Walking in the Shadow of the Cross: Being a PWD and a Christian at the Same Time

Yeah, you read that right. It is possible, though some would probably challenge me on that. To those who would, I hear you loud and clear. Some days, I wonder what on Earth I’m doing. Some days, having a disability and being a Christian feels like spinning plates–delicate, blown crystal plates that shatter if you tap them funny. Sometimes it even sucks. For example, this is my first free day to write a blog post in a couple of weeks due to a busy freelance job. If I weren’t a Christian, I probably could’ve blown off work to write whatever I wanted for two weeks without feeling guilty. But I am, so I didn’t. In fact, let’s keep going with that. If I weren’t a Christian with a disability, I could:

-Call the pathetic excuse for a location where I did that awful teaching internship and rip them all a new one, four-letter words included
-Quit going to church because I don’t feel included and represented all the time (we’ll get to that)
-Harbor unforgiveness toward everybody who’s ever treated me like dirt (okay, sometimes I kinda do that one. Forgiveness is an ongoing process for everybody).

And on and on it goes. Yet, I remain a Christian with a disability. I don’t have to; I have a choice. But the choices I make, the debates I have with myself, always lead me back to Jesus Christ. Some people might say I’m brainwashed. Others might say, “You have the luxury of religion because you’re high-functioning.” They might say, “You wouldn’t think that if you’d been able-bodied once.” Well, I can’t answer those statements, but I can say this: I understand where they come from. See, being a Christian and having a disability is a tough gig. It requires fitting together two major pieces of your identity, and the pieces don’t always click. But there are a few things the church says and does that make the task harder. I think we need to examine these things and talk about what the church could do instead. So here we go.

The Church Still Sees Disability as Fixable

In 99% of cases, there are no cures for disabilities. That’s part of why I think we need to get rid of the medical model that treats disability as a problem to be treated and controlled with therapies, surgeries, and meds. Cerebral palsy is not a cold. Deafness is not the flu. Intellectual disability is not a bad back. It doesn’t work that way. Yet, the church continues to behave as if it does. When a black or Hispanic person walks into a church, you don’t see people saying things to him or her like,
-“I’ll pray for your healing.”
-“God can use you anyway.”
-“God’s power is made perfect in weakness.”
-“You’re here to inspire us.”

So why do we say it to PWDs? Maybe it’s because Jesus performed so many miracles in the lives of PWDs. But as wonderful as those miracles are, maybe we need to step back from them. Those miracles were performed in first-century Israel, in a society that saw disability as a defect and often a divine punishment. This is twenty-first century America, folks (or whatever country you live in). Yes, Jesus does miracles and should be praised for that. Yet He also teaches us to treat everyone as equals, and to let them utilize their gifts. Isn’t it time we moved beyond healing to see what those gifts are?

The Church Doesn’t Know How to Interpret Biblical Disability Images.

I’ll admit, I have a tough time with this one, too. The Bible uses words for disabilities that we would consider outdated or offensive, including:

Not all translations do, but many still have these. More to the point–I’ve studied the Bible. At least in the translations I’ve read several times, the word “disability” doesn’t come up, not even once. That’s fine because most translators are concerned about the integrity of the text. Ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic didn’t have “people-first language” in that context. But here’s the problem. Christians and other Bible readers look at the stories of PWDs and see words like the ones above, stories of people denied temple access because of imperfections, God insisting on unblemished sacrifices–and they don’t know what to do with it. At times, Christians take this as permission to continue working on (not with, on) PWDs using the medical model. Because if even God admits PWDs are imperfect, why shouldn’t we? What’s the deal?

Actually, Jesus never called PWDs imperfect and neither did the God of the Old Testament (one and the same, but if you get me going on the Trinity, we’ll be here until Doomsday). I don’t believe God wanted to exclude PWDs, either. If you study your Bible, you’ll find that God originally wanted the Israelites to trust Him for their needs. They insisted on rules. They insisted on kings. And so, because of free will, God allowed it just as He allowed sin and destruction. He said, “Okay, because we’re under the covenant that you asked for, I will make these rules. But that does not give you a license to exclude anyone.” Note that within the Ten Commandments, four–less than half–deal with how to treat God. Six out of ten deal with how we treat people. They don’t reference PWDs, but neither do they say PWDs should be treated any differently than any other human.

We do not kill them.
We do not steal from them.
We honor them, if they are parents, and as people in general.
We do not cheat on them, lie about them, or covet their things.

The Bible also admonishes us to treat all members of our body–i.e., the church–with respect. Paul tells us that the body parts we don’t display, we treat with special honor. Now, that doesn’t mean PWDs should never be seen. But it also means that when we see them in the church or in our Sunday school rooms, we interact with them and show them love. We also don’t go out of our way not to see them.

The Church’s Positive Opinion of Disability Has Holes.

This goes back to that whole “inspiration” thing. Often, PWDs who attend church are told they’ve been singled out for “special kingdom work.” In the eyes of the temporarily able-bodied, that usually amounts to spouting off nuggets of wisdom or being sweet and cute and saintly (the Magical Disabled Person trope). Even if it doesn’t–well, there are holes. Let me clear up something. If you are a Christian, then according to the New Testament you have “special kingdom work” to do. You may not know what that is yet, and it may not be the flashy thing we sometimes imagine, such as full-time missionary work in the Amazon jungle or running a halfway house for addicts and prostitutes (both noble pursuits, but often mistaken for the only “real” ministries there are). Having a disability doesn’t exempt you. Still, neither should it be a license for the rest of the church to set you aside and tell yourself that your special kingdom work is just to–well, sit and be disabled.

The Church Holds Up Disability as a Trial to Be Overcome and Little Else.

I’ve been a Christian a long time, and so I’ve read and heard of my share of Christian role models. Some of these are ancient Catholic saints. Some are deceased contemporary people like Amy Carmichael, George Muller, or William Tyndale. Others are more modern saints I want to be like and learn from–Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, Greg Laurie, Todd Starnes, you get the picture. But without fail, whenever I express that I’m having a hard time with my dual identity, someone will suggest:
-“Read/listen to Joni Eareckson Tada.”
-“Have you read Nic Vuicjick’s book yet?”
-“You remind me of Fanny Crosby.”
-“Do you know about Jennifer Rothschild?”

I’m not bashing any of these PWDs. I’ve read most of them and in the case of Crosby, sung her hymns. They are wonderful people and the church needs to know more about them.

Here’s the thing. When I say, “more,” I really mean “more.” Most of the time, the church holds up these and other PWDs as people who have “overcome” their disabilities, and the lesson they teach as, “Don’t acknowledge obstacles or complain about them/acknowledging limitations means you’re held down.”

Does the church at large mean to do this? No, I don’t think so. But let’s be real here.

I get tired of hearing the phrase “overcome (s) my/your/her disability.” Why? Because it’s as if people in the temporarily able-bodied world think we’ll be more desirable if we’re “less disabled.” Disabilityinkidlit.com has a whole article on this; it focuses on autism but the message is applicable across the board. You can read it right here.

Now, am I saying PWDs can’t and shouldn’t be overcomers? No. As an author friend of mine, M.H., says, every temple needs routine maintenance or even major renovations from time to time. But if the message you send to PWDs all the time is, “Overcome, overcome, work harder, practice more, overcome,” then what are you really saying?

Being a Christian who has a disability doesn’t have to be that hard. Sometimes it will be, just because disability itself is a tough gig. Yet I think we, especially us Christians, could make it a lot easier if we changed our thoughts and attitudes some more.



  1. For what it’s worth, I should point out that I am not a Christian, but I would still feel guilty blowing off work to do whatever I want. I’m not sure you meant it like this, but it sounds a little like you’re implying that only Christians have work ethics and morals.

    But on to the meat of your piece, it’s interesting and valuable to me to hear your experiences with the church. I was a Christian for a very long time as well and i saw a lot of things, but this is an experience I have no familiarity with and I think it’s super-important for it to be heard. I suspect a lot of this exists outside of the church, but it definitely takes a unique appearance when backed up with bad theology and oh that passive-aggressive “I’ll pray for you” stuff. I’ve recently been having conversations with another woman who was describing how she stopped going to church because her children on the autism spectrum were so unwelcome there. She got tired of looking for places where they would not be rejected, so she stopped going (although she’s still a Christian and missionary). It’s really sad, because church is such a great connection and community for a lot of people (even if not for me). I’m curious, what do you think a church could do that would make you confident, up front, that you would be valued and treated respectfully there, if you were looking for a new church?

  2. Okay…let me address everything one at a time:
    (1. I certainly didn’t mean to imply only Christians are moral. Maybe this will help: in my experience, when Christians do something “immoral” or “un-Christian,” people tend to malign them more for it, as if Christianity is supposed to make us perfect. So a lot of us feel pressure to be perfect, whether that comes from the majority of people around us or some negative experiences with the minority.
    (2. Sadly, I have heard other stories of children with disabilities, particularly autism, being unwelcome in churches and I agree–it’s hypocritical and sad. The church should be the one place everyone is welcome. Unfortunately, most of the TAB world is so focused on the behavior of persons with autism and other disabilities, they cannot or will not see beyond it.
    (3. My church has actually been mostly welcoming in the 13-odd years I’ve been there, but I feel it’s because my disability is much milder than most. I’ve also had negative experiences related to it (like that one lady who felt it was her duty to chastise me for not helping with Bible school). I think the best thing a church could do for me or anybody with a disability would be to say, “What activities do you like? Where are your gifts, or can we help you find them?” Then, the church needs to make the effort to include those activities. For instance, I love intellectual pursuits like trivia teams, and art-centric activities like drama teams. But because “the majority isn’t interested,” those activities don’t exist at my church. Nor is there effort to stir interest. It’s unfortunate, to say the least.

    1. Thank you for clarifying. Yeah, I can definitely see where you’re coming from with the pressures of being Christian, particularly from fellow Christians. I remember always feeling like I was carrying an incredible amount of weight being a Christian because I was supposed to be an ambassador for Christ and, if I messed up, I might be causing people to turn away from god and end up in hell. Other Christians certainly policed the hell out of my behavior (haha pun intended) to reinforce that pressure, so I can can imagine this would take on an additionally oppressive dynamic if I had a disability that caused everyone to presume what I can/can’t/should/shouldn’t do. Now that I’m no longer Christian, I wish I could tell my young Christian self “you don’t have to be perfect; people don’t stop believing because Christians are imperfect. They stop believing because they stop believing.” Not that bad behavior from Christians hasn’t caused me to be veeeerrry waaaary of a lot of them, but yeah, if I go to hell, it won’t really be anyone’s fault but god’s :P. I feel like that’s a healthier way to look at it than for Christians to feel like they must be 100% perfect all the time for fear of having dead souls on their hands… especially when that philosophy intersects with other things like disability.

      Anyway, that’s slightly a tangent. I was curious about your “ideal” church because I feel like the same principles ought to apply just about anywhere. I am going to be running my own college classrooms eventually, and I work in a very small way on the side in supporting LGBT youth in need, and I very much want to expand that work in the future. Whatever I end up doing, I feel strongly that it is my responsibility to make sure I am making the environment inclusive and welcoming for everyone, including people who have long felt marginalized or ignored by the TAB population. Since I have little experience there, I want to ask and listen. I think I’ve said it before, but I love that I found your blog to follow (through a mutual friend, I think?) because you really break things down into proactive steps. If you ever get tired of my incessant questions, though, just let me know! 🙂

      1. No…I like questions. In fact, I wish more people would ask proactive ones (as opposed to the old, “Why can’t you,” “Why don’t you,” and so on. As for breaking things down, yes. I always try to do that because in my view, it does no good to tell people, “We need to serve this community” and yet don’t explain how that can be done. In fact, because people don’t suggest concrete ways to help PWDs, the attitude exists that “Some things just can’t be modified.” In some cases, that’s true–for example, there is (as of now) no such thing as a car a blind person can drive. But we could work harder to modify and use the resources we have. For example, not every person with an intellectual disability wants or needs to listen to the alphabet all day or be taken on field trips to the grocery store.

        Ahem. Tangent.

        Yeah, some Christians police each other way too much, which is part of what I refer to as the ex-Christian phenomenon. That’s why I try to tell fellow Christians, if you’re going to witness, leave hell out of it as much as possible. “Jesus loves you but if you don’t follow Him, you’ll go to hell”–that may be true, and is according to certain circles. But that’s like saying, “I’ll love you unconditionally and promise you exotic trips–but if you don’t do everything I say, I’ll beat you up.” Weird.

        Thanks for supporting my blog. Best of luck in running college classrooms (I’ve always wanted to do that, and write my own courses). And best of luck in all you do for the LGBT community. See you next time! 🙂

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