Disability Theology Is for Everyone
By Stephanie Tait
Day 1 of 5: Disability Is Not a Punishment
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.
-John 9:1-3 (CEB)
It was almost 20 years ago when I first started to get sick. I went from a vibrant and exuberant teenage girl, with a blossoming dance career on the horizon, to an unexplained patchwork of crushing fatigue, chronic pain, and life-altering neurological issues. Doctors were baffled as to what could be wrong with me, and every test came back with no discernible explanation for my steady decline. Each year that passed would bring a host of new symptoms, but rarely any answers.
In my desperation to get better, I turned to my faith. One question began to plague me above the rest: could God be trying to teach me a lesson, or perhaps be punishing me for some sort of hidden sin issue I just wasn’t recognizing?
The more I’ve connected with the disability and chronic illness community, the more I’ve heard versions of this same fear expressed again and again. Is God doing this to me? Did I bring this on myself somehow? Would He heal me if I could just figure out what it is that He wants me to confess, or what it is that He wants me to change?
We can see in John 9 that Jesus’ disciples had bought into this same narrative of shame and blame, questioning who was “at fault” for the disability of the man before them: “Rabbi, who sinned that he was born blind,” they ask him, “this man or his parents?” For them, it wasn’t even an issue of whether this blindness was a punishment for sin, but simply a debate over whose sin was to blame. But Jesus responds with two key truths that point us to a very different view of disability and chronic illness.
First, He rejects the blame game.
“Neither he nor his parents,” Jesus responds. Disability isn’t a punishment for anyone’s sin. Trying to assign blame for why someone is disabled or chronically ill isn’t just a pointless endeavor; it’s a rejection of the freedom from shame that Jesus offers us. Romans 8:1 tells us, “So now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Shame and blame are never of Christ, so we can reject any theology that tries to assign us that burden.
Second, He points to disability as a mark of God’s glory, rather than His anger.
“This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him,” Christ declares. Not only does He reject the notion that disability is a punishment, He goes even further by holding up disability as a display of God’s image and power. It may seem almost nonsensical to us by today’s cultural standards, and the disciples would have been equally confused by how God’s glory could be displayed in the form of weakness and lack. And yet we can read this same sentiment echoed again in the words of Paul, from his letter to the Corinthians.
He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.
-2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (CEB)
Ultimately, when it comes to disability and chronic illness, trying to search for a reason “why” these things happen can often prove frustratingly fruitless. But there are two things we can know for sure. One: disability is not a punishment for sin because in Christ, we find freedom from the blame game. And two: God’s glorious image is on full display in disabled bodies. What a weighty gift to be entrusted to display those key facets of His image to a watching world.
If you are ABLED, here is a prayer for you: Lord, help me identify any false blame I may be placing on those who are sick or disabled. Grant me eyes to see your power on glorious display in the bodies and lives of those who are disabled or chronically ill.
If you are DISABLED, here is a prayer for you: Lord, free me from the bondage of misplaced shame and blame. Help me to see myself through Your eyes, so that I can fully recognize Your glorious image in my disabled body.