Question: "Why does God allow people to be disabled / handicapped?"
Answer: The Lord is God of the physically healthy and the mentally strong, but He is also the God of the physically disabled and the mentally handicapped. He is sovereign over the fragile and feeble as well as over the adroit and mighty. The Bible teaches that every person conceived in this world is a unique creation of God (see Psalm 139:16), and that includes the disabled and the handicapped.
A natural question is why God allows some people to be born disabled or handicapped or why He allows accidents that bring about a disability or handicap later in life. This issue falls under the umbrella of a theological/philosophical debate known as “the problem of evil” or “the problem of pain.” If God is both good and omnipotent, why does He allow bad things to happen? What is the point of someone losing his sight or being forced to walk with a prosthesis? How can we reconcile God’s goodness and perfection with the fact that so much of His creation is broken and wounded?
Before we proceed, we should acknowledge that we are all disabled or handicapped in some way. The need for eyeglasses indicates impaired or “handicapped” vision. Dental braces are a sign of imperfect teeth. Diabetes, arthritis, rosacea, a “trick” knee—these can all be considered disabilities to some extent. The whole human race lives with the reality of imperfection. Everyone experiences less-than-ideal conditions. We are all broken in some way. The handicaps we live with are simply a matter of degree.
When a person is disabled or handicapped, to whatever degree, it is a symptom of original sin, when evil came into the world. Sin entered the world as a result of man’s disobedience to God, and that sin brought with it sickness, imperfection, and disease (see Romans 5:12). The world was blemished. One reason God allows people to be disabled or handicapped is that such conditions are the natural result of mankind’s rebellion against God. We live in a world of cause and effect, and it is a fallen world. Jesus said that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). This is not to say that every disability is the direct result of personal sin (Jesus countered that idea in John 9:1–3), but, generally speaking, the existence of handicaps and disabilities can be traced back to the existence of sin.
Another basic reason that God allows some people to be disabled or handicapped is that God will glorify Himself through it. When the disciples wondered about the man born blind, Jesus told them, “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). When the same disciples later wondered about Lazarus’ sickness, Jesus told them, “It is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). In both instances, God was glorified through the disability—in the case of the man born blind, the temple rulers had incontrovertible proof of Jesus’ power to heal; in the case of Lazarus, “many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him” (John 11:45).
Another reason why God allows disabilities or handicaps is that we must learn to trust in Him rather than in ourselves. When the Lord God called Moses in the wilderness, Moses was reluctant at first to heed the call. In fact, he tried to use his disability to excuse himself from service: “Moses said to the Lord, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent. . . . I am slow of speech and tongue’” (Exodus 4:10). But God knew all about Moses’ problem: “The Lord said to him, ‘Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say’” (Exodus 4:11–12). In this amazing passage, we see that all human ability—and disability—is part of God’s plan and that God will help His obedient servants. He doesn’t call the equipped so much as He equips the called.
Joni Eareckson Tada suffered a diving accident as a teenager, and for the past five decades she has lived as a quadriplegic. In her booklet Hope . . . the Best of Things, Joni imagines meeting Jesus in heaven and speaking to Him about her wheelchair: “The weaker I was in that thing [my wheelchair], the harder I leaned on you. And the harder I leaned on you, the stronger I discovered you to be. It never would have happened had you not given me the bruising of the blessing of that wheelchair” (Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 2008). How can she speak of her “bruising” as a “blessing”? Only by the grace of God. With that sentiment, Joni echoes the apostle Paul who accepted Christ’s sufficient grace for his thorn in the flesh with these words: “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
Another reason why God allows some to be disabled or handicapped is that, in His overarching plan, He has chosen the weak things of this world for a special purpose: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God 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 Corinthians 1:27–29).
God doesn’t need human might or skill or fitness to accomplish His work. He can use disability and handicap just as well. He can use children: “Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger” (Psalm 8:2). He can use anyone. Remembering this truth can help handicapped believers to maintain focus on who God is. It’s easy to “curl up in a ball” and have pity parties when life makes no sense, but Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
In a sense, when Jesus came into this world, He became voluntarily disabled. He handicapped Himself as He left the perfection of heaven to live among the sinners on earth. He laid aside His glory to wrap Himself in inglorious humanity. At the Incarnation, Jesus took on human flesh in all its frailty and vulnerability. “He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). The Son of God took part in our human condition and suffered on our behalf. And that is why “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15); rather, we have an Intercessor who understands our weakness, relates to our disability, and identifies with our pain.
God promises that disabilities and handicaps are temporary. Those conditions are part of this fallen world, not the world to come. God’s children—those who by faith in Christ are made children of God (John 1:12) —have a bright and glorious future. When Jesus came the first time, He gave us a taste of good things yet to come: “People brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them” (Matthew 4:24). When Jesus comes the second time, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy” (Isaiah 35:5–6).
Joni’s wheelchair-bound perspective is enlightening: “Maybe the truly handicapped people are the ones that don’t need God as much” (The God I Love: A Lifetime of Walking with Jesus, Zondervan Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2003). The position of weakness, disability, and handicap—the position of having to trust God in this world—is a position of honor and blessing indeed.