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A Healing Homiletic
Preaching and Disability
By Kathy Black
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1996 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Healing and Theodicy
One of the most difficult questions pastors and theologians have had to deal with throughout the ages is why there is so much suffering in the world. Volumes have been written in response to this question. Rabbi Harold Kushner tried to deal with this issue in his popular book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. This underlying question plagues many clergy today as they attempt to provide pastoral care to persons with disabilities—particularly those who are experiencing disability for the first time. A person has been in a car accident and wakes up in the hospital without the ability to walk. The long-awaited birth of a baby finally arrives, but joy turns to unknown fear as the expectant parents wait in silence while the doctors rush the newborn off to ascertain her physical condition. What do clergy have to offer to those who experience such suffering when the immediate shock and anger wear off and the questions are raised about why this happened to them? Where is God in the midst of their pain?
The questions are difficult. On the one hand, we have years of training, and many laity look to us for answers. For some people, clergy are the representatives of God, and they come to us not only for comfort but also for help in finding some meaning in their life situations. And while clergy may be exceptionally competent in many areas of ministry and feel in control of many situations, dealing with persons with disabilities makes many clergy uncomfortable. We have volumes to say on most topics (after all, preaching is a major part of our job), but we are uncomfortably silent when it comes to this particular group of people. We do not know what to say, we do not have any real answers, and their vulnerability raises in us questions about our own finitude and fragility. If this happened to them, what prevents me from being in their situation tomorrow?
In our attempts to deal with these issues and answer these questions, clergy have rightly relied on theology, tradition, and biblical guidance. The problem, however, is that Christian tradition and the Bible itself are very ambiguous on this topic, and clergy end up conveying mixed and often confusing, contradictory messages—in pastoral care settings and in preaching.
Angel or Devil, Blessed or Cursed
One contradictory message many churches convey is that persons with disabilities are both blessed by God and cursed by God. Some within the Christian tradition label the persons with a disability as "angel" while others label the same person as "devil."
Religious communities often view persons with disabilities as blessed, specially chosen by God to be courageous witnesses to the world. How often have we heard persons with disabilities praised for their perseverance, their inner strength, their visible witness that nothing in life will destroy their inner spirit or their will to make meaning out of their lives? Children with disabilities are often called "little angels." And parents with disabled children are seen as saints because of the "extra burden" they carry. We use words such as "valiant battle," "courageous woman," and "blessed by God," as we stand in awe at the ways some people are able to manage their lives, and we wonder if we would do as well.
Persons with disabilities are also considered blessed because the Bible implies that people have disabilities so that God's mighty works can be made manifest in and through them. They are blessed by God and used as witnesses to God's power. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul says, "I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me." Some believe that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was some kind of disability. The writer of the Gospel of John credits Jesus with saying that the man "was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him" (John 9:3). The parable in Luke about the great dinner indicates that it will be persons who are blind and lame who will taste the heavenly banquet, not those who were initially invited (Luke 14:1624). Preachers have preached these texts in ways that continue to support the notion that persons with disabilities are blessed by God, and therefore are angels and saints.
At the same time, because of the literal and often traditional interpretation of many of the healing texts in the Gospels, persons with disabilities are often equated with the devil—they are perceived as being cursed by God. In recent years, a man who was born with severe physical deformities was looked upon with disgust and suspicion. Several times people said that only a pact with the devil could create such a grotesque being. They judged the man solely by his outward appearance. They found it difficult to imagine a God who would create such deformities. Therefore, they reasoned, the person with the disability must be of the devil.
Persons with disabilities are often considered sinful, lacking in faith, or even possessed by evil spirits or demons. The connection between sin and disease/disability that has emerged in the preaching of the healing texts has created a theological perspective that continues to permeate many of our churches today. Stories abound of persons with disabilities who have been told that if only they had enough faith, they would be cured.
Many people quote biblical sources to justify this position. Sin, or lack of faith, or demon possession must be the cause of disabilities, because in the story of the healing of the man who was paralyzed, "When Jesus saw their [the man's friends'] faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven'" (Mark 2:5). In Mark 5:34, in the story of the woman with the flow of blood who touched Jesus' cloak, Jesus says "Daughter, your faith has made you well." In Luke 9:39, it is an unclean spirit or demon that seizes the boy and "convulses him until he foams at the mouth."
Christian leaders and religious institutions explicitly or implicitly support these opposing images: blessed and cursed. Disability implies punishment for sin or lack of faith, but it also implies obedience to God's will in being a courageous witness to the world. What effect do these contradictory images have on the way persons with disabilities view themselves? How do these images affect how other people treat persons with disabilities in our churches and in society?
Both of these images—angel and devil, blessed and cursed—have a similar effect. Both cause other people to stay away and not become too involved. No one wants to become involved with someone who is cursed unless trying to convert or save that person. And most people see "angels" as a little too beyond their reality as they deal with the daily struggles of life. Whether they believe that persons with disabilities are blessed or cursed, the general belief is that their condition is God's will, and we should not interfere.
It is a basic human need to want to make sense out of times of struggle in our lives. It is difficult for people to believe that there is no purpose to their suffering. They want to know why this disability happened to them. For Christians, a common answer is that it must be God's will. We have been trained to believe that everything has a purpose in the larger divine plan. Why it is God's will varies. There are many explanations that are traditionally given: (1) it is punishment for their sin or for the sin of their parents, (2) it is a test of their faith and character, (3) it is an opportunity for personal development or for the development of those in relationship to persons with disabilities, (4) it presents an opportunity for the power of God to be made manifest, (5) suffering is redemptive, and (6) the mysterious omnipotence of God simply makes it impossible to know why it is God's will.
Punishment for Sin
This first rationale has already been dealt with in relationship to the perception of persons with disabilities as being cursed by God. There are many adult acts that we can label as sinful that might cause a disability—driving drunk and having a car accident, or destroying one's body and mind through drug use. In some cases it is easy for people to believe that God punishes adults for their sins. It is harder to believe that God punishes innocent children and infants for some sin they committed. Consider the story of Doug.
Doug's parents were a loving, successful couple. They tried for years to have a child. Finally, Doug was born. However, it was clear from the beginning that Doug had multiple disabilities. The extent of these disabilities would be learned over the next few years. He was deaf and blind, he had to be tube-fed, he could not move his muscles very well. He died before his fifth birthday. What kind of God could intentionally make an innocent child such as Doug suffer in this way? What sin was he being punished for?
It was this same question that caused Augustine to resort to the concept of original sin. Augustine believed that all evil is the result of sin and its punishment, but he could not reconcile this belief with the suffering of innocent infants. Augustine's explanation, which is still very prominent today, was that all evil is a punishment for Adam's sin. Original sin became the sin of the race based on the fall of Adam. That was the only way Augustine could reconcile the suffering of infants with a loving God.
Today, Augustine's doctrine of original sin is insufficient as an explanation for a compassionate God who would cause some innocent children to be punished, as representatives of the human race, for the sin of Adam. Why should Doug be chosen to be punished for Adam's sin instead of some other child? But if we believe that God does not punish innocent infants, can we believe that God gives an adult a disability as punishment for sin? What about an eight-year-old or a fifteen-year-old? For what age-group is it appropriate to believe that the disability is caused by God as some form of punishment?
A variation on this belief is that the disability is God's punishment for the sin of one's parent or parents. Deuteronomy 5:9-10 is often quoted to justify this position: "You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments."
At a recent workshop, a clergywoman told me about her teenage daughter who was recently diagnosed as having a severe hearing loss. One day a woman who professed to be a Christian told this clergywoman that the reason her daughter was deaf was because the clergywoman had disobeyed God's laws by becoming an ordained woman. In this person's opinion, the daughter was being punished by God because her mother had decided to obey God's call to full-time ministry. For this woman, women ministers were clearly evil and deserved God's punishment, even if the punishment for this particular clergywoman was received indirectly through her daughter's disability.
Another form of this response occurs when infants suffer because of inherited or genetic disorders. Fetal alcohol syndrome, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), and other birth defects are often caused by the actions of parents. Many people blame the parents for the suffering their children will experience through life, but few believe that God is punishing the children because of the parent's irresponsibility.
Even those who believe in the doctrine that disabilities are caused by God as punishment for sin recognize that this explanation does not reconcile some situations, such as Doug's, with our understanding of a loving God. When we look at the situation of children with disabilities, it becomes more difficult to believe that God gives a person a disability as some kind of punishment for sin. But people still seek answers for their question, "why me?"
A Test of Faith
Another answer to the question "why me?" is that one's disability is God's will in order to test one's faith. In the case of Doug, people would admit that God probably was not testing an infant's faith; therefore, God must be testing his parents' faith. One is told that the disability is some kind of test from God and that if the test is "passed," the person will be stronger and more faithful because of it. What kind of test is it? How does one know if the test is passed or not? Traditionally, passing the test means being "healed"—that is, cured. But if the disability is still present, it is a sign that one's faith is insufficient.
This belief that God causes these disabilities in order to test our faith is fundamental to the practice of faith healing. If only persons with disabilities had enough faith, they would be "healed," which really means "cured." Disabilities are primarily the result of a lack of faith, and if the person would repent and believe "harder" or believe "more" or believe "deeper," he or she would be cured. Basically then, disabilities are a result of one's own arrogance and resistance to giving oneself over totally to God. And if the disability is permanent or some kind of chronic illness rather than a temporary one, it is clear that the person has not repented or has an inadequate and weak faith.
This is not to deny that "miraculous" cures may happen for some people because of medical science or even in spite of it. There are many things in this world that cannot be explained by any kind of science—medical or otherwise. Our bodies, minds, and spirits comprise an exceptionally complicated, integrated whole, and one can influence the others. The problem, however, is that there are some disabilities, such as an amputated leg, that cannot be "cured" no matter how faithful one is. There are also many good, faithful people who seem to endure much, while others who seem to be faithless are very healthy. To believe that disability is caused by God as a test of one's faith entails many inconsistencies. But there must be some explanation for disability that makes sense and can be reconciled with a loving, just God.
Opportunity for Character Development
As people struggle to make sense of disability in relationship to God, another rationale emerges: disability provides an opportunity for personal growth and character development by overcoming obstacles. There are challenges for us to overcome and lessons for us to learn that come from our experiences of having a disability. The perseverance, courageousness, patience, and inner strength that label persons with disabilities as "blessed" rather than "cursed" are understood as part of the lessons that need to be learned by persons living with disabilities. What lesson God intends for each individual is not exactly known. Some struggle a lifetime to ascertain what it might be. This is not to say that persons with disabilities do not learn many things. Some of one's personal growth comes because of the disability and some in spite of it. But that is different from believing God caused a disability in order that one might learn a lesson or two. It is difficult to believe that any lesson could be learned by a baby who is born brain-damaged or by an older man when dementia has taken control of his life. And we wonder whether in some situations the amount of suffering and pain a person has to experience throughout life is worth whatever lesson is supposed to be learned.
Some would argue that what matters is not necessarily something that the person with the disability learns, but rather what the person contributes to society because of what doctors, psychologists, educators, and caretakers learn from the person. It is possible that God willed these disabilities to exist so that others can learn something from the ones with the disabilities. The research and testing done on many persons with rare disabilities enhances what medical science knows, and that knowledge may lead to a cure in the future. Psychologists and psychiatrists probe the minds of thosewith mental illnesses to learn more about their own fields. A teacher develops patience and learns visual ways of experiencing the world when a deaf student is in the class. But is it right to use people as object lessons for our own personal growth? Can we believe in a God who intentionally causes someone to be paralyzed just so that another can learn a lesson?
Some contemporary "new age" concepts also support this notion that there is a lesson to be learned from disability. The difference is that instead of God deciding before or after birth that we have a particular lesson to learn, the person/soul makes its own decision (or decides in consultation with the divine) to be born disabled in order to learn a particular lesson. This resonates as well with Eastern religions that believe in karma and reincarnation. If we have all chosen the life we have in order to learn some lesson needed for spiritual growth, then persons with disabilities have no right to be upset about their situations. They chose the disabilities, whether they are currently conscious of it or not.
Whether decided by God or by the individual's soul before birth or by some combination of the two, the notion remains the same: for personal and spiritual growth, there are lessons to be learned, and this disability is the only or the primary mode by which one can learn them. It is true that persons with disabilities, like others, learn a wide variety of things throughout the various experiences of life. One learns many things because of the disability and many more lessons that have nothing to do with the disability. However, just because some lessons may not have been learned as quickly without the disability does not mean that God caused the disability for this purpose. Can any lesson be worth the frustration, the isolation, and in many cases, the agony and suffering that many people with disabilities experience?
Excerpted from A Healing Homiletic by Kathy Black. Copyright © 1996 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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