I have been asked by my MOPS group (Moms of Preschoolers) to speak about “2 AM friendships.” The implication of this topic is that when you are close enough with someone to call them at two in the morning, then they have stepped into an inner circle of relationships in their life. I have been asked to speak on this topic because I have chronic illness, which places me in a position to require more assistance, making me more vulnerable and dependent on relationships.
This state of illness-induced vulnerability is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. Most of us in our culture like to pretend that we can be independent, autonomous, and entirely capable of handling our lives on our own. We wear competency like a badge. When you are slapped with the label “disability,” or “chronic illness,” you automatically become “less competent”. In our culture, that tragically means that you become less human.
The funny, wonderfully paradoxical thing is, however, that disability can ultimately be an opportunity. Because we are so blinded by our driving need for independence, we cripple ourselves even when we aren’t physically crippled. We cripple ourselves because we were never created to be so horrifically independent. God created us for one another, to be in community, and to be interdependent. God chose flawed, “handicapped” individuals to fulfill His purposes throughout history partially because those who were more “incompetent” tended to rely more on God. Their lack led them away from pride, which could blind them to their need for God and for others. Do a study on Old Testament leaders. God never chose the obvious ones, the strong ones, the big ones, or even the super-intelligent ones. He chose the unlikely people who were scattered along the sidelines, not winning any awards for “most likely to succeed.”
1 Corinthians 1:26-31 says this:
“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us the wisdom of God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Here’s the easy-to-grasp reality: When you are sick, weak, and not able to care for yourself in simple ways, you are forced to recognize your own limitations. Humility isn’t too hard to grasp when you are in need, because your position implies humility. (Although, I somehow still stubbornly grapple with my own pride even from my very humbling situation.) When you are able-bodied, strong, and self-sufficient, it is easier to pretend that you can function on your own, unassisted, and this can be carried into your world of relationships with others as well as your relationship with God.
Of all of the consequences of my illnesses, losing my ability to drive has been one of the most devastating events. When I first was told that I had to stop driving about two years ago, I was entirely crushed. Who wouldn’t be? The ability to drive marks one’s ascent into near-adulthood. It marks independence, mobility, autonomy, and individuality. Driving allows teenagers to individuate from their parents, to work, to get to school, and to grow into themselves. Driving allows people to get away from environments that are unpleasant as they see necessary. It allows them to make plans without necessarily needing to consult others. If nothing else, it gives them some space for alone time in the car. When I was told that I could not drive because of my fainting and brain fog, I felt like I was being thrust back into a dependent state. I was a pre-teen again, who had to ask permission before she made plans, who needed someone to drive me to doctor’s appointments, to the store, and anywhere else I needed to go. After 18 years of having an escape route from unpleasant situations, I was suddenly a prisoner wherever I landed. This was and still is terrifying. I need a capable driver with me at any point if I want to leave my house, and I am a 35-year-old mother of two preschoolers. This is not ideal in a society that values autonomy above all else. But it is a blessing in a darn good disguise.
When I was told that I needed to be in a wheelchair when we left the house in April of 2017, I was furious. I did not want to be dependent on someone else to push me around. Being in a chair when everyone else is standing places a person at the position of facing everyone’s belly-button, unless they are children. I spent 18 years of my life growing so that I could stand face-to-face with adults, not so that I could look them squarely in the belt-buckle. One benefit to being on the level of a wheelchair is that I can easily inform others if they have left the size tag on their jeans (this happens more often than one might realize). But all joking aside, being confined to a wheelchair has been the most humbling experience of my life. I fight it every time we go out. Sometimes I win, and I convince those who are taking us places to forgo my wheelchair. The physical consequences of rejecting my wheelchair are always heavy, and my sense of
“ability” is stymied by my illness reminding me that I should be in a wheelchair. I endlessly buck up against my very clear limitations, and my humbling circumstances can’t even contain the magnitude of my pride at times.
James 1:9 addresses this issue:
“But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; and the rick man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away.”
Matthew 5:3-9 (The wonderful sermon on the mount) is salve for the soul of the disabled:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, for they shall be heirs of the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Certainly, Jesus is not specifically talking about people in wheelchairs being blessed, but He is presenting the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God. In a world where we climb up ladders, struggle to get to the top, pride ourselves in rising and towering over others, and win awards for strength, ability, and power, the Kingdom of God looks a bit backwards and inside-out. Those who humble themselves before the Lord will be raised up (James 4:10). The son of God came not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45).
Sometimes, we have to work hard to humble ourselves. Sometimes, we have to intentionally slow down, stop our mad drive toward productivity, and make space for authentic connections, vulnerability, and glimpses of kingdom work in our midst. Sometimes, however, we have the opportunity to slow down through the onset of unexpected illness, disability, or life-stopping event. These tragedies in our lives are painful, heart-breaking, and earth-shattering. Being stripped down to nearly nothing is never where we want to end up. I would accept full physical healing this very moment if I were offered a cure. No one wants to learn humility through humiliation. But, if I am going to be humbled, I don’t want to miss God’s redemptive work in the midst of my illness.
God is not the author of pain, illness, suffering, and evil in the world. I hope that through my writing, I clearly convey that not everything is authored by God and “happens for a reason.” I do not believe in that theology. I do not believe that God brought or created my illness to me to teach me a lesson or to enrich my life. I believe that it is the tragic result of living in a fallen, yet-to-be-fully-redeemed-world.
I do believe, however, that when we surrender our lives to the redemptive, wonderful, loving authority of our Lord, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, and Healer, He is able to make the most horrific circumstances beautiful. I believe that through my illness, my dependent position, my disability, and my need, God is showing me how to trust Him, humbly rely on others, and live life in interdependence. I am learning that I am not valuable because of what I produce, how hard I work, how much money I make, how many degrees I have or books I have written, how many sports my children are engaged in, or my worldly successes. I am valuable because God says that I am. And for the first time in my life, I can breathe and just be me. Also, I can report to people when their jeans have a size 34L tag along their leg.