Joni Eareckson Tada rightly says that the disability community around the world is the largest unreached people group on the planet.1 If you travel to any Third World country, you see the magnitude of this community. But in the West, we do a careful and successful job of hiding people with disabilities. In fact, we use language that speaks about “those kinds” of people. But people who live with disabilities differ not in kind or category from the general population; they differ merely in their degree of brokenness.

The fall reminds us that all humans are broken in some sense, some more obviously than others. But just as “no one is righteous,” no one is physically perfect either. Part of living according to the biblical mandate requires recognizing, embracing, and including those who live with disabilities in the community of Christ. After all, our eschatological hope is redemption of both body and soul—something we all desperately need and for which we all long with aching hearts.

It may sound harsh, but Western culture has essentially declared war on people with disabilities. Sometimes the culture wages war against people with disabilities through gross thoughtlessness, such as initiatives to remove and outlaw plastic straws, which many disabled people need to drink beverages. At other times, the culture wages war through overt strategies to remove, kill, or marginalize people with disabilities. The people of God must be countercultural, contra mundum (against the world), declaring by intentional actions and lifestyles that all human beings deserve dignity and community. None should be excluded due to a mental or physical state considered abnormal.

But let’s be clear: this is not a political issue for us to engage with governments so much as a personal issue we need to confront within our own hearts.

The Reality

Life with disability is hard. That’s the reality.

For families with disabilities, the unspoken social and cultural barriers are more difficult to overcome, often overwhelmingly so, than the physical barriers are. Sometimes it’s a difficult task merely for a family with a disabled person to get out of the house and into a church building. But then, too often, families with disabilities confront stares or, worse, an averted gaze or a cold shoulder, whether intentional or not.

Churches must work carefully to become places where everyone receives love, care, and honor. This begins not with actions but with a mind-set, a well-grounded theology of the person. When we grasp the doctrine of imago Dei (the image of God), we begin to think properly about the value of every human being. People with disabilities don’t need patronizing pity or merely a helping hand; rather, they need—just as we all do—the good news of redemption from sin and the hope that comes from salvation and new life in Christ.

Another reality is that the topic of disabilities is an uncomfortable topic to think about for people living “normal” lives in the relative comfort of Western culture. The church must exercise courage to lean in to this community. John Piper has wisely said that much of Christian faith requires moving away from comfort toward need.2 It’s intimidating, time consuming, and expensive, and it goes against all our culture’s ideas of success. But Jesus calls us to this.

Eareckson Tada’s ministry, Joni and Friends, often speaks about “The Luke 14 Mandate” (see Luke 14:16–24). Jesus, in a memorable parable, tells us to go out and find people with disabilities—the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and the forgotten—and to bring them to the great banquet table. The mandate is this: Don’t be satisfied merely to welcome people with disabilities if they manage to find their way to your church door. Go out and pursue them; welcome them; help them come. And you will be blessed.

The Possibilities

So, what shall we do?

Go out and pursue them; welcome them; help them come. And you will be blessed.

First, remember that disability is costly. Medical and pharmaceutical costs, equipment costs, and so much more take a toll on families with disabilities. Don’t say, “Call me if I can help.” That call likely will not come. Rather, show up with the help. Bring a meal, offer to babysit, mow the yard, weed the gardens, fix the car, help to buy that wheelchair van.

Second, remember that the cost of disability typically doesn’t go away. Our culture loves success stories when people get well, rise above, and move forward on their own. But people with disabilities require love for the long haul. In fact, in many cases, the costs escalate over the years. When your church embraces families with disabilities, be prepared for the journey that is likely decades, not merely months, of difficulty and need.

Third, consider training people to offer respite to families with disabilities. One organization, Nathaniel’s Hope, has taken an initiative nationwide (and perhaps by now worldwide) training churches to offer brief, but oh so necessary, respite through a program called “Buddy Break.” This allows parents to leave their child with godly, trained caregivers for a few hours on a Saturday. These parents can then take care of errands otherwise not possible, or get a quiet meal together, or even just go home and nap for a few precious hours, relieved of the never-ending task of providing care for their disabled family member. This is love in action, and it’s possible for any church to provide such a ministry.

Another possibility: organizations such as Joni and Friends offer “family retreats” designed to welcome and encourage families living difficult lives. But such retreats again require an often insurmountable cost for families who are already overextended financially. Churches can enable families to get such rest, encouragement, and revitalization by providing the funds for families to attend. It’s not uncommon to hear moms and dads say, as they prepare to leave their retreats, “Well, only fifty-one more weeks until we can come back next year.” How could your church develop a vision to assist families in attending these retreats? And go a step further: serve at these retreats. All these retreats require a large staff of volunteers who will pay their own way to serve families. And a universal truth comes from this: those who volunteer say that they receive much more than they gave.

First Steps

Practically speaking, perhaps you know the fear of encountering people with disabilities and not knowing what to say or how to act. Here are a couple of concrete, simple steps to take in order to welcome families with disabilities. Step one: make eye contact with the person who appears disabled; speak directly to them, saying, “Good morning; so glad you are here.” Step two: continue by saying, “What do I need to know about you to most fully welcome you into our community?” The rest will take care of itself.

A Final Thought

King David was a sinful, stumbling person. But we see him as a clear foreshadowing of Christ in 2 Samuel 9. David says, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (2 Sam. 9:1). This idea of kindness is that wonderful Hebrew concept of hesed, a huge idea of covenant loyalty or lovingkindness, which is most often rendered in the ESV as “steadfast love.” David was led, of course, to a son of Jonathan, who was identified not by name but as one who was lame in both feet. Eventually, we meet Mephibosheth, who sadly considered himself on the same level of worth as a dead dog (2 Sam. 9:8).

But look at what David does. He elevated Mephibosheth from his nameless, hopeless, marginalized, and ejected status to one who would “always eat at the king’s table” (2 Sam. 9:10). In fact, the text uses this phrase three times (2 Sam. 9:10, 11, 13).

Do you see it? Do you see the gospel ringing out so loudly here as a prefiguring of what the Lord Jesus does for each of us? He lifts us all from our lost and hopeless estate and brings us to His table. There is an “already/not yet” aspect here. Christ bids all of us to come to His table, to sup from His body and blood at the Lord’s Table now, and we look forward to that time when we will eat always at the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19).

But don’t miss the final phrase in 2 Samuel 9: “Now he [Mephibosheth] was lame in both his feet” (2 Sam. 9:13). David’s hesed to Mephibosheth did not change his physical status. Mephibosheth lives with continuing disability. But David’s faithful, steadfast love made all the difference. May God give us all the grace, perseverance, and steadfast love to go and do likewise.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on June 2, 2021.

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