This series is examining how Christians treat people with physical disabilities, using a BBC article on the subject as a starting point. If you haven’t yet read the article yet, click here. Last time, we talked about the implicit equation that many people use to calculate individual value, and how physically challenged people are sometimes seen as deficient.



As the article mentions, in Jesus’ time illness and disability had far-reaching repercussions on a person’s social status, ability to earn a living, and even their potential to have friendships and relationships. In those days, healing was a form of liberation from a type of bondage that went far beyond physical restriction. [1]

These days, with the dawn of human rights, equal opportunity, and wheelchair accessibility, people with physical limitations are no longer social pariahs, doomed to float along the outskirts of society. The article poses a valid question: what if we see fewer healings in the West because healing is not needed there in the same way it might be in less-developed countries?

We sometimes treat disability as synonymous with evil, but where in the Bible does it say that physical disability is the result of sin? Only the disciples and Pharisees espoused this opinion. Jesus’ answers soundly discarded such explanations [2].

Of course, disabled people weren’t allowed to serve as priests in the temple [3], but what if this was God’s way of making sure that they were not burdened with physical demands too heavy for them to fulfill? [4] [5]

When we allow only one subset of humanity to write our theology, we impoverish ourselves with narrow definitions, and narrower points of view. The church is a choir of many voices coming from diverse backgrounds with varying talents and abilities. When we give the microphone to only a few, we lose the ability to appreciate the true richness of each type of voice. Physical ability is no reliable indicator of spiritual ability, but sometimes we treat it as such.

If God can use anything for the good of His people and His church, then we must include pain and disability in our list of things we can be thankful for. Can we thank God for a broken back because it’s the tool He’s using to perfect us? What about thankfulness stemming from a period of abuse? This doesn't mean that we're thankful for the abuse, but we can be thankful for the ways we've grown through it, and the opportunities we might have to later use our experiences to help those around us who might be suffering through similar things.

God doesn’t heal everyone. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the unhealed person has less faith.

Though the able-bodied may be kind and sympathetic, there are certain aspects of a life with physical disability that a person can only understand if he or she has also experienced similar debilitation for a significant length of time. Some of the most meaningful ministries flow from the depth of experience. If all Christians were well, who would spiritually minister to those who weren’t Christians but who remained physically limited?

By now, you may have noticed I don’t like to use the word ‘disability’ without a qualifier in front of it, because in some ways a physical disability can result in massive enablement in other areas. I firmly believe that physical limitations have the potential to unlock other parts of us—parts that would go undeveloped, or underdeveloped, were we not to give them our full attention.

That’s why Fanny Crosby, who wrote more than 8000 hymns over her lifetime, was able to write this of her blindness, at the age of eight:



“Oh what a happy soul am I!
Although I cannot see,
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy,
That other people don’t.
To weep and sigh because I’m blind,
I cannot and I won’t.” [6]



As you probably know, my husband and I are missionaries in Japan. When we first arrived, we knew no Japanese to speak of. We learned the language in parallel with carrying out our ministry activities. Especially in our first four years of ministry, we spent a lot of time listening and not much time talking. We didn’t know enough yet to adequately express our thoughts and ideas.

Though this was restrictive in many ways—you might say that we were linguistically disabled in the Japanese culture—over time I began to see a major benefit. I had a lot more time to think while “listening” to long spans of language I didn’t understand. This unlocked a capability for deeper thought. I now write books. Many of the ideas in them were spawned during that time when our mouths were largely silent.

In the same way, physical limitations can unlock other potential. One needn’t look far for examples of this in the lives of Stephen Hawking or Beethoven. Would they have risen to such heights without their physical limitations? I’m not sure we can answer that.




NOTES

[1] Damon Rose, Stop trying to ‘heal’ me, BBC News, published 28 April 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-48054113.

[2] See John 9:2-3.

[3] Leviticus 21:23.

[4] What if God used the clean/unclean system as a binary one to simply communicate what should and shouldn’t be done? For instance, after giving birth, a woman was considered unclean for a period of time. I don’t think any of us would claim that there is anything sinful about giving birth—especially when God commanded us to be fruitful and multiply. What if this “unclean” period was to prevent husbands from making sexual demands of their wives during their recovery from the rigours of childbirth?

[5] Keep in mind, our theology was written by the physically able. The sample size in the Garden of Eden was admittedly small. The Bible tells us that at the end of creation, everything was "good", not that everything was "perfect". Some Jewish and Christian scholars believe that God created the world but did not complete the work to perfection. Here's an interesting thought experiment: how would our theology be different if humanity had never sinned and Able’s grandson was born with only one leg?

[6] Catherine Martin, Pilgrimage of the Heart, (Colorado Springs: Quiet Time Ministries, 2003), 95-96.