Setting Spirits Free: PWDs and the Church’s Teachings About Independence

Hello readers,

Confession time. I have a hard time with God’s will.

I really do. Being a devout Christian didn’t give me an exemption slip. Every time I hear something like, “It was God’s will that this child have a severe intellectual disability,” “It was God’s will that this elderly woman get cancer,” and so forth, a part of my spirit rebels. Because if that’s God, then what kind of God is He? I know all the Sunday school answers about God’s ways not being our ways, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it all the time.

Fortunately, I’ve learned that many of the negative events in our lives are not actually God’s will. They are a result of free will and evil, which God acquiesces to out of love for us and our freedom even if He doesn’t want to permit them. I am also learning that God is worthy of implicit love and trust. That may not be your experience or journey but considering it’s mine I hope you don’t mind if I share it with you.

There are some areas though, in which I still struggle. That is, it’s easy for me to talk about permissive vs. acquiescent will when the subject is cancer, my own disability or someone else’s, the Holocaust, the Cambodian killing fields, you name it. Sometimes it’s so easy that for a minute I need to step back, get honest, and get mad. But in other areas, I don’t talk at all. One such area is the Christian church’s teaching on autonomy.

In my spiritual lifetime (20 years if you don’t count the three rededications), I have run across a lot of Scripture. I have taken at least 10 Bible studies–no, no, that’s wrong. At least 13. I was just counting the Beth Moores since she’s my favorite. I am on my fourth read-through of the Bible. All that to say, I should “get it.” But I don’t, especially when I encounter Scriptures that seem to speak against having an independent spirit. Let me try to explain what I mean.

The Christian church (and, as far as I know, Judaism and Islam too) teaches that we are all helplessly, hopelessly dependent on God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (omit the Jesus part for Judaism and Islam, though). This is because we were born in sin and have a desperate proclivity to commit it. If we hope to have decent lives and a non-tortuous eternity, we have no choice but to throw ourselves at the feet of God and say, “Here! Here I am! I can’t be good enough or get to you by myself. Take me the rest of the way. I can do nothing on my own and shouldn’t even try.” Now, when it comes to sin and salvation, I buy that. No questions asked. No objections. My metaphysical being, eternal soul, all that stuff–that’s way too big for one 5’4″ gal with an affinity for books and chocolate cake, and a secret appetite for songs like “Cell Block Tango” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” to handle. I Must. Have. God. And. Cannot. Function. Independently.

Where I have a problem though, is when the church takes this important teaching, and the teaching of avoiding a rebellious spirit, and tries to make it fit where it’s not supposed to go. I mean, is a high-functioning PWD meant to look at Scriptures that caution against having an independent or autonomous bent, caution against self-seeking behavior, and think that because they want a home of their own and to provide for themselves, that’s rebellion? Are they supposed to read cautions about the love of money and think that self-provision is somehow ungodly? Are they…and dear heaven, this is where it really gets me…supposed to read Scriptures that speak of using weaknesses to glorify the kingdom, and think that glorifying the kingdom means giving up their dreams?

I say no–an emphatic no. God doesn’t give us everything we want. Certainly he has said to me, “Wait for what you desire,” “A house is not more important than me,” and “Providing for yourself is not as important as building my kingdom.” But I don’t think he looks at a high-functioning PWD like me and says, “How dare you want to be anything like your temporarily able-bodied peers?” I don’t think He gets angry with parents of lower-functioning children who lament the things that kid can’t do despite their best efforts. I don’t think He looks at a person with autism who’s also nonverbal and thinks, “Because he is so pure, so innocent, the best way for him to live is in a group home with no education, given the goal of pointing to his nose.”

No. No. No. I think God is okay with having an independent spirit–listen up–as long as it doesn’t translate into, “Lord, I don’t need you.” What troubles me is, I’ve had to come to this conclusion mostly on my own. My church helped some, but sometimes when you wrestle with the divine you have to do it alone. Just ask Jacob.

The problem, I think, is that a great majority of the Christian church is still stuck in this mentality that says its members with disabilities are broken birds or sacrificial lambs. They’re (allegedly) poor and innocent, but weak and incapable, so having an independent spirit is out of character for them because they (allegedly) can’t use it. It might even be termed rebellion or sin. These people look at the interactions Jesus had with people who had disabilities and they conclude His main purpose was to heal them. So unless they are physically healed, they cannot and perhaps should not express an independent spirit. Well, I don’t believe healing was Jesus’ only purpose in these interactions–check the December 2011 archives for more on that issue. I also know what you get from that sort of thinking. You get broken-winged, caged, or confused birds who wonder if they’re rebelling and if God will punish them for, as He put it to the apostle Paul, “[kicking] against the goads.” Are PWDs who are also Christians meant to fly–or are they donkeys bending to their master’s will, plodding along in front of carrots?

I say neither. I say we are falcons. We need to be able to come back to our Master’s glove when He asks us, traveling when and where He chooses for our growth and protection. But–remember this….

We are allowed to fly.

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