“We need to see you at the hospital right away.” 

I’ll never forget the feeling in my body when I heard those words. Our daughter, at just five weeks old, was diagnosed with a rare genetic syndrome. 

We were handed a stapled stack of papers describing a seemingly unending list of complexities: heart, brain, and kidney defects; the inability to eat orally and swallow; vision impairment; cognitive delays; inability to walk or talk; scoliosis; drug-resistant epilepsy. 

And we’ve been drastically impacted by every one of these diagnoses. But also, we have fallen in love with a person. 

The smile and presence of our daughter, Avonlea, offer sunlight to any room. She brings peace to any arms lucky enough to hold her. She speaks love without being able to say a word. 

Even though one in four people live with a disability, before Avonlea, I had surprisingly little experience with that community. I had no idea I was missing out on truly seeing the largest minority group in the world. 

Avonlea has granted me peripheral vision for people and families often marginalized in our society and even in our churches. More than that, I have come to see the Bible’s understanding of disability as great news.

The more we witness the intrinsic value in all people, regardless of what they can do, the more freely we can rest in the hope of the gospel and the interdependence of God’s people. 

Disability speaks great news to all of us in at least six ways.

1. Disability is not shameful or a punishment.

In John 9, Jesus walks by a blind man. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (verses 2-3, emphasis mine). 

Jesus is stunningly clear. Disability is not caused by anyone’s direct sin. It is not a punishment or anything to be ashamed of. 

Christianity traces every flaw on the planet—including genetic mutations, accidents, colds, broken legs, learning disorders, addictions—to the first rebellion in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:16-24, Romans 8:20-22). 

The bodies of every human are always moving toward decay and death. Even Jesus was subjected to the curse of death. His body had limitations. It bled, broke, and died.

Simultaneously, Genesis 3 remains why the disabled are painfully ostracized and treated unfairly. Human rebellion against God is why there is societal sin in our world—collective sin that makes disability more difficult. We value money. Convenience. Return on investment. Achievement. Intellect. Athletic ability. Personal contribution. Similarity. Beauty. Pride. Self-sufficiency.  

To many of the disabled, disability feels normal. It’s society’s inaccessibility, inequalities, and disconnection that often make disability seem unbearable. 

But no person is more broken than another. Some may need more accommodations to access things made in this world or more medical intervention to live. But though the body or mind may be limited, the soul is not.

All people fall short of God’s perfection (Romans 3:23) and are needy for His restoration. All have equal need for Jesus to heal their souls from what separates us from God. 

2. God is sovereign over disability.

In Exodus 4, Moses objects to God, “‘Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.’ Then the LORD said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?’” (verses 10-11).

Psalm 139 confirms this: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (verses 13-14). 

This is the rope of truth I’ve white-knuckled during much of life: No part of our lives exists that God has not orchestrated. 

When my daughter’s long list of diagnoses overwhelms me, verse after verse reminds me not one thing passes through His loving, compassionate hands without His permission. Like the sea and land and snow and creatures for which God establishes “gates” and “paths” in Job (14:5, 38:4-6, 9-11, 22-33), Avonlea’s blindness, seizures, and low muscle tone have all been allowed by His boundaries. He said “yes” to all of it. 

And not because He likes seeing people suffer. In fact, the Bible says He collects every one of our tears and feels deeply with us in suffering (Psalm 34:18, 56:8, 147:3, Isaiah 57:15, 61:1-2, Lamentations 3:31-33). Whether disability occurred through birth, accident, or illness, God has ordained that, too, as well as its exact purpose. 

From Joseph to John the Baptist to Jesus, the Bible holds story after story where God leverages painful circumstances for far greater good (Genesis 50:20). 

3. God has great plans through disability. (Not despite it.)

In each uniquely crafted experience of human disability, God prepares paths for His beauty. Paul states, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

Those paths include those who can’t talk, read, or eat. In fact, Jesus makes it clear He does not need the most influential, competent, or intelligent to glorify Him: “Now when [members of the council] saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). 

Pay attention to who Jesus spends His time with. It includes the ostracized, the children, the untouchable. This lifts my heart as it scrambles and sweats in a world telling me I need more education, money, status, and talent to be valuable: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27).

God’s currency for what is valuable stands in direct contrast to our world’s.

4. God can restore wholeness without physical healing.

Disabled friends have told me many have approached them telling them if they just had more faith they would be healed—or like Job’s friends suggested, that they must have some unconfessed sin preventing physical healing. Surely, God must be withholding from them.

These are some of religion’s damaging, unbiblical lies.

Second Samuel 9 tells of Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth, who was paralyzed as a child and lived ostracized outside of the city walls. Because of King David’s loving kindness and loyalty to a promise he had made to Jonathan, he invited Mephibosheth to the palace to be part of David’s royal family.

Mephibosheth’s community, honor, and position were restored, yet his disability wasn’t erased. It’s a beautiful Old Testament story pointing to David’s descendant, Jesus, and His future kingdom, which is about so much more than physical healing. It’s a story about being accepted into God’s family—by no merit of our own. 

Jesus often healed bodies. He still can and does heal them today. Yet all those Jesus healed, even Lazarus, eventually died. Healing their physical bodies was never His ultimate goal. In fact, when men lowered their disabled friend through a roof, Jesus’ healing was first and foremost of the man’s heart: “And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’” (Mark 2:5).

Jesus’ temporary, bodily healing showed He was God, brought glory to Himself, restored people into community, and displayed His value for the marginalized who were often left out of places of honor and connection. 

When Jesus’ own resurrected body was seen by hundreds, it still bore wounds of his death (John 20:27)! To be made whole, he did not have to be physically whole. 

In our Western world, where we almost always expect to be healed with our astonishing medical advances, God might be more glorified in how He sustains us than how He heals us.

5. Suffering in this world is expected—and it’s a gift.

Our culture avoids suffering at all costs. The “blessed” life is perceived as one with abundance of money, health, success, and the picture-perfect family. Yet if you were to place a star by every verse on suffering, your Bible would be covered. Jesus’ own mother was considered favored by God (Luke 1:28, 48), yet would also be “pierced” by multiple tragedies (2:35). 

Suffering is inevitable. Yet in it, we experience God’s gifts, character, and joy, along with nearness to and fellowship with Jesus (Romans 5:3-5, 1 Peter 4:12-13, James 1:2-4). 

A happy and whole life on Earth is not one without suffering.

6. The Church misses out if all are not included.

I often thought of Scriptures about the “body of Christ” in relation to myself and my church: Some of us will be good at hospitality, some at teaching. But had I ever considered how these verses include the boy scavenging in the slums of India? The illiterate woman harvesting a field in Africa? My daughter, who may never speak or walk? 

And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? … But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. … there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you” … On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable… (1 Corinthians 12:16-22, emphasis added)

The body of Christ is beautifully diverse—not just in talents and ethnicity, but in cognitive ability, physical ability, and sensory input. And even those seemingly weaker are simply indispensable (i.e. absolutely necessary). 

Historically, religious people have caused deep hurt to the disabled and their families and have done little to show the disabled are “indispensable” for the church to be complete. We may have wheelchair ramps for someone to roll through the door, but are we making spaces for all people to thrive, serve, and lead, for all people to truly belong? 

In other words, disability may not be tragic. But how the church responds could be.

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Good news for everyone

“Disability is a normal occurrence in our abnormal world.”* Whether by accident, aging, or illness, most people will become disabled in life. This is why the gospel is good news to all of us living in a world with disability. The gospel says we are loved, valued, and belong because of the loving kindness of our God, not because of what we can contribute. 

Let’s have eyes to value what Jesus values. Let’s be transformed by the good news of the gospel and let that spill over and transform our communities so that all people, no matter their ability, feel absolutely necessary. 

*Same Lake Different Boat by Stephanie Hubach

Copyright © 2024 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

Jessica Etheridge has worked in ministry with Cru for the last 15 years, first on campus with college students at the University of Illinois and now with FamilyLife where she invests in families impacted by disability in her community. She and her husband, Alex, have three kids (Rhodes, Forrester, and Avonlea). Her biggest passion is that all people will have access to Jesus no matter their abilities.