When It’s Hard to Honor Your Father

My dad would have turned 88 today.

He was a hard man. His upbringing made him that way. Born in 1928, his mother was brought across the southern U.S. border to give birth and then they went back to Sonora where my grandfather was a local politician. My grandfather was shrewd enough to understand the value of dual citizenship and wanted my father to have the benefits that came with an American birth certificate, but my family lived in Mexico. Their whole life was there. At least for a time.

My dad tells the story of being woken up in the middle of the night and stealing back across the border under cover of darkness. My grandfather had crossed the wrong people in his political dealings and they needed to run. So run they did, back to the place of my father’s birth.

Douglas, AZ. Where my dad was born and where I would be born almost sixty years later. The family established a shoe shop and took up the humble life of cobblers. They were successful and made a good living. My grandmother, a full-blooded Mexican “Indian”, worked in the shop with my grandfather and when they died decades later the shop went to one of my dad’s brothers. Ortega’s Shoes. The shop’s still there.

It was a different time then. High school graduation wasn’t the benchmark for men like my father. Instead, he needed to leave school after junior high and help at the shop. Then, it was time to enlist in the Army. He did well there and by the time I came along in 1986 he was receiving a full military pension and added to it by substitute teaching at local elementary schools. I don’t remember much about that.

What I do remember is waking up to the hammering and sawing at about 6 a.m. every day. The man had a work ethic like nothing I’ve seen since. He was up working at the crack of dawn and didn’t stop until siesta time. But after that little nap, he was working until the remnants of the Arizona sun finally disappeared. Then, it was a little TV until he fell asleep in his chair, roused himself, and finally climbed into bed until it was time to start over again in the morning.

He had a dogged and single-minded work ethic. But still, he was a hard man. My half-brother and half-sisters may disagree (although I don’t think they would) but my dad was bad at being a parent and even worse at being a husband. He had a sharp and poisonous tongue he would turn on his wife and young son, a wicked temper, and was unpredictable at best. Some days he would be in a great mood, take a nap, and then wake up miserable. I don’t know what led to this change, but for a little kid, it was scary to see. You never knew which dad was coming out of the bedroom.

The good times became fewer and fewer until finally, they were long gone. The tension at home was thick and for reasons you don’t need to know, we decided to kick him out. It was November of 2001 (or was it 2000? The event matters more than the year.). Twenty-one years of marriage – not many of them good – were finally over. I was 15 and full of anger. My dad was the perfect target. I hated him.

The divorce was the best thing that could have happened. From the time he left until the day he died in 2007, our relationship slowly softened until we were able to ultimately reconcile. He was humbled after yet another failed marriage and he finally recognized his need to surrender to Christ. By the time he was too sick to live on his own, he was full of grace. When he died in assisted living, nurses and cafeteria workers who faced the death of the elderly every day wept over him at his death. The father who had treated his family so poorly left such an indelible mark on those that only knew his final year that they mourned his death. It still blows my mind.

I say all this because on days like today I wrestle with the fifth commandment. “Honor your Father and Mother.” I’m blessed to have an amazing mom and honoring her is a joy.

But how do I honor my father? How do I honor a man I grew up fearing and learned to hate? Even though we reconciled, how do I honor a father I never knew the way a boy yearns to know his dad?

The good memories are dominated by the bad, but there are some good. He always had me in the church. He longed to be a better man than he was. He tried to be a faithful Christian; he was just really bad at it. He knew the truth of Christ and was simply unaware of how to lay down his brokenness at the cross.

So how do I honor my father? I try to succeed where he failed. I go out of my way to cherish my wife. I tell my daughters that I love them and I ask their forgiveness when I fall short of the dad I want to be (which is all the time). I dedicate myself to the reading of Scripture and prayer. I look at the mess of my dad’s broken marriages and estranged children and realize that I’m capable of doing the exact same thing. So I lean on the grace of Christ, praying that I would be the man my dad wanted to be. And I adopt his work ethic. I go to bed tired from a good day’s work. I may not be swinging a hammer or sawing through a 2×4, but I show my children that their dad works hard to the glory of God.

A lot of us don’t have a father who is easy to honor. We have fathers who hurt us and hurt the ones that we love. Some of you may resonate with my relationship with my dad. Some of you think that I’ve had it easy. At least my father was around. At least my father never did what yours did to you. If that’s you, I weep with you. I truly do. And on some level, I feel you. But the fifth commandment isn’t rendered null and void because of the sins of our fathers. It just means that obedience is a lot harder.

My dad was a hard man to love and is still a hard man to honor. But honoring your father doesn’t mean glossing over his mess. It doesn’t mean ignoring his sins and only thinking good thoughts about him. It means giving your father the weight he earned in your life. If it was a negative weight, honor him by learning what not to be. Break the cycle. If it was a positive weight, give glory to God and try to walk in his footsteps!

Persevere, brothers and sisters. Honor your father by surrendering your life to your Father who is in Heaven. Honor your father by chasing after Christ. Be a man or woman who brings honor to your father’s name whether he deserves it or not. Not for him. But for the glory of God.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

8 thoughts on “When It’s Hard to Honor Your Father

  • April 22, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    Marcos, this is beautiful. Thank you.

    • April 22, 2016 at 7:41 pm

      Thanks Carlton, that means a lot

  • April 22, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    Thank you for your testimony. So encouraging!

    • April 23, 2016 at 4:57 am

      You’re welcome! I’m glad it was an encouragement to you.

  • April 26, 2016 at 9:33 pm

    Thank you for this post. In a way,I can relate to your experience. Am writing a biography on my Dad. It is almost half way done.

    Would really like to have it published. Kindly forward your e-mail address so we can share.

    God bless.

    • April 27, 2016 at 3:28 am

      I’m glad this post was encouraging to you. You can reach me through the Contact Us section of the website. I look forward to hearing from you!

  • February 22, 2017 at 5:28 pm


    Late to the conversation as I may be, that doesn’t take away from the fact that this article of yours is extremely helpful and exactly what I needed. Thanks so much for this. I’ve been looking for an answer to this very question for ages.

    As an ethnic East Asian who grew up in a Southeast Asian country but never felt at home in that kind of thinking (see also Joe Kim’s articles on Korean culture and how it deforms Christian doctrine), nor with my DNA and ancestry as a result, I needed to know how to carry out the Fifth Commandment without disobeying the rest of Scripture (turning them into functional idols per Confucian thought) or without denying the damage my parents wrought me. The answers that my friends from my first Western European church were giving didn’t help much, but I sincerely believe it’s not so much because they don’t have the cultural tools (I could dump a lot of information on them if they wished, and they could go ahead and verify it afterwards), but because they don’t have the inclination to listen and piece things together, and possibly can’t quite see beyond their preconceived notions. (There are those who don’t, thankfully, but I’m hoping ― and praying ― that my friend who is able to enter into the lives and perspectives of others stays as she is, with that ability unimpaired.)

    If there’s something that stood out in your post, it’s that you try to honour your Dad by learning from his mistakes and doing your all ― with the Lord’s help ― to run in the opposite direction from them. And it’s something I’ve been doing all along. So I didn’t have to bow to the legalistic ideas of said first Western European church after all (and I know they’re legalistic because the overarching mentalities that drive East Asian societies largely are) ― and that’s an immense relief.

    Once again, thank you. Or perhaps, instead of that, I ought to say a hearty ¡muchos gracias!

    • February 22, 2017 at 5:39 pm

      Hi Penelope,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I’m glad that the article was encouraging to you and that God used it to give you some answers you’d been looking for.
      Learning how to honor fathers who, in many ways, don’t “deserve” our honor is a lifelong battle. Just tonight I saw in myself again patterns of behavior that mirror my father, and I had to repent and remind myself that honoring him means dispensing of those negative behaviors and living as Christ wants me to live. So difficult, but so important for those of us that didn’t have great relationships with our fathers.

      I’ll say a prayer for you as you continue on your faith journey.



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