Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being? – Isaiah 66:2
Jesus says that if anyone wants to follow him, he must first deny himself and take up his cross (Mark 8:34). These words were addressed not only to the people of his time, but also to us today. Each of us who desires to follow Christ must be willing to carry the burden laid on us by God.
Because the cross every person carries is different, we tend to look at others and compare our lot with theirs. We think how athletic – or handsome, articulate, or gifted – the other person is, and we wonder whether they have any cross to bear at all. Envy makes us dissatisfied.
Clearly, every man, woman, and child has a burden to carry. Even the apostle Paul had a "thorn in his flesh." He asked God to remove it, but God answered, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:8). If we accept this grace, we will be able to bear the heaviest load. Strange as this may seem, it can even become a blessing.
Today, with the common availability of sophisticated prenatal tests, fetal abnormalities are often discovered early in pregnancy. Sometimes, this can lead to life-saving intrauterine surgery or therapy. But in many if not most other cases, doctors subsequently advise an abortion. They argue that this is in the best interest of both child and parents, and suggest that allowing such a child to be carried to term is not only unfair but irresponsible, because the child will place a burden on society.
Yet abortion is always wrong. God has a specific purpose in mind for every person – for every tiny being that is conceived. No matter how short its life, or how difficult, every new child bears a certain message from God. None of us can presume to know exactly what this message is. All the same, the message is there, if only we open our hearts to it.
My wife and I were reminded of this truth when one of our daughters gave birth to her fifth child in 2008. Stephanie was born with Trisomy 13 – a condition that cannot be cured – and her little face was disrupted by a cleft palate. She lived only a month, but we quickly grew to love her, and soon saw in her a beauty that was much deeper than physical perfection: the deep peace of God which she radiated to all those who surrounded her crib. When she died, we wept and wept; though we had known she would not live, she had been an angel in our midst, and brought us a message of heaven that surpassed words.
Of course, the discovery that a newborn child is disabled can be deeply unsettling. Parents often blame themselves, or wonder want they might have done to deserve such a bad outcome. But as natural as such thoughts may seem, we should not give them room. Rather, we should try to see the situation from a deeper perspective – as a blessing which can lead us closer to each other and to God.
When Jesus and his disciples met a man who was blind from birth, his disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned – this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither he nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him" (John 9:1-3). This was surely the case with Stephanie. Her abnormalities came to us from God, as a revelation of his mighty works. The challenge to us is whether or not we can accept such revelations, and whether or not we welcome them.
Many parents of disabled children do not see them as a gift. All too often they are impatient, even intolerant, or else overprotective. To them, a disabled child hurts the family pride. They regard the child as a disappointment and feel dishonored and ashamed. Neighbors, relatives, and friends often aggravate such a situation with insensitive remarks, as do those doctors and therapists who suggest that the child be moved into an institution.
How different things would be if we saw disabled children as gifts, and not burdens! When friends of ours gave birth to a child with Down syndrome in 1967, they rejoiced – as did we. Louisa had a serious cardiac defect but lived her 29 years to the full. She radiated joy and excitement wherever she went, and touched the most sophisticated and guarded people with her forthright manner and infectious laughter. Even as she died, she told her friends and family, "I'm thinking about LIFE!"
Children like her are not wanted today. True, the prospect of a disabled child can seem more than a family is able to face. Even the strongest parents will need support at times, and they should never feel guilty when they seek or accept help. Those of us who do not have to cope with such a child should offer our practical support where we can, by taking the child into our home for a night or a weekend to let the parents relax and find new strength.
Given their special needs, it is easy to see why such children are often treated differently from others. All too often, parents give in to their every whim, and spoil them. Yet pampering such children is a great disservice, because it limits their entire future – their physical and mental development, and their emotional independence.
All children need the warmth of physical affection, and disabled children need it perhaps even more than others. But they should not be babied with constant hugs, kisses, and treats. Rather, they should be encouraged to use their abilities to the full, and treated as normally as possible. This is not to say that they should be pushed to perform, or take on responsibilities beyond their capabilities. All the same, it is amazing what firm expectations can do. As a pastor, I have seen time and again how an optimistic approach can help the most incapacitated child achieve mobility, independence, and self-worth.
It is tempting to wonder why one person is born with mental or physical disabilities, while the next is perfectly healthy. Yet we must trust that everything that happens in life, whether good or difficult, has a purpose. We must believe that God can turn any affliction into a blessing if we humbly accept whatever he sends. Christ comes to us in the form of a stranger, a beggar, and an angel. Why should he not also come in the form of a disabled child?
From Why Children Matter by Johann Christoph Arnold.