Most parents-to-be have said it, or thought it, “I don’t care if it’s a boy or girl, so long as it’s healthy.” Now, it’s a great relief and blessing to have a healthy baby. But, “…so long as it’s healthy”?
That has always bugged me a little—what if the baby is not healthy? I hope that most parents would still love their baby anyway. But then you read the statistics—
Between 60% to 90% of women who receive a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis end the pregnancy, according to a 2012 analysis of 24 studies in Prenatal Diagnosis. (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/05/01/prenatal-tests-down-syndrome/2051237/)
Tami and I have six children, and with most of the pregnancies, a doctor would ask if we wanted to have this test that would indicate if the baby had Down syndrome.
We knew what the doctor might say if the test came back positive—“Do you want to terminate the pregnancy?” We would have never done that.
Does the Bible speak to this current moral issue today? What does the Bible say about people with disabilities?
I want to take us to one main passage that, while it won’t answer every question, and may even raise a few more in your minds, it will give us a foundation to build a theology of disabilities.
1 And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
3 Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. 4 I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.
6 When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, 7 And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing. (John 9:1–7)
I. SEEING PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES
John 9:1 And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.
Notice how this chapter begins, “…as Jesus passed by, he saw a man…” Jesus saw this man. He was a beggar—that is how a blind man could make a living in those days.
He was the man that when you walked by with your kids, they would say, “Mommy, what’s wrong with that guy?” You would say, “Shh! It’s not polite to ask that here.”
This was the man who, because he sat there day after day, people had trained themselves not to see. But Jesus “saw” him.
Do you and I see these people? It would be a small shot fired in the war against abortion, and especially the abortion of disabled babies. If people knew that Christians saw the disabled, really saw them, they might hesitate.
We complain about abortion for convenience sake, but are we just as guilty of not seeing the disabled for the same reason—convenience?
I am thankful for my year-long experience of working in a group home for the mentally disabled. It was in North Dakota, while Tami and I were engaged and through the first months of our marriage.
I helped care for eight men with a range of disabilities, Down syndrome to Autism. For most of them, they needed help from getting dressed to eating to going to work at the center to going to bed.
We laughed with them, we tried to sooth them when they were angry, we rejoiced at their successes, and tried to help them to improve their skills and abilities.
One man could speak only a few words. He loved John Deere tractors, which he called “Putt-Putt.” The group home’s manager walked to work, so he was called, “Walk-Walk,” and I got the name “Bub.” He was a fun, jolly man.
The experience helped me to see them as people made in the image of God. It opened my eyes.
Why is it hard for us to see people with disabilities as people?
(1) Evolution has taught us that personhood is a matter of intelligence and ability (and this does rub off on Christians). Therefore it is okay to abort a baby because they don’t have the abilities and intelligence that defines personhood.
Counter to that is Biblical Creationism which states that people, and only people, are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and therefore deserve to be treated as persons even if doctors say that their intelligence is less than that of a monkey.
(2) A second reason that it is hard for us to see people with disabilities as people is that we may have…
II. THE WRONG REASONS FOR DISABILITIES
John 9:2 And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
A. The Disciples Saw Sin, Not A Person
First, I have to wonder: did the blind man overhear them? Did they, like so many of us do, talk about a disabled person in front of them as if they weren’t really there?
Not only were they rude in talking in front of him, the question that they asked was rude also—“who did sin, this man, or his parents”? I wonder how often he heard crude remarks like that?
The disciple’s question reflected a common misunderstanding about the relationship between sin and misfortune that goes back to the days of Job.
Job’s friends could not believe that there was nothing that Job had done wrong—his tragic circumstances must have been caused by some terrible sin in his life. One friend said:
17 Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: Therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty: (Job 5:17)
Of course, sin is the cause of the troubles in the world. So it is natural that we try to link a tragic event with a sin. John Calvin did well explaining this:
…since the Scripture declares that all mankind’s troubles come from sin, whenever we see anyone in a bad state we cannot help thinking that the distresses are punishments inflicted by God’s hand. But here we generally err in three ways: (John Calvin, John, Crossway Classic Commentaries, [Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994], Jn 9:2)
Calvin goes on to list the three errors we make:
(1) We look at others more harshly than we look at ourselves—we overlook our sins when we suffer. He said “everyone should begin with himself and spare no one less than himself.”
(2) We are “unduly severe,” making “crimes out of [our brother’s] faults” while “we excuse our sins and are hardly conscious of faults when we have committed most serious crimes.”
(3) We forget that God has other reasons for allowing people to go through hard times, not just to chastise for present sins, but also to “…put to death the sins of the flesh for the future…” or “…testing their obedience or training them to be patient.”
The disciples could only think that some personal sin was behind the man’s blindness. They gave no thought to their own sin, for which they (as everyone does) deserve death (Romans 6:23; Ezekiel 18:20).
We’re all guilty of ignoring our sin and thinking so much of another’s sin that we stop seeing them. Like the disciples, we see sin, not the person.
B. The Only Options?
The disciples can only think of two options for the man’s blindness. Either his parents sinned or he did. They wonder it could be that “this man” sinned, since he was blind from birth.
There were some philosophies floating around that taught that children could sin while in the womb, or that souls were reincarnated and could be punished for sins in a previous life. Perhaps the disciples hoped for a juicy tale of murder and intrigue from the man’s former life.
On the other hand, maybe it was “his parents” who sinned. We know today that birth defects can be caused by mothers who smoke, drink alcohol, or do drugs, just to name a few, so for us this is a realistic option.
The disciples would have never put that together—they perhaps thought that the parents had stolen something, or lied, or something unrelated like that. Perhaps they were thinking of Exodus—
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; (Exodus 20:5)
But that’s not a verse about birth defects coming from sin. The point is that the corrupting influence of a wicked generation seeps into the next generation. There’s an old saying, “From bad crows must come bad eggs.”
Children pick up on the sins of parents, but those sins are their own. It’s not that a son is punished for his father’s sins, it’s that a son often follows his father’s example of sinning. The Bible clarifies this elsewhere:
16 The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin. (Deuteronomy 24:16)
It’s possible that the parents could have done some sin during the pregnancy that would have caused his blindness, but Jesus’ answer rules that out in his case. He explains that the blindness had a purpose.
III. GOD’S PURPOSE AND DISABILITIES
A. Cause Versus Purpose
John 9:3 Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.
The disciples were asking about the cause of the man’s blindness, but Jesus reframes the conversation in terms of what is the purpose of the man’s blindness.
You see how asking about “cause” can often be a judgment—Who caused the car accident? Who stole the cookies from the cupboard?
Jesus doesn’t go down that road. He’s concerned about the purpose—the cause isn’t that important (he does say that “Neither” the man or his parents sinned, however).
The purpose was “that the works of God should be made manifest.” The word for “manifest” (φανερωθῇ, VAPS3S, φανερόω) means to “cause to become visible” (BDAG).
It’s a passive word, indicating (perhaps) that it wasn’t anything that man did that would show God’s works in him. He would do so merely by existing.
Now, of course, the human reaction here is…so God caused the man’s blindness. What have we done? We’ve missed the point again.
We are so consumed with fairness and human rights, we always seek to pass judgment for a perceived lack of fairness and human rights on someone—even God.
We aren’t told how the man became blind—whether God caused it or allowed it to happen because of the effects of sin on the human DNA. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that God had a purpose in it.
B. Finding God’s Purpose In Disability
John and Dianne Knight had a baby boy on July 4th, 1995. As the nurse was cleaning him up, she said, “I think we have a problem here.”
Her voice confirmed that it was a big problem. Their baby boy had been born without eyes. Over the next months, they went through all sorts of tests, and at the end of September, John came to the conclusion:
“God, you are strong, that’s true, and you are wicked. You are mean. You’re capricious. Do it to me. Do it to me—not to this boy. What did he ever do to you?” (John Piper, Disability and the Sovereign Goodness of God: Resources from John Piper, [Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2012])
Oh, they were a church-going family. They were good people. But after the birth of their blind son, they left the church. One couple, however, did not give up on them. As the months went by, the couple stayed in contact with John and Dianne.
And, at least in part, it was the couple’s children that helped John come back around. They treated Paul—his blind son—as a little boy.
The couple’s children would toss Paul in the air and do funny bird sounds and all that kid stuff. Paul would laugh and giggle. That really struck John—they treated his blind son like a real boy. John wasn’t sure that he treated his son like a real boy!
Then, during a surgery that Paul needed to have, God broke into John’s heart—
Over the course of the morning of his surgery we received less-than-the-best medical care for Paul, and during one walk down a hallway I saw Paul begin to wake up before he was in the surgical room!
I was angry. I concluded that the anesthesiologist needed to die, and that I would kill him. In that moment, God let me see how depraved I was.
It is really hard to appeal to one’s natural goodness when preparing to kill another human being. I needed a Savior. In that hospital corridor in Indianapolis God showed me how depraved I was, I think for the very first time.
I count that walk down that hallway as foundational to my faith. At the end of that hallway I knew I needed Jesus in a way I had never known before.
And so we came back to the church with our tail between our legs, because we didn’t leave very nicely, we poked people in the eye when we were leaving, but we came back. (John Piper, Disability and the Sovereign Goodness of God: Resources from John Piper, [Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2012])
Finally, when Paul was almost two years old, John came to see that God was working…that God had a purpose in all this.
C. The Blind Man Finds God’s Real Purpose
Coming back to the blind man in John 9, we ask what were “the works of God” that were showed in him? Obviously, there was the work of God in giving the blind man sight. But notice that it says, “works” plural.
It wasn’t the physical healing that would be the most important work in the blind man. We tend to think of physical health as the most important thing a person can have. We even have a saying, “If you ain’t got your health, you ain’t got nothing.”
Friends, I hope in John 9 that you can see how wrong that statement is. There is so much more to life than our health, that is what the blind man discovered.
If you read all of John 9, you’ll find a surprise. People did not rejoice that the blind man was healed, instead they rejected him. They were upset that he had been healed on the Sabbath. His parents even denied him. He was excommunicated from the synagogue—kicked out.
He must have been feeling lousy—was physical sight worth this? Then we pick up the story in verse 35…
35 Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? 36 He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? 37 And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee. 38 And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him. (John 9:35–38)
The greatest concentration of healing miracles in the Bible happen in the Gospels—in the three years of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
But Jesus’ purpose was not to heal people—it was, as he says in verse five, to be “the light of the world.” That is, to open people’s eyes to spiritual realities. To bring people to belief in him.
Did the former man born blind accuse God of being cruel for letting him being born blind and be blind for many years? No, he believed and he worshipped him.
When your eyes are opened to spiritual reality, suffering in the physical world starts to make sense, or at least it becomes bearable. Because,
17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; 18 While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17–18)
What all this means is, that for our suffering to have meaning to us, Christ must be supremely valuable to us. When he is more than life to us, then we can start to understand his purposes for suffering and disability in this life.
We need to see Christ as supremely valuable so that we can see the disabled as he does, and so we can see his purposes in our suffering. This all starts with seeing Jesus as the light of our world.