Many of us go our entire lives without fully understanding the connection we have with our parents. Whether you want to put your parents on a pedestal or leave them stranded on a deserted island, one thing is certain: Their words and actions have shaped you. They live in you. This is more than inheriting their mannerisms, their habits, or their values, and even more than DNA. You are connected to your parents at the deepest level of your soul.

Think of it this way: Some of you are proud to call your parents Mom and Dad, and you revel in that relationship. You want your connection to be stronger.

Some of you don’t know how to relate to them as you grow older. Sometimes you enjoy them, and sometimes they hurt and anger you. And the reason that pain is so acute is that you are connected to them. No matter what, you can’t give up on the relationship; you want that connection to be stronger.

And some of you feel nothing but pain when you think of your mother or father. You may have been abandoned. Perhaps you’ve been consistently mistreated or abused. Perhaps you have a parent who is evil and unrepentant. And yet for some mysterious reason, though you may never admit it to anyone, somewhere in your heart you may wish you could reconnect.

That’s the power of a parent.

Touching a nerve

During the early 1970s, I worked with teenagers in a ministry in Boulder, Colorado. One of my favorite messages to communicate to these teens was titled “How to Raise Your Parents.” Actually I camouflaged the real message behind the title. The real challenge was for these teenagers to obey God’s fifth commandment to “Honor your father and your mother.” As I spoke to those teenagers I realized that I was touching a raw nerve. Many had such difficult relationships with their parents that the command to honor them presented a challenge of immense proportions, a major step of faith.

As I have worked with youth and adults since then, I’ve realized that the church rarely talks about what it means to honor our parents. We’ll talk about the need for children to obey their parents, but what does it mean for an adult child to honor them? The fifth commandment has become the forgotten commandment.

This is particularly puzzling because, for many of us, the relationship with a parent goes on for decades after we’ve left the nest. What does it look like to honor parents once you’ve become an independent adult?

During the 1980s, my interest in the forgotten commandment continued to grow. For several summers I taught a class about family to over five hundred students preparing for vocational ministry, and the lecture on honoring parents always brought the greatest response. I talked about honoring parents by thanking them, by forgiving them, by praising them, and by taking the initiative to build a relationship.

The responses were fascinating. After one lecture three young women came to me and described their dads, and each man sounded the same: successful in providing for material needs but aloof, detached, distant, and unexpressive. All three women had tears in their eyes as they expressed their desire to somehow build a loving relationship with their dads.

I counseled each woman to honor her father by taking the first step to change the relationship. “Don’t expect your father to come to you, begging for your forgiveness,” I said. “Instead, spend some time alone evaluating how you are responding to your father. Then, when appropriate, call your father, and if appropriate, confess to being ungrateful. Ask for forgiveness, and say, ‘I love you.’ ”

Later I learned that, in each case, the father’s heart melted. One woman told me, with tears streaming down her face, “For the first time in my life, my father and I communicated. In the past, my father gave me cars, jewelry, piano lessons, nice vacations, everything. I told him, ‘I don’t want all this stuff, I just want you. I love you and I want to know you.’ He began to cry, and I began to cry. For the first time, he told me that he loved me.”

I don’t think our relationship will ever be the same. I can’t wait to go home.”

‘Something is happening here’

Over the next few years, I continued to receive responses like that as I spoke to adult audiences on honoring their parents. I remember thinking, God has something in this commandment we are missing today. He wants to do something profound in our relationship with our parents I don’t even begin to understand.

Often when I’ve spoken on this subject I’ve shared a letter I received from a young woman, telling about the pain she had experienced in her family. Her letter vividly describes the payoff she received as she sought to honor her father:

How thankful I am for the message you shared today. The truth of it rings loud and clear in my life. Growing up, my father physically abused me. Oh, he would beat me so bad that at times I didn’t think I was going to live. At other times my mom would be in such fear for me that she would call the police. But perhaps even worse than the physical abuse was the mental abuse. Oh, how he hated me! He would cuss and scream at me every possible thing you could think of and a lot that you probably couldn’t think of. I hated my father with a hate that few people probably ever realize exists.

 My freshman year in college I became a Christian. Over the next year and a half God took me from a tremendous hate of my father to a dislike to a like until I could say I loved my father. Then I began to find certain things out. My father was abused as a child. No one ever told me that before. His father kicked him out when he was 17.

 Does this excuse what happened to me as a child? No. Does it make it more understandable? Yes.

 My father still yells and cusses at me. But you know what? Not quite so loudly. I call him on special occasions. I share my life with him and ask his advice. His response? Not so good, but that’s okay. The other day I heard he was bragging about me at work. There’s hope. You know why there’s hope? Because God loved us enough to send His Son to die on the cross for our sins, and because people like you care enough to share life-changing messages like you did today.

Most people would have counseled this young woman to turn her back on the father who physically abused her. “He’s not deserving of your love,” they’d say. And yet she chose to honor him anyway by expressing her love and giving him the hope of a relationship that he didn’t deserve. When I hear stories like this, I realize that the commandment to honor our parents is far more important, and far more powerful, than most of us realize.

This article was adapted from The Forgotten Commandment, by Dennis Rainey with David Boehi. Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Rainey. All rights reserved.