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Articles

Disability and displaying the works of God in the Church

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April 7, 2014

In Exodus 32, Moses had been gone 40 days and 40 nights after being summoned into God's presence on Mount Sinai. The Israelites began to worry. They decided that they needed a tangible image to represent God’s presence in their midst. The golden calf they fashioned was an object to provide confidence that God was with them and that he was for them (Exod. 32:1-6). They were not rejecting God, but they were defining the terms of their trust. In the American church, the golden calf we have fashioned is strength, ability, intellect and giftedness.

The golden calf of the Israelites’ was an attempt to domesticate God. An image often seems so much more appreciable than words, and that has been true since the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, God provided his image bearers an amazing bountiful provision and said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen. 2:16). But after the serpent questions the word God had spoken, the text tells us God’s image bearers “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6) and they ate. They trusted what they saw over what God said.

God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul responded to God’s word by asserting, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Too often, we want God, but we want to negotiate the terms of our trust: If I am strong, able, gifted, intelligent, articulate and in a recognized position of power, then I will see my value and know my usefulness in the Kingdom. “I will trust you if I see viable reasons to trust me” is anti-gospel logic. Paul contends that boasting in ones strength reflects the wisdom of the world and is the way of a fool (1 Cor. 1:18-2:5; 2 Cor. 11-12).

As followers of the crucified Messiah, our eternal hope is bound up in strength displayed through weakness (2 Cor. 13:4), and followers of Jesus the Christ are commanded to take up their cross and follow him (Matt. 16:24). Consequently, gospel community is formed by and nourished by strength through weakness. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ ought to be the one place in the cosmos where weakness is rightly valued and where we know that physical and mental strength is not wellness. The church is not a gathering place for the cultural elite but a sovereignly designed community of the ignoble, weak and low (1 Cor. 1:24-31). This is never clearer than in the physically and mentally challenged people who are followers of Jesus Christ. They are a gift to the church because they do not have the mirage of strength in which many of us trust.

Our triumphalist brand of evangelical Christianity often assumes one-way discipleship—the strong help the weak. However, the church desperately needs to learn that we do not simply need to help people with physical and mental challenges, but we need them to help us become more faithful followers of Jesus. We distort the gospel message and have malformed Christian community when we fail to understand the power of weakness in Christ. We must not only use our advantages for the advantage of others, but we must also use our disadvantages for the advantage of others. The physically and mentally weak have a vital role in the church by teaching those with self-deceptive outward strength how to display genuine spiritual power by being “content in weaknesses” for the sake of Christ (2 Cor. 12:5).

I once heard Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadrepalegic for almost 5 decades, say people often ask her if they can pray for her healing to which she replies, “Yes! Would you please ask God to get rid of my peevish attitude in the morning when I wake up, and please, I have such a sour disposition when there’s too much work on my desk.  And, you know, I really am a workaholic so I wish you would pray about that.” Tada concluded her testimony by thanking Jesus for not physically healing her because her weakness had made her strong.

Successful NFL and college football coach Gene Stallings’ son, Johnny, was born with Down syndrome and doctors said he would only live a year or two. He lived 46 years, and Stallings said, “When he was younger I prayed to God that he would change Johnny. That he would make him right. But you know what God did? He changed me.” Stallings repeatedly says, “If the good Lord asked if he could give me a perfectly normal child or Johnny, I’d pick Johnny every time. No doubt about it.” I once heard one of Stallings daughters say in an interview that she prayed God would give her a Down syndrome child, and then she added; if that sounds strange you must not have known Johnny.

A short time ago at the church I pastor, Millie Hunt was baptized and gave a powerful testimony of her salvation. Her testimony moved the congregation in a compelling and palpable way. Millie’s baptism was slightly different, most in our church provide a verbal testimony from the baptistery, but Millie is nonverbal—she has autism. Recently Millie received an iPad and began to communicate with amazing clarity. As she studied the Gospel of John with her parents it became clear that she understood the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and on her iPad one day she typed, “Dear God, this is Millie, please, please, I need you to love me and forgive my sins. I love you. I want to live for you.” Then she typed, “I know God is with me now. Mom, please give me a hug.” In the testimony she shared with the church prior to her baptism she wrote, “I love Jesus because He loves me and gave Himself up for me. God made me an autistic woman to display the works of God in my life. Hallelujah! (John 9:1-3)”

When Millie came out to be baptized, aided by her father, I told her that in Christ she had all of the strength she would ever need. As a church family we have tried to help Millie and the Hunt family in every way we can, but Millie has helped us far more than we have helped her. There are gospel lessons that we can only learn from Christians who are self-evidently weak. After hearing about healings, a huge crowd gathered at a home where Jesus was in Capernaum including four men carrying a paralytic. When they could not get near Jesus through the crowd, they climbed on the roof and let the man down through the roof. Jesus spoke to the paralytics deepest need saying, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5) and when scribes complained he was blaspheming, Jesus physically healed the man as well (Mark 2:11). The account concludes by noting “they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’” The four men had helped the paralytic, but they were forever helped through being witnesses of sufficient grace.

Jesus is not a sub-contractor in our project to live our dreams. Our dreams are pathetically small and empty. In Christ, we abandon our dreams and are swept into the reality of Jesus and his Kingdom. In the Kingdom of Christ, our self-acknowledged weakness is a foundational credential (2 Cor. 10:17-18). He delights in choosing and using “the weak to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27), and he will not be domesticated by the self-referential wisdom of the world. Often the physically and mentally disabled are the most well among us, but it is hard to notice while we are staring at the golden calf of our strength, ability, intellect, and giftedness. If all of this sounds strange to you then you must not know Millie or someone like her, but for the sake of the gospel, I pray you will.

You can watch Millie's baptism video here: