God Is Able Our perception of disability should follow God’s
In Australia, we are seeing the first stages of disability care reform. The needs of people with disabilities are now being given greater attention. Not only that, perceptions about the person with the disability are changing as they are given a much better say in the care they receive, and how they receive it.
So it is timely for us in the church to consider our perception of disabilities, and how we provide for people who have them as Christians — not just be doing what everyone else does. This means having a godly response to the issue of disability. To have a godly response, we need to know something about God's perception of disability, and how He provides for people who have disability. That means examining the Bible.
Look up the word "disability" or "disabled" in a concordance, or do a word search on a computer, and you'll find few references. (I found three in the New International Version — 2 Samuel 4:4; John 5:3; and Hebrews 12:13). Yet the Bible is aware of impairments — for example, blindness is cited in 85 verses. The Bible does not use the category of disability as we do today, and therefore does not usually address the issue of disabilities directly.
Instead, the Bible recognises disadvantaged people groups that included the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless and the widowed, along with those who have specific impairments. Matters that relate to disability appear alongside matters that relate to social welfare and justice (Lev. 19:11-16).
One verse that does address the issue of disability directly is Exodus 4:11. In response to Moses' concerns over his inability to communicate (which may have been anything as severe as a speech impairment down to an unwillingness to speak publicly), we find God claiming sovereignty over disability, to the point where He makes people mute, deaf, seeing or blind.
Now, we need to be sensitive to those who have acquired disability through horrific circumstances. Sometimes, disability is a result of someone's stupidity, or an innocent accident, and God is not to be held responsible for someone else's wickedness. Nonetheless, disability does not come as a surprise to God, it does not thwart God's purposes for one's life. Disability remains under God's sovereign authority, and can be used for His purposes.
In John 9:3 one man's blindness is said to be given so that the works of God could be displayed in his life. Please note, the word is "work", not "glory"! I have heard so many sermons where this has been read as the "glory of God". The work of God is defined as to "believe in Him (Jesus) whom He (God the Father) has sent" (Jn. 6:29). This work is clearly demonstrated in this man's life, along with the work of Jesus healing him (9:6-7, 15-38). This provides an excellent example of how disability can be used for God's purposes.
So, if God confers disabilities on some people, what is their place in the community? Remembering that in the Bible, disability often comes under the wider category of "disadvantaged people", in Leviticus 19:9-10 (23:22; Deut. 24:19-21) the Bible speaks of the provision that they were to enjoy. Scripture stipulated that food crops on the edge of fields, and any crops that were dropped or left behind in the process of harvesting, were to be left for disadvantaged groups.
From God's perspective, being disadvantaged was not necessarily punishment (though sometimes it is Luke 1:20; Acts 14:9-11). Nor were people who were disadvantaged to be treated like second-class citizens. They were recognised as members of the community, and were to function as such. In this, the provision was not a hand out. It did not allow these disadvantaged groups to sit around all day and do nothing. In order to eat, and provide for their family, they were to be involved with the surrounding community and they were to be responsible for their actions.
Our perspective on disability involves more than simply providing for immediate needs. There is a social dynamic that needs to be considered. That is, enabling people to exercise their God-given abilities, as small as they may be, to become active members within their community.
We see a similar approach in the ministry of Jesus. Through the Gospels people are reconciled not only with God, but with other people. And how people are reconciled to other people reflects how they are reconciled to God. We see this in the way Jesus engages with people. In Matthew 20:29-34 we read how Jesus was leaving Jericho when he met two blind men. He asks, "What do you want me to do for you?" This may seem to us modern, task orientated people an odd thing to ask. It's pretty obvious what these blind men want. They want their sight restored. So why doesn't Jesus just heal them?
The answer to this is quite simple. This is possibly the first time in their lives that these two men have been treated like human beings. The culture tells a lot about the attitudes towards people with disabilities at the time. We know from a well of information that such people were considered to be a blemish on the fabric of the holy society and it's little wonder that the crowd told them to "shut up". It was an embarrassing thing for a great teacher to be pestered by two blind men whose blindness proved they obviously had been rejected by God.
So notice the gravity of what is happening here. It could be the first time that someone had placed himself at the disposal of these two blind men. And it's not just anyone who involves himself with these two men. Matthew describes Jesus as the One who is faithful to God. So the One who is faithful to God is making Himself available to people who are perceived to be not faithful to God. For Jesus, it wasn't simply a matter of enabling these two blind men to see, but engaging with them personally. And this was a restoration of their humanity as well.
Living with a disability is difficult, but it need not be a disaster. From God's perspective, He is not surprised by disability, and remains sovereign over people's circumstances, no matter how challenging those circumstances. God is concerned for the welfare of people with disabilities, as with other disadvantaged groups, and wants them to be actively involved in His community. In the person of Jesus, God is concerned to see people with disabilities reconciled, not only in relation to Him, but in relation to their own humanity as they are reconciled to other people.
God's perspective on disability needs to inform our perspective on disability as we minister the gospel to all. It's a perspective that sees people with disabilities as not just "those with needs", but as people who are welcomed, the same as anyone else, to be part of God's community and engaged in it.