How Disability Sanctifies Us All

So you've just received the news you didn't want to hear: Your baby has Down Syndrome. Your toddler is autistic. Your crawler will probably never walk. Your child is blind or deaf. Paralyzed. Deformed.

From extra chromosomes to missing limbs, from injured brains to broken hearts, it doesn't really matter how you got here. You're about to step onto a path that is trod by over twenty million American families who have at least one member with a disability.1 You may feel crushed, wounded, as paralyzed as your husband who's confined to the wheelchair. You're now faced with a lifetime worth of unanswered questions, unending appointments, and unrelenting physical labor to meet the needs of your loved one. Yes, it's so, so hard. But I am here to share with you . . . hope!

In my last post, I wrote about the hope that our loved ones' suffering is not without purpose—hope that God is good and kind regardless of the outcome of our trials. Today I'd like to share a different kind of hope, one that is available to each of us, whether or not we have a family member with a debilitating physical need. Will you join with me today as we consider how disability sanctifies us all?

Planned and Purposeful: Living with Disability in Community

Most of us don't have to look too far to find those whom we view as "worse-off" than we are. Even those of us interacting regularly with the disabled community tend to have a sort-of "survivor's guilt" when we perceive that another parent, for instance, has a child whose physical needs are far more demanding than our own. It's tempting to feel that little pang of guilt, whisper a prayer thanking the Lord that we are not in their shoes, and go on with life. But have you ever considered that you may be a part of God's grand design for that dear soul's disability?

If there's one thing I have learned over the last seven years since our son Benjamin was diagnosed, it's that his suffering is for me and for my husband and for our children. It's for our growth! And my suffering may be for someone else. And that mom with the child "worse-off" than mine? Well, there's a good chance that her suffering is, in part, for me! In Paul's letter to Philemon, we read:

I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ (v. 4–6).

In his commentary on the book of Philemon, John MacArthur points out that the word "sharing" here doesn't quite pack the punch of koinonia as in the original Greek text. MacArthur notes:

The Greek word here means much more than simply enjoying one another's company. It refers to a mutual sharing of all life, which believers do because of their common life in Christ and mutual partnership or "belonging to each other" in the "faith."

So it's not a stretch to say that there's a sense in which my son's suffering belongs to me, my neighbor's suffering belongs to me, and my suffering belongs to you. And that could be precisely how God uses the disability of one to sanctify us all. In our situation, I see this played out regularly in two basic spheres: in our home and in our church. To encourage you as you walk in or alongside of a family affected by disability, here are a few ways I believe God is using our son's special needs in both places to sanctify us all.

In the Home

This one, of course, is the easiest to recognize and the closest to my heart. Some people say they wouldn't wish the trials that come with an autism spectrum disorder on their worst enemy. And while I understand the sentiment behind that statement, I'm not so sure I agree. There have been days, seasons, years where it has been very, very hard. But the Lord's purposeful plan for Benjamin's disabilities has been a catalyst for . . .

  • Helping our family develop forbearance. In legal terms, forbearance means "the action of refraining from exercising a legal right, especially enforcing the payment of a debt." In other words, it involves the forgiveness or putting off of a debt that cannot be repaid. We often say, "I'll never be able to repay so-and-so for their kindness to me." But we can or we try. We can reciprocate; we can give back.

    Frequently, in the case of caring for the disabled, they absolutely cannot repay even a portion of the sacrifice others make on their behalf. Some parents spend a lifetime expressing undying love for an autistic child who never returns that love in a way that is tangible. Not a smile. Not a hug. Not an "I love you." Ever. They are completely incapable of, in any worldly sense, loving those who have sacrificed on their behalf. What a heartbreak! But what a privilege to be able to model the love of Him who loved us and died on our behalf while we were yet His enemies (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4:19).

  • Allowing God to write the story of our future. Gone are the days when we imagine a blissful, carefree future, traveling the world and frequenting the local shuffleboard game when all of our little birds have left the nest. We just don't know if that will happen.

    Instead, we have had to come to terms with a fact that has always been true and is true for all of us—God, and only God, knows what our future holds. But whatever it holds, we can be assured that it will be for our good and for His glory (Rom. 8:28). Our other children have gotten to watch us as we walk through this, and they are learning from it as well. And speaking of them, the Lord's plan is also . . .

  • Helping our children to learn about bearing the burdens of another. Our older sons have spent a lot of time helping to care for their younger siblings, but especially their brother who needs some extra help. Until recently, Benjamin couldn't dress himself at all. His older and younger siblings have helped him with dressing, showering, teeth-brushing, and a host of other things that are not often required of siblings. Sometimes they bear his burdens in other ways.

    One Sunday in church, Benjamin was particularly wiggly and was accidentally kicking the chair of a lady a row ahead of us. During a break between hymns, the lady turned to my older son who was seated directly behind her and said (not particularly kindly), "Hey, stop kicking my seat, okay?" When I heard about the incident later, I was furious. (Hello, Mama bear!) How could she?!? I wanted an apology! But my older son was completely fine. He didn't feel the need to defend himself. He didn't feel the need to pass the blame to his brother, the rightful kicker. He was just learning to bear Benjamin's burdens. Another gift disguised as disability.

In the Church

The church is in a unique and fabulous position to minister to families affected by disability. Perhaps God will use the disability of its members to sanctify our local bodies by . . .

  • Presenting the opportunity for other church members to come alongside the families of the disabled to exercise their gifts. When Benjamin was younger, we had two and then three children even younger than him. The physical help from friends within our local church body was indispensable. When the ladies of our church could sense that we were drowning, there were people who brought us meals, people who watched the other children during Benjamin's multiple weekly appointments, and even people who weren't afraid to care for Benjamin when I had somewhere to go or just to give us a date night. As a parent, it's really, really hard to ask someone to babysit when they might have to change a dirty Pull-Up on an older child. If that is something you could do for someone, it will be a grace-gift to their heart—no question.
  • Encouraging us to minister to and accept "the different." There is a certain amount of difference within the church that we can overlook—things that we can brush over and ignore. But when a family walks in with a drooling seven-year-old who chews on his clothes, our congregations have two choices: Minister to that family and to that child where they are or knowingly neglect them.

    It's not easy for a new family affected by disability to come to church. It might take a lot of effort for them to get there, and they don't want to be a spectacle. They just want to be loved, cared for, ministered to, and to be able to join in ministering to others. Ask them how you can help them in this. If they don't give any ideas, suggest something. If all else fails, bring them a meal! Food is a universal language of love and sacrifice.

  • Helping to pull us out of the need to have perfect conditions in order to worship. I know I'm treading on rocky ground here, and I don't mean to denigrate the solemnity of a service meant to promote corporate worship of a Holy God. But the key here is "corporate." That means the Body. That means every body. It means we might have to accept some things that we would not be fond of in our personal worship times for the sake of the Body as a whole—a little noise, occasional disruption, sights and smells that we are not used to. Most families with disabilities will be as sensitive as they possibly can with these things, so let's give them the grace, and the space, to attend worship and participate in Body life with their whole family if at all possible.

    We had been attending our present church for just a little over a year when the entire church got to watch my eight-year-old son attempt to help Benjamin (his older brother) keep his hands out of his pants (an old issue for Benj that crops up when he's anxious) during an hour-long kids' Christmas program. My husband had to fight the urge to scoop him up and remove him from the stage. But later, our pastor told my husband that it was good for the congregation—to see Benjamin, to learn about him, to get to know him. And it was good for Benjamin, if only for a little while, to get to do the same thing as all of the other kids his age—to sing the praises of the God who made him.

In the End

When it comes down to it, it matters little that we know exactly what to say to families affected by disability. They simply want to be seen. As John Piper exhorts us in the e-book Disability and the Sovereign Goodness of God:

And I don't mean see them like the priest and the Levite on the Jericho Road, passing by on the other side. This is our natural reflex—see and avoid. But we are not natural people. We are followers of Jesus. We have the Spirit of Jesus in our hearts. We have been seen and touched in all our brokenness by an attentive, merciful Savior.

If you want to be one of the most remarkable kinds of human beings on the planet—a Jesus kind—see people with disabilities. See them. And move toward them. God will show you what to say.

And that, my friends, is how God uses disability to sanctify us all. Whether they are in your home, in your church, or in your neighborhood, see the disabled and move toward them. Share in their suffering, and you both will share in the great reward of hope.

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God (Ps. 42:11).


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About the Author

Laura Elliott

Laura Elliott

Born and raised in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Laura Elliott and her husband, Michael, now call Minnesota home. Laura is the mother of five sons and one daughter and serves as the marketing content manager for Revive Our Hearts. In … read more …

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