Author: Joni Eareckson Tada and Jack S. Oppenhuizen
Category: Disability Concerns
Section 4a of Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 35 B
Hidden and Forgotten People: Ministry Among People With Disabilities
Prepared by Issue Group No. 6 B on Ministry Among People with Disabilities
Principal writers Joni Eareckson Tada and Jack S. Oppenhuizen
Pastors and their congregations often do not know how to “theologically” view disabled people. A solid theological framework is needed to understand disabilities and God’s sovereignty over suffering. Christian leaders are often confused as to the extent of God’s sovereign control over accidents and illnesses.
The Bible makes sweeping statements about God’s sovereignty over disabilities. For example, Exodus 4:11 states, "Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” As it concerns children born with disabilities, Psalm 139:13-14 states, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Psychological and emotional disabilities fall under God’s decree (Deuteronomy 28:65-67; 1 Samuel 16:14; Daniel 4:31,16, 33-34; Psalm 6:3-4). Of course, Satan sometimes causes illness (Job 2:7; Luke 13:16) – but in these references, as everywhere, Satan unwittingly serves God’s ends and purposes.
No trial, no disease or illness, no accident or injury reaches us apart from God’s permission. When catastrophes of nature injure people, we are reminded in Lamentations 3:38, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?” The Lord repeats this in Isaiah 45:7, “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” In the New Testament this theme is repeated in 1 Thessalonians 3:3 where Paul writes, “You know quite well that we were destined for [trials]”. However, Ephesians 1:11 exclaims God’s upper hand by declaring, “[God] works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”
God may not initiate all our trials, including diseases, birth deformities and injuries, but by the time they reach us, they are His will for us for whatever time and purpose that He determines. When Satan, other people, or accidents bring us sorrow, we can answer like Joseph to his brothers who sold him into slavery, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
While it is true that God is sovereign, it is also true that he takes no pleasure in our suffering. Lamentations 3:32-33 assures us that, “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.” Comfort and the spiritual strength to overcome grief, affliction and loss is found that God weeps with us and that He is absolutely present in our darkest hour of need. As our Great Shepherd, He walks us through the valley of the shadow of death every time (Psalm 23). Yet, God permits what he hates to accomplish that which he loves.
This view of God’s sovereignty is not only a great comfort to disabled people and their families; it can serve as a holistic, God-centred philosophical basis for a church’s active outreach to disabled people and their families. One might ask, what is the wisdom of God in the way that He uses broken vessels, discarded lives, humiliation and pain? Why would a God so grand an architect of creation, who in fact did not create evil, pain, loss, disappointment and sin, chose then to adopt a pattern of turning human history on the hinges of human humility and human weakness? The journey to discover God’s hand in a disabling condition leads to the discovery of God’s consistent nature and the truth of His word.
There are many references which explain just a few of the benefits of affliction.
It is not only the compassion in outreach that will fulfill the Great Commission. We must “put on the mind of Christ” and in humility learn it is “more blessed to give then to receive”. Everyone has life-defining limitations and as we serve the needy we identify with those we serve and recognize our own dependency upon God in our weaknesses. The church becomes a loving and an empowering community when people care for those who are suffering. God’s plan for what society should look like is entrusted to the church.
When people with disabilities trust God, it gives him glory. He is shown to be a God of supreme and massive worth when people with disabilities think He is important enough to love and obey despite suffering. Sufferings bond Christians to the Man of Sorrows like nothing else. People who suffer have something eternally precious in common with Christ and that is their affliction. A Christian’s scars and anguish, rejection and pain give the believer a small taste of what the Saviour endured to purchase the Christian’s redemption.
 Steve Estes and Joni Eareckson Tada, When God Weeps (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998).
To find out more about disability ministry or to get involved, visit the Joni and Friends website.
The Christian Institute on Disability at Joni and Friends aggressively promotes life, human dignity and the value of all individuals – despite their disabling condition–from a biblical perspective through the Beyond Suffering course.