This commandment may be difficult for you because of your relationship with your parents. Although you loved your father and mother, you may also have been hurt by them. How can you come to grips with this commandment?
According to our big story, God created humans according to his image (Genesis 1). Humans are to reflect how God is like. However, human beings have lost the ability to completely reflect how God is like. This was due to the disobedience of the first parents, Adam and Eve (Genesis 3). Because of their disobedience, the image of God in human beings have become like a broken mirror. You can still see the image of God but it is broken. For example, the same person shows kindness and harshness.
Theologians express the above reality by the statement “human beings have a fallen nature”. They constantly fail to reflect God’s image. The fallen nature shows itself in different ways. Unfortunately, parents have shown their fallen nature by the way they treat their children. This is not to excuse their actions. They are still responsible for how they have let their children down. I hope that knowing this would help those who are struggling with their relationship with their parents take the first steps in coming to grips with how their parents could have treated them badly.
God is the model of how a parent should be. God’s relationship to Israel is sometimes pictured as that of a parent and Israel as his child (Hosea 11:1).
What kind of parent is God to Israel? He is a parent who is responsive to his children’s needs. He is a parent who is patient with his children. He is a parent who has good intentions for his children. He is a parent who is committed to his children. This commitment is called a covenant.
The Old Testament is the story of a God who continually took care of his children even though they have repeatedly ignored his commands and committed violence against each other. Since God hates violence, he let bad things happen to his children; defeated by enemies, losing their land, etc. However, despite being angry at them, he continually forgave them and spoke lovingly to them (Isaiah 44:2).
God’s forgiveness and love for his children is ultimately shown by sending Jesus to take on the judgment for the violence of the people, thereby securing the future for those who put their trust in Jesus.
What is the role of human parents? Just as God committed himself to taking care of Israel, parents are to commit themselves to taking care of their children. Parents are also commanded by God to teach his commands to their children (Deuteronomy 6:7). The family is where children learn to love God and love others. Children learn through the modeling and teaching of parents who show love for them and for each other.
The audience of this commandment is adult children who may see their parents as a burden because they are not able to take care of themselves anymore. Children must never forget their parents and live as if they are not connected to them, even when they have ceased to be “useful” to them.
There is a saying that charity begins at home. There is some truth to that. It would be wrong if this statement is used to support being isolated from those outside the family. However, it is true that if genuine charity is never learned at home, genuine charity will not be expressed to the outside world. The person’s attitude towards family will be reflected in his attitude towards others. Of course, a person can learn to have better attitude towards others. However, it would require a lot of effort for a person to learn new habits and in life.
Biological parents are given the responsibility to take care of and teach their children. However, biological parents may be unable or unwilling to fulfill their responsibility. In his providence, God entrusts children to others. Those who commit themselves to take care of and teach children, by adoption or working in a childcare environment, have then become the parents that God commands children to honor.
Honor entails obedience to those who commit themselves to care for you. Just as Israel was to honor God who commits himself to them by obeying him, you are to honor those that commit themselves to you by obeying them.
Obedience should be done with an attitude of cooperation. Defiance is the opposite attitude that leads to disobedience. You should obey your parents when they ask you to clean your room, do your homework, etc. because you desire to cooperate with them. You should not obey just to avoid consequences. The goal of cooperation is harmony with others. When God created the woman in the Garden of Eden, she was to live in harmony with the man and the man was to live in harmony with her. In the same way, children are to live in harmony with their parents.
God gave his commands to create a harmonious community. Harmony is not just the absence of conflict. It is an atmosphere where everyone works for each other’s interests. Harmony is a characteristic of a loving community. Rules are given at home or in a residential facility for the purpose of creating a harmonious place to live in.
The fourth commandment is about cooperation with authority towards the goal of harmony. Your first authority is your “parents”. Outside the residence, there are other authorities you need to cooperate with- employers, government; or there may be terrible consequences (going to jail, losing your job).
All kinds of authority are given by God to make community function harmoniously. A harmonious community is God’s concern and when you cooperate with authority, you contribute to a harmonious community. A promise of blessing (living long in the land) is added to this command to highlight the importance of harmony in community. An attitude of defiance will create disharmony, which will destroy community.
Behind cooperation is the virtue of humility, being able to give up your interests for other people’s interests. It is the virtue Jesus showed when he dedicated himself to giving his life for others to the point of death. You cannot cooperate towards harmony if you are not humble. You may be cooperating for fear of consequences or to gain a reward, which is not cooperation that promotes harmony. It is cooperation out of self-interest. A community that is held together by self-interest is not a truly harmonious community because everyone is not concerned about each others’ interests.
Pride is the opposite of humility and in our big story; pride caused the first humans to disobey God’s command. They ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which God prohibited, because they wanted equality with God (Genesis 3).
Being humble is part of living wisely and it entails listening to what older people, especially those who are in charge of you, have to say about life (Proverbs 1:8). We may learn from them how to live wisely, even if some of their conclusions about life are not godly. Some of us have a strong drive towards independence. In our drive towards independence, we will be tempted to be dismissive of what the older generations have to say. Resist this temptation and learn from the teachings of the older generation.
The only reason to not cooperate with authority is when authority commands disobedience to God’s commands. This is because God is above all authority and we are called to be in harmony with God. We are not in harmony with God if we put another authority above God, which is idolatry.
There once was an Israelite named Daniel who refused to pray to the king of Persia, who made a decree that all people will pray to him. Instead, he continued to pray to God alone (Daniel 6). He disobeyed the king because obeying the king would have been a violation of the first and second commandments. Daniel was loyal to the king of Persia but he saw God as his highest authority. He saw all other authorities as secondary to God’s authority. Cooperation is an act of love which God calls us to. However, if a choice has to be made between God and others, we must choose God (Matthew 10:37).