Disability in the Bible

At first glance people with Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Depression or Anxiety may appear “normal”, leading to that all too common moment when we suddenly realise and quickly followed by us becoming awkward and uncomfortable; unsure of how to behave around them. The end result? Adults may ignore the person altogether while children may resort to insults or bullying. For the person with the disability just leaving home can become a massive challenge; an obstacle course of uncertainty and judgement that you have to navigate whilst carrying a ticking time-bomb.

A few years ago I used to dread going to church. Trying to handle that with a toddler with ASD was just too much. There was nothing motivating me beyond obligation and even that wasn’t enough when a simple trip to Tesco could be as tiring as a day out.

If I was to ask ask you to think about people in the Bible who have a disability we’d probably end up with the same list of obvious candidates, but there are others that don’t often get considered because perhaps their disability isn’t outwardly visible or immediately apparent.

One example was a man who was called of God to carry out a very important task. To the outside world he was well educated, rugged and probably had an epic beard. He had no statement of special needs, or parking permit but when given a mission for God he argued with Jehovah himself saying that he couldn’t do it. Not arguing against the seemingly impossible task at hand but that he just couldn’t say the words God wanted him to speak. That man was Moses

Exodus 4:10,15
But Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” You shall speak to him [Aaron] and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do.

We don’t normally think of Moses as having a disability and people may say “it was in his mind” mental illness is a real problem and for Moses it was so big that God had to send Aaron, Moses' brother, to speak on his behalf.

Throughout history people who suffered a neurological or developmental disability were seen as unsafe, possible criminals and best to be avoided and t’s very easy for that sort of negative attitude or bigotry to spread. In Bible, time and time again we see shocking examples of bigotry in how society’s outcasts were treated. People continually took customs into law and then turned it up to 11.

People often wonder what Jesus looks like, I imagine most of the time it was like this: ‍♂️ After all he spent a great deal of his ministry course correcting daft customs that followed that letter of law but forsook empathy.

One really interesting example of bigotry in the Bible comes from an unlikely source. Job, destitute, penniless, sick and alone and with some of the worst friends in history contemplates his lot.

Job 30:1-12
But now they laugh at me, men who are younger than I, whose fathers I would have disdained to set with the dogs of my flock. What could I gain from the strength of their hands, men whose vigor is gone? Through want and hard hunger they gnaw the dry ground by night in waste and desolation; they pick saltwort and the leaves of bushes, and the roots of the broom tree for their food. They are driven out from human company; they shout after them as after a thief. In the gullies of the torrents they must dwell, in holes of the earth and of the rocks. Among the bushes they bray; under the nettles they huddle together. A senseless, a nameless brood, they have been whipped out of the land. And now I have become their song; I am a byword to them. They abhor me; they keep aloof from me; they do not hesitate to spit at the sight of me. Because God has loosed my cord and humbled me, they have cast off restraint in my presence. On my right hand the rabble rise; they push away my feet; they cast up against me their ways of destruction.

This is Job, a man described as “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” in Job 1:8 outraged that the outcasts of society mock his situation. This same Job in Job 29:12-16 says:

I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.

How can a man who has done all these good works, a man that God says is blameless, have such an attitude of elitism even now?

Job compares these people to criminals, which suggests that they aren’t. Job 30:2 describes them as “men whose vigor is gone”, being unable to work with your hands in an agrarian society would certainly be classed as disability and not being able to work would lead to homelessness and exclusion from community. Job’s discrimination may not be out of malice, but based on social norms. That doesn’t excuse it but it also doesn’t mean that God will rebuke him for it.

Instead God takes a different approach.

Starting at chapter 38, God begins to work on Job. Not just to lift up his spirits but to set right as heart. By the end of the book, Job’s family and livelihood have been restored, but curiously there is no mention of his health. We don’t know if Job was healed but by the end of the book that’s no longer important. Although it was never the point of his suffering, Job’s situation and corresponding time with God, teaches him empathy to the point where his ability no longer mattered.

Job 42:5
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;

Job’s relationship with God changes and deepens, before he could only hear God, now he can see him too; he learns to have a heart like the Father.

We will likely all suffer disability in our lives at some point. For some it might be temporary, for others it’s a life-changing condition. We’re constantly looking for ways to prevent, treat and cure. Some people may be healed but ultimately the rest of us that are saved will have to wait until that last day to be gloriously transformed. Until then what can the Church do? In the same way that a pair of glasses or a hearing aid can help restore sight or hearing, how can the the Church assist in bringing people to Christ?

It’s really pretty simple - don’t get in the way.

That’s true if a person has a disability or not, nothing we do should putting up barriers that stop people reaching the gospel.

This article was originally published as a podcast, for Grace Community Church.

Andrew Gribben @grib