For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:36)
In the most basic sense, the word theology refers to how we think about God. In light of that, and because we all think about God in general and specific ways, every person is a theologian. The question remains, however, as to whether we are good theologians or poor ones. Is how we think about God governed by how God has revealed Himself in Scripture, or have we invented our own theology? Are we creating God in our own image instead of seeking to better understand what it means that we are created in the image of God for the purpose of bringing Him glory?
To begin to answer questions like these, it is essential to acknowledge that theology must begin with doxology. If theology does not begin with doxology, the supreme exaltation of God, it will always ends up diminishing God’s glory by exalting man. Therefore, any attempt to formulate a theology of suffering, which is sturdy enough to encompass disability, must begin and end with God. Romans 11:36 sums up theology with this doxology: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (NASB). Notice three realities:
- All things are from God.
- All things live through God.
- And all things are to God; that is, to the praise of His glory.
Here the apostle is speaking of God as “the Originator, the Sustainer, and the Goal of all creation. All things means the totality….He ascribes to God not simply “glory”, but “the glory”. Supreme glory belongs to God [Leon Morris]. However, in contrast to these realities, when disability hits home we are often tempted to respond in one of two ways. Today’s article interacts with the first, and Monday’s will interact with the second.
TEMPTATION 1: Blame Someone
“What did I do wrong?” my wife asked with tears streaming down her face. “Was it something I ate during my pregnancy? Or was it something I didn’t eat, but should have? Is God punishing our daughter for something I’ve done? What did I do wrong that our little Kayte was born deaf and cognitively delayed?” As we stood in the kitchen of the dumpy farmhouse that was intended to become our “dream home in the country,” my wife’s heart did not agonize alone. I, too, began asking similar questions. “Lord, I’ve given my whole life to Your service and I’ve been willing to sacrifice whatever You have asked of me; is that not good enough? Are You angry at me about something? What more must I do to earn Your favor?”
Even though my wife and I would never choose to have life any other way; that is, family life without the blessings of disability, our natural heart and mind struggled like anyone else. So perhaps, like us, you have asked similar questions. For you or your family, it may not be cognitive disability, deafness, or Autism, but some other physical or intellectual disability. Perhaps Down’s syndrome, a life-debilitating stroke, Spina Bifida, an unnamed disease, an untraceable learning disability, a growth hormone deficiency, or _________ (you fill in the blank). Whatever it is, it is now a part of your life.
When unanticipated suffering enters our personal world, it is not uncommon for the knee-jerk reaction to be one of wanting to identify the cause. We want to know why. When the mystery hits close to home the search for answers about disease and disability becomes more intense. The realization that you, or your loved one, may have to live out the remaining days on earth with a bodily condition, for which there is no cure, may lead to more provocative questions: Is God really good? Who is being punished by the Almighty?
The tendency to automatically connect personal suffering to personal sin is a typical human response. “Since God is good,” we reason, “He cannot be behind this accident, tragedy, or evil. Therefore, it must be the fault of the one who suffers or those connected to him.” Thankfully, the Holy Spirit wrote the Old Testament book of Job to correct that response.
Job is essential to our understanding of disability because it destroys the credibility of the notion that all suffering is the result of the sin of the sufferer. D. A. Carson says it well when he explains Job’s unique contribution to our theology.
…the book’s special contribution to the canon [of Scripture], and to the topic of evil and suffering, is its treatment of what most of us would call irrational evil, incoherent suffering. Such evil and suffering do not easily fit into glib ‘solutions.’ We may remember lessons learned elsewhere in the Bible, but when we try to apply them here there are too many loose ends. The physical suffering, as bad as it is, is compounded in Job’s mind because it does not make any sense. Consequently, it threatens to destroy his understanding of God and the world, and is therefore not only massively painful in its own right, but disorienting and confusing.
On top of this, the pain and disillusionment of suffering is multiplied exponentially when accusations arise not only from our own doubtful hearts, but from the mouths of others—sometimes our own family or friends.
We see this painfully illustrated in the suffering of Job whose friends believed their role in Job’s life was to play private investigator, judge, and prosecuting attorney—all wrapped into one—and interrogate him about the cause of his suffering. They could not fathom that Job was not at least somehow responsible for the death of his ten children, the loss of his real estate and fortune, or the painful sores covering his body from head to toe. The quickness of these miserable counselors to judge their hurting friend stemmed from their incomplete theology of God. Carson explains, “Job’s friends [had] a tight theology with no loose ends. Suffering [was] understood exclusively in terms of punishment or chastening. There [was] no category for innocent suffering: in their understanding, such a suggestion besmirches the integrity of the Almighty.”
When we fast-forward to the New Testament, we find the disciples had the same incomplete theology, which resulted in asking the wrong question. As they wrestled with the problem of congenital disability, the disciples struggled to figure out who should be held responsible for causing a man to be blind from birth (John 9:1-12). They asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” To which the Savior replied, neither. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Clearly, the governing force behind this man’s disability was not any one person’s sin, but God’s larger agenda to display His work and the glory of His grace.
But this is not an easy truth to accept. Therefore, we struggle with theological “loose ends.” Our mind craves a “tight” theology about a God we are able to completely understand—a theology that leaves little room for true faith, mystery, wonder, or unanswered questions. As a result, disability often presents a second temptation, which is to remake God in the image and likeness of man. We’ll interact with that on Monday.