When a baby is born, you will often hear the comment that the baby is well. You will sense everyone’s gladness that it is. If there is something wrong, you will often hear comments that ‘they can do so much these days’ and sense that all eyes are on some doctor to put things right.
As babies grow in our culture, they quickly learn that everyone is wanting them to achieve: crawling, walking, words and, before you know it, the clarinet, the computer, the car. Along the way the child will pick up a message that resources are scarce, that we need to beat others to win, that efficiency and competence and ability are what life is all about.
In the middle of that cultural pressure, seasons will come for most of us when we will be caring for a person who has been labelled ‘disabled’. Seasons will come when most of us will ourselves be disabled in some way: an accident will damage our back or limbs or brain, a disease will affect our vision or breathing, our hearing will fade, our emotions will unravel.
My experiences of disability have come from my work as a therapist, and from being the father of a boy with intellectual impairment and a girl whose disability meant she lived only briefly. Close contact with the lived experience of disability can mean we find the stories, beliefs and clichés of our culture a little thin – unable to help us live with, or as, a person with a disability.
The Bible speaks into such a situation richly and surprisingly. Here are a few perspectives it offers that are thought-provoking and, I think, life-giving.
Disability is not a mistake
When God wanted Moses to ask Pharoah to release his people from slavery, Moses tried to get out of it by pointing out what a bad (disabled?) speaker he was. God’s answer was quite shocking: Moses needed to be reminded of the truth that we are all created by God, who knits us together just the way he wants us to be.2
When the Lord addressed Job, he also spoke of his rights and powers as Creator, urging Job to think about the wild and wonderfully diverse world he created. The world includes creatures like the ostrich, of whom the Lord says:
She lays her eggs on the ground and lets them warm in the sand, unmindful that a foot may crush them, that some wild animal may trample them.
She treats her young harshly, as if they were not hers; she cares not that her labour was in vain, for God did not endow her with wisdom or give her a share of good sense.
Yet when she spreads her feathers to run, she laughs at horse and rider.3
In this passage and the ones that surround it, God seems to be delighting in his own capacity to create diversity, even if it seems inefficient or puzzling from a human point of view.
I find this very liberating when I want to see disability as an unfair tragedy or to see my children or myself as victims in a random, cruel game. There is One who stands behind disability who knows what he is doing.
Interestingly, the ostrich comments come from a speech that is meant to help Job marvel at the world and give up the desire to understand everything. It’s an elaboration on the idea, raised earlier in the book, that humans are immensely clever and can achieve things that no other creature can – yet we find it so hard to live wisely and make sense of everything that happens around us.4 Put bluntly, when it comes to the ability to be wise, we are all disabled.
We don’t have to find the cause or ascribe blame
The book of Job spends 42 chapters helping us see that when people respond to a sick or suffering person by looking for the sin that caused the problem, they make profound fools of themselves. That’s not to say that there is no connection between sin and disability. Specific sins, like shooting a person or driving while drunk, can do all kinds of damage. Systemic corruption will mean that famine, chemical weapons, land mines and dangerous drugs will take their toll in people’s lives. But sin is just the wrong category to have in mind when we sit with a person with a disability. In Job’s case it was actually his incomparably good life that meant he ended up burdened with grief, social isolation and an intolerable skin complaint.
When Jesus’ disciples encountered a man born blind, they acted like Job’s friends by trying to see who was to blame. Jesus stepped above the question and urged people to notice how God’s work might shine in and through this man because of his disability.5
Sometimes I wonder if the heavily medical way we think about disability in our culture is very close to the impulses of Job’s friends and Jesus’ disciples. We don’t say we’re looking for a sin as such, but we still look pretty hard for a cause. I know the medical approach is of use in providing treatment, but it brings with it the unspoken assumption that we need to get to the bottom of a child’s disability so we can get rid of it or stop it happening again. As more and more antenatal testing becomes available, the pressure to make sure we are not the cause of bringing a ‘defective’ child into the world is growing. We wonder whose sin caused this disability: the doctor who failed to diagnose? the mother who let herself get sick while pregnant? the midwife who was careless at the birth? And our questions deeply devalue the person with a disability.
I know I can sometimes feel ashamed when I am with a person with a disability who is acting in a loud or unusual way. The Bible assures me that shame can be cast away. When the Bible cuts the connection between sin and disability for us, freedom follows.
God can work for good and give strength in human weakness
One of the most fascinating treatments of disability in the Bible comes in the life of Paul, who spearheaded the spread of Christianity across the world. It seems that some sort of sickness or disability impacted Paul’s life. We’re not sure of the details but he writes:
As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.6
Paul seems aware of the way disability can be a medical issue and a social issue. His own weakness, and the way others treat him, are both important dimensions.
He is also aware of God’s hand in his experience of what he calls his ‘thorn in the flesh’.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses… For when I am weak, then I am strong.7
Paul stands in the line of some well-established truths of the Bible. God’s people often find God’s strength and blessing in the very experience of their own brokenness – be it Jacob being crippled, Joseph being enslaved and accused in Egypt or the Psalm writers calling out to God from the pit of despair. Further, God seems to work through suffering and weakness, rather than in ways that avoid it. It was true for Paul, and for prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel before him. The book of Isaiah even describes God’s servant who is crushed because that is the way God works to bring triumph and victory.8
Standing at the very centre of the Bible is the scandalous death of Jesus. I have heard people describe the cross as a display of the disabled Christ. His body was injured and his fellow humans despised him, giving Jesus a taste of life with disability. The profound twist is that the disabled Christ was ably paying the price for sin. If we are all disabled when it comes to wisdom, we are also all disabled when it comes to putting things right with God. In an experience of disability for our sakes, Christ has put things right.
Be it at the death of Jesus, or in Paul’s weakness, God has a strange way of being present in what we may describe as the worst of experiences. In our seasons of disability, we can live with hope, expecting God’s presence and strength.
God is making a new creation, with no pain and no tears
I have deliberately paid attention to the ways that disability is not a problem that needs a solution. But I don’t want to sound like a shallow optimist. I have shed my share of tears over a disability that meant my daughter couldn’t even breathe. I have stumbled under the burden of my son’s uncontrolled seizures and the hours and hours of physiotherapy needed to get him walking.
So, while I have tried to be positive about disability, I don’t want to be unrealistic or sentimental, because the Bible is neither.
Disability is difficult. The ancient laws given by God knew that people with disabilities could be mistreated. Jesus healed people who couldn’t see and who couldn’t walk. Indeed, Jesus’ resurrection shows that God is committed to giving us new bodies in a whole new creation. Those who belong to Jesus will journey with him into this new world. One day, God ‘…will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’.9
There is a mature reality here. We can honestly admit that crying and pain are part of our experience now. That is a big help in the day-to-day work of life with a disability. And we can honestly look to God to do something new. Such hope is also a big help in life with a disability.
The Bible dares us to believe that seasons of disability come to us from God. We do well to seek him and his strength in the midst of those seasons for, in Christ, God knows the experience of disability more than we might think. In times of difficulty, we can trust that the season of disability need not be the only one that God has in mind for any of us.
The Bible dares us to believe that seasons of disability come to us from God. God seems to work through suffering and weakness, rather than in ways that avoid it.
This article is the opening chapter of the book Take Heart by Kate Hurley, Sydney: Blue Bottle Books, 2008.
2 Corinthians 12:8–10.
Rev Dr Kirk Patston is the Director of the SMBC (Sydney Missionary & Bible College) Centre for Preaching and Pastoral Ministry. Kirk has a background in speech pathology and Presbyterian ministry and has been lecturing at SMBC since 2000. He has completed research degrees looking at the theology of mission in the book of Isaiah and the interaction of disability studies with the theme of otherness in the book of Job. Kirk is one of the founders of Our Place Christian Communities – a ministry seeking to support accommodation and discipleship for adults with intellectual impairment.