Learning a “different world”: Loving families with special needs

May 15, 2017

A parent is a parent for life. Ask any parents of grown children. Sure, they no longer buy formula, diapers or pay those orthodontist bills, but now they’re a friend, mentor and counselor to the very ones they raised. Their children still need them, though in a different way—unless their children have special needs. They’re parents with responsibilities that will more than likely remain throughout their child’s life.  

Several weeks ago, a few women from my life group met for lunch. Behind them sat a mother with her adult son who couldn’t feed himself much and didn’t make eye contact with his mother as she spoon-fed him. She gently and patiently fed him as a young mother would her developing toddler. My friend saw this humble act of selfless love, and she was compelled to approach this woman to simply hug her.

Because my friend is a mother of a son with special needs, she understands what it means to care for a child who cannot be like those his age. She knows what it’s like to feel unnoticed, misunderstood or alone in the unique challenges of raising a child with special needs. She knew what an embrace would mean from another who’s also on a similar journey, and how God might convey his compassion through such a simple act. So, she hugged and cried with this mother and shared a little bit of her story. Within moments, another woman approached the table and said, “I was going to come up and hug you too when I saw you and your son. I have a child with special needs too.” They embraced, and God’s love was on display.  

When Joy came into my life

Until about nine years ago, I would have overlooked this mother too out of a blind ignorance. But my eyes were opened when I met my husband’s family. For 40 years, my in-laws have raised, nurtured, loved and served their daughter, Joy, who has Down syndrome. When I met Joy, I was about to be engaged to her brother. For the first time in my life, I saw what the daily life of a family with a member who has special needs looks like. Oh how they love Joy!  From the hugs, to the spontaneous dance parties, to the retelling of memories from the past, her family is her world. Over the years, I’ve been able to see how my in-laws try to keep Joy on a schedule with predictable routines because she thrives on them. For example, if the family has to miss church, Joy won’t hear of it and will show up dressed in her Sunday best with her purse and Bible in hand.  

Why we should love families with special needs

In my mother-in-law’s words, “By having a special needs child, we have journeyed and are journeying down a different path, learning a different world.’’ Any parent of a child with special needs would agree. This “different world” can at times feel isolating, limiting and exhausting.  Parents with typical children can’t understand this world completely, but as the church, we must try. Here are a few reasons why:

Parents of children with special needs, specifically those in the church, are some of the most humble people I know.

  1. We are called to. There are 59 “one anothers” in the New Testament, 11 of which are “love one another.” As we survey the pages of Scripture, we’re admonished to “be devoted to one another,” “live in harmony with one another, “honor one another,” and “bear one another’s burdens.” Yet, it’s easy to oversimplify these instructions as “get along,” “don’t stir the pot,” or “mind your own business.” We find our tribes and stick with what we know because it’s safe, comfortable and demands little emotional or physical investment. But Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me. . . . Truly I say to you as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. . . . Truly I say to you as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:31-46). Sometimes “one another” means “not like the other.” Sometimes “loving the least of these” means getting out of what we know and are used to so that we can enter into a different world—one where our brothers and sisters with special needs live each and every day.
  2. To learn humility. I have yet to meet a parent of a child with special needs who brags about methods, achievements, plans or systems. Parents of children with special needs, specifically those in the church, are some of the most humble people I know. They’re not quick to give advice or dispense wisdom, yet I learn much from their lives and how they patiently care for their children. We learn humility best by watching it at work in others. Many of these parents are beautiful examples for us to follow.    
  3. To bridge the gap. If a separation exists between families in the church, we can be bridge-builders, inviting and investing in families who have challenges different from our own.  We may need to initiate the invitation, taking into consideration what a family’s special needs are. And we can always ask if we don’t know. If we ignore our brothers and sisters with special needs in the church, we may be indirectly teaching our own children to do the same—and the cycle continues. Bridge the gap between families, beginning with the local church, and watch the cycle be broken.   

Learning from and loving those on a different path than ours begins on our knees, earnestly seeking God to show us how to love as he does. The gospel reminds us that “all are one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). Knowing this, we’re compelled to engage Christian families with special needs as brothers and sisters, not as “different.” Even though we may not be like one another, we can love as Christ loved us first—giving up our comforts and our “rights” so that we can build unity in the body and serve as a testimony to a watching world of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A child of God, with special needs or otherwise, is his child for life. Let’s love one another well with this truth in mind.  

Editor’s Note: Parenting is hard. But it is even more difficult for Christian parents to raise kids in today's changing culture Join us for the fourth annual ERLC National Conference on "Parenting: Christ-Centered Parenting in a Complex World" on August 24-26, 2017 in Nashville, TN, this event will welcome key speakers including Russell Moore, Jim Daly, Sally Lloyd-Jones, Todd Wagner, and Jen Wilkin. Register by May 31 and receive a FREE Austin Stone Kids Worship Album. Learn more here.

Jenna Fleming

Jenna is a pastor's wife, mother, educator, and Christ follower. She is a 5th grade ELA/SS teacher at Union Elementary in Tennessee. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24