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From Weakness to Strength:
A Spiritual Response to Disability

[Note: This article originally appeared in Journal of Religion in Disability and Rehabilitation, 1, no. 1(1994): 69-80.]

If we have lived with a physical disability for a substantial part of our lives, the challenges we face consist not only of the discomfort and limitations associated with the disability itself, but also of certain questions difficult to avoid: How do we find a place in a world where most people perceive us as different? How do other people’s perceptions of us affect our perceptions of ourselves, and what toll does this take on our self-esteem? How do we find the inner strength to persevere in a world that does not always accept us easily?

We may seek help in dealing with questions such as these by joining a religious community. A new question then confronts us: What does it mean to be a disabled individual within a community of faith? It seems that there is, or at least ought to be a promise that we all have a place, that each one is acceptable in the sight of God. Certainly this is what Paul seems to imply when he compares the community of faith to a healthily functioning body:

For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:4,5)

Paul’s metaphor of community as a whole and healthy body is a striking one. Would that we always felt the sense of inclusion he describes! If we have a physical disability, then in subtle, hardly detectable ways we may receive messages, both from general society and from the particular religious community to which we may belong, suggesting we really are outsiders. Religion itself sometimes appears to deliver a double message. On the one hand, it offers us the language of inclusiveness. However, we may detect other messages, suggesting that disabled people constitute a separate and perhaps unreachable group. One source of these messages is the way people can react to the healing stories in the Gospels. We may get the impression that if only we had enough faith, our handicaps would disappear - and, by implication, that the presence of a disability signals to the world our lack of faith.

I remember once in a Christian Science reading room, quietly reading by myself, a lady came up to me and thrust before me a huge volume open to a page describing how low vision can be healed through the application of certain principles of faith. Where is one left if one cannot heal oneself through judicious application of such principles? In addition to the inconvenience of the disability itself, one acquires the sense that its persistence indicates some kind of spiritual failure.

Thus when religious people say, even well-meaningly, to a disabled individual, “You can be healed if only you have faith” or “We will pray for you,” they seem to imply something is wrong with that individual, that the presence of the disability itself makes him or her fall short of the glory of God. It is one thing if the disabled person asks for such help, but when it is not specifically requested it may be experienced as a judgment, an imputation of both physical and spiritual inadequacy.

Unfortunately we do tend to judge people according to what they have suffered. In her book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag observes that in our day cancer carries the meaning people in an earlier age attached to tuberculosis: many consider it a reflection of a person’s character; if not a mark of God, then a mark of one’s own personal psychology, indicating some basic personality flaw or moral defect. We may react similarly to any human misfortune, including physical disability, as even Jesus’ disciples asked: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). The reason people make such judgments is mainly fear: one fears what someone else has suffered might also happen to oneself. Thus by finding an explanation for that person’s suffering, perhaps even blaming him or her for it, one obtains a sense of reassurance that one will not have to suffer the same fate. Sometimes people try to cloak this fear in the language of religion. When one says, “God never gives us more than we can bear,” one implies that those who are crushed by their problems either choose deliberately not to meet their responsibilities or else suffer from some moral or spiritual laziness. When one says, “There but for the grace of God go I,” one is actually thanking God for keeping those who suffer at a safe, remote distance from oneself.

The deepest tragedy in all this is that disabled people may internalize these messages and come to feel that they themselves are sinful, faithless, or that God has rejected them. To save themselves from the pain of such self-condemnation many disabled individuals have rebelled against organized forms of religion or even against the idea of God itself, thus finding themselves deprived of what was really meant to be a lifeline of strength, but has become a judgment instead. Not only one’s communal religious life, but also one’s personal sense of faith may be threatened. One faces the question of theodicy: If I am really innocent, how can God allow such things to happen to me - or to any other innocent person?

We may never cease struggling with the question. Perhaps we will know the full answer only after death, when finally we see “face to face.” But this hope is not sufficient for us now. We need a word that speaks to us now, as we are, while we still live. Perhaps “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52), but we need an immediate knowledge of God’s love, a basis for genuine faith to support our lives as we must live them not in the “future perfect” but in our present broken state. Let us then consider this issue by way of a meditation on some relevant passages from the Bible.

There is a place in the Bible where physical disability is treated not in a negative light, not as a blemish to be eliminated at any cost, but rather as a stage through which some of us must pass in our search for God. It is Paul’s statement about his mysterious “thorn in the flesh”:

And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

We do not know exactly to what this “thorn” refers, and the term itself has been the subject of endless speculation. Many commentators, however, believe Paul is referring to some physical disability, and this is a plausible hypothesis. Somehow the way Paul responded to his disability made him morally and spiritually stronger and actually brought him closer to God. What then gave Paul the right to say that, “When I am weak, then I am strong”?

What would we discover if we were to ask ourselves the question, “What would my life have been like had it not been for this disability?” Our first response might well be to think of what we have missed, things we might have been able to do but could not, opportunities we might have enjoyed that were denied to us. If we look more closely, we might see how our particular disability has been an important factor in shaping even our sense of identity, the way we look at ourselves and the way we see the world. At first this influence may appear to be exclusively negative: we see ourselves as limited, not whole, not like the rest of the world. Is it possible, however, we might discover our experience with disability has influenced our character in positive ways? That by making our struggle for faith more difficult, it makes our faith that much deeper when we find it? What might we need to persist in our struggle, so that we can find this deeper faith?

We need, first of all, to start from the beginning, not from where we think we should be, but from where we actually find ourselves. No one who has a disability begins by thinking of it as a positive experience. To come to terms with the effects of this experience, it is necessary first to become conscious of them. The existence of a disability does in fact define us-at least in part-as outsiders, on three mutually dependent levels: physical, personal, and social.

PHYSICALLY, the disability itself places limits on certain ways of interacting with the outside world. If we are mobility impaired, we cannot move around in the world as freely as others. If the disability is sensory, certain channels of information normally available to people are constricted or blocked. These limitations affect our relationship to what existential psychologists call the Umwelt, the world of our physical surroundings, in which on the most literal level we live and move and have our being.

PERSONALLY, as we have noted, the presence of our disability affects our sense of identity, our individual images of ourselves. This may affect our self-esteem and our estimation of our own capabilities. We may in fact perceive ourselves more limited than we actually are, which can lead to an underutilization and waste of our valuable talents. These consequences affect what existential psychologists call the Eigenwelt: the world of our private thoughts and fantasies, our personal identifications and reflections.

SOCIALLY, our relationship to the outside world changes radically once we discover we possess a physical limitation others do not. Even if we try to resist seeing ourselves in this way, others often are tempted to place us in a separate category. Their perceptions as well as our own affect areas such as our position within a group, who is available to us as friends, as people we can love and who can love us, or as potential marriage partners. Such perceptions color our relationships with other individuals and within groups; they affect what is referred to as the Mitwelt, the world of relationships with other people.

Representations of such interactions between disabled and non-disabled individuals are not unusual in literature, movies, and on television. The stage and movie versions of Children of a Lesser God explored, in very different ways, the self-deceptions people often entertain about their own attitudes toward people with disabilities. On the popular television series Life Goes On, one of the main characters, Corky, is a teenager with Down’s syndrome. In one episode Corky’s classmates, as a prank, nominated him to run for class president - and he almost won! Unfortunately, life is not like television. The portrayals in the movie My Left Foot were more realistic. In one scene Christy Brown, the man on whose life the film is based and who suffered from cerebral palsy, is a teenager playing “Spin the Bottle.” When the bottle points to Christy, the group jokes about the girl having to kiss him. She seems to like him, and so he makes her a special painting, signing it “Love, Christy.” She returns it, telling him she cannot accept it. Later, as a young man Christy falls in love with his doctor. Over dinner in a restaurant she tells him she plans to marry someone else. Feeling rejected, Christy makes sarcastic jokes, then fully releases his anger and upsets the dinner table.

These scenes show some of the effects of being perceived as an outsider, as less than a full participant in the group or even in life itself. If we have had such experiences, we cannot help reacting to them. The reactions are there, and typically they consist of feelings of humiliation and anger. How we deal with these reactions is crucial for our sense of well-being and even our capacity for faith, but before we can deal with them we must allow ourselves to see them. We may try to hide these feelings because they seem like weaknesses and flaws in the image we would like to present to the world and to God - but this is self-rejection, and no healing can come from it. We need not express all our feelings to others, but we do need to be aware within ourselves of exactly how we have reacted to our experience. In other words, before we can become strong, we must allow ourselves to be weak - and this brings us right back to Paul.

Paul’s starting point was his own sense of weakness. At first he asked God to remove his disability, but when nothing changed, Paul changed within himself. From first feeling himself rejected in prayer, Paul came to feel himself the recipient of God’s grace. Between these two positions there is a journey, and we need to explore just what this journey involves. The feeling of weakness in itself will not make one strong, nor will anger by itself, even if accepted and openly expressed, increase one’s capacity for faith.. What is critical is the way we respond to these experiences. What gave Paul the right, or the authority, to say, “When I am weak, then I am strong”?

Paul also needed a little outside help. From his other writings, it appears he relied on the life of Jesus as a model for his journey. In the biblical book of Romans, Paul says, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5), and he further states “but if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Romans 6:8). In these verses Paul clearly is not speaking of a literal death, since we are called upon to make this transition while we are still living. In comparing our own experience to Jesus’ death Paul alludes to the cross, which is itself a symbol of any form of suffering we may have to bear in this earthly experience. Thus “death”- or the cross, or suffering - will in itself transform nothing, unless it is like his: unless we meet it in a way that follows Jesus’ example. Paul is saying we can acquire faith if we meet our own suffering in the same way that Jesus met his.

What is so unique about Jesus’ death? Certainly not the form it took - the Romans, after all, crucified thousands of people. What is significant about Jesus’ death is the way he encountered it. We get our first glimpse of the way Jesus encountered his suffering in Gethsemane. There alone, he confronted the danger that awaited him. He would have preferred not to have been alone.. He took with him his three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, and asked them to watch with him. Then he moved a little farther on to spend time in solitary prayer.

Not even his three best disciples could face the reality of what was about to happen. When Jesus returned from his prayer, he found them sleeping. Three times he tried to awaken them, but to no avail. They had abandoned him at the time of his greatest crisis.

What then did Jesus do? He remained where he was. He confessed his fear to God, asking him if possible to remove the dreaded events and emotions which he was experiencing: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). He prayed this prayer three times - and though God did not grant him the answer he requested, he remained present with God, willing to face whatever might lie in store for him.

Here we see an immediate connection to the situation of Paul. Paul too prayed three times that his affliction, his “thorn in the flesh,” be removed and, like Jesus, Paul did not receive the answer he desired. Yet he was satisfied with God’s grace, which he became ready to receive. This became for him a source of great inner strength.

There is something in the experience of both Jesus and Paul that might help us confront our own experience of disability, in terms of developing the inner strengths necessary not to be defeated by it. The cross upon which Jesus died was real, but since the time of Paul, it has become part of a rich symbolic language. “Cross” and “thorn” are symbols representing the specific burdens and pains we experience in life, which we cannot avoid and which we may be powerless to eliminate. If there is news to preach about Jesus’ life, death, and especially his resurrection, it is that our own particular cross, whatever it may be, need not become an occasion for defeat, but can become instead a point of transformation. As to how we might realize this transformation, the Bible offers us only the sketchiest of guidelines. It is up to us to flesh them out in the course of realizing our own individual destiny.

The New Testament, and especially John’s Gospel, speaks of the cross not only in terms of suffering, but also of transformation and exaltation. But if we begin there, we will produce only religious platitudes, words of false comfort, empty because they are disconnected from human experience. We have heard such words before: “You are God’s special child,” “God is testing you through your disability as a measure of His love for you.” “You who are last on earth will be first in heaven.” Such words do not transform; they come across as feeble attempts to deny reality; to these attempts at consolation one may well respond, “Would that God only loved me less.” The top of the cross may reach toward the heavens, but we cannot begin there; we must begin at its base, the point at which we might say it is “rooted to the earth.” And there, at the base of our cross, we are likely to find those most primitive human emotions, fear and anger.

There are special fears involved in being disabled. There is the fear of not being able to cope, of not being able to take care of ourselves. There is the fear of being rejected by a non-disabled world. There is the fear of depending on others, and of not being taken seriously, not being treated like adults or perceived as equals. The first step in shouldering our cross is having the strength to admit and confront these fears - the strength to admit our own weaknesses, “for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Confronting such fears is not a simple matter, and it may become a lifelong struggle - but it may also bring us to some unexpected places. It will certainly increase our self-knowledge as .well as our grasp of reality. There is nothing more difficult to endure than fear. Our attempts to escape fear lead to various ways of distorting reality, which psychologists call “defense mechanisms.” These ways of distorting and denying reality impair our ability to function in the world and to relate to others. Thus the most basic courage - the courage to confront one’s own fears - is essential to finding that place for ourselves in the world, which, as people with disabilities, we may feel we have been denied.

Responding constructively to our fears, just by admitting and accepting them, means that instead of running from our cross, denying our disability or hating ourselves for having it, we learn to accept ourselves as we are, where we are. This makes possible both outward and inward change.

Outwardly, we can reach out in solidarity to others with disabilities, and such associations have already produced much social and political change. There is more awareness than ever before, especially on the part of churches and synagogues, of the need to provide accessible facilities. We have also recently passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which not long ago would have been inconceivable. But in focusing on the outside, we must not lose sight of the need of possibility of inward transformation. People with disabilities have been excluded from the mainstream so often because others are afraid of them and have not confronted their own fears. If we leave our fears unexamined, we unavoidably project them onto others, .not only because of the limitation itself but also because society keeps reminding us that we are different. If we make this inevitability an opportunity for self-confrontation and self-awareness, we may well develop inner strengths far beyond those possible had we the luxury of never having to look at ourselves, We will not have to be afraid of surface differences in people, as people are afraid when they have not themselves had to deal with the experience of being considered different. Not having run from our own crosses, we can remain with others as they are shouldering theirs. Thus dealing with our own fears can become the most profound lesson in love, which is itself a great inner strength and an aid to bearing one’s own burden.

If we have experienced ourselves as outsiders in relation to mainstream society, we are likely to respond not only with fear, but with a great deal of anger as well. We may direct this anger at society for rejecting us, at ourselves for being disabled, or even at God. In any of these cases, our anger will become self-destructive if we cannot find an appropriate channel for it. To deal with anger constructively one needs, just as with fear, first to admit it and confront it directly.

Anger is not necessarily unhealthy. It is a natural response to the thwarting of our legitimate self-affirmation. Without anger we would have no incentive for constructive change, on either a personal or social level. Anger becomes a problem only when we have no creative way to deal with it, when it festers within us like a wound that will not heal, or explodes in a haphazard violent reaction. At that point anger becomes resentment, something we “feel again” repeatedly, because we do not know what to do about it. Resentment is anger we may cling to self-righteously, looking for reasons to justify it. A classical example is Jonah’s self-justifying statement, “I do well to be angry, angry enough to die” (Jonah 4:9).

If we are disabled we may be well acquainted with feelings of powerlessness, and therefore of resentment. We can treat our resentment as we treat our fear, by facing it squarely and honestly, accepting it as part of ourselves as we are at this moment. We can recognize resentment for what it is: a powerful energy that has been misplaced.

Anger itself is a form of the energy of life that God has given us to enable us to survive and make our place in the world, and to make a creative contribution to life. It needs not to be eliminated, but rechanneled. Therefore, if having experienced ourselves as outsiders has brought us moments of anger, we need to use that experience to our advantage. The sense of isolation such an experience produces gives us a unique opportunity for self-knowledge. To know one’s own strengths and weaknesses, both external and internal, and to know how one can respond when tested to the limit, is a tremendous asset in making one’s way in the world and realizing one’s talents. Someone totally accepted by the group - who experiences no conflict about his or her position in the group - such a person, if indeed she or he even exists, is not likely to have the opportunity for full self-discovery. Such a one’s individuality is not likely ever to become fully developed. It is conflict itself that forces us to look at ourselves, to question ourselves, to look objectively at the world around us, and to discover our true limits. It may take us longer to adjust to our place in the group if we are not immediately accepted as full and equal participants, but if we endure .long enough to f’md our place it can be with a surer sense of our own identity, a more solid inner anchoring. It is, after all, through grappling with conflict that we learn to become aware of ourselves and others, and thus to develop a capacity for love that truly reaches beyond ourselves.

And now at last we arrive at the spiritual dimension of our response to disability. “Spiritual” properly refers to love, specifically a love that reaches beyond the self. Paul makes the connection between suffering and love explicit:

More than that, we rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Suffering produces endurance: that is, if this is how we meet it. Endurance means not fleeing from the cross, not denying the problem but remaining present with it, willing to work with it inwardly. Endurance produces character: facing ourselves honestly develops self-knowledge, an inner grounding, a more objective perception of the world, the knowledge of our capabilities when sorely tested. Character produces hope: the strength we find within gives us the sense that not all routes are blocked to us, that our individuality can still find ways to flower and provide our lives with meaning. We can even convert the energy in our anger into a determination to find the ways we can grow. And hope does not disappoint, because love has entered our hearts: if we have followed this road of self-examination, not abandoning the site of our own cross through fear, denial, or resentment, then we become more capable both of recognizing and of responding to the pain of others; we become capable of a love truly spiritual because it reaches beyond ourselves and our own limited self-interests. And thus we become assured of God’s active presence in our lives, since God, whose essence is love, must always respond to that which conforms to the divine image. This is the ultimate basis of faith.

It is a long road, and not an easy one. Being disabled certainly does not in itself make one more spiritual or more capable of love, but it makes the choices we face on this inward journey particularly critical. How aware we become of these choices and how we respond to them can profoundly influence the course of our lives.