The ministry of reconciliation in disability

I was putting my three-year-old nephew to bed one night, and perhaps as a reason to put bedtime off even longer, he peppered me with questions he’d been asking for a while. Why do I have to look at you when I talk? Why do you have those (hearing aids) in your ears? Why do I still have to look at you if you have those things in your ears? I patiently explained to him (again) that my ears work differently than his, and lipreading and hearing aids help me understand people a little bit better.

DO NOT WORRY; he had a plan. We can fix it! he insisted. Like mommy fixed her eyes (my sister-in-law had Lasik surgery a long time ago). I told him that Mommy fixing her eyes was different than me being able to “fix” my ears. He ignored me. But we can fix it! He is nothing if not persistent.

My heart sank a little that at such a young age, he already thought something about me needed fixing — and not just anything, but the very thing I’ve been wrestling with for almost 30 years. But it was really time for bed, so I shut it down. It’s OK, I said, God made me this way, so I don’t need to be fixed. Now go to bed, good night and I love you!

At first, I found his determination to “fix” me disquieting. My original approach of avoiding language that would make him think there was anything wrong with me whenever I talked to him about my hearing aids seemed to have backfired. I was discouraged, perhaps, that despite my best efforts, he still innately perceived that my disability divided us and hampered communication.

But the more I think about it, the more I see that both the three year old and this 30-something fall short in our understanding of what disability is, what God made it for and how we as Christians ought to respond to it. According to my nephew’s logic, my disability itself is the problem, and if my full hearing could be restored, everything would be hunky-dory. Where I’m wrong is trying to sweep disability under the rug, to pretend there’s no problem at all, that if we just raise our kids right, they’ll be blissfully oblivious to the differences that we adults have allowed to divide us.

Maybe the reason that neither of our solutions work is that we’re trying to solve the wrong problem. It’s not the disability itself that’s the problem, but our hearts.

Back to the Garden

My church recently offered a class on developing a theology of disability that has gone a long way in starting to reshape the way I think about disability in general and my hearing loss in particular. In one of the first lessons, our teacher explained that when Adam and Eve sinned, it wasn’t just their relationship with God that was broken, but their relationship with each other. How quickly they went from unashamed to blaming the other person for the fall! So because we live in a fallen world, our natural unity has been shattered, and we need supernatural reconciliation, both with God and with one another.

Disability is one way that this division manifests itself. For instance, because I’m hard of hearing, I have to work harder at communicating with others in person, and they with me. Sometimes neither of us want to put in the effort — I’m too tired, they’re too uncomfortable or unsure of what to do — so our relationship suffers. My not being able to hear water running is not the issue; the isolating factor of not being able to keep up with group conversations is. Being hard of hearing, apart from the grace of God, drives a wedge between me and the people around me.

In other words, the real problem of disability is not in how it affects the person physically, but in how it affects our relationships with each other, those with a disability and those without. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that Jesus means to unite us — to himself and to each other. If we look at some of the New Testament accounts of how Jesus healed people, we can see three things happening:

1. He always forgave their sins first, because their soul’s need was far greater than their physical need — he restored them to himself.
2. He healed them physically — he removed the leprosy, stopped the 12-year-long flow of blood, restored sight, and made lame legs to walk.
3. In doing so, He also brought them back into the fold by healing the thing that had made them “unclean” or unwanted in their culture, as evidenced by the times he said, “go and show yourselves to the priests.”

With this in mind, then, disability becomes not a burden to society, but a conduit of grace, a way for God to display his ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). I don’t need to be fixed, because hearing loss in and of itself is not the problem. God is kind to bestow upon us the common grace of medical solutions such as hearing aids, wheelchairs, prescriptions, and surgery that help us accommodate our disabilities or manage their effects if we so choose. But more than seeking medical “cures,” we also need to pursue relational healing, and for that, we need a right view of God.

The image of God

Something else I learned in my church’s class on theology and disability was the nature of the Trinity. Now, the doctrine of the Trinity (one God existing in three Persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is one of those things that I should, like, totally know by now, but find myself encountering in new and unexpected ways. One of those ways was when the teacher pointed out that the Triune God is an interdependent being. The Son can’t act apart from the Father. The Father doesn’t effect salvation apart from the Son. The Son sanctifies us through the Spirit.

The takeaway was that since we’re made in the image of God, and God is interdependent within Himself, that we are designed to need and be dependent on each other. This flies in the face of our Western value of independence. I can do this on my own, thanks. I don’t need anyone. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps already! But listen. We are not designed that way, or there wouldn’t be so many articles about how Facebook is isolating and depressing us. We all need each other. None of us are exempt from the “one another” admonitions in Scripture. And the Church, our teacher said, needs people with disabilities. When we don’t allow a person with a disability — someone who God created with his own hand! — to serve or to be part of the Church, the Body of Christ, then we all suffer for it.

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, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Corinthians 12:21-26)

If He’s creator of all, and if we’re made in his image, if we’re more alike than not, if we’re all sinners in need of a Savior, then what room do any of us have to exclude anyone else? We were all once far off, but he’s drawn us near. We were once all strangers and aliens and hostile, but he himself is our peace. He has not made us to go it alone, or to stick only with the people who are like us. How small our view of our God when we hide behind the familiar and the known.

But when we run freely and recklessly into the glorious truth that Jesus has broken down in his body the dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14), when we humbly and self-forgetfully put aside our fears, our insecurities, our I-don’t-know-what-to-do-ness to love one another earnestly from a pure heart (1 Peter 1:22), we get to see more of God, witness more of his varied grace, more of his creativity and imagination, more of his very heart.

Look to Jesus

We’re all guilty of isolating ourselves from each other, of turning away. This goes for all of us, those who live with a disability and those who don’t. We all need the gospel; having a disability doesn’t make me any less sinful, any less a perpetrator of the dividing wall of disability than my brothers and sisters who don’t live with one.

So to my brothers and sisters who do live with a disability: I know it can be tough. Sometimes we feel misunderstood, ignored, unheard, unseen. So was our Jesus, so we can trust that even when the people around us don’t get it, he does. He understands fully and can and will comfort thoroughly. Draw your hope from him alone, not from inclusion itself.

God made you. He designed your disability for you. Now you steward it for him. Don’t try to hide your need of him or of other people. Be upfront about your practical needs, and be patient, not entitled. Resist the temptation to isolate yourself, to avoid the company of others because you’re afraid or embarrassed or proud. Give thanks in every circumstance. Be faithful. Ask for eyes to see how God is working in and through the frustration, the daily annoyances, even the grief. Preach all day long how God is good, even in the midst of all of those. Because when people see that you are so very satisfied and joyful in your Lord, despite what they perceive to be external difficulties, that will sing to their hearts the truth that we all need the most: that our biggest problem isn’t on the outside, but the inside, and only Jesus is the solution to that. Like our friend Johnny P says, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.

To my brothers and sisters who don’t live with a disability, I know it’s tempting to think this isn’t your problem. I’m guilty of thinking that myself when it comes to people with disabilities I don’t know much about, or when it comes to issues that sound eerily familiar to this one, like racial tension. We’re not sure where to start, and we don’t want to offend anyone, so we make like ostriches and bury our heads in the sand. Or maybe we want to do the right thing, but we don’t know what to do. There is grace for that! God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything, so we can come to him and ask for wisdom and he’ll give it to us, because he loves us, because he wants to build his Church.

God designed disability for you, too, Church. Make your church building and your redeemed hearts accessible to the people in your midst who need accommodating. Ask — don’t tell — your brother or sister what they need in the way of accommodations, and don’t forget relationships. Add subtitles to your videos. Make your website accessible for people who are blind. Train your childcare volunteers to welcome kids with Down’s Syndrome or autism. Leave room in the sanctuary for wheelchairs. Look at your sister when you talk. Sit with your brother if you see no one sitting with him. Love them as you would anyone else — by praying for them, visiting with them, making meals when they’re sick, saying hello when you pass them in the hall, seeking ways to draw out their gifts. And don’t forget the parents — sometimes disability is harder on Mom and Dad than on the child. Be a friend, be a brother, be a sister, be a good and faithful steward.

All of us, look to Jesus. The longer we look to Jesus, the less we’ll even have categories for things like hard of hearing or disability. The more Jesus eclipses our view, the easier it is to forget ourselves. The more obsessed we become with just how much he loves us, the more eager we’ll be to open our arms a little wider. The deeper we press into him and learn to love what he loves, the more our hearts will burn for all the saints. Don’t misunderstand me; Jesus isn’t a means to an end of unity and accord. He’s both means and end. Unity itself won’t bring about the peace our souls clamor for; only Jesus can do that.

Let’s lock arms as we labor toward unity, with eyes fixed heavenward, and ask our Father for eyes to see him as he is, discernment to see ourselves as we are, and a willing spirit to sustain us as we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16)

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:7-11)

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