How does a person navigate him or herself into adulthood and maintain a healthy respect for their parents?
Jamaal's parents insisted that he make an appointment to talk with me. They gave me a "heads up" before he came, but told me nothing about his difficulties.
"I'm angry at the world!" Jamaal announced as he blew past my administrative assistant and barged into the office.
Without looking up from my laptop I asked him to have a seat.
"I'm just so angry," he started again.
Again, I asked him to have a seat and assured him he would have my undivided attention once I finished the last sentence on my email. He waited, but not patiently. Images of Mount St. Helen came to mind as I stole a glance of him sitting, red and puffy-eyed, brooding and simmering.
Finally I moved around the desk to join him at the round table in my office. "Let's pray," I said. He bowed slightly and stiffly. Following the prayer, I asked this otherwise very mild-mannered and courteous young man, "So, you're angry. What about?"
Jamaal just finished his first year of college. Home for the summer vacation, he was finding it difficult to make some adjustments. As a new college student in a materially poor country, he was angry about the wealth inequalities he encountered for the first time. He didn't understand why so little is done for the poor while people like his parents (I assume that includes me) contentedly enjoy the excesses of life in his home country.
And he was angry that though he was becoming more independent and lived by "his own rules" while at college, he couldn't continue to live that way in his parents' home. It's this latter concern that seemed to anger him most, as a number of arguments with his father concerning his dress, hair and friends had reached volcanic proportions. Jamaal believed that he was not free to become the person he wanted to be and that society — including his parents — needed to "get over it" when it came to "superficial" things like dress, hair and personal associations. By this time I could hear Jamaal belting out his personal anthem — "Express yourself!" And that philosophy was rupturing his relationship with his parents.
How does a person navigate him or herself into adulthood and maintain a healthy respect for their parents? That was the difficulty Jamaal was experiencing when he entered my office.
And it is a real problem for many people making the transition into adulthood. Some, like Jamaal, automatically assume that because they are "on their own" in college that they are independent of their parents' authority. Some have had wonderful relationships with their parents and are finding it difficult to take on more responsibility and independence for fear of injuring their parents. Others find it difficult to honor their parents because their parents have not been good examples, wise counselors or available to them when needed.
Still others in their late teens and early 20s have never really had a relationship with their parents, so this transition may appear easier. Take it from one who falls into that category, having been independent for a longer season than most of your peers doesn't mean you don't have to think about and work to honor your parents.
The wider culture values independence and autonomy above most other things, sometimes including respect for others. The messages are everywhere, from Burger King commercials promising you can "have it your way" to teenage-focused sitcoms that relegate parents and authorities to either the status of clumsy, hopelessly out-of-date nit wits or phantom-like incidental characters irrelevant to the young person's premature explorations of adult themes and situations.
Jamaal was in danger of breaking the fifth commandment: "Honor your father and your mother ..." (Exodus 20:12). In this kind of culture, and with so many real life experiences with our parents, how can we honor God by honoring our parents even as we transition to adulthood and adulthood roles?
I looked at Jamaal with some empathy and recalled a few things I wish I had remembered when I was an angry young man working my way through college with all its pitfalls and opportunities.
Be thankful for your parents. Amidst difficult and changing relationships, it is quite easy to forget to be thankful for our parents. Parents are a gift from God given to us to model and exercise the goodness of authority and love. Even when parents fail — as we certainly do — we can be thankful that they gave us life, provided for us, and almost always desire our best. Those things are cause for thanksgiving, and perhaps we should more frequently stop to give God thanks and to express thanks to our parents for their love and care. In his anger, Jamaal lacked gratitude. And the absence of thankfulness distorted his view of his parents and his relationship to them. "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Do not wrongly judge your parents. Jamaal turned to me at one point in the conversation and said, "I've figured him out. I see right through him. He's not the man he pretends to be, and I know it." It was difficult to listen to this young man judge his father so severely. It reminded me of a period in my life when I wrote my father off as unimportant to me. All parents have faults, sin, and disappoint at times. But knowing the condemnation we deserved for our sins and the acquittal we received in Christ (Romans 8:1; Matthew 7:1-5), we should be careful not to condemn our parents. A fair biblical assessment of our relationships may be in order, but never is condemnation appropriate. I never reconciled with my father. He died before I became man enough to seek restoration. My wife once asked me what I would feel when my father died if we didn't repair our relationship. Munching on a cheese stick in Applebee's, I told her I didn't think I'd feel a thing. I couldn't have been more wrong! Seeing him lifeless in that casket, aware that I'd never have another conversation with him, or feel his larger than life hands grip mine or pat me on the back, I wept as I sat there holding the bag of undelivered honor due to him as my father. It's a regret that I pray Jamaal and others don't repeat. Have you been judging and condemning your parents, using your own standard of righteousness and withholding the forgiveness you've received in Christ? Have you been withholding honor due to them because of a judging, condemning heart? Will you repent and seek to honor them, no matter their behavior or part, before it's too late?
Develop a biblical understanding of adult freedom. The world pictures adulthood as a time of unfettered liberty and limited responsibility, a time when we indulge our desires without fear of repercussion. It's a time when responsibility is to be avoided and pleasure pursued. The Bible presents Christian adulthood as a time of greater responsibility to the Lord and liberty chained to Christ. The Christian man or woman is a person who takes responsibility for others and uses their freedom to benefit others, not their fleshly desires. "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love" (Galatians 5:13). "Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God" (1 Peter 2:16). So the key question during this transition is: Am I using my freedom to serve God and others, including my parents, or am I using "freedom" as an excuse for selfishness and indulgence in sin? Often, honoring our parents requires thinking biblically about Christian freedom.
Develop a biblical perspective on adulthood. "I'm 18," Jamaal protested. "I'm a man now ... an adult," he protested. Jamaal assumed that was a mature adult because he had reached a magical birthday and because his status changed in the eyes of certain laws as a consequence. He was using a worldly view of adulthood to justify his sinful attitudes towards his parents. But biblically, it seems that mature adulthood is defined by marriage and parenthood. In other words, the Bible reserves adult status for those who leave mother and father and cleave to a spouse (Genesis 2:24). Until that time, young men and women are generally under the authority and protection of their parents — which brings us to another recommendation.
Define the transition to adulthood with your parents. Many of us are familiar with the concept of "defining the relationship" when it comes to courtship and dating. We understand the importance of clarifying expectations, guarding hearts, protecting ourselves from inappropriate desires and liberties. We define the relationship so everyone is clear about the terms of the relationship and no one gets hurt. A similar approach might be helpful between young men and women growing toward independence and their parents who maintain responsibility and oversight in their lives. It would be wise to sit with our parents and define some particular goals for this transitional period and clarify some expectations. Ask your parents to help you identify ways you need to prepare for marriage and parenthood. Ask them to point out some strengths and gifts that need to be cultivated along with some areas where more maturity is needed. There is a tremendous opportunity between the high school and twenty-something years to lay a solid foundation for lifelong joy in the Lord. Don't neglect the gift that this period represents. "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed" (Proverbs 15:22). Honor your parents by thinking and planning with them.
See your parents as counselors on your team, not as adversaries. For many people, parents are a hindrance to some desired end. They will not let us party with our friends. They counsel against a coveted relationship. They withhold resources and money we want for financing our fleshly desires. In Jamaal's case, they even prevent us from dressing or cutting our hair the way we want. And in the height of our folly, we may become like King Rehoboam who accepted the counsel of his young peers over that of the elders who had counseled his father, King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived (2 Chronicles 10). The result was disastrous. A person can gradually come to think of their parents as adversaries, road blocks, or walking, talking stop signs. But honoring our parents means seeking and welcoming their counsel as the persons who most likely care more about our well-being than anyone else on the planet. It's a sign of Christian humility and wisdom to accept counsel. It's not surprising, then, that the Lord chose to dedicate an entire book of the Bible to exhorting children to listen to the wisdom of their parents. "Listen, my son, to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching. They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck" (Proverbs 1:8-9). If we would honor our parents in adulthood, we should ask: Am I humble enough to solicit and consider their counsel, believing that they are "on my team" and desire my best? Do I seek their counsel on all important decisions before I make a decision? Do I honor their counsel by evaluating it with the counsel of God in Scripture?
Live a transparent life with your parents. Jamaal also mentioned that he had started to drink the occasional beer in college. He assured me he wasn't drinking more than one or two. But he wondered if he should tell his parents. "Given your parents' interest in your well-being, and that they are providing the means for you to attend college, what does that suggest to you about discussing this with them?" I asked. "And, are you ever really honoring your parents by keeping secrets from them?" Increasing independence is not a synonym for increasing distance or secrecy. We honor our parents, and we protect ourselves, when we grant them access to our lives. If during the transition to adulthood we find some issues we are afraid to share with our parents, chances are those are issues displeasing and dishonoring to both God and our parents.
The Apostle Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that the fifth commandment, "honor your mother and father," is the first commandment with a promised attached, "so that you may live long on the earth" (Ephesians 6:1-3). The Lord intends that respect for our parents lead to His blessing. We are perhaps most tempted to dishonor our parents during the period in life when we're discovering what it means to be mature adults. Consequently, the transition to adulthood is the most important time to involve our parents in our lives, to honor them, and to trust the blessedness that attaches itself to obedience to God's Word.
Copyright © 2007 Thabiti Anyabwile. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.