I delivered this at the 2013 Children Desiring God Conference on May 3: The Splendor of Holiness.
God and His Creation: His Holiness and Splendor Displayed in Disability
John Knight presenting
I’m going to propose an argument with regards to disability and God. In essence my argument is this – because God is holy, he makes some to live with disability in this life. He does so intentionally, purposefully, and graciously. He does so knowing the suffering that will be involved. He does so for our good. He does so to magnify his holiness.
Before we begin, let us pray for help:
Lord, help us to see you in your beauty and your intentionality, how you make your name great and how good it is that you burn with a passion for your own glory. Please, Lord, help us to see your work in disability and help me to make much of you. In Jesus Name, Amen.
Pastor John very early in his ministry had this to say about God and his holiness:
When we say that God is holy we mean that, along with the immeasurableness of his greatness, his character is unimpeachable. He cannot be charged with any wrong.
Now, this was not my first reaction to disability when it entered my family 17 years ago. My son was born with no eyes and my reaction was to charge God with wrong, to reject God and the people of God, to deny any good purpose in disability, to deny that God could possibly be good in all his ways. I was consumed with my own definition of goodness and did not trust God at all.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5, ESV)
In other words, God cracked me open, showed me the depths of my own depravity and my desperate need for a savior. He returned me to church, gave me a desire to know him and his word more accurately, and set me on a different path.
It has not gotten easier as we’ve added more things to Paul’s complicated life; autism, cognitive impairments, growth hormone deficiency, eating and sleeping disorders, epilepsy and orthopedic issues. Disability is expensive in every conceivable way things are measured – financially, relationally, emotionally. On top of that, my youngest son was born 2 months prematurely in 2003, and my wife was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in 2004.
So, I do not offer this as simply an interesting question over which one can think on – every day I am confronted with the question of my son’s disabilities and the impact he has on my life and the life of my family, my church, and my community. I invite you into this question of God’s holiness and disability with that in mind – this is both deadly serious and incredibly joyful. God has used disability to radically change how I think about God and his word.
So far we have heard an incredible word from Pastor John and from Bruce Ware. I love the strong, Biblical call to delight in the holiness of God – what a promise and an experience that we are called to be like God in the strength that God provides!
And everything points to God’s goodness in his holiness. I must also be clear here; I do not mean that disability magnifies the holiness of God because it stands in contrast to that holiness. I mean that disability itself shows us something about God and his holiness.
If there is a contrast, this view of God’s holiness in disability is in sharp contrast to the chaos that naturalists or secularists proclaim over things like disability, disease and natural disasters. In that worldview, things just happen – there is no higher purpose. It also stands in contrast to the health and wealth prosperity gospel because it identifies a deeply profound and good thing inherent to God’s allowing disability over the course of life or creating little human beings with life-long disabilities. This life is not ultimately about our comfort, no matter what those charlatans and thieves would try to sell us as being God’s word.
I do not mean to romanticize disability. The pain and suffering is real, both in the person experiencing disability and in those who love that person and long for them to experience relief and even normalcy.
And we live in this culture with what I call the great divide – a sense of ‘them’ vs. the rest of society.
It is reflected in the ever-more-precise definition of quality of life, which excludes increasing numbers of our frail elderly and severely disabled as living lives that are worthwhile. Suffering, even observed suffering and not experienced suffering, has ever lower levels of tolerance in this culture. Quietly, new technologies are being developed and implemented by thousands of doctors to identify unborn children with disabilities at earlier and earlier stages of pregnancy, for the express purpose of eliminating them from existence. I have lost track of the number of stories from parents who observed the change in medical personnel when a disability is discovered, moving from care and excitement for and about the child to preparing the family for that child’s termination.
It is an old story. In the Old Testament, God warns against abusing those who live with disabilities:
You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:14, ESV)
The implication is clear that this proclamation is necessary because people have been abusing those who are blind or deaf. The warning is crystal clear as well: fear God who will see your bad behavior and he will respond.
The culture question was brought into stark clarity in John 9, where Jesus heals a man born blind. It begins with the disciples wondering:
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2, ESV)
They were not intentionally being cruel but were really wondering, because in that cultural air the notion of sin and disability went naturally together. Imagine being that man or being that man’s parents – “who sinned” was around him his entire life. And he was relegated to begging even though we see evidence of a clear-thinking, articulate man as the rest of John 9 unfolds.
And there are hard passages in God’s word, like in Leviticus 21:
. . .but he shall not go through the veil or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am the Lord who sanctifies them.” (Leviticus 21:21-23, ESV)
Consider those words: that he may not profane my sanctuaries. Those are hard words, and words which I needed to wrestle with before seeing the beauty of what God is communicating. We’ll come back to Leviticus 21 later. It actually reveals a spectacular reality that should give us hope rather than be a discouragement.
So, whether considering our culture or the time in which the Bible was written, the reality of disability is not an easy thing. My own initial response to my son’s disabilities is representative of how it is perceived today. Nobody has ever questioned whether that bitter, angry response was real or not; many have expressed surprise at my response today that God is good and right to have created my son the way that he did. And it is not just a social construct – his epilepsy causes him real pain. My wife’s cancer caused her real pain in her body.
It is fairly easy to see how developments like discrimination or genocide through abortion are evil and work against the interests of people with disabilities. But we must admit that when we breathe this cultural air, those of us who don’t live with disabilities are tempted to place those living with disabilities into the ‘other’ category as well. There is this category of normal, which we expect and see as part of God’s good design. There is the category of unusual capacity – intelligence, wisdom, drive, athleticism – which we celebrate. And then there is the category of those who are ‘less than’ we are. We can make ‘rational’ judgments about things, while ‘they’ can’t; we can determine the best course of action for ourselves and for others; ‘they’ need us. We can serve them; ‘they’ will be recipients of our service. We are strong and ‘they’ are weak. We can begin to identify ourselves with certain God-like qualities that place us in a different reality than our brothers and sisters with disabilities, especially cognitive or intellectual disabilities.
But God does not make that same association that strong bodies and rational minds have greater standing before him. In fact, the opposite can be seen in scriptures:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV)
Paul again puts physical health into a lesser category in 1 Timothy:
for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:8, ESV)
Unless Jesus returns, all of us will experience decay in our bodies, which results either in death or in a loss of capacity. All of us.
But it is not just that in a broken world there will be disabilities of all kinds – physical, emotional and cognitive. God has stated he is intentional in creating some who will be disabled:
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, ESV)
If we hold to the truth of scripture, we must see that God is, without embarrassment or apology, stating that he creates some who will live with disability.
And he clearly states that he does so for a purpose as we revisit John 9, adding vs. 3 to vs. 2:
And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:2-3, ESV)
Here Jesus helpfully moves the question beyond cause – Who’s sin? – to purpose – the works of God might be displayed in this blind man so that he, and we, could know something about Jesus. Again, unashamedly, God is stating that making much of Jesus is of such extraordinary worth that God will create a man to be blind for decades and live in a culture that only allows him to beg so that we can know something about Jesus as God.
But God also makes the point that we all share certain things in common, such as:
- Our greatest capacities are less than God’s: For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:25, ESV)
- Sin and death is common to everyone: Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— (Romans 5:12, ESV)
- We are all created, not creator: You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? (Isaiah 29:16, ESV)
This in no way denies that there are different levels of capacity and of giftedness in this world. The Bible speaks clearly on this reality as well:
- In the parable of the talents, Jesus recognizes that different people have different abilities: “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. (Matthew 25:14-15, ESV)
- Paul recognizes differing gifts: Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone (emphasize everyone – includes those with disabilities). (1 Corinthians 12:4-6, ESV)
- For the body does not consist of one member but of many. (1 Corinthians 12:14, ESV) The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor… (1 Corinthians 12:21-23, ESV)
Indispensable means it can’t work without the weaker member! God has ordained it to be this way! Paul introduced this counter-cultural reality of God’s using weakness intentionally way back in chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians:
- For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29, ESV)
- Paul brings this all together in his own life in 2 Corinthians: So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 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 Corinthians 12:7-10, ESV)
So, to draw this all together, a holy and righteous God, for the purposes of making his name great, creates people of all different kinds of ethnicities and backgrounds and colors and mental and physical abilities to display his glory in his holiness. The things we share in our humanity are sin and death and weakness and incapacity! Yet God who gives us faith also gives us things to do:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10, ESV)
Those who are given certain kinds of gifts and certain kinds of work to do, should do it in faith, knowing both the gift and the work has come from God himself. And those who need to receive the gift of that service should receive it, knowing they are created and sustained by God through the means that he deems best.
But it also means that those who are stronger – in health, intelligence, leadership or wisdom – should be on the lookout for the gifts of the weaker member so that those gifts they have been given can be expressed in the body, for the good of the church and for the glory of God. Remember, God calls the ‘seem to be’ weaker member indispensable. And there is a reason Paul used the term ‘seem to be.’ He recognized that in our finiteness, breathing the cultural air that we breathe, we will sometimes see someone who is different because of disability and assume they are weaker, when in fact God has granted them capacities for the good of his church.
And God goes out of his way to warn the stronger member, even when he is calling them to act in strength:
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9, ESV)
Clearly, the source of hope comes right back to God, not their own strength. And that is repeated time and again.
For those who live with physical disabilities alone, frequently we just need to get over our discomfort about the difference. I have met blind directors of programs and deaf leaders of ministries. Joni Eareckson Tada, of course, has lived with quadriplegia for more than 40 years and leads one of the most dynamic Christian ministries of any kind in the world, not just related to disability. We must ask God for help to see those gifts and then let them be used.
My greater concern is for those who live with cognitive disabilities. They truly are vulnerable in this present age. Even liberal theologians have abandoned them, focusing on a ‘liberation theology of disability’ that ultimately points toward utility rather than God’s mysterious and good design. I don’t have time to expose all the evil that is embedded in that theological construct, but it leaves people with cognitive disabilities behind and even more vulnerable to abuse and destruction.
But embedded in that vulnerability is something profoundly beautiful and helpful, revealed in scripture and from my experience in light of scripture.
One of the things my son doesn’t worry about is. . . anything. Let me repeat his diagnosis: blindness, autism, cognitive disabilities, epilepsy, eating and sleeping disorder, growth hormone deficiency, and orthopedic issues.
This boy expects me to provide for his needs, and he doesn’t worry about it. He lives a life of happy dependency. He doesn’t worry about anything. This is very Biblical:
The words of Jesus: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (Matthew 6:25-28, ESV)
Paul repeats in even stronger terms:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7, ESV)
How many of us can say that we behave entirely dependent on God? It is rare, and it is very beautiful – so one of my son’s gifts to the church is his happy, unashamed dependency on his earthly father who fails frequently – which actually helps me fight my anxiety. I fail a whole lot more than he does on this question of happy dependency, so I think it is reasonable to ask who the weaker member is in this case. It isn’t him.
He is also the happy recipient of service from those with different giftings than he has, which is related to his happy dependency. He doesn’t worry a great deal about reciprocity or what people will think about him. He just accepts the service! And in God’s extraordinary economy, those who serve him walk away feeling like they have been served, because God is honoring their acts of generosity done in faith. Because of his autism and his other disabilities, my son is not always pleasant to be around, but he is deeply loved by those who have eyes to see as God provides it to them.
There is another gift that comes, which is sometimes not seen as a gift. When we are confronted with someone who is other than we are – disability, economically, ethnicity, addictions, whatever – we don’t know what to do or to say. This should lead us to our knees to ask for help from the one who does know everything about everything, and who has promised to supply for us, and who has promised to send the helper. And this honors the Father when we come to him in our desperate need and simply say, help. In suffering, in disability, in confronting the issues around another person, we can join with all our heart and mind and soul with Jehoshaphat:
We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (2 Chronicles 20:12, ESV)
That’s a good prayer when you have a young adult with severe autism in your church who runs, or hits or spits – and you really don’t know what to do and none of what you have done has worked and you are ready to quit. Don’t quit. Lean into Jesus. Trust promises. Then act in your vulnerability. That displays the splendor of God’s holiness in ways that would not otherwise be available to you if all your children were the same and acted the same. And the world will notice.
There are a few things I always recommend to churches regardless of size or the kinds of disabilities you are experiencing in your church or family:
- Pray – get people praying about what is best for this body of believers; ask for God’s help in determining what your church is being called to do (which could take many different forms: respite, buddies, inclusion, adapted Sunday Schools, aides, groups for moms or dads, etc.)
- Train your people about what God says in his word about disability
- Some churches do disability Sundays.
- I have been helped by my pastors working it in when appropriate to create a culture of understanding and engagement
- Child dedication example – one of my pastors makes the specific point, whether there is a disabled child being dedicated or not, that ALL children are gifts – and then he names some disabilities to make his point that these children are gifts as well. You can’t avoid that he means all children.
- Every January we celebrate life through a sermon dedicated to life and ending abortion. Pastor John chose John 9 as his pro-life platform one year, making the specific point that babies with disabilities also deserve to be born. That’s helpful when an entire congregation can hear that from their pastor.
- Pastor John and now Pastor Jason preach through books of the Bible. When Pastor John came to John 5 and then John 9, he preached about disability. Pastors can have a huge impact on their churches when they build it into the regular stream of things like this.
- I would also suggest that you use your spiritually mature members living this life to help educate and orient that this is primarily an issue about God and his word and not about methodology. They have credibility – use them! But also be careful not to take advantage or to force anything; there was a time when asking me to do something like that would have been very, very bad.
- Know your members – who do you have already in your congregation who lives with disabilities? What would love look like for those members? (Example: one family adopted us when I was angry and bitter; they had been prepared well by the church to do hard things in love, expecting God’s help. What love looked like for us was being invited to dinner and being lavished with hospitality.)
- Act in faith.
- Recognize that the need, like other needs in your congregation, will never be entirely met.
- Recognize that you will fail; let them be active failures done in love (example of not having right volunteers at BBC)
- Try to orient everyone (have it part of volunteer training and orientation; alert volunteers when a child will be part of their group; make statements about how important it is to include such children)
I said I would come back to Leviticus 21 and I want to close with this:
No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s food offerings; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. He may eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy things, but he shall not go through the veil or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am the Lord who sanctifies them.” So Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel. (Leviticus 21:21-24, ESV)
It was this passage that many years ago got me interested in what the Bible has to say about disability. I was attending a conference on disability and the church, which was mostly about access to church buildings and methodology in programming. Very little Bible. But in the afternoon during a panel discussion the question was asked, what do we do with the hard passages of the Bible that involve disability. A Jewish Rabbi responded, ‘oh, you mean like the passages in Leviticus. We just ignore those. We know better now.’ I didn’t know much then, but I knew that wasn’t the right answer.
So I started to dig. This passage is one of the most difficult passages in the Bible concerning disability, if not the most difficult, because it appears to suggest that God is against people with disabilities based solely on their disability. But we must consider the whole counsel of God before we come to an easy conclusion.
There is much to say about this passage that makes it hopeful but I will focus on just three.
First, those of the sons of Aaron would know Exodus 4:11 and God’s intentionality in creating some to live with disability, and later would know Psalm 139 where God takes credit for intimately knitting babies in the womb. They would have known that their disability or blemish had come from God, and that God is entirely good and trustworthy. God had both made them part of the lineage of Aaron – which qualified them to be a high priest – and he had disqualified them because of their disability or blemish. They would be required to cling to God in ways that others would not, and thereby demonstrate God’s goodness and their confidence in him in a special way.
Second, God does not take away their birthright – he may still eat. Nobody can disqualify the one with a disability from that, even from the most holy and the holy things. God has embedded right in the middle of this hard passage the right for them to enjoy the benefits of their birthright – who would want to just ignore that?
And the third is the best of all – it is pointing to Jesus. In that day and that time, God was making a statement about purity and holiness, and doing so in ways we could understand. But when Jesus came, everything got better and deeper and more profound about this passage. Jesus as the Great High Priest has no moral stain that would disqualify him which is far, far worse than a physical blemish or disability. He is the perfect, unblemished sacrifice for our sins. This is not primarily a statement about God and disability; this is primarily a statement who has the authority to forgive sin! And Leviticus 22, with its focus on sacrifice, is about the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! And that makes it breathtakingly beautiful and hopeful.
And think of how Jesus behaved; he pursued those with disabilities! He touched a leper, and rather than become unclean himself, he made the leper clean! He was touched by a woman who had a discharge of blood – and again, rather than him becoming unclean, she was healed! He worked on the Sabbath to rescue those who were paralyzed, or had a limb too short. All of these were pointers to Jesus as God; we make a grave mistake if we make it about the healings or about Jesus being ‘nice.’ We must remember that every one of those people Jesus healed, including Lazarus who he raised from the dead, eventually died. Without the ultimate cleansing of their sins, the short-term healing of their afflictions would have meant nothing.
This isn’t something new we’ve just discovered in our enlightened state about disability. Matthew Henry put it this way more than three hundred years ago as he considered Leviticus 21:
Under the gospel, 1. Those that labour under any such blemishes as these have reason to thank God that they are not thereby excluded from offering spiritual sacrifices to God; nor, if otherwise qualified for it, from the office of the ministry. There is many a healthful beautiful soul lodged in a crazy deformed body. Yet, 2. We ought to infer hence how incapable those are to serve God acceptably whose minds are blemished and deformed by any reigning vice. Those are unworthy to be called Christians, and unfit to be employed as ministers . . . whose sins render them scandalous and (spiritually) deformed…
This is amazing in how clear it is about what is truly good and truly evil and it isn’t disability. There is no disqualification because of physical or cognitive disability. God does the work of saving faith regardless of physical or intellectual capacities. God must do it; God is pleased to welcome childlike faith that he gives!
Back to God’s holiness, I appreciate this teaching from R.C. Sproul in his book, the Holiness of God:
“When we understand the character of God, when we grasp something of His holiness, then we begin to understand the radical character of our sin and hopelessness. Helpless sinners can survive only by grace. Our strength is futile in itself; we are spiritually impotent without the assistance of a merciful God… Even Edwards’s sermon on sinners in God’s hands was not designed to stress the flames of hell. The resounding accent falls not on the fiery pit but on the hands of the God who holds us and rescues us from it. The hands of God are gracious hands. They alone have the power to rescue us from certain destruction.” R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God
Is God strong? Yes! Is God intentional in all he does? Yes! Is disability hard? Yes! And God is greater and kind to help us understand more about his persistence in pursuing our good in every circumstance as he deems best. Even the relentless nature of disability pales in comparison to the infinite ability and goodness of God to carry his people.
So, for the health of your churches and your families, embrace this God as Lord over all things including disability, and that he is holy and righteous in all that he does. Pursue the good of your neighbor in your service, but also look for the God-given gifts he has given to those the world would destroy. If you need to, ask for God’s help in changing your heart to see the gift of all his human creation he brings to your church. Then act in faith, and when you stumble, ask for forgiveness then act in faith again. By doing so, you honor God and increase your own opportunity to enjoy the gifts he has given to you, for his glory and for your own joy.
There are a few resources on this subject that I recommend and which are available in the bookstore: Just the Way I Am: God’s Good Design in Disability by Krista Horning; Wrestling with an Angel by Greg Lucas; Disability and the Gospel by Mike Beates, A Place of Healing by Joni Eareckson Tada, and The Works of God: God’s Good Design in Disability conference messages available at www.desiringGod.org.
Prayer to close our time together
Time for questions.