Disability and the Error of Remaking God

If our conception of God is that He is only—or predominantly—love, and by that we mean only doing what we perceive as being good; i.e. whatever does not involve pain, then irrational suffering tempts us to change our view of God to match our experience.

An example of this is Nancy Eiesland’s influential book, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. The author, a college professor in Atlanta, and a lifelong sufferer of congenital bone defect, argued for the freedom of persons with disabilities from their socially disadvantaged prison, which must be accomplished by making the church “a body of justice for people with disabilities.” [Disabled God, p. 70]. In order to accomplish her agenda, however, she openly asserted that the traditional Christian understanding of the Bible must be changed. As a result, she rejected the scriptural view of God’s sovereignty over all, mocked “righteous submission to divine testing,” and referred to biblical support for virtuous suffering as “particularly dangerous theology for persons with disabilities.” In short, she demanded a theology that “locates us [the disabled] at the speaking center.”

But herein lies the age-old problem of man—demanding to be at the center of all things and, therefore, rejecting a God-centered worldview. To locate the disabled at the center, Eiesland could not accept the plain reading of the Bible because the God revealed in it did not fit with her experience. Therefore, she longed for an epiphany that began with the experience of people with disabilities, and waited for a new “revelation of God.” And she got it. She wrote,

I saw God in a sip-puff wheelchair, that is the chair used mostly by quadriplegics enabling them to maneuver by blowing and sucking on a strawlike device. Not an omnipotent, self-sufficient God, but neither a pitiable, suffering servant. In this moment, I beheld God as a survivor, unpitying and forthright.

This epiphany, she said, enabled her to “offer a vision of a God who is for us [the disabled].”] But the vision of God that she offers is one made in her own image. Hence the title of her book, The Disabled God.

To remake God into her own disabled image, she admits, requires “changing the symbol of Christ from that of suffering servant, model of virtuous suffering, or conquering lord, toward a formulation of Jesus Christ as disabled God.” To accomplish this, she stripped the resurrection of Christ of its power over sin and death. Instead, she claimed the resurrection was the admission of God that he, too, is disabled and always will be. “In presenting his impaired body to his startled friends,” she wrote, “the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God.” Therefore, God remains a God the disabled can identify with…he is not cured and made whole; his injury is part of him.”

When the New York Times announced Nancy Eiesland’s death at the age of 44, it opened the article with these words:

By the time the theologian and sociologist…was 13 years old, she had had 11 operations for the congenital bone defect in her hips and realized pain was her lot in life. So why did she say she hoped that when she went to heaven she would still be disabled?

The reason…was that her identity and character were formed by the mental, physical and societal challenges of her disability. She felt that without her disability, she would ‘be absolutely unknown to myself and perhaps to God.

This sad conclusion reinforces the need for us to understand disability biblically and, as a beneficial fruit, minister faithfully to one another. To be faithful to those who suffer with disabilities, we must maintain that (1) God, not disability, is front and center; and (2) a person’s identity is not defined by his or her disabilities. God is the Potter, and we are the clay. Not the other way around.

Irrational suffering often drives the human heart to either reject God’s sovereignty over all, or it brings it to the place of surrendered faith. To say it another way, our response to disability either keeps God at the center—where He alone belongs—or elevates man to take His place. Therefore, a faithful response to suffering requires that we submit our mind to God’s mind revealed in Scripture. Biblical faith recognizes God’s ways as higher than man’s ways, His thoughts higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). Therefore, we turn to the Scriptures for trustworthy counsel.

  • Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors. (Psalm 119:24)
  • Trouble and anguish have found me out, but your commandments are my delight. (Psalm 119:143)

How do we understand disability in light of the glory of God? How do we frame ministry to those with disabilities in our local churches? Those are the kind of questions I aim to answer in this book. The only right place to begin is at the foundation—God’s absolute authority and unwavering character, which are revealed in the Scriptures.

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