I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on:
- the phrase ‘Word of God’
- the theme of ‘Mission’
- the meaning of ‘Apocalypse‘
- the ministry of ‘Healing’,
- the question of ‘Welcome’,
- the biblical understanding of ‘Justice’,
- the biblical view of creation
- what the Bible means by the term ‘church’.
- what the Bible says about grief and grieving.
- what is so good about the Old Testament?
- Why should we welcome the stranger?
- How can we rejoice in an imperfect world?
This column explores the complex question of disability. What does scripture say about disability, and how should that shape our attitudes?
Reading what the Bible says about disability is a complex and challenging task for several reasons. First, the language of ‘disability’ is a modern one, and the terminology is very recent. The word itself only become the dominant agreed term in the 1970s and 80s. Secondly, when we read Scripture, we are going on a cross-cultural journey, into a culture where understandings of disability are quite different from our own.
There are four main objections to what Scripture is thought to say in relation to disability.
A strong element of the biblical narrative is that God made the world and humanity perfect, and that imperfection has entered the world because something has gone wrong—what the Bible calls ‘sin’. Parts of this narrative imply that physical or mental disabilities are part of ‘what has gone wrong’; the most striking example of this is the prohibition in Lev 21.16–23 of anyone with a physical defect from entering the sanctuary.
But it is clear that this prohibition has symbolic significance, pointing to the holiness and perfection of God. In his vision of the restored temple, Ezekiel is told that the priests shall wear cool linen garments, so that they do not sweat (Ezek 44.17). There is no suggestion that sweat is sinful!
The idea that disability is a form of imperfection aligns closely with the ‘medical’ model of disability; those who are disabled are not able to do things which the human body would usually be expected to do—hence the very term ‘dis-abled’.
Yet Jesus explicitly rejects the idea that we should associate disabilities with personal sin. In John 9, this question is raised explicitly by his disciples—‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’—and Jesus explicitly denies the premise—‘Neither this man nor his parents’. Disability is an opportunity for grace, not a reason for blame.
Some have criticised scripture, and in particular the accounts of Jesus’ healings, for turning the disabled into mere mechanisms for Jesus to display his power. Jesus is ‘a cathartic scourge that wanders around eradicating disability from the world… That relegates people with disabilities to just being there to show the power of God’ (Candida Moss).
But a moment’s careful reading shows this is the opposite of what the gospels actually say. Those with disabilities are often the centre of the narrative; they are the rounded characters, in contrast to the disciples who are more peripheral. Jesus frequently asks ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mark 10.51), putting their decision and will at the centre of the action, and Jesus often heals in private, avoiding the healing becoming a spectacle or a showcase.
Imitation or image?
Candida Moss goes on to suggest that Scripture portrays God as disabled. Ezekiel 1 describes God on a throne-chariot with wheels which allows God to move. ‘It seems like God is a wheelchair user maybe a thousand years before human beings themselves have thought about wheelchairs.’
This is simply imposing our own contemporary ideas on the ancient text, rather than reading what it actually says. For Ezekiel, this is not an image of limitation, but an image of power—it is an affirmation of the continuing power and reign of God, despite the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of his people. (In the ancient world, being seated is a symbol of majesty, power and authority.)
But we do not need to make God like us in order for us to see the dignity and worth of all people. The central affirmation in Scripture is that we are all ‘made in the image of God’, both male and female, slave and free, ‘able bodied’ and ‘disabled’. That should be enough for us to treat all with equal care and value.
The final objection arises from the idea that being ‘disabled’ is core to a person’s identity—not least because it is felt to be so central to their experience. ‘If I’m not disabled in heaven, I’m not myself so I certainly hope I’ll still be disabled in heaven’ (Moss).
But this gives ‘disability’ an absolute status that it does not warrant. I myself have nine ‘disabilities’, ways in which my body does not do what it should, some of which have needed medical intervention. If you took a sample of the population, and lined them up according to ‘disability’, you would not have two groups, but a continuum from the obviously ‘able bodied’ to the more obviously ‘disabled’.
Disability is a particular example of limitations and finitude that we all share—part of what it means to be imperfect creatures in an imperfect world. But we all live in hope, that ‘when perfection comes, what is partial will pass away.’
I engage in more detail with the claims made by Candida Moss in an earlier article ‘Is God Disabled?’ I comment there:
I completely agree with the need for much improved disabled access, and there is a serious practical challenge for any church community to make their building and their activities accessible to all—not least with an ageing church and national population. But I am not sure I am convinced by the basis on which this is usually argued. If you lined up a representative group of people according to their physical abilities, with the most obviously and visibly disabled at one end, and the fittest and most able-bodied on the other, I think you would find a continuum and not a sudden break separating one group from another.
The reason that the ‘disabled’ need to be included, is not because they are ‘another’ group, separate from ‘us’—but because they are the same as us. We are all limited, and most of us are, to some extent, identifiably disabled.
Moreover, from a theological point of view, our various disabilities are all part of our creaturely finitude. I might be more limited than other people in my ability to run, or see, or lift heavy objects—but we are all limited in these regards, and my limitations are relative and not absolute. Some people might need a smooth ramp to access a building, but there is nothing absolute about the standard nine-inch riser in most sets of steps. If we could all jump like kangaroos, then having a two-foot high step would be fine—but being the humans that we are, that kind of provision would make the building inaccessible for most of us. So why should our threshold of provision include only 90% or 80% of the population, rather than 50% or 40%? Incidentally, this puts the lie to the common mantra ‘You can do anything if you try/really believe you can/don’t give up’ as a response to some extraordinary achievement by someone. We can all probably do more than we imagine—but we are all limited, finite creatures, and the idea that we can do ‘anything’ is just a wilful denial of our dependance on our creator…
This issue then connects with whether we will be healed of our disabilities in the life to come (described in the article as ‘in heaven’, but perhaps better described as ‘in the new creation’). Mention is made of the pioneering writing of Nancy Eiesland’s The Disabled God, in which she comments:
The resurrected Jesus Christ in presenting impaired hands and feet and side to be touched by frightened friends alters the taboo of physical avoidance of disability and calls for followers to recognize their connection and equality at the point of Christ’s physical impairment.
Candida Moss then extends this to the disabilities of the believer.
Prof Moss says the fact that Jesus retains his scars after the Resurrection suggests that disabled people might also retain their disabilities in the afterlife – something she hopes for herself.
“I think that if I’m not disabled in heaven, I’m not myself so I certainly hope I’ll still be disabled in heaven. I certainly hope that I don’t feel pain in heaven – that seems antithetical to what heaven is. But I still want to be me. And I don’t think that I would be me without the conditions that I have. It’s shaped who I am, how I think, what I do. Everything about my life involves this part of myself, which is integral to who I am.”
But if disabilities lie on a spectrum, rather than being something absolute, does this still make sense? Again, at what point of being disabled does my disability become ‘part of who I am?’ I wonder whether this claim is in danger of making a category error, mistaking means for ends. It is certainly the case that my disabilities and limitations can form in me a greater self-awareness, a sense of humility, perhaps a quality of patience that I did not have when I could do things more easily, and even a greater consideration of others. They shape me in a way that I might not have been shaped without these disabilities. But these things have only needed to be formed in me by my limitations because my sinful, fallen life did not manifest these things already.
The promise of the life of the new creation, when we raised to life, is that we will be ‘perfect’ in the sense of having reached our full potential as the creatures God intended us to be—to ‘become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4.13). If that involves a healing of my ‘disabilities’, then I shall be content.