A biblically-grounded understanding of disability sees a disability as a display of God’s glory. Accordingly, by the sovereign work of God, that which has come to pass, must of theological necessity be the best of all possible worlds. Therefore, even disability necessarily displays the perfection of God’s purposes. Further, God through his Word shows a particular delight in displaying his eternal power and goodness through those things considered weak and of little account by this world’s standards. Disability then, in a peculiar fashion shines forth the radiance of his glory.
God’s Work of Creation and the Display of His Glory – John 9:1-3
John does not give a timeframe for healing the man born blind, only that it occurred sometime after the festival of booths. It appears from the context that the blind man was well known (John 9:8-9), so likely he was brought to the same place to beg for alms each day as the people went up to the temple. This familiarity accounts for the reason that the people in the vicinity knew he was born blind and did not become blind some other time in his life. There is some cultural and biblical basis for the disciples’ question, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (John 9:2). C. K. Barrett explains, “Shabbath 55a; There is no death without sin (proved by Ezek. 18:20) and no punishment i.e. sufferings without guilt (proved by Ps. 89:33) When a man is born blind the sin must be sought either in the man’s parents, or in his own ante-natal existence” (C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1978), 147). Barrett also writes,
Genesis Rabbah, a rabbinical commentary on Genesis 25:22 asserts the ante-natal conduct of Esau and Jacob, and Ps. 58:3 is cited to prove that Esau displayed sinful inclinations from the womb. Canticles Rabbah 1,6,3 suggests that a child’s parents may have sinned in such a way that they implicate them (e.g. when a pregnant woman worships in a pagan temple her unborn fetus was regarded as participating in the pagan rite) (Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John, 146).
D. A. Carson affirms that the
disciples are not completely wrong when they look for a reason for the man’s blindness, as all suffering is in some sense the effect of the fall in Genesis 3. But once you go from the general results of sin to the particular you go far beyond biblical evidence. That a specific illness or experience of suffering can be the direct consequence of a specific sin, few would deny (e.g. Miriam’s revolt Num12). That it is invariably so numerous biblical texts flatly deny (e.g. Job, Galatians 4:13) (D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991), 169).
What a shock it must have been for the man to hear Jesus’ explanation. All his life he must have heard the disciples question of, “who sinned?” Every person who walked up to the temple that way and passed him must have asked themselves the same either/or question. This man or his parents. It is to be wondered whether he himself held an answer to the question. What can be sure was that he did not expect Jesus’ answer, “not this man or his parents” (9:3). On that day, Jesus entered into that man’s life and pronounced his forsakenness a lie.
Being blind, the man was separated from the life of Israel. He was not allowed into the temple to worship and to hear God’s Word, did not partake in the festivals and the special feast days, and was kept from the synagogue. He was not only physically blind but culturally and spiritually impaired as well. Jesus’ healing brings not only sight to his eyes but spiritual sight as well.
What was implied in Exodus 4:11 is here openly asserted, that the disability was in order “that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). The man’s blindness was to be a display of God’s glory. As previously affirmed, if God always acts toward the greatest showing forth of his glory, then any presence of disability must be so that the works of God might be displayed in the disability. Far from being an aberrant occurrence, the presence of disability in the Scriptures are to be for a peculiar display.
Such a view stands in stark opposition to the so-called modern treatments of disability in Scripture where every effort is made to separate God’s sovereignty from the occurrence of disability (Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011)). According to this perspective, disability is outside the control of God so he cannot be held accountable and therefore culpable for it. This position is not held in an effort to protect a challenge to the goodness of God, but rather to protect people from a God who otherwise could potentially go rogue and cause all sorts of damage. Accordingly, God is to be feared, not because of his holiness but because of his potential caprices; therefore, he must be circumscribed within careful boundaries. For this perspective an almighty God and the reality of disability cannot possibly co-exist; therefore, God must be diminished.
Likewise it would not be a possibility that a righteous God could purpose disability to display his glory and show forth his holy acts—that would make God the author of something which is sinful and broken and any good that comes out of disability occurs despite, not in light of, God’s activity.
Rev. Eric Nelson, SHN President & Founder