For most of my life, the reality of disability and the problem of evil were one in the same. I constantly found myself asking the same question:
Why did God let this happen to me?
For me, “this” referred to contracting polio as an orphan in India, leading to irreparable damage in my right leg. Others might ask a similar question due to a lack of norepinephrine and dopamine in their brain or an injury from a car accident caused by a drunk driver. In some cases, God is the sole object of our frustration. In other circumstances, a human individual is at fault.
My inability to answer this question for most of my life led to a deep resentment toward God. The times when I got maddest at God did not warrant the wrath I allowed them to create, like when I was picked last for a pickup game of kickball or couldn't fit into a trendy pair of Vans or had an oversized leg brace poking through my skinny jeans. These things certainly did not warrant the wrath I allowed them to create. But, at the time, those were meaningful things to me. As a dark kid in a sea of whiteness, these were missed opportunities to blend in with my peers rather than be labeled as an outcast. I imagined God looking down from a distant, heavenly throne and laughing, “Ha! Got him again.”
The Christians I met didn’t help answer my question. Most stared at me for an awkward amount of time and whispered as I walked by. Others participated in a polite liturgy of asking what happened and then apologizing as if it was their fault. Some even took the step of asking if they could heal me. I will give these people the benefit of the doubt and say they meant well. But a 16-year-old experiencing an identity crisis is certainly an easy target for evangelization.
Time after time, these Christians would lay hands on me while I waited in line at Starbucks or the food court at the local mall. They’d try and cast out evil demons, pray that my faith would be strengthened, or command in Jesus’ name that I get up and walk (even though I could already walk). Each time, they would stand back as if they’d just recited the magic words. Each time, with progressively less optimism and greater anger, I’d step forward only to find out I wasn’t healed. Some would accuse me of not having enough faith, but most just apologized and went on with their day. I was left alone. Still limping, still furious.
Although I didn’t have the language to articulate it at the time, the questions I was asking were forcing me to grapple with my own understanding of divine sovereignty and theodicy. The abstract question of “why does an all-powerful God allow bad things to happen to good people” became deeply personal: “Why is an all-powerful God allowing this to happen to me?”
In John 9:2-3, the disciples encounter a man who has been blind since birth and they ask Jesus a similar question: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (emphasis added).
In this passage, Jesus rearticulates the problem of pain and God’s sovereignty. Rather than affirming that it is sin that causes disability, Jesus centers the purposes of God.
To be sure, questions of theodicy and the task of finding meaning in suffering are complicated and contested as numerous theologians like James H. Cone, Delores S. Williams, Kelly Brown Douglas, Justo L. González, and Andrew S. Park have pointed out. But to summarize theologian Shelly Rambo’s reflection on finding meaning in suffering, the God who calls us to this task is one whose resurrected body bears crucifixion wounds. Even more, the resurrected wounds of Jesus become a means for others to “feel their way into the world again.” Jesus’ wounds are not a hindrance to gospel proclamation, they are a gospel proclamation.
The resurrected wounds of Jesus reframe how we ought to understand healing. Although we almost exclusively talk about disability in scripture through the lens of healing, there are only truly a handful of texts where Jesus heals people’s bodies. As practical theologian Erin Raffety once explained in a Princeton Seminary course, “in the vast majority of experiences, healing and restoration come in another way — in a restoration towards community. That is, Jesus restores people to each other in relationship more than he physically heals bodily illness.”
Jesus’ response to his disciples in John 9 led me to question, as disability studies scholar Lennard J. Davis writes, whether “the object of disability studies is not the person using the wheelchair or the Deaf person but the set of social, historical, economic, and cultural processes that regulate and control the way we think about and think through the body.” In other words, disability is less about physical “malformation” and more about its place in a society where there is a consensus among able-bodied persons of what is “normal” and “abnormal” — “abled” and “disabled,” “excluded” and “embraced.”
Seen in this way, disability is not a matter of physical weakness, but a social phenomenon in which these conditions are labeled as bad, in a world that prioritizes and normalizes certain bodily experiences while defining divergent experiences as “other.” This social process is what disability studies often call “ableism.”
As Christians, our faith ought to lead us away from ableism because scripture affirms disability as an equal embodied reality. Countless pages of Christian literature have reinforced the importance of the body — that God comes to us incarnate, that Jesus resurrects in bodily form, that we bear the image of God, and more. The biblical narrative affirms what theologian Katherine M. Douglass writes in Creative in the Image of God, where she argues that God does not meet us in “abstract forms of knowledge … but in embodied, physical forms of connection that highlight the immanent, communal, and incarnate dimension of the Christian life.”
Attention to the divine ways God meets disabled persons through their bodies will open our eyes to encounter God in new ways.
Drawing on the Pentecost narrative, theologian Amos Yong emphasizes the Holy Spirit’s work of establishing a new community constituted by difference where God is revealed through a multiplicity of witnesses (Acts 2:6, 17-18). “The miracle of Pentecost is the redemption of ‘weak’ bodies and lives in all of their diversity, not the creation of a new community according to able-bodied standards of ‘normalcy,’” Yong concludes.
Therefore, we ought to embrace disabled bodies as a gift from God that both reveals divine action in the world and expands the fullness of image-bearing creation.
Truly, we have much to learn from the disabled persons through whom God chooses to reveal a divine message. Rather than reflexively understanding disabled people as objects to be healed, our churches ought to be welcoming, accessible, and empathic places for disabled individuals to find rest, join fully in communion, and share their stories of God’s work in their life with the community. Just as Jesus offered dignity and worth, speaking words of love to those whom society cast down as lesser, we too may carry forth the gospel in word and deed.
The misdirected life is failing to see Christ in those around us. It is insisting that you can see while condemning the blind, when, in truth, the physically blind may possess a vision far beyond what any able-bodied person could imagine.
I may never get an answer to my questions of theodicy and sovereignty but Jesus’ declaration in John 9 gives me profound comfort. Through the power of the Spirit, I am greater attuned to both God’s work in the world and our communal dependence upon God. Rather than longing for “healing,” I find purpose in knowing that even in the midst of physical pain and limitations, God might be revealed to and through me.