Shortly after my son’s Down syndrome diagnosis, a dear friend of mine, a woodworker and master craftsman by trade, spoke life into my soul. He prayed for me one evening, and as he prayed he told me that my son wasn’t a crooked arrow. Psalms 127 declares that “Children are a gift from the LORD; they are a reward from him. Children born to a young man are like arrows in a warrior’s hand. How joyful is the man whose quiver is full of them” (NLT). This dear brother told me that my son was a gift, a sharp arrow in my quiver, that he would fly true and hit his mark. I was in tears.
We often live under a false presumption that if we are blessed, then life will go easy for us. Why is this? I’d like to spill a bit of ink, and attempt to share God’s Word on disability. I hope to put doubts to death for those experiencing disability, that somehow you boarded the wrong boat, your ship has sailed and it’s going the wrong way, and that somehow the rest of your life is plan B. I want to examine God’s promises in Scripture and ask the hard and honest question, “Am I cursed?” Doesn’t the Bible say that if I do this, that and the other, then God will keep all these bad things from me and I’ll be blessed? My life doesn’t look like all these things I’m promised, so what gives?
If we are honest, we’ve all asked these questions in some shape or form as we wrestle with raising a child with disability. I hope we can stare suffering straight in the face and see that God is good and God is sovereign. Together, let’s explore God’s Word on disability. Let’s discover how God intends in these shadowlands we sojourn, to use our sufferings to shape us and conform us into the image of Christ. Together, let’s marvel and behold Jesus, and see how the truly Blessed One, suffered. As we stare at Jesus, our Man of Sorrows, I pray we find grace to come to the painful revelation that to know Christ is to know suffering. The cross precedes the crown.
Let’s start at the beginning, the Books of Moses, the Books of the Law. These first five books, Genesis through Deuteronomy, also called the Pentateuch, have much to teach us about disability. Genesis reveals that all of us, the good, the bad, and the ugly, everyone is made in God’s image. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27). As Martin Luther King Jr. preached back in 1965, “there are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God” (The American Dream). In Genesis 3, amidst the fall and the curse, God gave a glimmer of hope, that through the seed of the woman, God would rescue and redeem His people. And we discover in Exodus, that God loves to use broken people to accomplish his good works.
God called stuttering Moses to deliver the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. And when God called old 80 year Mo, while tending his sheep way out in the wilderness, he didn’t feel up for the task. He tries to punt, telling God he’s got the wrong guy. The LORD responds, “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). So a hard question for all of us impacted by disability… was it God’s will that your child was born blind or deaf, or with some disability? According to God’s Word, Yes. God made your child just the way they are. And we could skip ahead to the Psalms and hear the psalmist declare, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). This isn’t just for healthy babies. All children are fearfully and wonderfully made, as God intended.
So God is clearly in charge, sovereign over disability. But then we get a couple difficult passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. I don’t imagine that I’ll be able to answer all the skeptics. But I don’t want to simply skip over hard words. All Scripture speaks for our God. So what are we to make of some of these difficult passages?
Leviticus reveals to us the holiness and purity of God. And yet even within this book we see massive mercy. This holy transcendent God chooses to tabernacle, to pitch his tent, to dwell, among sinful people. The book is written for the priests who care for the temple and offer sacrifices. From the 12 tribes of Israel, one tribe, the Levites, were designated to be the priests. Leviticus is filled with instructions for these priests and in Leviticus 21 we find that God prohibited priests who were blind, lame, deformed, crippled, etc. from serving at the altar. For someone who knows their Bible, this may seem to fly in the face of the heart of Christ who reached out and welcomed the ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.’ So which is it?
We need to ask ourselves what the grand purpose of Leviticus was for? It served to show God’s people and God’s priests, the perfection of God and the imperfection of humanity. Judith Abrams, in her book, Judaism and Disability, writes, “In the most perfect of places – that is, the temple – in the presence of the most perfect entity – that is, God – only the most perfect of person, someone of unblemished priestly lineage and perfect physical form, may offer up sacrifices (which must also be unblemished).” So who is the perfect priest? Or perhaps I should first ask, were there any perfect priests in the Old Testament ritual system? No, every priest was imperfect, all fell short, and these shadows again point the reader forward to that great High Priest who will come in the fullness of time, who will himself be both the one true Perfect Priest and the one true Perfect Sacrifice, as John the Baptist declared as he saw Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
So Leviticus rather than casting judgment and ostracizing those with disabilities, it actually reveals that the perfect God has chosen to dwell with imperfect people, but the only way this is possible is through a perfect priest and a perfect, unblemished sacrifice. That truth has been found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the only able One among us all.
Another difficult passage is found in Deuteronomy, where Moses for a second time gives the Law of God to the people of God. They are about to enter the Promised Land after being delivered from slavery in Egypt and brought through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Sadly Moses will not be going with them into the Promised Land. He calls the Israelites to “Fear the LORD and keep his commandments.” In Deuteronomy 28, Moses reminds them of the blessings and the curses of God. God will bless obedience, God will curse disobedience. For those who obey, God declares, “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb…the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb.” These are words of light and hope and life. But then, for those who will not obey, “Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb…The LORD will strike you with wasting disease and with fever…The LORD will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed. The LORD will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind…” These are dark, foreboding, sobering words.
So we see clearly that God rewards and God punishes. Those who obey will be blessed, those who disobey will be cursed. There are consequences for the way we live. As we think through disability then, we see God as the one who makes someone disabled (Exodus 4), but then we read that someone has a disability because they disobeyed (Deuteronomy 28). But perhaps you ask, don’t we all disobey? If we all disobey, then why is their child healthy and my child disabled? What do we do? Do we just avoid these difficult paths and never return? No, we need to again, like in Leviticus, faithfully read God’s Word in light of Christ.
The Law was given by God to bring us to Christ. When I read Deuteronomy 28, my soul cries out, “Who then can be saved?” I see how far short I fall of God’s glory and his standard of perfect loving obedience. I don’t deserve the blessing. I see that God has every right to judge and condemn me. But then I recognize that God has been so merciful to me, someone who so easily disobeys. The Blessings and the Curses were not given by God for us to say, “Sweet, I’ve obeyed perfectly, I’m in the blessed camp. Rather, it is given to show me my sin and cause me to cast myself upon the mercy of God. Consider Psalm 130, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness that you may be feared.” And here we begin to hear the sweet refrains of the Gospel. We’ll explore this Good News in Part 2.