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Disability and Destiny

[Note: This article originally appeared in Journal of Religion in Disability and Rehabilitation, 2, no. 1(1995): 73-81.]

Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Isaiah 40:26
Are not two sparrows sold for a penn),? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Matthew 10:29-31

These two quotations each express the idea that we are known to God and that we have a destiny, a place in the world. This is something we tend to forget, or treat with skepticism or perhaps not even consider in the materialistic culture in which we live. Whether or not we are disabled, we may have difficulty believing that God knows us and cares about us. It is hard to see how this idea can have a real impact on our lives.

I noticed in the September issue of Vanity Fair an article about Jerry Lewis and his telethon for muscular dystrophy. Something I read in that article shocked me. The article quotes Lewis as having said on his 1991 telethon that if you were to be diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - known also as Lou Gehrig’s disease - “you might as well put a gun in your mouth!” (Vanity Fair, Sept. 1993, p. 92). The attitude is frightening: that life with a disabling illness has no value. Even more frightening is the possibility that we ourselves may harbor such feelings; that because of our disabilities we have no rightful place in the world.

What can we do theologically to reassure people with disabilities that their lives mean just as much as anyone else’s? Some well- meaning theologians have addressed this issue, but unfortunately not always in a helpful manner. They say that disability is relative, that we are all disabled to some degree even if we do not think of ourselves that way: I have an ache here and a pain there, I get a stomach ache every Tuesday afternoon, I have a rotten temper, I’m bald, I have a terrible singing voice. Everyone is disabled, so we should not judge anybody. While well-intentioned, this attitude sweeps under the rug some very real problems that people with disabilities must face. It may be true that no one has a perfect body, and that many of these imperfections are genuine inconveniences, but they do not usually reach the point where one feels and is excluded by mainstream society. This is one crucial difference between being disabled and being physically imperfect.

I suppose that if we lived among a race of supermen and superwomen, those who could not fly or see through walls would be called disabled. In that sense one might say that “disability” is relative. But this would be misleading, since the world would take those superhuman capacities for granted. Doors would become an accessibility issue for those who could not enter a building in the normal manner, by leaping over the wall. A superhuman might well consider it an inconvenience to fit every public building with a door just to accommodate a minority with special needs. People who only have what we consider normal mobility or normal vision would have to contend with the implications of being seen as a separate, inferior class. They might even begin to wonder about the meaning of their lives.

“Disability” is not a relative term. While it would be destructive to see ourselves falling into two opposed groups, “us and them,” it is nevertheless true that people with identifiable disabilities experience certain special yearnings. My wife has a recurring dream that she is about to undergo an operation that will restore her sight, but at the last minute the operation is blocked. I have a recurring dream about being able to drive a car, something not ever likely to happen. We yearn for the freedom and acceptance of being seen and seeing ourselves as fully functioning members of society.

Attending to Healing: A New Image of God

Problems associated with having a disability go beyond the physical limitations imposed by the disability itself. The sense of exclusion we are likely to experience produces spiritual wounds: anger, low self-esteem, a sense of inferiority, a sense of meaninglessness, despair, even loss of faith. While we have a right to claim that in any meaningful spiritual sense we are as normal and as whole as anyone else, these spiritual wounds are real and we need to attend to their healing. Certainly we are not the only ones who feel them; everyone is vulnerable to them. Nevertheless, we are more than likely to experience spiritual pain directly connected to our having a disability, and we have a right to turn to theology for healing.

What can we expect of theology? The sign of a good theology is the contribution it makes to our healing, particularly to healing our spiritual wounds. Abstract speculation about God will not heal us. We must expect theology to address our spiritual afflictions.

In this regard let us look at the most popular theology of our time, represented in the recent succession of books investigating why “bad things happen to good people.” According to this theology, people suffer not because God is punishing them but because God cannot do anything to help them. God’s power is limited. God would like to help us, and may even feel our pain, but God can hardly do more than stand back in sympathy.

What is wrong with this picture? The Bible knows of no God who is unable to influence human life significantly. A God who cannot affect our struggle abandons us to the mercy of hostile forces. In the words of the synagogue liturgy, such a deity is el lo yoshia, “a God who cannot save.” Thus contemporary theology brings us a dismaying choice between a hateful God who causes pain and an irrelevant God who does not cause pain but is powerless against the forces who do. Neither the old theology of an authoritarian God nor the new theology of a helpless God has much power to heal the wounded spirit.

We are left with the old haunting question: If God can help us, then why doesn’t God help us? The problem with this question is that it assumes God is a person, a being like ourselves, except more powerful and without a body. Since we are human, it is almost impossible not to think of God in this way. Thinking of God in personal terms, terms that we can grasp, may actually be necessary for our faith to grow. But once we come up against the boundary conditions of life, we find ourselves entertaining some agonizing, futile questions: Did God make me disabled? If so, how can I not hate God? If not, what hope is left for me?

The only theologically sound answer to such questions is a paradox: It is not true that God made me disabled, because God is not a person, an independently willing and acting being, with the power and inclination to have done so. Neither is it true that God did not make me disabled, because my disability is part of my existence, and God is the source of my existence.

Embracing the Presence of God: The Destiny of Creation

We cannot solve the theological problems that disability poses by trying to define God’s nature. We can instead examine our own lives to see whether we can find clues suggesting God’s presence in spite of our disabilities. This is in fact what Jesus wanted his followers to do. It was also the way he confronted his own sufferings.

An aspect of Jesus’s teaching that has long puzzled students of the Bible bears directly on this issue. In the so-called “passion predictions” Jesus seems aware of the tragic fate that awaits him, but he does not accept it calmly. We wonder at the significance of dramatic moments like the following:

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16:21-23)

Jesus seems threatened, even angered by Peter’s words: he calls Peter a “stumbling block” and appears to accuse Peter of tempting him. Why the problem? Did he not just tell Peter and the others what would happen, that he would be crucified but on the third day raised? This passage is not intended as a prediction of the future. In this teaching, Jesus is attempting to come to terms with what he understands as his destiny. He is angry with Peter because Peter, out of his own fear, wants to tempt Jesus into avoiding his destiny.

“Destiny” is not the same as “fate.” “Fate,” from the Latin fatum, “utterance” or “decree,” generally means an event which one cannot escape. This idea comes from the Greeks and is foreign to the Bible. “Destiny,” however, is a biblical concept. The word comes from the Latin stare, “to stand”; it is the place where we are situated in life. It is not a predetermined future, but the purpose for which we were created, the contribution we make to life as a whole. It is the life to which we are called: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5); “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).

The fact that destiny may involve hardship is shown in Jesus’s connection of his passion with his destiny. But destiny is ultimately an optimistic idea: it suggests that even our hardships contribute to who we are and what we are meant to be in this life.

Do we all have a destiny? Jeremiah had a destiny, a calling. Jesus had a destiny, and ultimately a triumph. What about us? We are just ordinary people. Do we all have a destiny as well? Jesus answered this question with an emphatic “Yes!” He told his disciples:

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:I4-16)

But what if we do not see light within ourselves? What if we have been given less than others, and feel we have little to offer? What if we see ourselves as broken? Do we still have a destiny?

Jesus answered this question too, in his Parable of the Talents: A man going on a journey entrusts his property to three servants. To one he gives five talents, to.another two, and to another just one, “to each according to his ability” (Matthew 25:15). When he returns, he finds that the first two servants have invested their talents and doubled their value. The third servant, having received only one talent, is afraid to risk it, so he returns it to his master, proud of having no loss to report. Expecting a reward, he is shocked when his master sharply rebukes him. He is then stripped of his one talent, and “thrown into the outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30).

The servant’s punishment seems harsh indeed. The parable, however, is true to life. To feel we have wasted our resources, have lost any meaningful connection to anything outside ourselves and have missed our chance to fulfill our destiny, is indeed to be “thrown into the outer darkness.” Here we can see how the biblical idea of destiny differs from the idea of fate: one cannot escape one’s fate, but one can miss one’s destiny. This is the “spiritual death” to which the New Testament often refers. We are saved from it by realizing that our destiny promises us a connection to the fabric of life and to God, but also that it requires something of us. The Parable of the Talents teaches that even if we are the least in God’s Kingdom we are still subject to this promise and also to the requirement.

Consider how radical is the biblical message: that even in this world of chaos in which we live, God has given each of us a purpose, a reason for being here, and responds to us when we try to use what we have been given. A limited-God theology, with God as a helpless spectator, does not give us grounds for such faith. But is such faith realistic? We may rarely, if ever, sense that God is responding to us. To be at all helpful, a theology of destiny must have some grounding in reality.

Theology, Destiny, and Living in the Real World

First, it is worth noting that even when our destiny is working itself out, we may be totally ignorant of it. Even at the most crucial moment we may be unaware that our destiny is pressing toward its fulfillment: on the cross Jesus felt that God actually had abandoned him (Mark 15:34). How, then, can we become aware of a redeeming reality beyond our immediate pain? How, then, do we discover our destiny?

We first need to awaken ourselves to the possibility of its existence. Even without committing ourselves to it, we can consider the possibility that God has preserved us in our present form for a reason. We do not have to believe it; we just need not to dismiss the notion out of hand. We might then choose as a subject for meditation the course that our lives have taken. How have our lives changed as a result of our disabilities? How might they have been different? We might expect our destiny to involve anything that has decisively changed the course of our lives, and this includes our disabilities. We would not choose most of these changes. But can we honestly say that we would not choose any of them? Are there any ways in which having a disability has changed us that are positive, that we would want to keep? These changes may be specific and profound, or perhaps something as simple as having a greater capacity to feel for the pain of others because of the pain we ourselves have experienced. Any change we can identify that has expanded us, that has brought us outside ourselves and strengthened our connection to another part of the world, is a part of our destiny.

What if, after even the deepest self-examination, we cannot identify any positive changes? In that case we feel truly forsaken by God. Then perhaps only the most radical form of faith is open to us, which is to keep searching in spite of a complete lack of faith. The Bible calls this “wandering in the desert”: it is perhaps the deepest possible faith. It is faith pushed to its limit, trust when nothing is felt or seen that can be trusted. The Bible tells us that even this little grain of faith will receive a response, that it rightfully puts God to the test:

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? (Matthew 7:7-9)

This is a radical statement of faith, which we often discard without realizing it: God always responds to the open heart. God makes us this promise whether or not we are disabled, whether or not we see ourselves as broken. We approach God through asking, searching, knocking. The deepest way to approach God is through love, since love takes our pain and uses it to connect us with others. Biblical faith tells us that when we approach God in this way, which may require much self-examination and struggle, God always responds. This is not a limited God, but a God who is always with us, ready to come into our lives with redemptive power. While we are warned not to put God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16), this is the one situation in which God asks to be tested: “Put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (Malachi 3:10).

To receive the blessing, our hearts must be open. We must ask before we can receive. We may even still have our anger, our pain and our humiliation; as long as they do not close our hearts and prevent us from seeking and asking, we need not give them up, any more than did Job or Jonah before they found God’s response. We may even still have our fear, as long as it does not make us so concerned about “searching rightly” that we forget to be sincere. All these afflictions of the spirit can become a prayer when channeled through an open heart. God then promises to respond. The response may not be what we expect. It may not be what we want. It may not be a pain-free life. It may not be an illumination of the entire path, but perhaps only the next step along the way. It may be small, but enough to let us know we are not lost, to let us know that even when society has trouble finding a place for us, God provides it. However the response comes, biblical faith stands or falls on its presence. It is a bet with God we are all entitled to make.

Like the stars in the sky, like the hairs on our head, our destinies are all known to God, and “are all counted.” If biblical faith no longer seems to work for us today, if today our theologies concentrate on the limits rather than the scope of God’s power, perhaps it is because we ourselves have not sufficiently tested this kind of faith. Even in anger, fear, or despair, faith is still a possibility. Let us not give it up before we have fully explored its limits.