How Can I Serve My Disabled Friends?
Today’s question comes to us from Austin, and it’s a trio of questions really. He writes, “Pastor John, hello, and thank you for the podcast. My question is whether or not we should be praying for healing for our friends with physical and cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, or cerebral palsy. We see Jesus heal people with physical disabilities in the Gospels. So should we pray for similar healing? If not, how should we encourage our friends with disabilities with the truth that they are made in the image of God? And will individuals in heaven still have their disabilities? Thank you for your insights and your help.”
There are three questions here, aren’t there?
- Should we pray for healing for our friends with physical and cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy?
- How should we encourage our friends with disabilities with the truth that they are made in the image of God?
- Will individuals in heaven still have their disabilities?
Now I’m going to save that first question about prayer for last. I think how we pray is affected by how we answer these second two questions. So let’s start with number two.
Conformed to a Greater Image
How should we encourage our friends with disabilities with the truth that they are made in the image of God? Now my response may be surprising. My response to this question is that I don’t devote much effort to this because I think Christians have a far, far greater gift to give to the disabled than to help them know they are made in the image of God.
If I were to try to encourage people that they are made in the image of God, I would say it involves two things: (1) speaking the truth of God’s word to the effect that all humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26; 5:1; 9:6; James 3:9), and (2) by treating people — disabled people — as persons, not projects. That would be my answer to the question.
But let me encourage Austin, and everybody else, that focusing on helping people feel good about being created in the image of God is not a very high goal, and in the end, not a hopeful goal. Think of it. There are two reasons for why I say this.
One is that every human is made in the image of God, which means that God’s enemies are created in his image, unrepentant rebels are created in God’s image, people who are under God’s wrath are created in God’s image, people that God sends to hell for unbelief and disobedience were made in his image. Being in the image of God is not a hopeful condition. To focus on helping people feel created in God’s image is not a saving effort.
A second reason why helping people know they are created in God’s image is not a high or hopeful goal is that Christians have a spectacularly higher, more hopeful message. When we offer Christ, we invite people to be, not the created image of God, but the recreated child of God — a new creation in Christ. We don’t offer the experience of a doomed and defaced image. We offer Spirit-given conformity to the image of God’s Son, wrought by the Spirit.
We offer the forgiveness of sins, the removal of divine wrath against his image-bearers, the escape from all condemnation, the triumph over our sinful nature, the defeat of death, the hope of eternal life with God — not merely as his image-bearer, but as his loved, adopted child. That’s what we offer to disabled people, and with it, a dignity far beyond being created in God’s image.
If the cognitive impairment — this is important; this not just an afterthought. If the cognitive impairment is so severe that we can’t tell if our message of hope is getting through, we remain faithful to their care, and we entrust their souls to the mercy of God the way we do our children who die in infancy.
Foretaste of Heaven
Now, the third question. (We did the second question first and now the third question second.) Austin asks, “Will individuals in heaven still have their disabilities?” The answer is no. You might wonder, “Why did he ask that? Isn’t that obvious?” I think there’s more behind this question, and I’ll get to that in just a minute. My answer is no, they won’t.
“The ministry of Jesus is a beautiful trailer, a foretaste of what the new heavens and the new earth will be like.”
My reason for saying so is twofold. One part of the reason is that Jesus’s ministry was a foretaste of the kingdom. He said, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). The same thing is true when he healed people’s disabilities, like being blind from birth or being unable to stand up for eighteen years. So the ministry of Jesus is a beautiful trailer, a foretaste of what the new heavens and the new earth will be like. He will do away with all sickness and disease and disability.
Now the second part of the reason I think disabilities will be done away with is because Revelation 21:4 says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” The things that brought painful crying in this world — whether in parents or in the disabled child or a community, whatever brought painful crying into this world will be removed.
Now it may be that Austin asked whether people would have their disabilities in heaven because he sees that in some cases, the so-called “disability” — for example, with a Down syndrome person — is so interwoven with the limits and beauties of the personality that it is scarcely imaginable that such people would be the same person if the disability were removed. That might be what’s behind his question, which is a very, very good question.
Now my answer to this is that God is God. That’s the short answer. God is God. In his infinite capacities of preserving true personhood and making new personhood, he will preserve everything good that he created, and he will remove everything that the fall distorted, and we will know each other with the precious old preserved but radically renewed. Somehow he’ll do it.
Always Ready to Give
Which brings us now to the last question (which was really the first question): “Should we pray for healing for our friends with physical cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy?”
My guess is that when a couple hears a doctor say that the baby in the womb has a genetic disorder that will result in a disability, they do pray, and they should pray, that God would intervene and heal that genetic problem, so the baby is born without that disorder.
But in many cases, and I suppose we’d all agree that in most cases, disabilities are sooner or later perceived by the parents, by the community, by the church, by the child, to be God’s sovereign will for the family. They come to the conclusion, and it’s not a sinful conclusion, “This is God’s appointment for us and for our child.” It would not be sin, I don’t think, to pray at any given point along the way for a dramatic transformation. But neither is it a sin to hear the voice of God saying, “I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10), and “I will do more good through this painful providence than you can even imagine.”
“God is in the business of providing shelter in the storm — the storm that he himself has sent.”
But then the question becomes not whether we should pray for the disabled, but rather how we should pray for them and their families. Because the fact that God says no to the genetic reordering in the womb does not mean he says no to a thousand other prayers for this child, for this family. In the mystery of God’s providences — call them severe mercies — there is a lavish willingness on the part of God to help in ways that, at the beginning, the families can’t even imagine that they will need. So, the answer is yes, yes: pray, pray, pray for the disabled and their families. God is in the business of lifting burdens through his people and through the prayers of his people. He is in the business of providing shelter in the storm — the storm that he himself has sent.
When you stop to think about it, most of us live under the cloud of some great unanswered prayer — that is, a prayer for some conversion, a prayer for a rescued relationship, some healing, some calamity that didn’t get removed. And God said, “No, my grace is sufficient for you,” like he did to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9. We know that under that cloud of no, no, there are hundreds of yeses that God is ready to give to those who trust him and ask him for help.
So I say that just to point out that we’re all in this together with the disabled. And the answer is yes, let’s pray for each other. Pray for each other.