"What's . . . wrong with him?" asked the well-meaning lady seated in the church pew behind me. She had struggled with the words as she asked the question, I could tell. Even as I type them, I feel unfaithful, as the words deliver a sting that I know this sweet woman did not intend.
Slightly stunned, but determined not to let the awkward moment last any longer than necessary, I answered, "He has an autism-spectrum disorder and severe ADHD. But the Lord is kind, and Benjamin's doing really well."
I turned around to face the front of the sanctuary as the service began and tried to coax my heart toward worship. But try as I might, I couldn't stop the skipping record of those words in my head.
"What's . . . wrong with him?"
"What's . . . wrong with him?"
"What's . . . wrong with him?"
This was troublesome, not because I was offended by the words of my sister in Christ. It was the voice I heard that bothered me. The voice was not hers, but my own. My head knew all the right answers, but inside my heart shouted, "Lord, what is wrong with Him? How did things go so wrong when you made my boy?"
A long time has passed since that day in the church pew. Benjamin has grown from a three-year-old whose limited speech could scarcely be understood to a ten-year-old boy who, despite obvious speech impediment, is not afraid to talk to his older brothers' friends and even adults wherever we go. He has grown from a little boy who always had to be touching me (not gently) in order to talk to me (usually involving asking the same question six or seven times in a row) to a young man with whom I can actually have a conversation. He has grown from a little brother for whom his older brothers' noisy sporting events were an exercise in trauma-management to a boy who can sit (and sometimes cheer!) through multiple games in one day.
Yet he still has major struggles: Cognitive impairment, sensory issues, developmental delay, attention problems. We rejoiced when, a month before starting kindergarten as a six-year-old, he was finally out of Pull-Ups. But for other milestones, we wait. He can write a shaky B, a feeble E, and an iffy N. That's about it. And that's just brushing the surface of his struggles.
As for our questions—and those of his five older and younger siblings—they go on and on:
Will he learn to read?
Will he drive a car?
Will he have a job?
Will he get married?
Become a father?
And then . . . what will happen to him when we're gone?
Those are tough questions, questions for which we have no answers. And to calm our frightened hearts in those unanswered moments, we have had to answer that first question—the "What's wrong with him?" one. We have had to go to the Lord and His Word. We have had to settle on a theology of disability.
God's Role in Disability
What we, as a family, believe about God's role in disability has a profound effect on how we answer the "What's wrong with him?" question. Foundationally, we believe the promise of Romans 8:28:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
We can believe that. Most of Christendom can believe that. If the answer is simply that something is wrong with Benjamin as a result of our fallen world and that in a Joseph-esque turn of events, God will take what nasty older-brother Autism meant for evil and use it for good, then that's a pill we can swallow quite nicely. But frankly, we're not satisfied with that answer, because the answer is still, "Something's wrong with him." Lots of somethings, in fact.
So we're back to the drawing board, the Bible, and Romans 8:28. This time we're going to start with an answer—a hypothesis of sorts. Here it is:
Nothing is wrong with Benjamin. Nothing.
How can we say that? We're looking at a ten-year-old kid who has few friends his own age, who can hardly write his name, who scores below the first percentile in every standardized test. He talks funny, he flaps his hands, he can't sit still, he chews on things, he laughs at inappropriate times, and he throws himself on the floor crying when he's not allowed to watch Thomas the Tank Engine. How can we say that nothing is wrong with him?
Because of Romans 8:28, yes, but that's not all. As parents we have had to answer two painful, yet fundamental questions about the origin of suffering, and specifically, the origin of disability:
- Did God simply allow this? If so, then something is wrong with Benjamin.
- Did God purposefully cause this? If the answer to this question is yes (and we believe it is) then we have great news: Nothing, absolutely nothing, is wrong with our son. Well, nothing more than every other sinner, that is.
Though He Slay Me . . .
Maybe you think I'm crazy. Maybe you can't come to terms with a God who could not merely allow but cause suffering. I completely get it—we've cried those tears of despair and prayed those prayers of heartbreak. Perhaps you can't buy into a God who would put a little child through what Benjamin and more than 3.5 million Americans like him face on a daily basis. But consider the words of Job, who said, "Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil"? (2:10), and also, "Though he slay me, I will hope in him" (13:15).
In the broader context of Job 13 and of the book as a whole, it is clear that the "he" spoken of in 13:15 is not Satan, but God. Job recognized that adversity came directly, actively, purposefully from God. Try as we might, "though he slay me" cannot be read as a limp-wristed allowance of a little bit of trouble, but as a powerful reminder to directly, actively, purposefully place our hope in an infinitely sovereign God.
Recently, I was convicted of this again as I came across an e-book from Desiring God called Disability and the Sovereign Goodness of God. The book contains four sermons from John Piper on the subject, in which he largely preaches through the text of Jesus healing the man born blind from John 9. You may remember that the disciples asked Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2). And Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him" (v. 3).
Dr. Piper challenged our assertions that God merely allows rather than purposefully causes disability with the following three reasons, which were so powerful to me that I'd like to share them in their entirety [emphases added]:
- One is that the disciples are asking for an explanation of the blindness, and Jesus' answer is given as an explanation of the blindness. But if you say God had no purpose, no plan, no design in the blindness but simply finds the blindness later and uses it, that is not an explanation of the blindness. It doesn't answer the disciples' question. They want to know: Why is he blind? And Jesus really does give an answer. This is why he's blind-there is purpose in it. There is a divine design. There's a plan. God means for his work to be displayed in him.
- Here's another reason why that suggestion doesn't work. God knows all things. He knows exactly what is happening in the moment of conception. When there is a defective chromosome or some genetic irregularity in the sperm that is about to fertilize an egg, God can simply say no. He commands the winds. He commands the waves. He commands the sperm and the genetic makeup of the egg. If God foresees and permits a conception that he knows will produce blindness, he has reasons for this permission. And those reasons are his purposes. His designs. His plans. God never has met a child from whom he had no plan. There are no accidents in God's mind or hands.
- And third, any attempt to deny God's sovereign, wise, purposeful control over conception and birth has a head-on collision with Exodus 4:11 and Psalm 139:13. "The Lord said to Moses, 'Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?'" "You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb."
. . . I Will Hope in Him
As I read those answers, and as I watch the powerful video testimony that follows from John Knight, a man who came to know the Lord in the midst of struggling with his blind son's numerous disabilities, a beautiful truth emerges from the shadowy forest that is living with autism: Benjamin's disabilities are not meaningless, pointless, or a mere diversion in the road that was supposed to be my life. He is just exactly as God created him to be, and the Lord has placed him in our home, in our church, in our community to fulfill His specific, sovereign purposes. Those purposes may be cloudy to us at times, but to God, they are as clear as the mud Jesus fashioned to heal the blind man in John 9.
Another time I hope to share how God might be using the ministry of disability to refine us all, but for now, I'm thinking back to my answer to the lady who asked, "What's wrong with him?" I answered, "He has an autism-spectrum disorder and severe ADHD. But the Lord is kind, and Benjamin's doing really well." What I meant is, Benjamin is progressing, so the Lord is kind and good.
But the truth is that the Lord would be equally kind and good if I was still changing the diapers of a ten-year-old. He will be kind and good if Benjamin gets married and has a family and a job, and He will be equally kind if Benjamin lives with us for the rest of our lives.
You see, dear friends, God's goodness and kindness does not depend on our circumstances, and it operates in perfect harmony and with His justice and His righteousness. And that's the promise of Romans 8:28 and His promise for the sick, the disabled, the depressed, and the downtrodden. "He works all things together for good." And there's not a thing wrong with that.