You’re probably familiar with Exodus 20:12 –“honor your father and mother”. While fumbling over “Nan-uh, Mrs., uh, Mom?” it isn’t always obvious that this command applies to your relationship with your in laws too.
According to the current stereotype, in laws are common household enemies. There’s even the popular mantra “you don’t just marry him or her, you marry his or her family too!”
The Bible doesn’t gloss over this sort of relationship. In laws have been around from the beginning, and so has the awkwardness, difficulty, and blessing that comes with merging families. Biblical characters like Jacob and Ruth sought to honor their in laws, though difficulties abounded.
Jacob’s father in law, for example, tricked him into marrying the wrong girl and forced him into 20 years of manual labor. Ruth’s mother in law Naomi spent time in mourning telling everyone to call her “bitter”.
Though their relationships with their in laws were challenging, the way that our Biblical predecessors chose to relate to their in-laws sets an example for us.
Jacob and Laban: Respectfully Leaving and Cleaving
When you get married, you hear the phrase “leave and cleave” a lot. You might even cite it when your spouse calls Mom for the recipe that you aren’t making “quite right.”
This Biblical command defines marriage not only for the two who have become one flesh, but also for the parents. In laws should respectfully give you and your spouse space to become knit together and to form your own family. Some in laws have a harder time with that than others, and not just during your early years of marriage.
Laban, for example, loved his daughters Leah and Rachel –but he definitely had a hard time letting go. Jacob sought the wisdom of the Lord in the matter. When Laban confronted Jacob about running away as a family, Jacob pointed to God.
Respectfully, Jacob stood on the way of the Lord and relied on God to rebuke Laban in his unrighteous anger and battle for control. Choosing to respect Laban while also honoring God’s intentions for marriage, Jacob formed a covenant with Laban before the Lord that established his desire to have peaceful relationships and to do right by his wives through the leaving and cleaving process (Genesis 31).
Moses and Jethro: Humbly Accepting Wisdom and Counsel
People naturally enter marriage with pre-conceived notions of how life and relationships are done –and often each spouse is convinced that theirs and their parents’ way is the right way.
It takes humility to set aside the notions that you’ve developed in order to accept the counsel of others, especially when you feel like you’re doing really well on your own. Listening to the counsel and wisdom of your in-laws when their way is so different? That can be even harder.
Yet that is exactly what Moses did. While leading the freed Israelites through the wilderness, Moses was visited by his father in law, Jethro. While sharing with Jethro about God’s victory and praising the Lord with him, Jethro gave Jacob some unsolicited advice.
You can probably identify with that. Most of us can. What’s spectacular about Moses’ and Jethro’s exchange in Exodus 18 is that Moses actually listened. Jethro’s advice came from a place of wisdom, love, and humility before God. Recognizing his father in law’s Godly words, Moses responded in wisdom and humility as well.
Ruth and Naomi: Being Compassionately Present
Certainly the best known in-law in the Bible, Naomi is relatable. Like so many, she suffered loss in her life and became openly bitter about it. Outspoken about her grief and her hopeless situation, Naomi may not have been the most pleasant mother in law.
Imagine Ruth’s position as a young widow trying to care for a depressed in law while herself suffering. Ruth wasn’t in a familiar situation, she didn’t know anyone but Naomi. Yet her response to the trials of the family she married into was one of absolute compassion and commitment.
Ruth understood what it means to be present. Her famous words of “where you, if you…I’ll go, I will” evidence her devotion to actively participating in her mother in law’s life. She took on Naomi’s burdens as her own, just as she once took Naomi’s son as her own husband.
What’s more, Ruth wasn’t just committed to being present through Naomi’s trials like a “bad weather” friend. She rejoiced in sharing blessings with Naomi. We know about Naomi’s joyful reaction to holding her grandson –just imagine Ruth’s expression as she witnessed Naomi’s delight.
Peter and His Mother in Law: Entrusting In-Laws to the Lord
Mark 1:30 tells us that Simon (Peter) had a mother in law. When she got sick, Peter told Jesus and Jesus healed her. It’s a simple story, but it’s lovely. Peter entrusted his mother in law to the care of the Lord.
The Hebrew word for honor in Exodus 20:12 is “kabad,” which means “weighty, heavy, burdensome” concerning importance. In Greek it is “timaó,” – “to assign value.” These words describe honor as valuing someone as important.
For Peter, honoring his mother in law meant valuing her and her burdens enough to turn her over to the Lord for healing. You can do the same thing for your in laws in prayer, honoring their person by taking them on as people you love enough to lift up to the Lord, even if it has to be from afar.
Not every controlling father in law will be rebuked by God like Laban was, and not every in law will have the wisdom and good advice of Jethro. Some mother in laws may, like Naomi, be bitter –and not want you involved or around.
You can honor your in-laws anyway. Be respectful in doing what is right, like Jacob. Choose humility and listen to sound advice like Moses, while measuring it against the Scriptures like the Bereans (Acts 17:11). Remain compassionate in all circumstances like Ruth. And, like Peter, entrust your in-laws to the Lord.