With my arms still ailing through nerve damage, I thought it an appropriate time to ask a couple of friends to help ease the load just a little with some guest articles. Thus, today’s article is from my friend Paul Martin (who, as you know, also co-hosts my podcast). From here on out, you’re reading his words!
We were explaining our son’s disability to a neighbor one day when she asked, “Don’t they have a pre-natal test for that?” We knew the question behind the question. She was asking whether there was pre-birth screening that could have detected his disability and, if so, why we hadn’t taken it. In other words, if we could have aborted him, why didn’t we while we had the chance? Why hadn’t we aborted my son, the one playing on the lawn over there? She had the audacity to bluntly ask what so many only silently wonder.
I don’t hold it against her. That dear neighbor was only reflecting what I call a “Utilitarian” worldview, the idea that worth is determined by contribution. That worldview comes straight from Satan and should taste like poison when it hits your tongue since it is nothing short of the Nazi’s Operation T4 which paved the way to the Final Solution. We react with horror to that kind of thing, don’t we? Or do we?
When my son was a toddler, we attended a lovely event for people with his particular disability, Williams Syndrome. There was much good in this gathering, but I left deeply troubled. In almost every conversation I heard some form of that utilitarian worldview, that lie. Parents seemed bent on defending the worth of their children by explaining what good they brought to the world. When you believe that lie, you are forced to justify a person’s existence by demonstrating the way in which they contribute to society. For folks with Williams Syndrome, that is often something like, “Their smiles make the world a happier place.” Or, “They bring joy wherever they go.” That is nice sentiment but it falls flat. First of all, it is not always true. My friends with Williams Syndrome can make the world a very awkward, painful, or sad place. Second of all, even it were true, it would be a very flimsy reason to exist.
Looking for ways that people with special needs contribute to the world can be a fine exercise, but when it becomes the justification for their existence, you have bought the utilitarian tale. Human worth is not found in supposed contribution. The truth, according to God, is that people are valuable because they are made in His image. Value is all in relation to Him, not in what they bring to society. This is gloriously freeing. I do not have to justify the existence of my disabled son (or my “abled” daughters!) to anyone – their value is all bound up in the fact they were made in God’s image.
Did God Miss a Stitch?
Disability makes us ask a lot of questions though. Did God make a mistake when He sewed together the little girl with Patau Syndrome? Did He miss a stitch? The short answer is no. God has His own purposes in mind when He created our friends with disabilities. For instance, “Then the LORD said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?’” (Exodus 4:11). These are God’s words to the disabled Moses, the man with some form of speech impediment, but they hold true for us all. God did not make a mistake when He made the disabled. He did not momentarily lose focus or find His power eclipsed by some interfering evil force. At no point does the Bible teach that the disabled lack or lost the image of God.
In John 9, Jesus claimed that God exercised absolute and uncomfortable sovereignty over the disability of a blind man—a blind beggar. God had purposes in mind that far exceeded the comfort or experiences of the man. When you consider this event in comparison to Exodus 4:11, you begin to understand that although disability proves sin has broken this world, it is never outside of the providence of God.
What these exact purposes are vary as much as the people who experience disability. But the foundational truth we must lay hold of is the absolute sovereignty of God over disability. It is a sovereignty that does not obliterate his image and likeness. As Megan Best says, “In contrast to the modern philosophical view that personhood must be earned, the Bible teaches that our personhood is inherent because of the nature of the God whose image we reflect. We are to treat all human beings with respect for the whole of their lives, regardless of their particular characteristics. It is not our respect that gives them dignity; rather, it is because they have the dignity that we owe them respect.”
With the value of a person firmly settled by the fact they bear the image of God, we begin to see what we call disability is a strategy on God’s part to gain glory for His Name.
What It Means For Your Church
When the family with the severely autistic teenage boy has the courage to come to your church, you are given a profound opportunity. You can look at them like the disciples looked at the blind man and his family, or you can see them as Jesus sees them. They are people made in the image of God–the whole family, including their disabled son. The church has the unique privilege of denouncing utilitarianism and extolling the value of every life. The local church, that little outpost of heaven on earth, must be the place where the disabled are esteemed.
Therefore, your goal is not to seek out some special gift or savant ability in the child that the church can profit by or celebrate. That young man’s value does not proceed from his contribution to the church. The Christian response is to celebrate him because he is made in the image of God. If the foundation of your relationship with this boy is anything else, you will likely be condescending, fearfully awkward or mean.
Lead the Charge, Pastor
This must begin with local church pastors who move past their own fears, awkwardness and condescension and with eyes full of love for the Creator look into the faces of the disabled with joy.
When Peter wrote to the pastors of churches scattered throughout the known world he gave them one beautiful command, “Shepherd the flock of God that is your lot“ (1 Peter 5:2-3). The wise pastor understands that God is the One in charge of his church’s membership roll. When we grasp the significance of the imago dei as well as the providence of God in who becomes a part of our church, we are free to value every member not based on what they might do for us, but based on their Creator. People are valuable because God made them. This is our starting place for every relationship, and it is our starting place for every disabled person we meet.