I have no clear memory of my parents’ divorce. What I remember is dad having custody and mom living an hour away. I visited occasionally, never longer than a weekend, until she moved out of State when I was nine. Calls and cards became more sporadic until, in my early teens, they ceased entirely. Once, after coming to faith in Christ, I wrote a letter expressing good will. My mom's reply was brief, cordial, and the last I received. Twenty years have elapsed since I heard her voice. You could say she was an absent parent.
I believe the command “honor your father and mother” includes honoring absent parents (Ex 20:12). What is harder to determine is how Christians should fulfill it. Certainly, we are not obligated to obey, imitate, or admire our parents when they sin. The biblical term for honor is actually rooted in the idea of weightiness: basically, honoring means thinking and acting under heavy, even reverential respect for the divinely-appointed position someone holds.
Here are six ways Christians can honor absent parents.
1. Forgive them.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray "forgive us…as we forgive those who sin against us” (Mt 6:12). Forgiving absent parents does not merit your own forgiveness before God, but what it does provide is essential evidence of your living faith and indwelling Spirit. Whoever has been forgiven much will love much (Lk 7:47). Certainly, believers sin more against their heavenly Father than their earthly parents sin against them.
Despite the cliché, however, forgiving does not always mean forgetting wrongs. Wisdom dictates that people should note potential dangers to self and others. For instance, parents with a history of abuse might need to be kept at a safe distance. Nevertheless, believers evidence real forgiveness by continually letting go of ill-will and instead desiring God's blessing for those who wrong them.
2. Pray for them.
Children who were neglected sometimes struggle to receive God's fatherly love as well as the motherly nurture of the Church. Jesus’ warned, “if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Lk 17:2). Unless reconciled to Christ, absent parents sit under heavier judgment for abandoning their posts. Honor your absent parent by praying earnestly for God to forgive their sins and transform their lives.
3. Address them honorably.
Unless otherwise requested, honor absent parents by addressing them with the God-given titles of “father” or “mother.” If you have adoptive or stepparents, it may be necessary to distinguish absent parents with a qualifier of some sort. In my case, I prefer to say “natural" mother instead of “biological” or “real” mother. In God's sight, the relationship parents have toward their offspring is never purely physical but holistic, entailing spiritual responsibility. Second, describing my natural mother as “real” devalues the equally real role my stepmother assumed.
It should go without saying, but Christians ought to shun hateful terms for absent parents. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Eph 4:1). Such language not only continues the cycle of abuse but also suggests inward contempt for God’s providential appointment. The Bible illustrates this when King Saul enters a cave, unaware of David hiding at his feet. David, sensing a chance to prove his harmless intent, cuts a piece of cloth from the King’s robe. Behind this apparently innocent act, however, was sin:
Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord. (1 Sam 24:5-6)
Saul may not have been a good king, but he was God’s chosen king and therefore entitled to a degree of respect. By cutting Saul's royal robe, David disgraced a symbol of divinely appointed authority. Similarly, addressing parents by hateful names rather than their appointed titles hacks at the honor God chooses to clothe them in. Vengeance belongs to the Lord.
4. Be thankful for what they did (or did not do).
Honor absent parents by appreciating whatever tokens of care they did express. Personally, I am grateful for the care and affection my mother showed during my infancy and pre-teen years. Without her early nurture, I'd be a different person. You might also consider any positive influence an absent parent had on you. For instance, my mom was an artist who worked for local gift shops. Most of our time together was spent watching her paint porcelain houses or meticulously transcribe original poems onto greeting cards. During those hours, I learned to draw and write poems of my own. Whether or not she meant to, my mother shaped my deep appreciation of art and writing to this day.
5. Welcome them.
Supposing absent parents don't pose any serious danger, one way to show them honor is to maintain an open door for a relationship. If you have contact information, call or write yearly. Say something like, “I'm just letting you know, I believe God brought us together and I regard you as family. You are welcome to call or join us for holidays.” Ask what you might pray for. Whether or not they reciprocate, you've done your part.
6. Provide support if necessary.
Jesus once rebuked the Pharisees for accepting tithes from adults who should have used the money to provide for the temporal needs of their aging parents (Mk 7). Christ's logic is simple. When age, disease, or hardship prevent parents from providing for themselves, adult children ought to care for them, having received the same in youth. But what if your father or mother did not look after for you during childhood? Does failure to invest early disqualify parents from later drawing on God's family plan? Perhaps. I believe it is best for recipients of God's merciful love to ask, “what would be the gracious thing to do?” The Gospel doesn't stop at the letter of the law.
Living by faith in a sin-broken world means looking beyond our broken human relationships to the faithfulness of God. Rejoice in the good news that God has proven his eternal commitment to his children. The Father sent his Son to redeem, and his Spirit to work out your adoption into the family. “Father, you loved them,” says Jesus, “even as you loved me” (Jn 17:23). The Lord is never absent.
May God grant you opportunities to minister to your parents. Pray for me likewise, and if you have ideas of your own, please share them.