What Is Disability?
Disability is generally assumed to be negative. Just thinking about the word makes some of us uncomfortable because it challenges our presuppositions about our world. It certainly reflects the brokenness of the world, but it is also an area where God’s grace can shine. As Christians, we need to understand disability in order to see that grace.
Defining disability is more difficult than it may seem. When we think of the dramatic examples of quadriplegia or those born with severe genetic abnormalities, it may seem easy. But what about the person who gradually loses ability to do something? What about the person who is unable to interact socially but is remarkably gifted in a skill? Or the person who is analytic and creative but cannot memorize a times table? What about people who have limited function but never consider themselves disabled?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines disability as “a condition that damages or limits a person’s physical or mental abilities,” or “the condition of being unable to do things in the normal way.” Using this definition, it seems that all people have some disability since we all have conditions that limit our ability to do things. It might be as simple as getting sick, having to go to the hospital, and not being able to perform our regular routine for some time. So, even as this definition tries to be careful about defining disability, it seems all people get included, and the category suddenly has little meaning. Christians using this definition would also have to consider sin the ultimate disability because it is a universal condition that damages and limits a person’s abilities on every level.
Trying to gather these thoughts into one definition can be confusing. When we consider the range of possibilities, it is clear disability cannot be just biology, or just a result of an accident, or just social characteristics, or a measure of production. Nor can it just be about the stigma it provokes.
So how should Christians understand disability? It is beneficial to look at the many examples Scripture provides of disability, which will help toward a biblical understanding of it.
Scriptural Examples of Disability
Disability is not uncommon in Scripture. It is revealed in Genesis as a result of the fall into sin and is present throughout Scripture until Revelation reminds us of the One who will make all things new. Thankfully, while Scripture teaches clearly about disability, it does not do so in abstract terms. It shows how disability was part of many lives.
For example, Scripture is very clear that disability comes to a variety of people, notably including the people of God.
Job suffered debilitating boils. Sarah was unable to bear children. Jacob limped. Moses is thought to have had a speech impediment. Eli went blind.
Even in Scripture, disabilities come in various forms with various levels of incapacity. Debilitating diseases mentioned include sores, dropsy, dysentery, and epilepsy. Mental disabilities such as depression and insanity are acknowledged. The physical disability of paralysis was common in the New Testament.
Scripture also describes some disabilities as temporary, while others were lifelong. Elijah’s depression seems to have been severe and debilitating, but relatively brief. Others struggled with blindness, deafness, muteness, or lameness for years but were healed by Christ. Paul had a thorn in the flesh that was never healed.
Scripture also reveals various causes of disability. Deuteronomy 28:28 reveals that disability could be judgment from God. Samson’s blindness was due to the cruelty of others. Mephibosheth’s lameness was because of an accident. The psalmist was afraid of losing all strength in old age (71:9), and Ecclesiastes warns of tooth loss and blindness due to old age (12:3-4). King Asa became disabled through disease. It seems that the man sitting at the gate Beautiful (Acts 3:2) was lame due to congenital defect. Saul’s blindness on the way to Damascus was a supernatural act of God. The Bible also clearly teaches that the disabled individuals or the parents are no greater sinners than anyone else (John 9:1-3).
Scripture also honestly shows us that the negative perspectives associated with disability are nothing new. Hannah experienced the ridicule of family members (1 Sam. 1). Barzillai, in spite of his wealth and desire to serve, saw himself as a hindrance (2 Sam. 19). The man at the pool of Bethesda had no one there to help him into the water (John 5).
And yet Scripture does not just see disability as negative. It is through these experiences that much prayer has gone up to God. Consider the blind men (Matt. 9:27) who cried, “Thou Son of David, have mercy on us.” Paul saw that his thorn in the flesh prevented overconfidence (2 Cor. 12:7). And certainly these experiences are demonstrations of God’s power. What God said to Paul certainly applies to all of His children experiencing similar trials: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Scriptural Principles for Understanding Disability
All of this helps us to develop several principles in regards to understanding disability properly, particularly in relationship to the church.
Disability does not reflect the original creation
God’s design of creation was that man was created perfectly as body and soul, and in the image of God. A world full of disability was not the way things were created to be. The fall into sin impacted both body and soul. Today disability impacts both body and soul, and all disabilities are reflections of sin in this world. While sin impacted soul and body, it did not erase the image of God in humanity. Therefore, every living being still has value as an image-bearer of God. That is the source of identity, not disability.
Disability does not limit the value of lives
It is obvious that disability comes in various forms and in various stages of life. Yet no person should ever be denigrated or exploited (Deut. 27:18). This is true for those suffering all forms of physical, mental, and relational disability. Even in the church, the value of those living with disability should not be determined by the amount and extent of their disability. There should not be a subjective scale of who is worthy of the church’s ministry. Imagine if Sarah or Jacob or Moses or Elijah or Paul had been limited by someone’s perception of their disability. Imagine if the blind men or the lame men were ignored; they would have never praised God.
Society often considers the value of people in terms of economic status and economic potential. This is not the standard by which the church should measure the value of people. On the contrary, a principle of respect and care is most clearly expressed in Leviticus 19:14: “Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumblingblock before the blind, but shalt fear thy God: I am the LORD. Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor.” The purpose of everyone is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, and disability does not negate that.
Disability does require a response of grace
It was the fear of God that was to mark the Israelites’ response to the disabled. And so today, the disability that surrounds us and fills us should point us to the gospel. Recognizing disability, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, shatters any pride or self-sufficiency. Everyone is dependent on the grace of the Lord. When people try to hide or disguise disability, they are showing a diminished understanding of the gospel.
Christians need to intentionally minister to the needs of the disabled. The church is obviously intentional in ministering to the spiritually disabled, but it should also value and care for the physically and emotionally disabled. At a real level, this is where the church ought to shine. God does not expect the people of the church to live lives that the world would think were “picture perfect.” It is the broken and contrite heart that God will not despise. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3).
Disability does bring glory to God
Until the day of final and complete redemption, when all tears and death and sorrow and pain and all former things are passed away and all things are made new (Rev. 21:4-5), the church needs to consider disability and all its implications carefully. Disability is a part of the world in which God has placed us. It is an aspect of Scripture that He gives to us for our instruction. It is an area by which God refines His people. Let us honor God through this, and avoid the traps of worldly thinking in this area.