In 2016, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that one in five Australians identify as having a disability. Indeed, we are all destined for disability if we live long enough. Yet despite its prevalence, people’s first reaction to disability is often shock.
Modern secular Western culture is especially governed by expectations of ease and comfort. Under the most dominant healthcare approach, disability is seen as abnormal. People with disabilities are expected to get a label, receive treatment and become “normal”. The problem with this model is that “normality” is not always attainable or wanted.
In reaction to this, there are approaches to disability that champion “differing abilities” and society’s need to accommodate these. Yet reducing disability to being merely a problem with how society is organised can minimise the real grief and suffering of a disability. So in our culture, we are often left floating between two responses to disability: changing the individual or (less commonly) changing the society.
Into this framework, many Australian Christian families meet disability every day. They meet health professionals, are given a diagnosis, and are given an enormous list of intervention strategies and treatment. As a paediatric occupational therapist, I see exhaustion regularly on the faces of the families in my workplace. I hear about their grief, anxiety, and the never-ending to-do list weighing over parents’ heads. As a mother, I have felt it myself after receiving news of my daughter’s speech delay diagnosis. Fear gripped me at first: how would she cope at school, how would she cope in the foreign country we were living in, how would she cope with life?
The Bible presents a nuanced and ultimately hopeful picture of disability. Stephanie Hubach summarises the overall Biblical perspective of seeing disability as “a normal part of life in an abnormal world”. Contrary to what secular society often assumes, Francis Schaeffer points out that the Bible
“does not promise us perfection in this life, except in the area of justification”. Life is difficult. As the Psalms indicate, hardships like disability can leave us “weary with sorrow” (Ps. 119:28), and should drive us to call out to God. The Psalms also teach us to “hold fast” to God’s “way of truth” (Ps. 119: 30-31).
When we’re faced with disability in our parents, our children, or ourselves, what truths can we hold on to?
A central truth to grasp is that God is the creator of disability and ability. God uses all life to display His power, as seen in His speech to Moses (Exodus 4:11). Moses is slow of speech and tongue. Yet God says He made him, and He also made blindness and deafness. A specific purpose for Moses’ disability is not given, but God says He has one. God is saying to Moses that he needs to submit to His purposes. Another passage that teaches this is John 9, where Jesus’ disciples ask Him about a man blind from birth. They ask:
“Here’s disability; who sinned?” Jesus’ response is that no one sinned, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” . God is behind all of our seasons of ability and disability. One purpose of disability is God’s perfecting His power in us through weakness, as in Paul’s persistent “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12: 8-10). But, like Job, we may never know the specific purpose for disability. Timothy Keller summarises: “All we know is God has hidden but good purposes.”
Second, all life is in His image. Genesis 1:27 lays down this essential truth, and despite the subsequent fall of creation, His image remains in us (e.g. Rom. 2:15). In the Church, the weaker members who deserve and need special treatment are indispensable (1 Cor. 12:22). This means that the worth of people is not in what they contribute to society or even Church, or how rapidly they develop or adapt to their disability. The worth of a person is in being in God’s image, and that remains untouched by disability. Biblically, all people are valuable, needed, and connected. As Hubach explains, valuing the sanctity of human life means “upholding and promoting the image of God in each person – across the spectrum of life and in all the circumstances that life can bring”.
Finally, disability is a season, and there will be a final renewal. The Bible speaks to the suffering of disability realistically. Jesus’ ministry included healings for a reason; disability cries out for remedy. The blind man at Bethsaida begged Jesus to heal him (Mark 8:22). Families of children with disabilities often tell similar stories of their grief, the “hard blows” of diagnosis, years of early intervention therapy, social isolation, meltdowns, uncertainty and fear for the future (see Kate Hurley, Take Heart). The Bible offers a final hope of renewal in the New Creation (Rev. 21:4). This final hope is centred on what some have termed the “disabled Christ”. In Christ we see how God designed and used human weakness for His purposes, but also how He triumphed over death and disability with resurrection.
The Bible gives us a different way to respond to disability. The approaches to disability dominant in our secular culture mean that people are often treated as body and mind beings, but not spiritual beings. Our interactions with doctors, therapists and well-meaning family members often only deal with disability from a secular mindset. The result is that people come to us with the underlying message that wellness in this present life is the goal. But therapy and medical intervention by itself can enslave people to the goal of being “normal”. Without a spiritual anchor, families can be set up on a treadmill of treatment, which by itself leads to toil without end.
So when dealing with health professionals, remember that they’re usually only presenting the needs of the body/mind aspects of a person, so Christians will need to supply knowledge of the spiritual aspects. Take your time to understand, pray and seek counsel about what you’re being told by health professionals. Try to make sure that your days are not only filled with therapies and activities that address body/mind deficits. Instead, also make time for family activities that embrace and remind you of your spiritual beliefs. If your child has a disability, make sure that he or she is regularly reminded, if possible, that our value as human beings is not anchored to our achievements. Keep key verses on the fridge and in your mind, reminding you of God’s power, His purposes, and His love in Christ.
Hurley relates how one parent of a child with a disability summed it up: “I was caught up in the frenzy of those around me, and panicked. Not that therapies and intervention are unimportant… It’s just that there are other things that matter more. God matters more. And what He offers us is a perspective that reaches beyond this world and beyond disability.” The Bible offers not only realistic answers for us in facing disability, but also and ultimately the deep love of our Disabled Christ. He was disabled so that in this life we would have the comfort of His example in suffering, and the sure hope of a renewed life to come. In responding to disability, few passages are sweeter than the words Jesus uttered when addressing His disciples’ anxieties: “Do not be afraid, little flock” (Luke 12:32).