Exploringkey Bible passages on brokenness and disability to develop helpful principles for believers and churches, this book teaches us tofirstembrace ourown brokenness and then embrace those who are more physically broken.
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About the Author
Michael S. Beates (DMin, Reformed Theological Seminary) is the husband of Mary and father of seven children, one of whom lives with profound disabilities and two others who face challenges. Mike has served on the International Board of Directors at Joni and Friends since 2000 and has been involved in Christian ministry for 30 years. He also serves as dean of students at the Geneva School in Winter Park, Florida.Mike has written more than 50 articles for publications such as Tabletalk magazine and the Orlando Sentinel and has contributed chapters to several books focusing on disabilities and hope.
Joni Eareckson Tada is founder and CEO of the Joni and Friends International Disability Center, which ministers to thousands of disabled people and their families through programs of practical encouragement and spiritual help. She is also an artist and the author of numerous best-selling books such as Joni; Heaven: Your Real Home; and When God Weeps.
Read an Excerpt
The Voice of God in the Law, Prophets, and Writings
What the Old Testament Teaches about Disabilities
As we open the Old Testament Scriptures, so many stories jump out at us. Maybe you are like me and these stories start a flood of memories: Sunday school lessons, vacation Bible school experiences, perhaps college Bible studies, and of course sermons from Sunday morning worship. Even if this was not your experience, even if you did not read the Bible growing up, most people recognize the Bible heroes like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, Samson, and King David. Even if some of these stories are new to you, the names are probably familiar from films and all those cable shows (Bible Mysteries Revealed!).
But whatever our experience and knowledge of the Scriptures, I find that most of us have a preconceived notion that all these big names of the Old Testament are big names because of their character, the grandeur of their courage, and their leadership traits. Nothing could be further from the truth! I hope you will see, as I have, that on the contrary, God's story in Scripture uses these characters to highlight their weakness, their inability, their brokenness. And in so doing, God's glory and God's grace are magnified all the more!
The Scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Old Testament, speak more often than we might initially think about disability and brokenness. If we are to understand and embrace God's heart in this crucial area, we must allow divine revelation to inform our thinking concerning God's creation of man, in what manner God has placed his image in man, and what part God plays in those conditions we consider abnormal and those conditions that are obviously disabling to people.
THE MYSTERY OF MAN
Our survey cannot be comprehensive by any means — the scriptural witness to our themes of weakness and brokenness is deep. But let's attempt to survey pertinent texts from the Old Testament, considering a cross section of the Scripture's teaching, picking up on the most prominent and informative texts, and commenting on the themes unfolding for us through the divine revelation.
In the first five books — the Torah in Jewish tradition, the Pentateuch in the Christian tradition — we will draw points from both narrative texts and legal texts. We will deduce principles from narratives, while legal texts speak in plain propositions concerning what should be true.
GENESIS 1:26–27, 5:1, AND 9:6
Fundamental to our study, of course, are the earliest texts speaking of humankind made in God's image and likeness. In Genesis 1:26–27, 5:1, and 9:6, it is clear that God has placed something of himself into human beings — something of essential significance — that separates humans from the rest of creation. Theologians call this the imago Dei or "the image of God" in man. We must wait for further revelation to broaden our understanding concerning the precise nature of this image in man. However, we must note two important points.
First, a grammatical observation. The sequence of verbal clauses in 1:26–27 has traditionally been translated "Let us make man ... and let him have dominion." A more subtle understanding of Hebrew clausal relationships, however, could justifiably render the phrase, "Let us make man in our image so that he might rule." Seen in this light, one may conjecture that "dominion" is one aspect; some say possibly even the primary purpose, of the image. Having said that, however, we must quickly add that by no means is dominion the only aspect, nor certainly the only purpose, of our imaging God.
Second, traditionally this essence of the image of God has been understood to reside in the nonmaterial aspects of man: the intellect, communication, and other communicable attributes of God (our ability to express love, compassion, kindness, mercy, etc.). However, right from the start, let me try to bring a measure of correction to this traditional understanding. The words image and likeness in Genesis 1 are based on two different Hebrew words (tselem and demut). These two words, image and likeness, grammatically and lexically seem to carry a strong physical element in their broad meanings. About these words, John Piper has said, "Although abstract qualities are there, demut is used uniformly in connection with a tangible visual reproduction of something else. So again, as with tselem, the usage of demut urges us very strongly in the direction of a physical likeness." Further, Piper contends:
It would reflect a theological prejudice to deny that the author means man's physical appearance images his Maker. As von Rad says, "Man's bodily appearance is not at all to be excepted from the realm of God's image. ... Therefore, one will do well to split the physical from the spiritual as little as possible: the whole man is created in God's image."
In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, von Rad contends, in his article on a key Greek synonym, eikon, that the divine likeness does not consist of such things as personality, moral capacity, etc. If asked to choose between spiritual and physical likeness, von Rad said he "should have to decide in favor of a predominately physical likeness in the OT." Finally, Anthony Hoekema has said, "The image of God, we have found, is not something man has, but something man is. It means that human beings both mirror and represent God. Thus, there is a sense in which the image includes the physical body." The question of how a corporeal body can image the incorporeal God will be addressed as we proceed.
In Genesis 32:25–32, a brief and mystical passage, Jacob wrestles with a "man" just before returning to Canaan to meet his brother Esau. The text tells us the man "touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint" (v. 25) and that Jacob left "limping because of his hip" (v. 31). Though the text lacks more explicit detail, tradition has held that Jacob was permanently disabled on the very occasion when he was renamed "Israel."
Judith Abrams in her book Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli, writes insightfully, "Jacob's disability is accompanied by a blessing. His flawed moral state has finally been made manifest in his physical state and he is, somehow, released from his sin of tricking his father and brother. ... Israel, then, in its first incarnation is physically disabled." Jacob is perhaps the clearest example for us of a consistent portrait that God paints through these opening narratives in the Law. The Patriarchs, far from being "heroes of faith," are more often stumbling, weak, and broken people whom God uses in their weakness. When God met Jacob and left him wounded, it was a physical wound that was meant to remind him of his spiritual brokenness. He could no longer feign moral strength as he limped through life with this new physical disability.
On this surprising work of God, Dan Allender has said, "God intends to wrestle with each of us in order to both bless us and cause us to walk and lead with a distinctive frailty. ... [Jacob's] limp is a reminder that when God renames us, he also makes each one of us a new person through a redemption that requires brokenness."
So we begin to see already that God intentionally brings woundedness to those he loves. And in fact, those God uses the most he breaks, in some manner, for his sovereign purposes. Think about your life. Perhaps there is a physical scar or debilitating condition you carry. Or maybe the scar or weakness is much more subtle and unseen by the human eye, but no less profound in its effect on your life. God used Jacob to show us that he uses such people not despite their weakness but rather because of and through these very weaknesses.
But let's press on!
When God called to Moses from the burning bush, he called Moses to serve him as his representative before Pharaoh, to lead the Israelites out of bondage. Moses had already presented three objections in terms of questions. First he asked, "Who am I that I should ... bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?" (3:11). Then he asked, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" (3:13). Third he said to God, "They will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, 'The Lord did not appear to you'" (4:1). Moses was trying hard to show God that he was not the right choice to do God's work!
Finally, Moses presented a fourth objection, one he surely considered convincing to God, that he was not qualified to serve the Lord. Moses said, "Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue" (4:10). While many debate the meaning of Moses's words, whether or not this meant Moses had a disabling speech impediment, God's response (in 4:11) is unambiguous. "Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?"
Consider what God is saying here. Be careful not to miss the full impact of this! If you are like me, when you begin to let this statement settle, you exclaim, "What?"
In this startling response, God not only does not deny responsibility for conditions we normally consider disabilities (blindness, deafness, muteness); rather, to our surprise, God takes credit for them! God says these things come from and are made by him. This is a hard statement! And we must accept it and learn from it. But we will leave for later reflection the question, why?
Joni Tada comments also on this passage in this way:
Does God cause blindness or does he allow it? Does he plan for a person to be born deaf or does he permit it? In short, does God want disease? The key here is how we use the word "want." God doesn't want disease to exist in the sense that he enjoys it. He hates disease, just as he hates all other results of sin — death, guilt, sorrow, for example. But God must want disease to exist in the sense that he wills or chooses for it to exist, for if he didn't, he would wipe it out immediately.
God chooses to allow sickness for many reasons. One of those reasons is to mold Christian character. In this way God uses one form of evil, that is sickness, to help remove another form of evil — personal sin.
But most important, God is delaying closing the curtain on suffering until more of the world can have the chance to hear the Gospel. For if God erased all disease today, he would also have to erase sin, the general cause of disease, and that would mean the destruction of all people. It is God's mercy that delays his judgment!
"Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men" (Lam. 3:32–33).
Does God ordain? Permit? Plan? Allow? The verb is not so much the important thing as the noun: God. And God is love.
Thus far we have seen that God creates man, investing us with his image, and that he is also intimately involved in creating some with conditions we commonly consider less than good or normal. Now, in the legal passage of Leviticus 21:17–23, we find that God's requirement for priests who serve at the altar includes a prohibition on anyone with deformities. The list of prohibited conditions is instructive: blind, lame, disfigured, deformed, crippled in hand or foot, hunchbacked, dwarfed, defective eyes, running sores, or finally (and surprisingly) damaged testicles. Any man with any of these physical qualities was forbidden from bringing the offering or approaching the altar.
Again, Judith Abrams summarizes well: "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 persons, someone of unblemished priestly lineage and perfect physical form, may offer up sacrifices (which must also be unblemished)."8 Note that though "blemished" or deformed priests were forbidden from coming to the altar, they were still able to be priests and partake in other duties and benefits. It was service in the temple and the Most Holy Place that was out of bounds. In related Jewish literature, however, we find that such disfiguring features (even if not disabling in our traditional sense) were considered too much even for more acceptable priestly activity. Numerous references in other Jewish literature (the Mishnah and Tosefta) forbade priests with blemished or crippled hands, or blind or disfigured eyes from raising their hands to offer the benediction in the synagogue, since their conditions would distract the worshipers' attention from God to the person offering the benediction.
This passage in Leviticus is difficult if pulled out and considered all by itself. It must be understood in light of the overall purpose of the book of Leviticus — to show Israel the all-surpassing holiness and purity of God. The point was not that broken or marred people are unworthy. The point, though we seldom get it, is that no one is utterly worthy.
I believe the first purpose of the Ten Commandments and the Holiness Code was to cause the people of God to say, "Who then can be saved? Have mercy, O Lord!" Unfortunately, when they, and too often we, read the commands, the first response is to say, "Okay, let's get to work and just do it!" Over the years, I have jokingly referred to such thinking as "Nike theology." Of course, God requires and is pleased by our human effort to obey. Simply to plead for mercy without ever trying to obey would be an inadequate response (but this is another issue beyond what we are talking about here!).
What we see in Leviticus are glimpses of the value God places on the human body and on those who are weak and disabled in body and soul. For example, Leviticus 19:14 says, "You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD." Then, in Leviticus 24:10–22, Israel is commanded to stone any who blasphemes the Name and, in the next breath, to kill any who kill and to maim any who maim. We can surmise from these that while God required perfection in the temple, the human body in general, and those with disabled bodies among us specifically are worthy of deep respect and care. Again, Joni Tada's comments about this passage are worth considering:
When I was struggling to understand God's view of my disability, it didn't help matters when I stumbled across Leviticus 21:16–18. I slammed my Bible shut. I knew it — God did have a problem with my handicap. It seemed my impairment offended him in the same way my wheelchair offended waiters in restaurants!
But then I discovered the true meaning behind these verses. Leviticus 21 is a strict list of dos and don'ts for men entering the priesthood of Aaron. A priest had to be pure, with no physical defects, because he was a physical symbol of a future spiritual reality — an important type of the coming Messiah. God was looking for a physically perfect man as a priest to represent the spiritually perfect man, the Lord Jesus.
This passage speaks to you, whether you're disabled or not. As part of a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9), God welcomes you in to his presence, accepting you no matter what your limitations. But when you come before him in worship, make certain that you are not harboring a blemish of pride or defect of impurity. You may not be tied to strict dos and don'ts, but if God wanted Old Testament people to be pure when they came before him, surely he expects the same of us.
In Deuteronomy 32:39, the final consideration from the Torah, we get a glimpse not only of the sovereignty of God in creation seen in Genesis and with Moses in Exodus 4, but here also we see God's compassion expressed. In exalting himself as the only God, Yahweh says through this song of Moses, "See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand." It is abhorrent for some that the Judeo-Christian God of the Scriptures might be one who wounds and in his sovereignty "afflicts" some with disabilities. However, if there is hardness in the one side, there is profound comfort in the other. He also proclaims himself the one who heals.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Disability and the Gospel"
Copyright © 2012 Michael S. Beates.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword: Before You Begin by Joni Eareckson Tada,
PART 1 THE VOICE OF GOD,
1 The Voice of God in the Law, Prophets, and Writings: What the Old Testament Teaches about Disabilities,
2 The Voice of Christ: What the Gospels Teach about Disabilities,
3 The Voice of the Holy Spirit through the Apostles: What the Acts and Epistles Teach about Disabilities,
4 Biblical Conclusions and Reflections,
PART 2 VOICES FROM THE PAST,
5 What We Learn from the Rabbis, the Early Church, and the Reformation Era,
6 What We Learn from the Modern Era,
PART 3 VOICES OF TODAY,
7 What We Learn from Current Secular Voices,
8 What We Learn from Current Christian Voices,
PART 4 SPEAKING INTO TOMORROW,
9 What the Church Must Say to the World in the Twenty-First Century,
10 Sovereignty and the Whispering Voice of Hope,
Appendix 1: God's Sovereignty and Genetic Anomalies,
Appendix 2: God's Love for the Broken,
What People are Saying About This
“Disability and the Gospel tackles head-on the spoken and too often unspoken questions about disability. Well researched and at times provocative, Michael Beates digs beyond the surface in search of reconciliation among the realities of suffering, disability, and the teachings of Scripture. Disability and the Gospel is an important work that reveals not only a biblical worldview on physical disability, but gives comforting confirmation that God is indeed always sovereign, always in charge, and all purposeful.”
—Doug Mazza, President, Joni and Friends International Disability Center
“Mike Beates has been a good friend for twelve years, and I’ve observed his godly character as well as heard and read his insightful teaching. I have read Disability and the Gospel at several stages, and I recommend it highly. The church needs to be awakened to the presence of the disabled in our communities and, as Mike stresses, to the disabilities we all have as sinners in need of God’s grace. The book contains excellent exegesis, theology, and historical studies that make a powerful case. I don’t know a better place to hear God’s Word on this important matter.”
—John M. Frame, J. D. Trimble Chair of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida
“Why should the church embrace people with disabilities? Because they need us? Perhaps. But in Disability and the Gospel, Michael Beates reminds us that the transforming power of the gospel can only be ours when we, the able-bodies, admit our own brokenness and weakness and learn the truth that God uses the weak people of this world to confound the wise. The church has as much to learn form people with disabilities as she has to give to them.”
—Dawn Clark, Director of Disability Ministries, College Church, Wheaton, Illinois
“Disability and the Gospel is a wonderful book! It’s biblical, profound, practical, and challenging. It is also a book written at the right time and by the right person. Every Christian in America needs read this book, and every church should study it, underline it, and live it! What a gift Michael Beates has given to us and to those to whom the church is called to show mercy, understanding and compassion. I rise up and call Mike Beates blessed. Read this book. You will too!”
—Steve Brown, Professor of Practical Theology Emeritus, Reformed Seminary, Orlando; radio teacher, Key Life
“In Disability and the Gospel, Michael Beates urges Christians to invite people with disabilities into our churches and our lives not because they need our help, but because worshiping and ministering alongside people with disabilities helps us to recognize our own brokenness and learn that God’s grace is most apparent and powerful when we are most weak and wounded. While my own theology of disability differs from Beates’s in significant ways, I recommend this thorough, accessible book for pastors, congregations, and individuals who want to engage more fully with those in their communities living with disabilities, and thus live out the Gospel in new and transforming ways.”
—Ellen Painter Dollar, author, No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction