I can remember it clearly. I was at a conference on how to make places of worship more accessible to people with disabilities when a woman asked a panel of religious leaders, “what should we do with the hard passages in the Bible related to disability?”
A Jewish rabbi quickly responded. “Oh, you mean like the passages in Leviticus? Well, we just ignore those. We know better now.”
I was stunned at his audacity and breezy dismissal of God’s word. I didn’t know much about the Bible at that time in my life, especially with regards to the disability passages, but I knew 2 Timothy 3:16–17. I believed that "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
What Does the Bible Say?
This event launched me into a study about what the Bible says about disability and disease. Foolishly, I didn’t start with the source. The first place I went was to the experts who, I thought, could tell me what the Bible says.
But what I found frightened me. Other than memoirs and biographies by solid Christians like Joni Erickson Tada, all I came across were academic treatises that kept coming to the same conclusions: "God is weak; God needs us to do his work in the world; God isn’t really in control; the Bible is an instrument of oppression."
I was making the mistake of looking at God through the lens of disability, rather than at disability through the lens of God’s word. And that drew me to writers who made the same mistake.
Even more frightening, a few key books and journal articles were showing up on reading lists in seminaries and colleges of mainline denominations. Disability was being used as a weapon against God’s word while more conservative seminaries didn’t address the issue at all.
Encouraging Activity and the Need for Change
For years Joni & Friends was a lonely voice. There were always churches and other para-church organizations that recognized and sought to develop the gifts of their congregants with disabilities, but they were relatively few in number and not well known. Very little scholarly work on disability was being done with the perspective that the Bible is reliable and true.
But that is changing now. God is clearly on the move. Books have been written and conference messages delivered. And more than ever before, church-based ministries started by people who see God as sovereign over disability.
Even the academic space is no longer barren. Dr. Michael Beates has written an accessible and thoughtful book, Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace, that introduces God as sovereign and good, using God’s own words in his book.
But seeing these flickers of activity across the United States and the world is not the same as saying the issue is being addressed like it should. About 12% of the US population lives with a severe disability and nearly 20% with some disability.1 There are hundreds of millions more people with disabilities globally.
Very few churches reflect this demographic reality. We need thousands more local bodies of believers having hearts ready to evangelize, welcome, enfold, prepare, and launch people with disabilities as fellow co-laborers in the cause of Jesus Christ.
Resources to Help You
If you struggle to see the connection between disability and the goodness of God, buy and read Michael Beates’ book. If you don’t have time to read the entire book, then just read his first appendix: God’s Sovereignty and Genetic Anomalies.
And then plan on attending or watching our November 8 conference, The Works of God: God’s Good Design in Disability.
God is not silent on this issue of disability and suffering, and neither should we be ashamed of what he has to say.
1“Number of Americans With a Disability Reaches 54.4 Million,” United States Census Bureau, December 2008. A summary press release on this report can be found here: http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/income_wealth/cb08-185.html
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