Living with a Disability
Mike Justice (MA[BS], 1988; ThM, 1992) has served on staff at a number of Dallas-area churches, and is often found ministering to the disabled.
For more than forty-seven years, I have lived with Type I diabetes, thirty-two years with severe visual impairment, and more than twenty years with two kidney transplants, the latter of which my wife donated. We have faced many scary health issues, which have challenged our faith. For a while, I felt God could not use me in the ministry, but one way He has chosen to use me is through encouraging others who ask how I cope.
Exodus 4:11 states that God told Moses He created man’s mouth and made him mute, deaf, sighted, or blind. Because I know now that these disabilities are part of God’s plan for my life, I can answer the question of coping by telling others about my Savior and how He works in the ups and downs of health issues. Another way that encourages me to serve the Lord while coping with disability is through specific Bible passages. Moses had a speech problem, yet God used him to be His spokesman to an Egyptian Pharaoh. Isaac lost visual perception in his old age, yet God used this to bring about the bestowing of his blessing on Jacob. Mephibosheth walked with a limp, yet David extended kindness to him by inviting him to eat at the king’s table. Others had withered hands, deaf ears, blind eyes, paralyzed limbs, and various sicknesses. Some were healed to validate Jesus’s messianic authority, and some were not. And since the Lord has not seen fit to heal me yet, it must be that He wants to perfect His strength through my weaknesses.
Terri Justice manages Copy Services at Dallas Theological Seminary. Her husband, Mike, was DTS’s first visually impaired Doctor of Ministry student.
I am a spouse of someone with chronic illness, including several disabilities. We have been married thirty-four years, thirty-two of which have included disability and dealing with chronic illness and its problems. One thing that has happened over and over through the years is that people often tell me how strong I am, yet inside I don’t feel strong at all. In fact, much of the time I feel weak and tired. I try to cling to verses such as Psalm 61: 1–4, which says, “Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe. I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.”
One way God has used my situation to help others is to encourage them to endure in their hardships. When people understand even a bit of what my life is like, they are more likely to come to me or listen to me when they encounter hardships. This has given me a voice. Even though believers with disabilities (and their families) are part of the body of Christ, we still fit into a category that tends to be on the fringes. We long for normalcy and acceptance. We long for our brothers and sisters to believe that the one with disabilities in His body still has many abilities and usually a mind and heart to minister to others.
Lacie Habekott (MA/CE, 2008) lives in Colorado Springs, where she is on staff with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade), ministering to cadets in the U.S. Air Force.
I grew up in a farming town in northwest Oklahoma, in a big family, full of grace. The only disabled people I knew were the sweet ladies who sat in front of us at church, used walkers to get around, and kissed my cheeks.
One snowy evening fifteen years ago, my mom, my niece, and I were driving home when we heard a noise. Accessories that came with the grill we purchased had come untied and were rolling around in the pick-up bed. My mom pulled over, and we got everything situated. But as we shut the tailgate, my neighbor, on his way home from the bar, struck me and our vehicle. My mom, less than three feet from me, was untouched, but the impact immediately amputated my right leg and forever changed my worldview. I was fifteen.
Losing my leg opened a door for me to understand both depravity and God’s goodness. During my hospital stay, a friend sent a journal with verses handwritten in the front. They have been a constant encouragement, because in them Paul assures us that our suffering has purpose. In fact, our trials are producing “an eternal weight of glory” that far outweighs the suffering (2 Cor. 4:17–18, NASB). He reminds us that our agony is “light and momentary,” and when I think on what Christ endured on the cross and compare it to my own experience, this verse puts my pain into perspective.
Through lots of time, growing trust, and a healing community, I have seen over and over that taking my leg from me was God’s act of grace for me. Many times every week someone will ask why I’m limping. Every time I see it as an opportunity to share the gospel. I tell people, “I was hit by a drunk driver, but would you like to know what God has done with it as a result?”
I haven’t always viewed my pain with purpose, but even in my untrusting times, the Lord has been faithful and reminded me that He alone is good. As a broken-bodied teenager, I struggled with my identity and worried that no man would ever see me as beautiful. I just turned thirty, and am realizing I have some lingering insecurities to face as a single woman in ministry to the military. I know these issues aren’t resolved easily, but I know that God is faithful to take what’s been broken and make it beautiful in His way. He brought His disciples through a storm to show His love for the demoniac. So if He chooses to take me through a storm to go after a lost soul, I hope my response is a submitted, willing heart ready to follow at all cost.
Christin Bates (ThM, 2012) is an active member of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida. She describes herself as “always looking for opportunities to gain experience teaching and ministering.”
For me to be born with a genetic progressive neuromuscular disease is not a result of anything specific I have done or anything my parents or grandparents did. Rather, I was born with this particular physical disability because I am a daughter of Adam. While this may not seem like a positive response, it is a realistic one that has given me a foundational truth in which the rest of my perspective is rooted. Addressing this issue with such a response does not negate or lessen the difficulty of my circumstances, but it is a logical answer to what at times can seem like an incomprehensible situation.
Because of the nature of my disease and physical disability, God’s grace is evident in my life each day. I purpose within myself daily to be thankful for the small stuff, and I like to believe that my positive outlook in general reflects God’s glory to those with whom I come in contact. Also, my situation has given me countless opportunities to share my Christian worldview with people from every walk of life.
Believers can glean much from taking a serious look at the theology of suffering. Christians need to realize that not one of us is immune to pain. While there are those who appear to have a more difficult journey than others, in an instant one’s life can change as a result of a traumatic event or diagnosis.
One question I have heard numerous times is “Why?” or “Do you ever wonder why God allowed this thing to happen?” The most helpful and the most pragmatic response I have ever heard to this type of question was from DTS professor Dr. Doug Blount, to which he answered, “Why not?” The reality for me, as well as everyone else, is that we are each born into a fallen world as a result of original sin.
In speaking about disability, the language I find most helpful is specific (i.e., physical disability, intellectual disability, hearing impaired, visually impaired). I am not all that sensitive in general. But one word that does make me sort of cringe is “crippled.” I find that term to be antiquated and consider it somewhat ignorant.
All disabilities are not created equal. Thus pastors and churches should be mindful of the variety of disabilities that might be present in their congregations, and there should be a measure of preparedness to meet the needs of such individuals.
In most churches I would be unable to join a choir or partake in any activity that would require me to be on stage because of issues with wheelchair access. While I was a student at DTS, I attended a church that located its single adults’ Sunday school class upstairs. They worked to accommodate me, but it took a full semester to rearrange classrooms, so I sat in with the married 45–60 age group during that time.
Understanding why God chooses to heal some and not others is a complicated issue. I believe that God is sovereign, and I have come to terms with the fact that I will never know the answer to some of these difficult questions. I find peace and understanding in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”
Dr. Evetta Armstrong
Dr. Evetta Armstrong serves as an adjunct professor in Christian Education at the DTS Houston campus.
After the hooding ceremony for graduating with a doctorate from the University of Georgia in 2007, I took one look into my mother’s eyes and knew I had a decision to make: Do I pursue the career opportunities that await me, or do I move back to Houston to care for my mother and assist her with providing care for her mother?
After seeing the fatigue in my mother’s eyes, the decision to move to Houston after thirty years of being away did not require much thought. It had already been seven years since my grandmother moved in with my parents after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. My mother was the classic example of providing exceptional care for her mother while putting her own health at risk by ignoring the prolonged stress and the physical demands of caregiving.
I moved back to Houston that summer and commuted to Texas A&M one day a week to teach as a visiting professor and later also as an adjunct faculty member at the DTS Houston campus.
When I graduated from high school, an aunt wrote me a letter explaining that Proverbs 3:5-6 should be the guiding principle for my life. I have found comfort, purpose, and direction with that passage. After praying about what to do, and going back to this Scripture, I was confident God would make my path clear as I trusted Him with my future.
The Bible has been my guide, but another resource that gives insight into what to expect or do at different stages is Passages into Caregiving (Sheehy).
For those of the “name it and claim it” strand of Christianity, disability can be devastating to faith and belief in God. Their expectation is for God to restore their loved one back to perfect health or at least to a certain baseline according to their faith. Such individuals wholeheartedly believe God will respond to their requests. Anything apart from complete healing causes them to question themselves and God. Often the loved one dies, yet their prayer has been answered as God has chosen to heal in heaven rather than on earth (see Phil. 1:21; 2 Cor. 5:8; 1 Thess. 4:13–18).
Caregiving is an outward expression of the many “one another” passages found in the Scriptures. There is a daily dying to self as one puts the needs of another before his or her own. At this point in caregiving, a Christian’s realization that it is no longer he or she who lives, but Christ who “lives in me” makes it possible to serve selflessly (Gal. 2:20). Individualism is antithetical to Christianity. Although we are saved as individuals, we are called to live in community, serving one another. Acts 2:42–47 is a great example of what that looks like—and what should be the church’s mission today.
Josh Kostreva (MA/MC, 2011) is producer and social media strategist for Point of View Radio in Dallas.
Fourteen years ago, a drunk driver and his pickup sent me flying over a guardrail, leaving me permanently paralyzed. After a hip surgery to reconstruct my fragmented femur and broken pelvis, six weeks for multiple breaks in my right arm to heal, and time for my kidneys and liver to recover, I started physical therapy.
At first even the small things such as moving from the bed to my chair seemed impossible. All the activities I took for granted were gone. All of a sudden my arms took the job of my legs. The wake-up call came when I met my first curb. I knew I could either conclude that “inaccessibility” and “paraplegic” went together or figure out a way to make them accessible.
A teacher once told me, “You need to advocate for yourself, because eventually no one else will.” So I decided to push the limits of the boundaries that seemingly trap a paraplegic. As I learned to ride escalators and fly down stairs, I noticed that once-closed doors opened. I saw that most boundaries are more like Play-Doh than concrete. As I learned the new intricacies of my mobility, I started to dream bigger and bigger.
One day I grabbed a guidebook for Costa Rica off the shelf from my college’s library and ripped through the pages, searching for something exciting. As if the words were in bold, neon yellow shouting at me, I read “Pacuare White Water Rafting: Class 3 and 4.” Two weeks later I had convinced some fellow classmates to risk their lives and go on an adventure.
My encounter with the Pacuare allowed me to rub shoulders with life and death, but my greatest experience was gliding down the last section of the river. I felt uninhibited by any “disability” or perception of a disability, because I conquered something most people never experience, and I was able to revel in it, screaming at the top of my lungs. I will never forget the echo of my cheer and those of my classmates in that canyon, because I knew this adventure marked only the beginning. I came away understanding that fear and limitations have the potential to paralyze almost anyone far worse than any physical disability.
Lee Hough (MA[BS], 1985) is a literary agent with Alive Communications in Colorado.
In the summer of 2011, after several weeks of nagging headaches, nausea, and some dizziness, Lee learned he had a malignant tumor in his brain’s right frontal lobe. Nine months later he wrote this to his friends:
It’s become embarrassingly obvious that my brain cancer is making it hard for many of you to share with me about your own struggles. Let’s roll the tape on a typical conversation:
Me: “How are you?”
You: “Doing fine, thanks, though lately I’ve had these ongoing migraines” (pause for a self-conscious beat and then), “but my migraines are nothing compared to what you’ve been through.” End conversation.
You see where this is going? In the very short span of two sentences, there’s a whole lot of thinking going on. Yours—and what you think I’m thinking. I think. Roll tape on thinking:
You’re thinking: “Uh-oh. Why did I just complain about headaches when the man has been through brain cancer? Retract, retreat, apologize!”
Because you think I’m thinking: “Did she just whine about piddly migraines? Doesn’t she know that on the ‘my problem is bigger than yours’ graph migraines are nothing compared to brain cancer?”
So you immediately apologize: “But my migraines are nothing ...”
“But my head-on collision in a wheelchair with an eighteen-wheeler is nothing ...”
“But your (fill in the blank) is nothing compared to what I’ve been through.”
Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this. And well-meaning as it is, it’s keeping me quarantined from being able to enter into your life, your struggles. So let me free you up so we can be friends again. First, I don’t carry a “my problem is bigger than yours” pocket pity chart. So, no, I don’t compare hardships. And you don’t need to either. Second, trust me, I’d love the focus to be somewhere other than on me and cancer. So let’s talk about you. I’d like that.