I’ve recently encountered quite a number of people who are grappling with issues related to honoring and caring for their aging parents. Some have parents who are no longer capable of independent living—Should they be invited in to our home or should we look at nursing homes? Some have parents who are very demanding—Do we need to give them so much time when they are being so overbearing? Some have parents who are impoverished—Should we give them money or should we be saving up for our own children? Some of these people have had clear cultural expectations placed upon them, while some have really had no expectations placed upon them at all. Both are wondering, What does it look like to obey God in this?
I have found an essential source of guidance in chapter 5 of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Though this passage’s primary purpose is to address the church about widows, Paul also addresses individuals and speaks to the related issue of what children owe their parents—which is to say, what children like you owe parents like yours.
In verse 4 Paul says “If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.” These words show that even though Christians are a family, brothers and sisters adopted by God the Father, and even though that spiritual family is real, it does not negate the biological family. If there is a widow in the church, the first responsibility for her care is not to the church, but to the family.
Christians are members of what you might consider different “levels” of family. The first duty of care falls to the immediate family: Father, mother, and their children by birth or adoption. After that, duty falls to extended family: Grandparents, grandchildren, possibly aunts, uncles, and cousins—people related a little more distantly. And only then, if none of them is willing or able to provide, does the church family assume care. It’s like there are concentric circles that extend from immediate family to extended family and on to church family. Duty begins in the smaller circle and then broadens out from there.
The text says that children or grandchildren should “learn to show godliness to their own household.” Godliness always begins in the home and among the family. If you wish to be truly godly, you must take care of primary responsibilities before secondary ones, and it’s clear that providing for immediate family is a matter of first importance that exists in that innermost circle. What does this kind of godliness involve? Paul says it looks like making “some return to your parents.”
Make a Return
The return he talks about here is essentially the repayment of a debt. In Paul’s way of thinking, children accumulate a kind of debt before their parents. So it is worth asking: What have your parents done that you ought to be willing to repay?
First, and most obviously, your parents gave you the gift of life. They brought you into this world in which you could love God and be loved by God. That is of immense worth! And then, from the moment of conception, they cared for you. Your mother endured sickness, ate carefully, took those massive vitamins, and stopped drinking coffee, all so she would give you a safe environment in which to develop. From the day of your birth your parents took care of your every need and every expense. They fed you, comforted you, and changed your diaper more than 6,000 times. They clothed you, they educated you, and let you learn to drive in their car. On and on it goes.
And what did you do for them in the meantime? Not much! You cried a lot, woke them up at night, spilled stuff, and dented their car. Along the way, you probably complained about all the things they hadn’t given you.
If you were raised in a Christian home you have even more to be grateful for since your parents introduced you to the Bible, took you to church, and told you the gospel. They spent endless hours in prayer, seeking God’s favor on your behalf.
Righting the Scales
So yes, Paul can rightly say, “make some return to your parents.” It’s like by the time you grow up there’s a huge imbalance between one end of a scale and the other. On one side is all your parents have done for you, and on the other side all you’ve done for your parents. You probably don’t do a whole lot to change that imbalance in your teens, your twenties, or your thirties. But then, as your parents age, you’re given the opportunity to right the scales.
You right the scales by beginning to care for your parents like your parents cared for you. As children age they grow in physical strength and the ability to earn money and the capacity to make wise decisions. Meanwhile, their parents begin to diminish in strength and lose their ability to make money and struggle in the capacity to make decisions. At some point roles begin to reverse. As children grow more and more independent, their parents grow more and more dependent.
And right here, Paul is calling for children to identify this and own it and take it on as their responsibility. It’s not first the responsibility of the government to make sure your parents are being treated well, living in comfort, and receiving care, though certainly they can help. It’s not first the responsibility of the church. It’s your responsibility as their child. If that’s specifically true for children whose mother has been widowed (as we see in the context of this passage), it’s generally true even for children whose parents are both alive. The great controlling principle is honor. All of this is just working out the implications of the fifth commandment.
But why should you honor your parents and make some return to them? Paul gives two reasons. The first is related to God’s special revelation in the Bible. He says, “This is pleasing in the sight of God.” God has revealed in the Bible that children should honor parents and it pleases him when you obey. The second is related to God’s general revelation in nature. In verse 8 he says, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Even people who have never read a Bible know that children are to care for their parents. God has embedded this into humanity. The person who refuses this God-given duty is acting shamefully—worse than the most defiant unbeliever.
So what do we see here? We see that God has designed family to serve a unique function. While the spiritual family is real and will endure into eternity, the biological family still remains the core social unit in this world, and one of its chief functions is to provide care and support from birth to death. Just as it’s not chiefly the role of state or church to care for children, it’s not chiefly the role of state or church to care for the elderly.
Working It Out
The text makes at least this perfectly clear: You have the first duty of care toward vulnerable family members who are lacking the necessities of life. If you fail to provide for the genuine needs of your family, and especially that closest circle of family, you’re disobeying God and bringing reproach on the gospel. If your widowed mother or disabled sister or invalid grandfather is languishing alone and in poverty while you prosper, you need to repent and provide.
Beyond that, we enter into this realm where matters may be less clear, so we need to move carefully and prayerfully. Paul seems to present a kind of idealized family here where two or three generations are Christians and honoring the Lord. Yet you may have experienced a very different reality. Perhaps you’re the elderly one and your family doesn’t intend to obey what God commands here. That’s a great sorrow. Perhaps you’re the younger one and your parents are demanding this kind of honor but they themselves are living in total disobedience to God. I understand that many people have very complicated and difficult relationships with their family and what would be easy to apply in a perfect world is actually really hard to apply in a broken world like this one.
And even then, situations can be unclear. Sometimes giving money to a parent is providing for genuine need and sometimes giving money is just enabling sin or endorsing laziness. Sometimes parents have a real need for your time and attention and sometimes their expectations are unfair or overbearing. Sometimes using the services of a nursing home is just dumping your parents and sometimes it really is loving them because it’s the only place they can receive the care they need. As is so often the case in the Bible, God has given his big command, and then trusts you to apply it to the nitty-gritty of your situation. Thankfully he has provided his Word, he has provided his Spirit, and he has provided his church. You need to take advantage of them all as you decide what to do in your unique setting. God will show you the way.
I believe that many concerns when it comes to caring and providing for parents really boil down to giving up time and money. You may be reluctant to give these things because they are always in short supply, but you need to remember that both are a gift from God, and I’m sure he gives you enough to do the things he means for you to do. He gives you enough time to fulfill your duties. He gives you enough money to meet your obligations. It would be to your shame if you took the time God has given you, then ignored responsibilities so you could pursue pleasures. It would be to your shame if you accepted the money he has freely provided, then held it back from people with a genuine need. God doesn’t give you time and money so you can carry out your own will, but so you can carry out his. You need to bring your will into conformity with God’s will and faithfully steward these precious resources. As you prayerfully take these matters before the Lord, ask God to give you clarity into your own heart and clarity into his.
And then maybe consider this. Could it ever be wrong to lean to the side of mercy, to lean to the side of grace, to lean to the side of giving more rather than less? The one who has been forgiven little, loves little, but the one who has been forgiven much, loves much. Have you been forgiven little or much? If you’re a Christian, you’ve been forgiven much, which means you can love much.
The gospel says Jesus took the punishment you deserved, so you could have the holiness you don’t deserve. It was given to you as a gift—a gift that came only through the death of Jesus Christ. So who are you to now relate to your parents only according to what you feel they deserve? To relate to your parents only on the basis of what they deserve is to ask God to relate to you only on the basis of what you deserve. You don’t want that! The fact is, you can love your parents far better than they loved you. You can give far more than they gave you. You can make a return that’s dramatically bigger than what they gave you. And because of the gospel, you can count it all joy.