Recently* our daughter Nicole, who is 21, spent a few days in the hospital. Because she has several impairments that resulted from her extremely premature birth, she cannot speak for herself. So my wife or I remained with her nearly every hour of her stay.
Even with excellent staff, hospitals can leave you feeling powerless and frustrated. As the days dragged by, I wondered, “If I feel frustrated, what must this feel like for Nicole?”
Besides all the strangers rambling in and out of her room at all hours to pull off and replace sticky bandages and check vitals, Nicole could not control even the most basic things: whether she wanted the curtains open or closed, what she wanted for her meals, whether she would prefer to look at a book or watch a video, whether she wanted the blankets on or off. As parents the best we could do was guess what she would like.
Through the frustration I wondered, Can God understand me in this situation? Even more, can he understand Nicole in her severe limitation?
The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was “made like his brothers and sisters in every way” (2:17, TNIV). But can almighty God truly understand human limitations, even long-term limitations we call disabilities?
Yes, in fact, God can, because the second person of the Trinity—Jesus the Son of God—became disabled in several ways.
To understand how Jesus became disabled, we need to understand what we mean by disability. A person with a disability has a long-term impairment compared to his or her peers. There is, of course, much more to say about disability, but this is the first part. A disability is not just an impairment, but an impairment compared to your peers.
For example, one of my impairments is that I cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound. But since my peers cannot do this either, then this “impairment” is not considered a disability. However, if I could not walk and had no prospect of ever walking again, then my inability to walk would be considered a disability because most of my peers can walk.
About 20 percent of the people in North America live with long-term limitations of sight, hearing, intellect, mobility, or emotion, which we call disabilities. About 30 percent of families have an immediate family member with a disability. Most people who are blessed to live into their senior years develop one or more disabilities.
God understands the frustrations that come with limitations, even severe limitations. Everyone lives with a variety of limitations. Using this understanding of disability, we see that the second person of the Trinity took disability upon himself in three ways: in his incarnation (taking on human form), in his taking on the sin of believers, and in his crucifixion.
Taking on Our Form
The Bible gives every indication that Jesus developed like other children his age. We would not say that the boy or the man Jesus was disabled. But as the second person of the Trinity, his incarnation brought him severe disability. The apostle Paul puts it this way in Phil. 2:5-7: Christ Jesus . . . who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
Before the incarnation, the second person of the Trinity could do all that his peers, the first and third persons of the Trinity, could do. In the Nicene Creed we confess that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” But at the moment the power of the Most High overshadowed Mary (Luke 1:34-35), the Son became severely disabled in comparison to the Father and the Spirit.
He was no less God, but he gave up nearly all that he could do as God. This dramatic change caused far greater disability for him as the second person of the Trinity than the change a man faces when he breaks his neck and lives the rest of his life with quadriplegia. Imagine: God as a dividing cell, God as a newborn child who could do little but breathe, eat, and cry. Jesus developed typically as a child, but became the severely disabled God.
Taking on Our Sin
The apostle Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). For the second person of the Trinity who had no sin to be sin for us, Jesus had to take into his own being the greatest of all disabilities: sin.
This is not to say that disability equals sin. Many people with disabilities have suffered under the preaching and admonishment of people who tell them they are disabled because they don’t have enough faith or because they or their parents must have done something to deserve the disability. Rather, we must affirm with Scripture that people with disabilities are image-bearers of God, and that all those who are part of the body of Christ are indispensable (1 Cor. 12:22) members of the body.
Still, sin itself is the greatest disability. When Adam and Eve were first created, they loved God, each other, and creation with a perfect love. All of us need that connection with God to have life. When God introduced Adam to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God told Adam that to turn from God is to die. After Adam and Eve ate from the tree, we humans disconnected ourselves from the Source of all life, and we cannot reconnect to God on our own. Compared to our peers, the pre-fall Adam and Eve, we live with the severest disability—a condition called “sin.”
Christ Jesus took this disability into himself in order to save all who believe in him.
Dying for Us
When Jesus was stuck to the cross, he took disability into himself in every way: physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Like many people with disabilities, Jesus was mocked by others for his impairment: “The chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself!’” (Mark 15:31).
Disability left permanent marks on Christ’s resurrection body. A few days after he was crucified, the disciples were huddled together in agony and grief. Suddenly a figure appeared among them, terrifying them. Was this a ghost?! The resurrected Jesus revealed himself to them by showing them the marks of his wounds. “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself!” (Luke 24:39).
The disciples, and therefore we, recognize Jesus Christ in these marks of his disability, and we could not know him without these marks.
In a newsletter called Impact, Nancy Eisland writes, “In presenting his impaired body to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God. Jesus, the resurrected Savior, calls for his frightened companions to recognize in the marks of impairment their own connection with God, their salvation.”
In Christ’s disability, we recognize him as true God and find in him a compassionate companion who dwells with us in our limitations.
- Restate the author’s definition of disability and evaluate it. What do you find helpful? How might you define disability differently?
- List the many ways that people can be disabled.
- In what ways are you disabled?
- How do you experience God’s presence in your disability?
- What is your prayer to a disabled God?
*This post was written by Mark Stephenson, Director of Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church, and originally appeared in The Banner. “Made Like Us, January 2011” Copyright © 2011 The Banner, Christian Reformed Church in NA. All rights reserved. Used by permission.