For many of us, Mother’s Day is a joyful occasion to honor our moms. We give thanks for the sacrifices they made to raise us, the examples they set for us, and the love that they steadfastly showed us. But for some, Mother’s Day can be a bitter and painful experience, an annual reminder of how the person who should have loved us most in this world failed us instead.
A few years ago, I counseled a young woman who grew up with an oppressive, overly-critical mother. She couldn’t go a single day without hearing her mother’s voice in her head criticizing her for not being good enough. It didn’t matter if she was completing a big project at work or chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Her mother’s opinions had become her conscience and set up a standard that she could never meet.
Have you experienced that before? Perhaps you have, but you’ve learned to silence her voice with distractions or work. Perhaps you’ve learned to avoid the pain by creating distance between yourself and your mother. Or perhaps you were so neglected by your mother that you would take criticism over silence any day.
How should the Christian man respond to the brokenness caused by a broken mother? On the one hand, the Bible’s answer is clear. It’s found in the Fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”
When it comes to the authorities that God has set over us, honor isn’t conditional. David honored Saul even though he was hell-bent on murdering him. Daniel honored King Darius even though he was a pagan. And we are called to honor our mothers even when they abused or neglected their roles in our lives.
It sounds easy, but it isn’t, because we are broken as well. The hard part about following Jesus isn’t knowing what’s right. It’s doing what we already know is right. And yet, it’s those who do what is right who build their house on the rock, not just those who know it (Luke 6:46-49).
So how do you honor your mother when it’s hard? Let me briefly suggest three things that need to happen in order to make this possible.
Examine Yourself First
When we are thinking about the sins of others, it is absolutely crucial that we point at ourselves before we point at anyone else. The Apostle Paul demonstrated this for us when he wrote that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15b). Was he truly the foremost sinner? No. Did he assume that he was the foremost sinner? Yes.
The mark of the mature Christian man isn’t that he is less sinful than others. It’s that he is more aware of his own sin than others. He isn’t like the Pharisee who thanked God that he wasn’t like other sinners. He’s like the Tax Collector who beat his breast, saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:9-14). He isn’t like the judgmental man who sees the speck in his brother’s eye. He’s like the humble man who takes the log out of his own eye first (Matthew 7:1-5).
Brothers, the first step in honoring your mother despite the hurt that she has caused you is simple: Repent. Repent of your unrighteous anger (James 1:20). Repent of your bitterness that has defiled many (Hebrews 12:15). Repent of how you have complained and grumbled about the failings of your mother (Philippians 2:14). Your mother’s sins may have led you to sin in these ways, but no one is responsible for your sins but you. Repent, and it will open the door to the next step.
Have a Forgiving Heart
In his book Good and Angry, David Powlison writes about two different kinds of forgiveness: transactional forgiveness and attitudinal forgiveness. Transactional forgiveness happens when the offending party asks for forgiveness, and the offended party offers forgiveness. There is a transaction of forgiveness requested, forgiveness offered. That, of course, is the ideal situation, but it’s not always possible. Sometimes the offender never asks for forgiveness. Then what do you do?
The answer is attitudinal forgiveness, which isn’t so much about you and the other person as it is about you and God. Jesus demonstrated this perfectly on the cross. Surrounded by his enemies, listening to their jeering and mockery, suffering under the pain of crucifixion, what did he say? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Did they ask for forgiveness? Not at all. But Jesus had an attitude of forgiveness, which led to him praying for their forgiveness.
Transactional forgiveness may not be possible between you and your mother, but attitudinal forgiveness is always possible so long as you remember how much God has forgiven you. This is why repentance has to come before forgiveness. Only forgiven sinners can forgive sinners. Only those who know that their infinite debt has been paid can pay the finite debts of others (Matthew 18:23-35). Seek the forgiveness of God, and you will be able to forgive your mother.
Take Active Steps
Lastly, take active steps to show honor to your mother. The Fifth Commandment isn’t a negative command like many of the others in the Decalogue. It doesn’t say “You shall not dishonor your father and your mother”. Worded like that, the Commandment could be obeyed by avoiding certain actions. But this Commandment is different. It’s a positive command. “Honour your father and your mother”, it says. This Commandment requires something of you. Honour isn’t given through avoidance. It can only be given through action.
There are many ways this can be done, but here are just a few:
- Carefully guard your thoughts about your mother, because honor begins in your heart.
- Be grateful for the positive qualities that your mother passed on to you.
- Speak well of your mother in private conversations.
- Write your mother a card expressing gratitude to her for raising you.
- Send her a gift that shows her that you value her.
I can’t guarantee that she will receive letters or gifts well. She may ignore them. She may throw them back in your face. If that happens, just remember that her response isn’t up to you. If she wants to respond with bitterness and anger, that’s on her. Your responsibility is to forgive her, love her, and honor her. If you do, I guarantee that you will honor God, the only One who is truly worthy of honor.