As followers of the crucified Messiah, our eternal hope is bound up in strength displayed through weakness (2 Corinthians 13:4), and followers of the risen Jesus are commanded to take up their cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24).
Consequently, gospel community is formed by and nourished by strength through weakness. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ ought to be the one place in the cosmos where weakness is rightly valued and where we know that physical and mental strength is not wellness. The church is not a gathering place for the cultural elite but a sovereignly designed community of the ignoble, weak and low (1 Corinthians 1:24-31).
This is never clearer than in the physically and mentally challenged people who are followers of Jesus Christ. They are a gift to the church because they do not have the mirage of strength in which many of us trust.
A triumphalist version of evangelical Christianity often assumes one-way discipleship – the strong help the weak. Its followers worship before the "golden calf" of their own strength, ability, intellect and giftedness (see Exodus 32:1-6). However, the church desperately needs to learn that we do not simply need to help people with physical and mental challenges, but we need them to help us become more faithful followers of Jesus.
We distort the gospel message and have malformed Christian community when we fail to understand the power of weakness in Christ. We must not only use our advantages for the advantage of others, but we must also use our disadvantages for the advantage of others. The physically and mentally weak have a vital role in the church by teaching those with self-deceptive outward strength how to display genuine spiritual power by being "content in weaknesses" for the sake of Christ (2 Corinthians 12:5).
I once heard Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic for almost five decades, say people often ask her if they can pray for her healing to which she replies, "Yes! Would you please ask God to get rid of my peevish attitude in the morning when I wake up, and please, I have such a sour disposition when there’s too much work on my desk. And, you know, I really am a workaholic so I wish you would pray about that." Tada concluded her testimony by thanking Jesus for not physically healing her because her weakness had made her strong.
Successful NFL and college football coach Gene Stallings’ son, Johnny, was born with Down syndrome and doctors said he would only live a year or two. He lived 46 years, and Stallings said, "When he was younger I prayed to God that he would change Johnny. That he would make him right. But you know what God did? He changed me." Stallings repeatedly says, "If the good Lord asked if He could give me a perfectly normal child or Johnny, I’d pick Johnny every time. No doubt about it." I once heard one of Stallings’ daughters say in an interview that she prayed God would give her a Down syndrome child, and then she added, If that sounds strange, you must not have known Johnny.
Millie Hunt was baptized earlier this year at the church I pastor, giving a powerful testimony of her salvation. Her testimony moved the congregation in a compelling and palpable way. Millie’s baptism was slightly different. Most in our church provide a verbal testimony from the baptistery, but Millie is nonverbal – she has autism. When Millie received an iPad, however, she began to communicate with amazing clarity. As she studied the Gospel of John with her parents, it became clear that she understood the gospel of Jesus Christ, and on her iPad one day she typed, "Dear God, this is Millie, please, please, I need you to love me and forgive my sins. I love you. I want to live for you." Then she typed, "I know God is with me now. Mom, please give me a hug."
In the testimony Millie shared with the church prior to her baptism, she wrote, "I love Jesus because He loves me and gave Himself up for me. God made me an autistic woman to display the works of God in my life. Hallelujah!" (John 9:1-3).
When Millie came out to be baptized, aided by her father, I told her that in Christ she had all of the strength she would ever need. As a church family we have tried to help Millie and the Hunt family in every way we can, but Millie has helped us far more than we have helped her. There are gospel lessons that we can only learn from Christians who are self-evidently weak.
When Jesus was in Capernaum, a huge crowd gathered at a home after hearing about His healings. Four men carrying a paralytic could not get near Jesus through the crowd, so they climbed on the roof and let the man down through the roof. Jesus spoke to the paralytic’s deepest need, saying, "Son, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5) and when scribes complained He was blaspheming, Jesus physically healed the man as well (Mark 2:11). The account concludes by noting that "they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’" The four men had helped the paralytic, but they were forever helped through being witnesses of sufficient grace.
Jesus is not a sub-contractor in our project to live our dreams. Our dreams are pathetically small and empty. In Christ, we abandon our dreams and are swept into the reality of Jesus and His Kingdom. In the Kingdom of Christ, our self-acknowledged weakness is a foundational credential (2 Corinthians 10:17-18). He delights in choosing and using "the weak to shame the strong" (1 Corinthians 1:27), and He will not be domesticated by the self-referential wisdom of the world.
Often the physically and mentally disabled are the most well among us, but it is hard to notice while we are staring at the golden calf of our strength, ability, intellect and giftedness. If all of this sounds strange to you, then you must not know Millie or someone like her, but for the sake of the gospel, I pray you will.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – To view a video about Millie Hunt’s baptism, go to www.ashlandlex.org/2014/04/millie-hunts-baptism-video. David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., and assistant professor of Christian preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article first appeared at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s www.erlc.com website.)