“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The why of disability

In the last week, I have had 2 separate discussions with friends about the question of why people have disabilities (particularly congenital disabilities). The one setting was at an international conference in Montreal. There were professors from Belgium, Netherlands, and several important people from the disability world in the United States in that group. The second group was with some close friends of mine with whom I meet regularly, one a psychiatrist, the other a professor and philosopher.

In the first setting I asked whether they felt disability was the result of the Fall, or was just a part of the natural range of human diversity, or something other that hadn't occurred to me. I was chided for even asking the question in the first place. "Who are we to questions God" was the response from one member of the group. I feel like I can ask questions of God about anything. Particularly because my question is one of trying to find understanding, not trying to question God's wisdom (although I would ask those questions as well if I had them). God is big enough to take our questions and either answer them or guide us through the process of further trust in him without a specific response. I left that discussion thinking that surely these people had thought about this question even though the weren't very interested in discussing the possibilties.

In the second group, the answer given to me was more of a "what difference does it make" kind of response. Now as far as I am concerned, it makes no difference in my day to day interactions with people with disabilities. However, there are many spurious notions of the why of disability floating around out there and there are people who ask the question for a wide variety of reasons. If I say that disability is not the result of the parent's or the person with disabilities' sin (see John 9) to use a reason sometimes provided in Christian circles then I must look to other reasons. Is the reason the syrupy sentimentality about specialness? Are people with disabilities actually angels who are unaware? Are they there to teach us something, i.e. living object lessons? If I am going to refute these ideas, do I simply say "I don't know what the reason is but it not what you say it is?" I can test some ideas against the truth of scripture (eg. the result of sin notion) which can support or refute an idea.

One of my friends in the second group said that it is not the event in itself that is important but the fact that God is with us through the event. He cited stories about the twin towers incident on 9-11 and how God's presence was made real to the fire fighters through prayer and encouragement when they took brief breaks from their heroic efforts. I heartily agree that God is with us through all the circumstances of our lives. That is not an issue for me.

I guess the reason why this question is important to me is that if I am to say that your reason for the why of disability is not biblically sound, I need to also say this is what the biblically sound reason is. I also do recognize that we are to trust in the Lord and not lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). If we do that, God will indeed be with us and as the verse says will make our paths straight.

So this is not a point of faith for me; my faith is not tied up in whether I get an answer to this question. But it is a point of understanding. An understanding largely of who God is through the work of his creation.



Anonymous said...

The question strikes me as evidence of our own uncomfortableness with disability rather than a real theological question. I base this upon the fact that I know a lot of people with developmental disabilities, and none of them seem to consider the ‘why’ question important.

I would suggest that the fact that God’s creation includes some people with more cognitive and physical abilities than others is in most ways inconsequential to him. We’re the ones who are consumed with ‘why’, not God. His rain falls on the just and the unjust – one might add, on the IQs of 45 and those of 120. There is little scriptural evidence to suggest that God is the least bit concerned with our human abilities. On the other hand, there’s a whole bunch of evidence that he cares pretty deeply about how we treat one another. In my mind, this gives even more credence to the answer provided in John 9: “so that the work of God might be displayed”.

Is disability a joy or a tragedy? Yes to both, I suppose. Jesus saw the intersection of these two things at the grave of Lazarus. Knowing full well that his friend was about to step from the grave, Jesus still cried. Why? I sense it was because he mourned the pain of the whole situation. People whom he loved were torn, and how could one not be moved by that?

I’m a firm believer in questioning God. That sort of thing deepens a relationship. I have a feeling, though, that this a more a time when we should question ourselves. How is the work of God to be displayed here? When I see people at work in disability ministry, I see how they comfort, serve, advocate for, respect, teach and love others. These are works of God. And it gets even better… When we welcome people with disabilities into our lives, our communities and our congregations, we discover that they are capable of doing that very same list of things.

Impossibleape said...

Great topic Jeff.
I think the answers you were given by your conversation partners was very interesting and revealing.

David's response was very good, much better than what your professional collegues gave.

I happen to think 'why' is a most fundamental question and is a cornerstone that is needed to build a theology that does justice to our faith and the world as it really is.

I think such a thjeology is possible and 'emerging.'

Impossibleape said...

I think the question should be broadened. Many with disabilities also have seizures, congenital heart conditions, physical deformities, intestinal problems, shortened lives and sundry other realities to deal with.

Many years ago, while in a support group for parents of disabled children, I came into contact with a family of a little girl who was born blind, deaf, deformed and in constant pain. The cries of that child tore out the hearts of her parents, and others who knew the family.

Why is a good question.

It is the question that probably (legitimately?) keeps many from embracing a faith in an all powerful, good and loving God.

I think an answer is approachable but only if we dare try to address it.

We can't run away from the hard stuff and expect our credibility to be what it needs to be as we witness to our faith.

I think your why question is the most important one.

Let's keep challenging ourselves and others to wrestle with it.

Impossibleape said...

The history of disabled people also needs to be included in this why question.
It requires a theodicy that adequately addresses the facts of history. Disabled children were killed at birth or died due to neglect, and inadequate resources in the past and still do to this day in underdeveloped countries.

If suffering is not at the heart of God's purpose and plan then history makes for a better testimony to the absurdity of life that is preached by atheist existentialists than to the meaning given by the gospel.

Impossibleape said...

Perhaps an evangelical theology that makes sense of suffering is what is in order.

I have been considering a theology of disability but if disability is no longer a sure sentence of rejection and social and physical suffering then this theology will need to expand to address innocent suffering in all its representations (still including disabled individuals who are consigned to very limited lives).

I have been hoping to help our churches see people with disabilities and those who suffer innocently as the presence of Christ in our midst.
I would like us to pretend that Matt. 25 is meant literally and that Col. 1:24 includes all who suffer by the will of God.

If this suffering is part of Christ's continuing, unfolding redemption then the baby born to suffer horribly and the parents assigned to watch helplessly were re-enacting Calvary in our presence.

The fellowship of suffering is an intimate place with Christ. The suffering are to be honoured, loved and included by the church. Not rejected, condemned and avoided, as has too often been the case in the past, and is not unknown in the present.

Impossibleape said...

The idea of suffering (disabled?)people being the very presence, in physical form, of Jesu will lose its over sentimentality when the
'least of these' pukes on us,
strikes us, bites us, claws at us, needs changing and when
sundry other human conditions
are revealed.
Yet Jesus (and a disabled child)is one of us.

Sentimentality is only possivle for those who don't know the disabled as human beings.

Might I suggest that we invite others to look at our most disabled friends
and declare to the world and the church

ecco homo.

Impossibleape said...

You'll have to pardon me.

I do tend to get carried away sometimes.

Anonymous said...

I believe that you have touched upon a sensitive topic. However I believe that the answer is a simple one in theory but difficult in application- perhaps appropriately so. In Malachi, in talking about tithes and offerings, the Lord says, "Prove me now, herewith." This concept has application to all commandments and all areas of life. Earth life is a test. Everything we do every day is part of the test. We can learn something from every second we are alive. This being the case, disabilities are part of the test, both for the disabled person and for the people who are close to that person. The specifics of the test are obviously going to vary from person to person. Some may struggle with acceptance of a disabled person. Some may woinder why they are trapped inside a body that does not work when their mental capacity is fully intact, luike my friend Joe. Some may struggle with selflessly serving those who need help. Each person has tests and trials specific to their person. However, each person also has the right to personal revelation through prayer and the Holy Ghost to find out what their trials are and how the Lord would have them overcome them. This is no profound answer, but I believe it is the bottom line on this issue.