Disabilities and the Gospel: An Interview with Michael Beates
Tabletalk: What inspired you to write Disability and the Gospel?
Michael Beates: Some thirty years ago, with the birth of our first child, Jessica, my wife and I began a long journey with disability. Seeking answers and some assurance of God’s purposes and plan, I read and researched much about what God has said about disabilities and how the church has responded over the years. Eventually, this led to a doctoral dissertation on the subject. Steve Brown, one of the examiners of the dissertation, encouraged me not to leave the work in that form but to get it out as a book. After some years—and God’s kind providence—this book is in many ways a product of Jessica’s life and influence on my own life and that of my family.
TT: What are the particular emphases that should be presented when sharing the gospel with a disabled person?
MB: Jesus surprised people (in Mark 2) when some friends brought their paralyzed friend for healing. The first thing Jesus did was to forgive the man’s sins. They thought his greatest need was healing, not forgiveness. But Jesus knew his deeper, eternal need. Likewise, no matter what a person’s state, if they are able to understand, the most profound and crucial need is for a person with disabilities to be made right with God by understanding he or she is a sinner in need of God’s forgiving grace in Christ.
TT: Tell us about your work with Joni and Friends.
MB: I met Joni Eareckson Tada about twenty years ago when I worked at Ligonier. She was a speaker at our national conference here in Orlando. Our friendship resulted in my traveling on three overseas outreach trips with Joni and Friends’ Wheels for the World program (twice to Ghana and once to Ukraine). My family also attended several Joni and Friends Family Retreats, which ministered to all of us deeply. That led eventually to my being asked to join the International Board of Directors in 2000. Joni was looking for someone who shared her love of the Reformed faith to bring that theological perspective to the board. It has been a profound privilege to be associated with her and the powerful work God is doing through that ministry around the world. And, consistent with the second question above, the driving force of Joni and Friends continues to be sharing the good news of salvation in Christ with one of the largest “unreached people” groups: persons around the world in every race and tongue who live with disabilities but who need the good news of life in Christ. We have found that when a person with disabilities embraces salvation in Christ, often the entire family and sometimes the whole community follows. Bringing wheelchairs to people in forgotten corners of the world is only the outward vehicle that allows us to bring the saving gospel to people.
TT: What can the church do to care better for the disabled among us?
MB: The most important thing the church can do is to avoid the presupposition our culture makes—that people with disabilities are a different kind of people. When we make them “other,” we distance them from us to give us a false sense of our own wholeness. But they are different from us not in kind but only in degree—their brokenness is not as easy to hide or mask as it is for most of us. The church needs to work diligently to remove whatever obstacles (be they physical, social, or mental) that keep people (and often whole families) from coming into the fellowship of Christ’s church.
TT: What have been the greatest blessings and challenges in raising children with disabilities?
MB: The greatest blessing: seeing the power of God made manifest and exalted in the brokenness of people who live with disability—which, of course, is all of us as God gives us eyes to see ourselves as we really are. The greatest challenge: we live in a culture that values productivity, efficiency, external appearance, and control. Too often, the church adopts these values and thus does not value those whose lives demand so much from us. The church desperately needs people with disabilities in its midst to be reminded that God hardly ever does things the way we expect. He uses the least expected people (the broken, rejected, and marginalized) to achieve His ends, precisely to turn the wisdom of the world upside down.
TT: How should we address questions that may arise about the goodness of God in the face of disabilities?
MB: A well-known saying is: “God is good, all the time; all the time, God is good.” In John 9, Jesus corrects a common mistake people make. If someone lives with a tragic disabling condition, it must be the result, so we think, of someone’s sin—either that person, or perhaps that person’s parents. But Jesus offers a tertium quid, a third way: some people live with disabilities so that the glory of God might be displayed in and through them. I have called this “the Mephibosheth Principle.” In 2 Samuel 9, David, serving here as a type of Christ to come, brings Mephibosheth to the king’s table, even though Mephibosheth remained lame in both feet. What a picture this is of the goodness of God for us. We, though we remain broken and sinful, are invited to the King’s table. We are given a status and honor beyond what we deserve or merit, just as with Mephibosheth. As we grasp this truth, and as those who live with radical brokenness are brought into fellowship with God and His people, the goodness of God is made manifest before the watching world.
TT: Why do so many non-disabled people feel uncomfortable around the disabled, and what advice would you give them?
MB: We live in a culture that avoids, rejects, and hides weakness and brokenness. Disability reminds us of what we wish (and try desperately) to deny—that we are all disabled in some sense, whether it is spiritual, emotional, relational, or physical. Our friends who live with outward physical disability cannot hide their brokenness as easily or as successfully as the “normal” population. I tell people that the gift my daughter brings to the church is her presence. Her simply being among God’s people reminds us that before God we are all deeply and profoundly needy people and God’s grace is rich for us when we embrace this truth. This is her gift to the church.
Michael S. Beates is the husband of Mary and father of seven children, one of whom lives with profound disabilities and two others who face significant challenges. Dr. Beates has served on the International Board of Directors of Joni and Friends since 2000. He is dean of students and professor of biblical history of the Ancient Near East and New Testament at The Geneva School in Winter Park, Florida. He has also taught at Reformed Theological Seminary and Belhaven University, and is a former associate editor of Tabletalk magazine. He is the author of Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace.