The Meaning of Disability
I was recently interviewed for an academic study on the way various religious groups view disability. This is a particularly interesting area to me because my father lived with a disability throughout his life. Following is the first question I was asked, and my (cleaned up) verbatim response.
Question: Today, the first question that I would like you to respond to is what is your understanding of the purpose/meaning/significance of disability according to the teaching of your religion?
That’s a very good question. What I am about to say is not emotionally very satisfying but it is a sound theological answer. In Christianity, we believe that God made the world good and that God made all things well. But as a result of human sinfulness, direct human rebellion against God, all creation is now broken. A word that you sometimes hear Christians use is the word “fallen.”
This means that creation is broken, that sin has come into the world. When we say "sin," we don’t just mean moral problems or things people do that are unethical. We mean all forms of corruption. This corruption affects us ethically, but it even affects us physically.
Christians do not historically believe in a disconnect between spirit and body, even though you will find many Christians today who have a false understanding of their faith and believe there is a separation. The physical aspects of this world are just as corruptible as the spiritual or the ethical. All forms of physical corruption, all things that are not good, are evidence of the Fall. Things like tornadoes, diseases, cancers, that sort of thing, starvation, and then ultimately even problems in the genetic code of human beings. These come from the Fall.
So even genes have gone astray and have done things to the human being that God did not intend. These sometimes cause disability. And also there are accidents which cause people to be disabled, diseases that cause people to be disabled, things that come upon one later in life. We see these as evidence of the Fall, as evidence of the sinfulness of the fallen world.
We do not, however, this is important, we do not believe that disabilities are the result of the individual person’s own sin. In other words, a person is not born with, for instance, Down's Syndrome because they are sinners or because their parents were sinners, but because all humanity is in a fallen state. That’s the same thing for disease. We don’t believe that you have heart disease because you are a sinner, because God is punishing you.
The reason we don’t believe that God is punishing you is because of the Cross, that God in his body accepted all the punishment for humanity.
At the same time, there are disabilities that would be the result of your own sinfulness. For instance, you are driving a car 120 miles an hour, drunk, you run into a tree, you break your back and you can no longer use your legs. Okay, that’s the result of your own stupidity, your own sinfulness. But it is not in fact God’s punishment, it's just the natural result of your own choices.
I do understand that there are people who believe that disabilities are God given and I would disagree with that, I don’t believe that they are God given. Christians believe that human beings are resurrected, which means that our eternal life is a physical life as well as a spiritual life. And we believe that at the resurrection, our bodies will be perfect. I don’t believe that at the resurrection there will be people with cancer, or one arm, or M.S. I actually believe that every human being, even the people who do have those conditions today, will be made entirely whole. And, once again, this is the direct result of what the God-Man Jesus does for us on the Cross.
Finally, I would say that all pain in our life has the potentiality of directing us towards God. Any pain, whether it results from a temporary condition, heartbreak, a divorce or even a disability. This suffering has potential to cause us, and those who know us, to know God in a deeper way and to develop compassion, to share in the sufferings of Christ and therefore to advance in our relationship with the Lord. Of course, pain also has potential of driving us away from God. People have the option of taking pain as a reason to be angry with God and to disobey Him. That is not the purpose of our suffering.