In our attempt to understand God’s ways in the midst of our suffering there are two common temptations which often fight to claim the higher ground in our mind.
Second Temptation: The Temptation to Remake God in Our Image
If our conception of God is that he is only, or predominantly, love, and by this we mean that he does only what we perceive as good (for example, 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 found in 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, 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 thereby rejecting a God-centered worldview.
To locate the person with a disability at the center Eiesland could not accept the plain reading of the Bible, because the God revealed there did not seem to fit neatly with her experience. Therefore, she longed for an epiphany that would begin with the experience of people with disabilities, and she 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 straw-like 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].”
Eiesland was correct to argue that the heart of God most certainly is turned toward those who suffer, but, sadly, the vision of God she offers is one made in her own image. Hence the title of her book, The Disabled God. To remake God in her own disabled image, she admitted, required “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 God’s admission 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 whom the disabled can identify with . . . he is not cured and made whole; his injury is part of him.”
This reinforces the need for us all to understand disability from a biblical perspective and, as a beneficial fruit, to minister faithfully to one another. To understand our own experience with disability, and be faithful to others who suffer, 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.
Irrational suffering can drive the human heart to either reject God’s sovereignty over all, or bring it to the place of surrendered faith. To say it another way, our response to disability (or any other type of suffering, for that matter) 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 minds to God’s mind as revealed in Scripture. Biblical faith recognizes God’s ways as higher than man’s ways, his thoughts as higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8–9). In short, we are not permitted to customize our theology. It originates either from Scripture or from man’s wisdom. Therefore, we must turn to the Word of God 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)
By following the psalmist’s example, my goal is to lead you to delight in God’s Word so that, in turn, you may worship and adore the God who is revealed there.
How do we understand our suffering in light of the glory of God? How does biblical hope, which is rooted in Christ, empower us to live with purpose and joy, even when life’s challenges threaten to overtake us? How do we view the inclusion of those with disabilities into the family of the local church? These are the kinds of questions I aim to answer in this book.
Excerpted from When Disability Hits Home by Paul Tautges with Joni Eareckson Tada.