I had the opportunity to lead some folks from Riverview to Desiring God's conference, "God's Good Design in Disability." That's a strange title, you might think to yourself. How can disability be good? The word alone implies that something is broken or off: dis-ability. Four speakers, however, provided what I thought was a convincing, biblical case for why disabilities are good things.
The first thing you will need to believe in order to accept that disabilities can be and are blessings from God is the general idea of God's sovereignty. The Bible says over and over again that God is the main "mover and shaker" in the universe. That is, nothing happens outside of God's purview. He controls everything, either by directly causing things to happen, or allowing things to happen. The point is, that nothing happens without his direct stamp of approval. There are no accidents - there are no tragedies, even - that he is not directly involved in, including disabilities.
How can we say that, though? How can a good, kind, and loving God cause people to have disabilities? Well, in one sense, the question is flawed. We inherently assume that disabilities are necessarily a bad thing, and we form this opinion based on our observations of the effects they have on the people who have them. We see cognitive abilities diminished; we see physical capacities hindered, and we automatically form a judgment that says these conditions are inherently bad or evil. And if we affirm that God is indeed sovereign, and that he designs and distributes disabilities to whom he will, we then have a problem: how does God remain good and yet assign certain disabilities to people? But if we look to scripture a bit first, I think we get a different outlook.
Scripture affirms over and over that everything God does is good and right (Psalm 145.17). God is never wrong in his judgments, nor does he ever do anything that is sinful, unfair, or unjust. This means that everything that happens to us in life that might look difficult, trying, or hard, is actually good. After all, if it is from God, it is good, regardless of whether or not we view the circumstances as being positive or negative. Anything from God is good, precisely because it is God who has caused it to happen.
Moreover, scripture also teaches that everything God does to us and for us is for our good (Romans 8.28). He does not vindictively smite us or cause us unnecessary harm or difficulty. God always does that which is good, and good for us. Does this mean life isn't hard? Does this mean tragedies don't happen? Does this mean that suffering from a disability isn't heart-breaking? Certainly not, in any of these cases! But it does mean that, even if difficult, those things God brings into our lives (such as a disability) is ultimately good because it is from God.
So in the most basic sense, we have a perspective problem: we are viewing life through a temporal set of lenses that limits our understanding of how certain pieces of life contribute to an eternal whole. Our lenses only let us see the past and the present - we have no knowledge of the future, nor how the past and present will effect the future. God does see the future, of course, and so the things that he puts into our lives are their to accomplish his good purposes for us and for his glory.
This is a hard concept to "get" to be sure, but it is one that essential. And, of course, the notion of God's sovereignty is not limited to disabilities, but to all aspects of life. When we face difficulties and trials of many kinds, we can consider it pure joy, because God has given us those trials for our good: to develop in those who love him a steadfastness in the faith that would be unattainable had we not been afflicted (James 1.2-4). Does God have a good design in disability? Absolutely.
The four speakers also participated in a panel discussion in which they fielded questions on the topic of disability. Two questions were rather thought provoking:
1. How can people with sever cognitive disabilities that limit their understanding of the gospel be saved?
2. Will people with disabilities be rid of their disability in heaven?
The answer to the former question is based on what I've written above about God's goodness and sovereignty. In one sense, we cannot have a definite answer for whether or not people with cognitive disabilities that preclude them from believing the gospel are saved, or how they are, if indeed they are. But we can say this: God is always just, and his decisions are always right. In other words, God will never do anything that is wrong, including condemn those whom it would be unjust to condemn. If it would be wrong for God to condemn a person with a cognitive disability that limited his or her understanding or ability to believe the gospel, then we can be sure that God will do no such thing. The trick is that we can't know whether or not it is wrong - we simply trust God to be faithful to his word that says he always does that which is right and good. For me, this answer is a satisfying comfort.
The answer to the latter question was, I thought, fascinating, and is one that people who do not suffer from a physical or cognitive disability can probably not completely comprehend. The question was posed to Dr. Mark Talbot, who has been a paraplegic since the age of 17, after having broken his back. He explained that his disability has become so engrained in the very essence of his personhood, that he can't imagine life without being disabled. In a sense, he knows no other existence. For him to imagine a life in heaven without a disability, then, is something that is unfathomable. Furthermore, he explained how so much good has come from his disability, that he can't imagine that God would, by implication, pronounce the disability as something worthless and bad in heaven. This is a difficult thing to wrap your mind around, and I certainly wouldn't say that Dr. Talbot's opinion or anyone else's is definitive, but it's certainly something interesting to think about.
I find Dr. Talbot's answer to be interesting, because my own father has lived with a disability since he was seven years old. Indeed, my dad's disability has become a part of who he is - even in his identity as "father." I have no knowledge of what it's like to have a father who is not physically disabled. It's always been there, and it's something that has just become a part of who my dad is. Will he have a disability in heaven? If he does, it certainly won't be considered a dis-ability, but I'm not necessarily sure what else to call it. I almost can't fathom seeing my dad in heaven some day without a disability. It's an idea that's completely foreign to me.
Over all, it was good to be reminded today how God works in this world, and how he is always doing what is good for us, and for his own glory.