“Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” 1 Cor 1:26–29
God uses the foolish things of this world to achieve and succeed where the powerful, wise and strong are ineffective. The ‘foolish’, ‘weak’, lowly and despised have an important role in mission in breaking the strongholds of pride and conceit, which are such a barrier to the gospel impacting people and nations. God loves to reveal his glory through those with disability (John 9). What an imagination God has, bringing in such an upside-down Kingdom!
Disability has a profound impact in mission because it demonstrates how our awesome, powerful God achieves His purpose through vulnerable and struggling bodies. Yet the mission movement has not always realised this—and the impact of missions is blunted and the Body of Christ incomplete when people with disability are excluded.
Thankfully some people with disability do slip through the onerous selection processes and serve in mission. Or, as is more often the case, an existing cross-cultural worker acquires a disability. Serving against significant odds, perhaps even from their home office, they come to realise that God doesn’t work despite their disabilities but, rather, chooses to work through them.
Disability removes an unhealthy power dynamic in the field. Whereas the big, powerful, educated and rich missionary is viewed as living in some sort of castle in the clouds, disability can tear those walls down and put us at the level of our neighbour who is struggling—the woman with debilitating pain, the man with a walking problem, the parents of a child with a learning disability. A friend working in Bangladesh explained that when people see his deformity they suddenly they see him as a real, down-to-earth person and they open up and share about their own circumstances. One woman saw that he had a similar disability to her son and removed her burqa headdress to have a closer look and engage with him and his family!
Disability also prompts people to ask questions about our worldview. I have been asked about my personal experience of disability: How did God let this happen to you? Have you tried [x,y,z] miracle cure? How can you leave your own country, where the services for disability are so great, and serve here? I take the opportunity to share about Jesus and His plan for humanity:
- We are created in the image of God.
- Our weakness reminds us of our dependence on God.
- Jesus loves us in spite of our failings.
- Jesus died for all sinners, disabled or not.
- God created us with a disability for His unique and sovereign purpose.
I would argue that a Christian worldview is totally revolutionary for disability in the countries in which we work. In my experience in South Asia, responding to disability and overcoming unhealthy karmic beliefs is near impossible without the transformation and alternative worldview that the Christian Gospel brings.
The challenge for the mission movement is to work to help those with disability to serve and remain serving in missions. Alternative models of mission may provide conducive environments for people with disability: working in a country that offers excellent health care, regularly traveling home for ongoing care, or serving remotely via communication technology. Disability is no barrier in God’s Kingdom.
The author is a public health expert, working alongside development organisations and the Asian church to empower those with disability.