Theology of Disability

Having dealt with “disability” in my children in one way of another for the last nine years, I have been thinking for the last few weeks about a “Theology of Disability” and by that I mean: What is disability, from a theological perspective?

I have spent the last few years with some related thoughts running around in my head about suffering and the purpose of suffering. Suffering and disability seem to be inevitably linked. Not that a person with a disability is doomed to a life of suffering and sadness, but where there is a disability, one will most likely suffer because they cannot do something or can only do it with greater difficulty and they will often have to be somewhat dependent upon others. For the great majority of people with a disability there will be some kind of pain – physical pain that one feels and/or emotional pain from isolation or lack of independence.

My first thought was that neither suffering nor disability existed in Eden and it will not exist in heaven, so can it be a good thing? Jesus went around healing people, not telling them that there was a greater purpose for their sickness or suffering (exception being John 9 – the man born blind so that God would be glorified, but he ended up healing him too).

Some of the erroneous views on disability that I have seen and evaluated are:

1. Disability is a mark of sin. It did not exist in Eden and exists only because we are in a fallen world. The predominant Old Testament view of suffering and sickness (like Job’s friends) would be that the individual or the person’s parents had sinned, causing the person pain and suffering, but Job and the man born blind in John 9 contradict this view. We see a form of this erroneous view today in circles where the person with a disability is told that they have not been healed because of their lack of faith.

2. The individual must accept their life as “less than” a whole person. This view would keep the lepers “outside the camp” (Lev. 13:46). It would tell a person with a disability to accept their lot in life as an outcast and be glad that some may throw you a piece of bread once in a while. Matthew 8 describes a leper that dared to come and kneel before Jesus and express his faith that Jesus could “make him clean.” Jesus does not tell him to remember his place; he heals him instead.

3. People with disabilities are in the world to teach the rest of us lessons about _____ (fill in the blank here – kindness, compassion, gratitude, charity, etc.). Surely all of us have learned to be more generous when faced with others that have any kind of need, but that is not the meaning of that person’s existence. Each person has been created as an individual with dignity and worth. This view treats people as non-people that exist as an object lesson for others.

It is clear that while some of these views seem to have a bit of truth linked to them, none of thems acknowledges the worth of the person and their capacity to glorify God within His plan for their lives, which, of course, none of us can do except for by His strength through the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives. What, then, can we say is a Biblical view of Disability?

1. Any part of life on this Earth that is not as it was in Eden, nor as it will be in heaven is a reminder of the fact that we live in a fallen world.
Just as when we are sick and long for a day with no sickness we are acknowledging that the world is not yet as it should be and there is a desire for a world un-marred by sin. That is a good thing because pain is reminding that there is something wrong with our present state. If we were to go through our entire lives with no pain, we would not have that longing for something better and that “God-shaped vacuum” that causes us to seek Him. If we were unable to feel pain in one of our extremities, we would never know if we were injured or is something was not right and needed to be fixed. Our pain reminds us of our need for God.

2. There is strength in apparent weakness.
It is widely believed that the Apostle Paul lost much of his vision in later years. We don’t know if it was this or another difficulty that he spoke of in his second letter to the church in Corinth, when he said that the Lord did not remove this “thorn in the flesh” because “[God’s] power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV)

Listen to the paraphrase from The Message:

Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,
My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.

(2 Cor. 12:7-10 – The Message)

Those who have a “disability” have actually been given a “gift.” It is in our dependence on God that we find supernatural strength. I can say that I depend on Him when all goes well, but the more often I am forced to trust in His faithful provision, the more my faith is stretched and the stronger my faith muscle grows. Disability does not always equal a deep spiritual life because the individual has to choose what to trust in, but it is an amazing opportunity for “Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness.”

I know that there is so much more to this topic, and that I have barely scratched the surface here, but sometimes I just have to sort some thoughts out on paper (or PC in this case). I am learning to trust God and I pray that my children will also trust God deeply and develop a profound relationship with Him.

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