  • Honor your father and mother (Deut. 5:16)
  • Turn your hearts to your fathers (Malachi 4:5-6)
Because we have not obeyed the two passages in the Ten Commandments, we may be in the third-and-fourth-generation promise and we will not live long on the earth (cf. Eph. 6:1). The land is in danger of being smitten with a curse. The Malachi text is a call to repentance - a turn-around of the heart.

I will now offer a few suggestions on how to have a heart repentance that will

  • stop the curse
  • cause long life
  • turn the three or four generations of bad news around to a thousand generations of good news.
First, there are a few things that are very important in this turn around, but they alone are not sufficient for true repentance. Though they are necessary to repentance, they alone bring no automatic guarantee of halting the curse.
  • Become a Christian. Without a conversion to Christ, it is impossible to love and obey God.
  • Marry a Christian. Without a Christian marriage you have no assurance that you will have Christian children.
  • Stay married: "To the married I give this command:...A wife must not separate from her husband... And a husband must not divorce his wife" (1 Cor. 7:10,11).
Without these three you can expect more bad generations. However, with them, the bad generations may still happen. Why? Because your prior generations still affect you and your children. Leaving your father and mother and cleaving to your wife does not mean that you have turned your heart to your father. Until that happens you are asking for another generation of bad news. You cannot expect to be a good husband or a good father if you have not turned your heart to your father.

In turning your heart to your father, four elements are necessary. Preaching the gospel to him is not one of them; do no do so, for this subverts his authority over you. Instead, you may write a letter to him that conveys each of these four elements. I recommend covering one element per paragraph as follows:

1.  If you have confessed to God your previous rebellion to your father or mother, then also confess it to your earthly father with no excuses or accusations.

2.  In this letter tell your father how much you respect him. If you do not respect him then of course you cannot write it without being hypocritical. But you must write it. How? First confess to God this disrespect for your father. "Why should I?" you ask, "for he has not earned it!" The Scripture says, "Honor your father and mother." It does not say, "only if they deserve it." Your father is to be honored because he is your father. You are commanded to honor him. This is not optional. If you do not honor him, then you have sinned. The same is true with your mother. Sin is forgivable and repentance is required.
    After you have confessed your disrespect or lack of honor for your father and you are sure you are forgiven, then choose to respect him. You may ask, "How? He is not respectable?" Respect has nothing to do with the respectability of the person to be respected. It has to do with the respecter and the respecter's close fellowship with and obedience to God.
    Now with freedom and sincerity, write to your father how much you respect him in this second paragraph.

3.  In the third paragraph you tell him how much you love him. If you do not love him then that has to be corrected first. Your reply may be, "He did not love me so I do not love him." If this is the case, it is true that as a father he should have loved you so that your response would have been a loving response. But we cannot go back to childhood and start over. Even if we could, that does not mean that your father would do it any different the second time. We address the problem from where we are, not from where we should be. You are now an adult, and as a Christian you have an unlimited access to love and forgiveness. If you do not have this access there is a very real possibility that you are not a Christian. As a Christian you may have to confess this lack of love for your father to God. Is it sin? Yes, it is sin. It is disobedience to the command of God. We have been commanded to love our neighbors, love the brothers, and love our enemies. If you do not think your father fits in one of these categories then perhaps you should study the unconditional quality of love and the biblical relationship of obedience and love.
    After you have confessed and have been forgiven then choose to love your father. This love requires expression, so tell him in this paragraph.

4.  The next paragraph is the place to express your gratefulness to him. If you are not grateful, then as with respect and love, it is your problem, not his. The procedure is the same. You confess your un-thankfulness to God. When you are forgiven, express your thankfulness to your father.
These four elements are necessary and required. The next two are suggestions for further ways to convey respect.

    Ask your father to tell you or write to you his autobiography, his life history. He might not do it, but he will be glad you want to know about him.

    Ask him for advice and counsel, in general and specific matters. This is part of honor.

Also write the same kind of letter to your mother, but with one change. The first paragraph should express your love to her and the second paragraph should communicate your respect for her. Both sexes of the human race need love and respect from both sexes. Of the two, women need love more than they need respect and men need respect more than they need love. However, each needs both and they should not have to earn it in order to receive it.

This letter should be followed up with other kind personal letters, hugs, and other physical expressions (e.g., handshakes, if they are warm, firm, and exuberant).

The letter can be followed up with an explanation so long as the explanation does not include excuses and accusations. Here is a suggestion: "Dad, I know that you love me very much. You have not been the best expresser of your love. So growing up I did not think you loved me. Even now I have had to take it by faith. If you wondered why I was boy crazy from junior high through college, I think it was because I was looking for male affection. Of course I did not get it. I was getting taken. Now you are wondering about my letter to you and all of the hugs you are getting from me when I come to visit. Although I now have a husband and children, I still need my father and you need me. That's why I am here hugging you. I thought I would prime the pump. I'm giving to receive." Adjust this example to fit you.

When your parents receive these two letters, several things will probably happen.

  • The letter will be read more than once.
  • It will not be thrown away.
  • You will receive some sort of favorable response.
If you do not receive a response, do not think that you did something wrong. Be patient and keep on giving. Some cultures are not expressive with their emotions, except for lost tempers (e.g., those of Northern Europe). This kind of expression from you may be embarrassing for your parents. But they still want to receive this expressed love even if they do not know how to return it.

One man in his late fifties wrote this kind of letter to his father. His mother replied, "I have been married to your father for sixty years. When he read your letter, it is the first time in our marriage I saw tears in his eyes."

In the early 1980's we held a summer school of practical Christianity at Delta House of the University of Idaho. About 40 students attended. Respect for parents was one subject that was taught. The following fall in a noon Bible class at Washington State University I was teaching on the same subject again. One of the students spoke up. He gave us a story that went something like this.

"I learned this last summer at the Delta House. When I was sixteen my father kicked me out of the house and told me to leave, saying that he would never see me again. I left home. I later become a Christian and married a Christian. Now I am a graduate student in economics at WSU. In the meantime I had not seen my father. My parents were on the brink of divorce, living in separate bedrooms at home (in one of the Great Plains states). When I learned this I wrote two letters, one to my father and one to my mother. It took me several days to write each one, so they were sent several days apart. For some reason the letters arrived on the same day, and both my parents were at home. Seeing that the letters were addressed separately, my mother took her letter to her room and my father took his letter to his room. After reading the letters, they exchanged them and went again to their separate rooms and read. When the came out my father had tears in his eyes and said, 'I'm flying out to Pullman to see my son.' I have seen my father since last summer and my parents' marriage has been saved."
There are two problems, the heart problem and the action problem. The heart problem is first. Your unlove, your disrespect, your ungratefulness has to be taken care of in repentance toward God. To write a letter without being forgiven by God only means that your letter will be insincere and hypocritical.

You may have a long wait if you wait for your father to turn to you first. You cannot afford the wait.

After you are clean, write the letters. Then continue letter writing, telephoning and visiting, expressing respect, love and thankfulness.

Doing these things will change you. You will become a better husband, son and father and a better wife, daughter and mother. Your love and obedience will bring love for a thousand generations.