Happy. That’s the word everyone uses to describe our three-year-old son with special needs. And it’s largely true, though not singularly true.
Fist-bumping as he goes, he’s made the hallways and commons of our church his home. He’s a happy boy who is happily welcomed. And part of his happiness is owing to his special needs.
Grace to Meet Our Griefs
When you are a special-needs parent, you are privy to a secret and sad world: the stale and over-bright glow of too many nights in the hospital; the way every waiting room is the same — full of caretakers not making eye contact with each other, hyper-focused on their child or their phone; the unrelenting therapy appointments; the years of significant sleep disruption; the accumulation of nursing skills when you purposely decided nursing was not for you in college. That’s just the physical reality.
The emotional reality is what stings. You live in what feels like a parallel universe to everyone else’s — similar, but never crossing lines: scraping for an understandable diagnosis, watching kids younger than yours surpass them, grieving alienation from friends who are content not to enter in, looking for hope in a future that is all hard edges and curve balls, learning doctors are just humans like us.
But we adjust, by God’s grace. We calibrate and discover that we wouldn’t trade any of it. The secret, sad world melts into a loud, breathtaking thunderstorm, bursting with blessings on our head. Scary, but brilliant. We see the special needs more completely: as beautiful, hard, precious, and mournful. They become a gift we never asked for.
When I recount the disabilities our son was given — his delays, his abnormal brain, his sleep problems, his feeding tube — it tells one side of his story. The part of his story that most people can see, however, is bright and hopeful. He’s happy and vivacious most of the time, learning new things. He’s treasured.
The Deepest Need
And now on this side of things, the side that knows the tangible good, that wouldn’t forfeit an iota of what’s been wrought through the hardness, the pull of sentimentalizing the life of our special needs son is real. Yet, he won’t always be a small, smiling, three-year-old whose mom makes sure he’s dressed in extra cute clothes.
When special needs kids are young, it’s easy to sentimentalize their disability as something that’s oh-so-precious and dear. It’s easy to think that God gave them their disability in order to help the church be more caring, or to somehow show us a simpler and purer person than those of us with the mental ability to really be sinful. But those are half-truths. We can’t forget that special needs kids need God.
The Bible teaches that we are all made according to God’s image (Genesis 1:27). All of us. It’s what makes us human, and that necessarily includes those with disabilities. It also teaches us that when sin entered through Adam, every single person since has been born in Adam, born into sin (Romans 5:12). That includes our precious, happy son with special needs. Disability can do plenty, but it can’t purify a person born in sin.
God forbid that we let any child’s preciousness or happiness or cognitive disabilities keep us from acknowledging their need for a Savior. God forbid we believe that anything is able to save other than the name and blood of Jesus. When we sentimentalize kids with special needs, we do them a great harm. They may have an innate happiness or preciousness, but the realities of sin and redemption still apply. Most parents of special needs kids can tell you their kids are sinners, even amid the happiness or lack of volition.
We All Need the Gospel
But what if our children aren’t cognitively able to ascend to evident faith in Christ? Are they saved? As a mom with more than a touch of the bear in me, I’ve wrestled with God over whether or not this son of ours will be saved — eternally saved. Does he get an automatic pass into heaven? How many delays and how severe of disabilities do you need to qualify for that?
These questions, coupled with the nature of our son’s delays and his good progress, have forced me to embrace two seemingly opposed views: first, God can and does save, through his Son’s blood, those with severe cognitive delays and disabilities. And second, we can’t know who falls into that category and must see that all disabled people are people who need the good news of Christ, just like the rest of us.
The danger for us may be that we presume too much about disability. We may start to think that because someone can’t respond to us or fully articulate faith, that the gospel isn’t sinking in, when it may very well be! We may begin to believe they have no sin nature and don’t need the gospel. We may think that folks with cognitive disabilities and delays in our church are mainly there as some sort of object lesson to enable our spiritual growth, forgetting that God wants spiritual growth for all of us. Or we may think that they’re so different from us that all effort to train them in the Lord would be meaningless, forgetting that in the deepest sense, they’re exactly like us — humans who simply need the gospel.
May I suggest that none of it is meaningless? It is vital. Please hear this: our cognitively disabled children, family, and friends need to be taught the gospel of Jesus Christ. And as much as they are able, they need to be taught how to walk with the Lord in all they do.
Share the Greatest Good
It will cost us something to disciple kids and adults with developmental and cognitive disabilities. It will cost us our time and our own selves. And it won’t necessarily offer the rewards of normal Sunday school teaching. There may not be little children eagerly raising their hands with the right answers of “Jesus!” and “The Bible!” In fact, our audience may never respond with the right answers. They may never show the fruit that we so long to see.
But we must be working from a deeper conviction; namely, that Jesus is the only way to God and that no labor done in and for Jesus is in vain. We must be convinced that unseen realities are greater and even more real than the seen ones. We must believe that the gospel is powerful enough to penetrate into places we don’t see and can’t understand. And we must be willing to live with not knowing whether they “get” it, or how exactly God works in secret.
Yet we know God well enough to know this: he saves through his Son. We can entrust our loved ones with special needs to him with confidence and expectant hope. He will never do wrong to us or our disabled children or family or friends. He is good and he does good (Psalm 119:68). Be willing to share that goodness with the special needs kids in your life. Don’t sentimentalize them so much that you forget to feed them the very bread of life.