It was a few years after I left home that my father tracked me down at a truck stop I was working at. Thinking he was ready to own up to the abusive home he and my stepmother created for nineteen years of my life, I stepped outside with him and we talked. It soon became clear that my father was only interested in thrusting blame on me. This behavior is consistent with unrepentant abusers. During the abuse, I was at fault for being the child of another woman. It was my fault that my father and stepmother had to deal with my mother and her quirks. It was my fault that she would call CPS on them late at night. I was the mistake that never should have been. My father made it clear that he was not going to apologize for what had occurred and that I couldn’t possibly understand the stress they were under. More excuses.
I looked past this because, at the time, I had a flawed view of theology and the call to forgiveness. I was attending Liberty University and becoming more active in my church. I recall how passionate I was that forgiveness was to be distributed quickly and without question. What I learned was the opposite: an unrepentant abuser will remain unrepentant if they are enabled to continue living in their flawed worldview.
What followed was a brief stint of a relationship that never felt quite right. My father engaged me on my still young faith. He informed me that the Jesus stuff is fluff. I had that heard that so many times, that isn’t what shook me. He would go on to say that he likes the Ten Commandments. “Great!,” I thought to myself, “a base for discussion.” That’s where my hope ended. He went on to say “Isn’t one of those commandments about honoring your mother and father?”
To my father, respect was and is everything. He would later go on to ask me, “your wife doesn’t like us does she?” Of course not! Of course my wife had issues with what they had done to me in my youth and what was bleeding over into my life as I was starting to make progress. I shook my head and my father responded, “she doesn’t have to like us. She has to respect us.” After this, I kept my distance and walked away.
You see, the abuser is manipulative in many ways. One of those ways is continuing to set the rules and boundaries that enable their behavior. This respect he was demanding as father and father in law was a way to keep his validations for abuse acceptable. Where respect for a parent often comes from their actions and nurturing, he was looking for respect by title, authority, and paranoia. I have come to give him neither. I have come to respect him as a human being who violated the gift of free will in horrific ways that can be forgiven, most likely by my own work far away from him and my stepmother.
His instance on pulling out “Honor your mother and father” was not by accident. If I am to claim to be a Christian, I am to honor my parents. It says it right there. I could see the lightbulb go off in my father’s eyes as the words rolled off his lips. In the moment, he got me. I had no response. I was still learning and growing. My outer adult regressed into my inner child and I conceded ground to him.
I’ve come to understand that this sort of manipulation harmed my concept of forgiveness. If you are to forgive your abusers in any meaningful way, you cannot start from a place of no agency in the situation. When an abuser beats you to the ground and then demands you honor them, that is called domineering. The space between the events and the remarks does not matter. If you enter into forgiveness work as a child in the mind of the abuser in a situation that is actually between two adults, you will never gain ground in your work.
Abuse isn’t always striking another person. Many times, it’s manipulation.
I’ve learned how to honor my mother and father and still hold my father and stepmother accountable. It sounds impossible, but it isn’t. You see, God is both mother and father. He is described in both ways throughout scripture. God has set a standard for what a parent does. A parent cares for their children, raises their children, nurtures their children, and leads in selfless ways in the vein of Jesus.
It is not as if birth parents are capable of matching the care of God, that isn’t my point at all. My point is that there are a few times in the abuse where I should not have survived, but I did. That’s God’s care. Where my parents sought to harm me, God sought to heal me. I honor God as my mother and father because in some very real ways, God raised me, nurtured me, and led me through the youth of my life during some intensely dark times.
This gives the survivor agency. Psalm 139:19 says poetically that God has knitted each of us together in the womb. God formed human kind in His image and declared us to be “good”. For that alone, God should be honored. God has declared the victim and survivor of abuse to be “good” when abusive parents have declared them to be less than dirt by their actions. For that, God should be honored. My parents provided a roof, some clothes, and food (though many times denied to me) to be sure, but God provided life and sustained it at times I felt like ending it. For that, God should be honored.
So where the abusive parent once held power in their title, they lose it completely. Jesus declares in Matthew 25:40 that whatever has been done to the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the youth has been done unto God. If God is the author of life, there is no honor to be given to those who come against it.
This is what I see as the difference between respect and honor. Abusers are still human beings and on that basis there should be respect shown towards them. Beyond the very primitive level of human being, there may not be much more to give for many valid reasons. Honor is given based on action and merit. It cannot be both coerced and valid.
You can forgive an abusive parent and still not honor them. Forgiveness is not a way of elevating them, it’s a way of elevating your quality of life. It is not as if you forgive an abuser and they gain a relationship or some sort of trophy. It doesn’t work like that. Relationships are not always possible and they have done nothing to earn any sort of award. When you forgive the abuser, you are starting from the ground up again however that looks with or without them and it is usually the latter.
I share this part of my story as a cautionary tale I am still learning from. You have agency. You have a community of people who have suffered in ways similar to you. Many of us have new relationships with healthy families, husbands, wives, and children. Many of us have jobs, degrees, and leadership positions. Many of us share our stories in tension with others to promote healing among one another.
All of this matters, but none of it matters more than dignity and self-respect.