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Disability – Faith and Identity

2007 November 7
by Julie Clawson

I am writing this week on my experience of disability – of missing my left arm. Growing up I heard two very contradictory messages about my arm from the church. The first was the mantra I was taught to tell people who asked about my arm – “This is the way God made me.” This was the way God wanted me to be and since we can’t question God there is no use in worrying about it. I’m missing my arm that’s just life. The second message I heard though was – “God can fix it.” Apparently even though God made me this way, He could fix the mistake if he wanted to. There were generally two options given for as to how God could fix me.

First, I have been told countless times that if I just prayed with enough faith for God to regrow my arm he would (the whole mustardseed and mountains thing). I always found this response odd because I grew up in Dispensational Cessasionist churches. We didn’t talk about miraculous healings, but apparently my arm was an exception. There were the times I believed that message and prayed for my arm to grow (and of course assumed my faith was too weak when it didn’t). There was never any mention of God’s will or basic laws of nature stuff, just the assumption that of course God would reward me with a new arm if my faith was strong enough. As I hear stories now of people trying to pray other physically manifest aspects of personality out of people (ADHD, Gayness..) I realize how utterly offensive such messages are. Just because we don’t fit into a cultural definition of normal, we are told that we must pray that God will change us to fit the dominant mold. Who we are is apparently less important than appearing to be just like everyone else.

The other way I was told that God would fix me would be in giving me a perfect resurrected body. It was apparently supposed to be a comfort that when I go to heaven after I die I will have two hands. But honestly, will I? If my life and my personality have been shaped by having one arm, why would my resurrected body necessarily be different? I don’t pretend to understand any of that stuff or assume how much of an echo of ourselves we will be in eternity, but the assumption that I would have two hands in heaven was always strange to me.

I guess my perceptions of God have changed over time. Do I still think that God “made me this way”? Maybe, I honestly don’t know. I don’t believe God micromanages everything, or does stuff like this to punish or build faith. But in creating me to me be, I can say God made me this way. I do believe in the possibility of miracles, but don’t see them as rewards for faith or as really all that necessary. And I don’t believe in wishing for a miracle to make a person appear more mainstream. And I’ve learned that living incarnationally in the world now, whatever our personal lot, is much more important than pining after what Heaven may be like. I want to be who I am not in spite of or in reaction to my arm. It is part of who I am, but doesn’t completely define me.

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. November 8, 2007

    Thank You for this post.

    I agree that there is a point of acceptance and peace – we are who we are, we have the past and present we have. We are to live in this time as who we are.

    I’m sure we’ve both heard a lot of times about the apostle Paul having some kind of physical affliction and that his response was to count on God’s grace to see him through. He impacted the world in an incredible way for the Kingdom.

    We don’t always know the why of things.

    The whole “enough faith” thing in the church does does make me sad however because it hurts so many people.

  2. November 8, 2007

    WTF? If you had enough faith God would regrow your arm? You know, sometimes I really “hate” these “holier than thou” christians who have all the answers. As for a “perfect” resurrected body – I have to wonder, as you do, what exactly that means. Now, I don’t live in your circumstance or your body, but you wouldn’t be you with two arms. You are not a mistake that needs to be fixed.
    But, wow, this could open up a whole theological can of worms couldn’t it?……

  3. November 8, 2007

    This is really good. Thank you for sharing.

  4. November 8, 2007

    Julie, I grew up in a church that very much embraced healings and the evident work of the spirit today. I actually remember prayer meetings where we would all watch as the speaker prayed for a person with legs that were different lengths and they would “grow” the shorter leg to the correct length. It’s interesting to hear how some of those thought patterns filtered over into a cessationist environment.

    As I’ve gotten older and have become more aware of the real brokenness in our world, I’ve had so many questions about how we approach it. It’s so easy to point out what doesn’t fit “normal” rather than to just be. We either need to give a reason why it’s that way or solve it, but rarely learn to just live with it…whatever “it” may be for each of us.

    Thank you for sharing some of your story, Julie.

  5. November 23, 2007

    Julie,
    I so appreciated your honesty about the struggles you have had because of your disability. As a medical doctor attending a charismatic church in 1980s I encountered many Christians with similar struggles because of disabilities or chronic illness. It seemed I was always the one who had to pick up the pieces after people had thrown away their medications of after they became depressed or disillusioned because of their lack of faith. The sad thing is that there is often less acceptance within the church than within the secular society. We want everyone to look perfect in spite of the fact that Jesus never seemed to choose those who looked perfect. So much I would like to talk to you about with regard to this
    I look forward hopefully to getting some time together when you are in Seattle.

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