Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Mary:
Greetings, Lee. I have been an Eastern Orthodox Christian my entire life, despite brief forays into other denominations, even considering myself an agnostic at times because of the insufficiency of answers to my questions. The return to Orthodoxy always seemed the best default in encompassing at least “most of the truth.” I stumbled across “Off the Left Eye” and discovered Swedenborg’s works and now find more answers to my struggles in faith than I ever believed possible. I’ve acquired nearly all his most seminal writings and feel a depth of satisfaction and connection I hadn’t believed possible for me. Suddenly, it all makes sense.
Yet, I have a continual gnawing problem, regarding my relationship with my very elderly mother. I feel that my intense, nearly lifelong dislike for her (often times, hatred) will keep me from salvation. It is the worst stumbling block I can imagine because I see her as such a horrible, haughty, deceitful, selfish, hateful, Godless person. I can’t even find it within me to pray for her. It is my daily spiritual stumbling. We don’t speak or have any contact and while I know I am not honoring her, I simply cannot do so. Can you possibly enlighten me in this regard? Thank you for any insight you might share.
Thanks, Mary, for sharing your conundrum.
I have often thought that if I had to choose one of the three main branches of Christianity, it would be Orthodox Christianity. It seems to have departed least far from the teachings of the Bible and of Jesus Christ. However, I agree with you that the teachings of Swedenborg take Christianity and our spiritual life to a whole new level. They are also closer to what is taught in the Bible than any other Christian teaching that I am aware of.
Now to your question—which is one that many people face. You touch on this commandment:
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12, and also Deuteronomy 5:16)
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)
Clearly there is more to your question than meets the eye! Let’s take a closer look.
Honor your father and your mother
The commandment to honor your father and your mother is, of course, one of the Ten Commandments. As such, it is one of the core requirements of both Judaism and Christianity.
In Old Testament times, this commandment, like the others, was taken quite literally, and was to be strictly enforced. Jesus refers not only to the Commandment itself, but also to these laws found in the same books in which the Ten Commandments are given:
Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:17)
All who curse father or mother shall be put to death; having cursed father or mother, their blood is upon them. (Leviticus 20:9)
Old Testament law also says:
Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:15)
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid. (Deuteronomy 21:18–21)
In short, if you were living in Old Testament times and you hated your mother, you’d be in serious trouble!
Fortunately, we are no longer living in Old Testament times. Jesus has given us a new covenant that goes beyond the letter of the law and looks to its spirit. By understanding the spirit of the commandment to honor our father and mother, we can gain a whole new perspective on our relationship with our earthly parents. We gain this new perspective by coming to understand our true spiritual and divine parentage, and why we are given earthly parents in the first place.
Who is our real father and mother?
The Psalm says:
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up. (Psalm 27:10)
Apparently, even in Old Testament times some parents didn’t quite make the grade! And when parents fail us, the Psalmist tells us that the Lord will take their place for us.
Despite the heavy emphasis on God as our father in the patriarchial times in which the Bible was written, right from its beginning the Bible also makes it clear that God is ultimately both our father and our mother:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. . . . So God created humankind in his image. In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27)
The only way both male and female could be created in the image of God is if the essence and ultimate reality of both masculinity and femininity exist in God. This means that if our Creator is our divine father, then our Creator is also our divine mother. That is why the prophet Isaiah, speaking from the spirit of the Lord, could say:
For thus says the Lord . . . . As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 66:12, 13)
My purpose here is not to suggest that Christians who picture God as a male figure must throw away that image of God and picture God as female instead, or as both male and female. God appears to us in many ways, according to our particular cultural background, upbringing, and experience. Rather, the point is that ultimately God our Creator, not our biological parents, is our real father and mother. For more on this, see: “The Mother of All the Living.”
The role of our earthly parents
Of course, our biological parents are the ones who conceive us and bring us into this world. In doing so, they take responsibility for raising us to adulthood.
At least, they’re supposed to take responsibility for raising us to adulthood.
Unfortunately, many parents just aren’t very good parents. They abdicate their responsibility, either doing a bad job of raising us to adulthood, or abandoning us to others—grandparents, relatives, or foster and adoptive parents—to raise. And if our biological parents aren’t the ones who raised us, we commonly think of those who did raise us as our real parents.
That’s because being a father or mother to children means much more than contributing our DNA to their genetic profiles. Our real father and mother are the people who care for us and provide for our physical and emotional needs until we become self-responsible adults. At that point we can take care of ourselves and form our own family and circle of friends to provide a sense of care and belonging.
Further, from a biblical perspective, our real parents are the ones who provide the spiritual care and guidance we need to travel the path toward our eternal home in heaven. That’s why ancient Israelites were given this law:
Keep, then, this entire commandment that I am commanding you today, so that you may have strength to go in and occupy the land that you are crossing over to occupy, and so that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them and to their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. . . .
You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. (Deuteronomy 11:8–9, 18–21, italics added)
Notice that “living long in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors” is directly connected to keeping the Lord’s commandments. This gives greater meaning to the commandment:
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12, italics added)
This connection is made here because parents were, and still are, charged by God with teaching their children the commandments of the Lord and guiding them on the pathway to the spiritual land that the Lord our God promises us, which is the land of heaven.
Biblically speaking, our parents’ most important job is to teach and guide us toward heavenly life. We are to honor them because that is what they do for us during our growing-up years.
When parents fail to be parents
But what if they don’t?
What if our parents fail to teach us the ways of the Lord and guide us not only toward healthy, responsible adulthood but also toward eternal life in heaven?
Keep in mind that doing this is not just a matter of verbally telling us about God and the Bible and teaching us right from wrong as we grow up. Actions speak louder than words. If our parents say that we should be good, considerate people, but they themselves are mean, nasty, and spiteful to us and to other people, what message are they really giving us about how to live?
To be a real parent to our children, we must not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.
Unfortunately, some parents spectacularly fail to walk the walk even if they may talk the right talk. And some parents do neither.
If our earthly parents fail to fulfill the responsibility of fathers and mothers that God has put into their hands, are they really the “father and mother” that we are commanded to honor?
We are commanded to honor our parents so that our days may be long in the land that the Lord our God is giving us. But if our parents are not leading us toward that land by word and by example, the entire reason the Bible gives for honoring them is null and void.
This is not to say that we should be mean and nasty to our parents if they are mean and nasty to us. Two wrongs don’t make a right. We are required to give basic human respect to everyone—even to people who make themselves into our enemies. This means not treating people badly even if they treat us badly.
And yet, if our parents abdicate their responsibility toward us as parents, are they really serving as our parents at all? Are they really the ones we are commanded to honor?
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother . . . .”
When our parents fail us, the words of Jesus that I quoted at the beginning especially come into effect:
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)
Now, I don’t think Jesus literally requires us to hate our family members. Rather, I believe that he was using shocking language in an attempt to get us to think about our deep ties to our family, and how those ties can block us from following the path God has laid out for us.
Consider this passage from the book of Deuteronomy:
If anyone secretly entices you—even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend—saying, “Let us go worship other gods,” whom neither you nor your ancestors have known, any of the gods of the peoples that are around you, whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to the other, you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. (Deuteronomy 13:6–8)
The passage goes on to impose the death penalty upon any family member who would entice an Israelite away from serving only the Lord their God. While we thankfully no longer impose such harsh penalties for apostasy, the spirit of the commandment is clear: anyone, even our closest family members and friends, who would pull us away from following the Lord our God is, as the saying goes “dead to us.”
This is why my pragmatic advice for Mary and for anyone else who has been cursed with a toxic parent is to do precisely what Mary is doing, if and when it is possible: cut off all contact. No longer even consider that person to be your parent. They have not acted like a parent to you. They have abdicated their responsibility and their position as your father or mother. They therefore have no claim upon the honor that is due to our father and mother.
And once this reality becomes clear to us, then as David the Psalmist said, we can turn to the Lord as our divine parent.
Healing from the wounds of bad parents
Unfortunately, parents who are, in Mary’s words, horrible, haughty, deceitful, selfish, hateful, and godless people inflict deep wounds upon their children. When the people who are supposed to love us and nurture us from the time of our birth are instead harsh, critical, hard, and unloving toward us, they create a profound pain in our heart and in our spirit that can take a lifetime to heal from.
The beginning of that healing is to recognize that despite the messages our parents may have given us, we are precious and loved by God. It was our parents, not us, who failed to live up to God’s laws and God’s expectations of us as human beings—the most fundamental of which are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love other people as we love ourselves.
In other words, no matter what our toxic parents may have told us or conveyed to us through their hateful actions and example, they, and not we, were the ones at fault.
And the first practical step is to cut off relations with such toxic parents as soon as we are able to do so. This may not be possible when we are still teenagers. But once we reach adulthood and can take care of ourselves, there is no good reason to maintain a relationship with such non-parent parents.
It may seem harsh and unloving to cut people off in this way. But it is what we are commanded to do toward anyone, friend and family member alike, who pulls us away from God’s love for us and from the pathway that God has laid out in front of us. We are not to allow anyone to do that to us, no matter how close a relationship we may have had with them.
Jesus Christ himself did not recognize his own earthly mother as his mother when she and his siblings tried to pull him away from the work that his heavenly Father had given him to do:
The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” . . .
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”
And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:20–21, 31–35)
Eventually, Jesus’ earthly mother and at least some of his brothers became his followers. But when they had in mind to restrain him from doing God’s work, he was quick to disown them. Instead, he recognized those who do God’s will as his brother, sister, and mother.
And so we learn from the Lord’s own mouth that our true parents and siblings are those who follow God’s will and support us on our pathway toward God.
In short based on the Bible’s teachings:
- The first step toward healing from toxic parents, family members, and friends is no longer to recognize them as parents, family members, or friends, and to separate ourselves from them.
- The second step is to gather around ourselves a new spiritual family and circle of friends who are fellow travelers with us in following God’s will.
Of course, we will still have a lot of hard emotional and spiritual work to do. Wounds inflicted in childhood go deep. But if we are able to take these two steps, our healing will progress much more rapidly.
The first step is just basic common sense. To heal from physical wounds, we must remove ourselves from the cause of those wounds and give our body a chance to heal. We can’t heal from knife wounds if our attacker is still slicing away at us. In the very same way, as long as we remain in contact with those who have harmed us psychologically, and who are still mean and hateful people, they will continue to inflict and aggravate the same old emotional wounds, making it impossible for us to heal from them.
And there is nothing so healing as to find and build around ourselves a new spiritual family who, instead of hurting us and tearing us down, will build us up and support us emotionally and spiritually.
Can we be saved if we hate our parents?
Sooner or later, as difficult as it may be and as long as it may take, we’ll have to leave behind any hostility or hatred we feel toward those who have deeply wronged us, including our parents. To tread the path toward heavenly joy, we must leave behind the bitterness of the past and no longer let it hold us back.
But that doesn’t mean re-embracing and reconnecting with any hateful, godless people who raised us or influenced us as children and young people. Rather, it means leaving them behind and forming a new family and circle of friends who will love us, care about us, and help us on our path toward heaven.
The lingering hostility and hatred we may feel toward toxic parents must eventually fade away. That will happen as we recognize that they were never truly our parents in the first place because they didn’t act like parents to us.
And it will happen as we realize that the Lord our God always was, and still is, our true heavenly father and mother, who loves us with a love that goes beyond all understanding, and who gives us the words of eternal life.
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
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