I should, I think, warn people that this post has a sort of PG (personal guidance :-P) rating. It’s a bit of an elephant in the room one way and another -despite social insensitivity, it is actually a question I’ve never been asked. Answering it involves the exploration of questions like how one sees the healings of Jesus in the context of modern ideas of disability (somewhat unconventionally from both sides, I would guess), and of the metaphysical as well as the social nature of disability. It won’t challenge or upset everyone, but I would recommend people use their judgement as to reading on, because I am writing about things which are raw and controversial and emotional, and the post could be quite upsetting to people in a different place in the various journeys involved from me.
Having said which, it is from both the academic and spiritual point of view, a quite unavoidable question. It touches on the problem of evil, it touches on – believing as I do that God is sovereign and could and does heal – the apparent arbitrariness of where he does or not. And I would guess that most of those of us who do have chronic illness or disability and are or become Christians, do find the illness/disability affects our relationship with God (as most other things do). In churches that tend to set a much greater value on doing than on being, and which don’t have many disabled ministers (becoming “elderly” is, as far as I can make out, a rather different experience), I suspect that people rarely see into this aspect of that can of worms. What I’m elucidating here is a spiritual struggle as well as a process of thought, and one which I’m not anywhere near the end of.
Firstly, the pieces of the jigsaw. I have an unconventional philosophical view on the subject of disability for modern times: though I insist that being blind does not make me less of a person, I am among those who would say that the human body is supposed to be able to see. It is how we are adapted and created to function.
I don’t think the mistake is in supposing that loss of sight, or hearing, or the capacity to walk, is a lack: I think the mistake lies in supposing that the fact that it is a lack makes the person with it less valid as a person. Indeed, the fact that people are not of less worth because of any attribute, as they are equally loved by God, is an important one in Christianity.
I see my lack of vision as a loss on the metaphysical plane, and I see it as something that is something wrong with my body on the medical plane, but I don’t see these things as rendering me an inferior person who is less morally significant, for I don’t think moral worth is based on capacity or attributes in the way our society generally does. For example, children with disabilities are aborted on the grounds of those disabilities, including at an age where any other child would have the protection of law. Try suggesting it’s ok to abort a child because they are black, or set the legal gestational-age-limits for abortion differently according to the colour of a unborn child’s skin, and see what people say!*. God does not love me less because I have a disability: I can believe my disability is a loss/lack without believing my life is lessened in worth by it.
I regard my blindness both as a feature of who I am (at the moment), something which should be accepted and accommodated and treated matter-of-factly on a day-to-day basis, and also as something which is a genuine and potentially tragic loss of full human functionality. I don’t regard the two as mutually contradictory. They’re to do with different aspects of life. This is, I suppose, one of the things I’m most uncomfortable with in the way a lot of people advocate for disability: that it has to be one or the other, and cannot be both. The social model of disability is correct socially, but I don’t think it gives the full picture of the experience and reality in other ways. I’m not broken and somehow unfit to live, but I do have an affliction. If functional adjustments lessen the actual effect of that affliction so it doesn’t have much effect on my life, wonderful. But that doesn’t make it somehow not an affliction.
This is important, because the way in which disability is understood is a massive part of the way in which the question itself has to be understood. That is, if disability is a purely social matter, one would have to accept that Jesus shouldn’t have healed the blind and sick and so on, but should have rounded on the crowd and given them a lecture about including them as they were!** As a Christian, I’m very much in favour of asking questions and exploring the uncomfortable bits of scripture properly, and I wish to avoid crude readings which don’t hold it together as a whole. However, I do believe that it makes no sense within Christianity to put culture above scripture. To believe is to believe that it is true. If my culture really does conflict with the sources of faith, I believe it is my culture that’s wrong and the sources of faith which are right, and that I need to adjust myself from accepting my culture to accepting the sources of faith.
Having said which, if you actually read the accounts in the Gospels, there’s an awful lot of sensitivity shown to the people who ask for healing as they are. Jesus sees that the paralytic is actually more in need of absolution than of being made able to walk (Luke 5:17-26 and analogs). He responds to the blind man calling to him, he stops, and he talks to him and asks what he wants (no assumptions… Mark 10:46-32), and he takes the deaf man aside and uses a lot of sight and touch (Mark 31:31-37). The case of the paralytic in particular can reasonably be viewed as a paradigmatic case of not-assuming-someone’s-visible-disablity-must-be-their-worst-or-only-problem!
Finally, there is the whole Christian paradox of life coming out of death, of a remedy being fashioned from the horror of mortality, of the fact that to come to the Resurrection, we first have to die. This is significant because greater gifts come out of loss and weakness, than from strength. Human strength is created by God, human gifts and powers should be used to His glory – if we don’t do that, we aren’t honouring him properly as creator. We cannot force God’s hand by deliberately failing. But it tends to be in the failure of human power that God most acts. And it should follow from that that a real weakness or lack is as honourable a gift to him as any other: it seems to be a matter of bringing what you are given to bring. God is not being arbitrary in granting healing to one and not another: rather, we are not yet able to fully see what He is aiming at in doing so.
So having drawn together the pieces of the puzzle, in terms of what I think disability is, means, and doesn’t mean, and several relevant bits of theology: what is the answer to the actual question: why does God not heal me?
The answer is: I don’t know; the most I could do at this point is speculate. What I am sure of, within this framework, is that He has a purpose to it, and His grace keeping me faithful to Him, there will come a point of healing. It may not look quite as we would expect. My assumption would be that it will probably come in the life to come not this one, and as we know almost nothing about that, I’d rather no one said crudely at my funeral that, “she can now see”!
People do do that, apparently. I’d hesitate to say that it is always inappropriate: it would depend on the personal experience of the person being buried. But in the abstract, it does come across rather as: “this person is better off dead; because they were blind, this life wasn’t really a gift worth having.” Thank-you so much! There’s a sort of implication (at least out of context) that the disabled person has been healed and transformed while those who are not disabled won’t need that. Which is actually theologically problematic in other ways as well.
The notion of healing in the world to come is one I’m perfectly happy with slightly more metaphorically – one of my favourite lines from hymns is “ye blind behold your Saviour come” – the limitations will be taken away. I tend to express this of the Resurrection by saying: “the deaf shall see music, the blind shall hear light, the lame shall soar on eagles’ wings.” This is not rejecting the notion of healing suggested in Isaiah (35:5-6), but is an attempt to put the concept in a way which can be understood in our culture as also accepting the validity of our current life and experience.
Having said this, there is a slight complication, which is that I do sometimes wonder if the ongoing fact of the affliction is His doing or mine: that is, whether it is a result of my lack of faith rather than being His will for me at the moment. Of course, that is still something one has to commit to His mercy, but it is another real part of my experience of this question. As is the fact that it is actually incredibly difficult, having accepted a lifelong condition which nothing can be done about, to come to terms with the fact that this is not literally speaking true. There’s something very different about living with no possibility of a cure, and living with that possibility, but in a context where whether or not it happens sooner rather than later is not really my own problem or business. It’s different from living with the possibility of a medical cure, which is much more about me personally, and about things that are my business and decision.
Trusting that He has a good purpose is not the same as not being angry. The Christian tradition does not involve having to be pleased with God for doing things in the way He does! It is perfectly legitimate – indeed, it seems likely that it is a healthy part of growth in the relationship and coming to a deeper trust for many people – to be angry with God and to express it. It doesn’t help to say “Thy will be done” if what is really going on in my heart and mind is grief and anger rather than trust. In trying to acknowledge the reality of that grief and anger, I am opening my heart to be given that trust. And my journey in learning trust on this point is by no means over and may never really be over.
Finally: one of my friends has a lovely analogy about the disabled in the Life to come, which also reflects on how our attitude to disability in this life should work. If you have two acorns, one of which is smooth and perfect, and the other of which is lumpy and cracked: have they a different potential? Can you tell which is which when they have both grown into oak trees?
*Yes, I am completely pro-life: that is, I don’t think abortion defined as deliberately killing or deliberately preventing the nurture of the unborn is ever justified. However, the point I’m trying to make here is that a society that forbids the killing of a non-disabled unborn and 24 weeks gestation, but allows the killing of a disabled unborn because they are disabled up to the day of birth, is treating the life of the disabled unborn as being of less value, and that is prejudice in the classic sense. Many people have been aborted on the grounds of much lower levels of disability than I have. Being part of a society that allows that isn’t easy.
**The same would apply to charities raising money for medical help for reversible causes of sight loss in LEDCs – that is, they should focus entirely on social change and not try to offer the means of healing. I think people should aim to do both. It isn’t wrong to focus on one or the other, but there could be more care on the part of those charities focusing on healing in respecting the human dignity of those currently living with a disability (advertising often leaves that to be desired), and I don’t think anyone who is seeking social change should try to prevent access to medical help (not that I’m aware of anyone who does).