Dr.Linda Treloar, writer of the the article, Disability, spiritual beliefs and the church: the experiences of adults with disabilities and family members, presents a refreshingly positive view of Christian belief with some findings that pastors should find helpful. Unfortunately the article is owned by a journal that only provides libraries and subscribers access, so I cannot link to it here.
She makes great attempts to be fair in her descriptions. For example, here is how she describes Evangelical Christians:
Evangelical Christians recognize the Bible as the inerrant, inspired word of God in its original writings. Biblical scriptures, the active living word of God, provide direction for living (see National Association of Evangelicals 2002, Scottsdale Bible Church 2002).
No political references and no pejorative language. The entire article is written the same way, through the description of the study itself to the recruiting process through the findings. I do not believe that Dr. Treloar has any particular connection with or affection for Christian beliefs, but she is certainly sympathetic to her study participants. Frequently she lets them tell their own stories:
One person said to me, ‘Don’t you hate God if He would do this to you? That He chose you to have a child with a disability?’ Very strong words. Why, who am I? I don’t have a right to say to God, ‘Who are you to do that to me?’ I’m His child, so is Michelle. He’s doing what He sees best for us, even though we don’t necessarily see the big picture. Most of us have a limited perspective of who we are in relation to God, even people that go to church regularly.
Dr. Treloar appears to be most interested in what actually helped people put their experience of disability into perspective, so there is very little interpretting of whether the study participants are ‘right’ in their beliefs or not. I believe that to be a weakness of the study, but it also allows her to go where the study participants take her rather than to pre-determined conclusions.
And she presents some very helpful advice for churches:
Several religious factors positively influenced the participants’ responses to challenges associated with disability. God was at the centre of the participants’ ultimate concerns. They used the Bible and their faith to provide meaning for their lives (emphasis mine). They experienced decreased spiritual distress for disability when their life circumstances were congruent with their spiritual beliefs. While high religious support by the church promoted positive adaptation to disability, it was not as important as the participants’ personal relationship with Jesus Christ (emphasis mine).
In other words, encourage the study of the Bible and a right understanding of Jesus Christ! And a common outcome of such an understanding?
What the participants’ believed influenced their response to life. The participants chose to live with joy and thankfulness despite stresses associated with disability. This reflected their belief in God’s greater purpose and plan for their lives.
The study participants also made recommendations:
The participants emphasized the need for increased assistance by the church in establishing theological meaning for disability (emphasis mine). Lack of a biblical foundation for achieving meaning in disability promoted spiritual distress and movement away from God and the church for a few participants.
There are weaknesses to this study:
- It focused on Evangelical Christians, who would more naturally be oriented toward trusting in and granting authority to the Bible. People who do not share these beliefs can easily dismiss the study conclusions as irrelevant to their experiences.
- The study was very small – less than 30 participants.
- Christianity is still presented as a means of coping, providing understanding and/or meaning for disability. While sympathetic to the positive benefits for believing in Jesus Christ, there is no case made for him being the central authority in all the universe as he is described in the Bible: All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made (John 1:3).
And maybe I give this study too much credit because it reflects my own experience. As I have written before, God-centered people were very helpful in pointing me to Jesus, but it was God’s word that has proven decisive over and over again, exactly where she is pointing.
But I find it very encouraging that a secular, peer-reviewed journal would seriously consider the positive benefits of Christian belief. And the findings did not end on a note of developing new programs or counseling methods, but on providing a right theological framework.
And that is something everyone, disabled or non-disabled, should be pursuing in the church.