Written by J. M. Bergman
Do our understandings of wisdom and foolishness align with God’s values and include disabled people? These are good questions to consider alongside a passage like 1 Corinthians 3:18-19 which says that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”
Theologian Amos Yong challenges us on this question in The Bible, Disability and the Church: “If people with intellectual disabilities represent the foolishness of the world, what hinders our viewing them as embodying the wisdom of God?”
We are incapable of meeting our souls’ thirst for meaning and value apart from Him. Could recognizing this be the intelligence God is interested in? What if the inability to trust in one’s own intellect can deepen trust and dependence on God?
This knowledge is where the wisdom to ask for His help grows, and through unwavering trust in Him, the fruits of His spirit—like peace, joy, and unconditional love—are nurtured into full bloom.
By our standards, not possessing certain intelligence capacities is seen as a problem. But those labelled by this world as intellectually disabled are often the most shining exemplars for what it means to depend on God, not our strength.
Philosophy and ethics teacher Ros Bayes writes that “the strong, the clever, the ones the world regards as ‘gifted’ find that on a spiritual level we can be severely disabled compared to our brothers and sisters who lack those intellectual giftings, but whose spiritual life can be marked by abilities and giftings we never suspected.”
Disability in the Christian Tradition is a 2012 book which brings together the teachings of 14 renowned theologians including Augustine, Bonhoeffer, and Calvin. Its editors Brian Bock and John Swinton state that “no intellectual impairment can diminish or remove the imago Dei in any human … and that the imago Dei is present whether a person is able to use their reason to full capacity or not. The Spirit of our Maker is present in every soul unless the ability to choose otherwise is present.”
When did we decide that the Holy Spirit can’t move through teaching from inside a soul labelled as less than able?
We’re mistaken if, in our own learning, we only pursue teachers who possess the kind of intellect humans have historically valued. “Misconceptions surrounding disability [can] cause nondisabled people to reject, ignore, dismiss, or abandon those who do not quite fit ‘the norm,’ ” writes disability rights activist Taylor Hyatt in Life Together: Disability and Belonging in the Church.
Hyatt lives with neurodivergence, with a brain that learns, processes and/or behaves differently from what is typical. And although some may see her disability as negative, through her experiences she has learned God “is the One who most accepts us in our mess, our littleness, our brokenness…. Jesus did not come for those who have it all together and want to rescue themselves. He desires to come close to us because of our need.”
Cynthia Tam, coordinator for disability ministry for The Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada, says “a common misunderstanding among churches is that people with disabilities are people with needs, and that Christian ministry is an act of charity.”
This mindset creates a division in the Church between who is worthy of serving and who is worthy (only) of receiving. What a terrible disservice this is! In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul teaches us to see the Body of Christ as a united Body with different members, bearing different gifts of the same Spirit and bringing glory to His kingdom. There is no “us and them” in this equation; we are all equally unified as God’s image bearers.
So how can we create equal opportunities for all brothers and sisters in Christ’s Body?
Jasmine Duckworth says inclusion begins with looking at our own mindsets and perhaps shifting from how to minister to “some” Christians, to how we can welcome and worship as full Body of Christ, all abilities included. Discovering commonalities in church relationships—such as a desire to sing, or welcome others—can aid in strengthening any church foundation. She also suggests examining the space of worship to determine if there are any barriers that could prevent some Christians from participating.
People with intellectual disabilities have been purposefully designed to emulate the Holy Spirit and minister to others in unique ways. They are not charity projects or meant to provide perspective regarding the range of struggles some of us are called to face in this life. It is not the job of others to decide how the Holy Spirit will bloom through those with disabilities.
God’s intelligence is glorious. And we, His workmanship, have each been woven together to reflect Him. We are the imago dei, the image of God, and He is equally delighted by every one of us.
We haven’t learned all aspects of God’s intelligence yet, but perhaps accepting our limited knowledge marks the beginning of grasping what heavenly intelligence looks like.
J.M. Bergman is an author and poet living in Morden, Man. Read more from the “Body and soul” column.