“No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13, NET Bible).
Ryan and Lisa Hangs and family
It is natural for man to grieve the loss and limitation attendant with a disability (Psalm 31:9-10), even for consecrated followers of our Lord Jesus (2 Corinthians 12:8); particularly, if their disability is acquired after consecration. Though the lessons presented herein pertain to all consecrated people with a disability, those having a disability prior to consecration presumably would have factored in their condition when “counting the cost” (Luke 14:28). Dealing with an acquired disability after consecration can be especially difficult, because our self-assessment has changed, along with perhaps our perceived capacity to fulfill our consecration vows. Such an unexpected and undesirable change in one’s condition is a powerfully unsettling combination, shared by the disabled and their caregiver(s).
In our theme text, the Apostle Paul tells us that such trials are common to man, so it is helpful to recognize the well-established psychological “roadmap to recovery” for the grieving process typically experienced by those with an acquired disability. Acknowledging a framework of emotional recovery identifies the underlying source of our feelings, and where we are along the road to recovery.
Roadmap to Overcoming the Disability
Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) developed the “Five Stages of Grief” model. Psychologists successfully apply this framework of emotional healing to people with disabilities who grieve the loss of mental and/or physical functionality. Though not everyone will necessarily experience all of these stages, nor in the linear order listed, there are five stages of overcoming grief from an acquired disability: initial shock followed by denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and acceptance. Studies indicate that people progress through these five stages at different speeds (i.e., months to years). Some fail to progress beyond denial, anger, or depression, and sadly never accept (i.e., overcome) the reality of their “new normal” lifestyle.
Stages 1 to 3: Initial Shock and Denial, Anger, and Bargaining
Depending on the disability, one may initially experience a raw gut-wrenching nauseous emotion, followed by discounting the severity of the disability and its long-term consequences. However, when the repercussions of the disability are realized, the unsettling feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty materialize. The subsequent overwhelming sense of loss and limitation manifests itself from many perspectives: lost professional career (e.g., productivity, peer respect, earning potential, etc.), lost independence (e.g., walking, biking, driving, etc.), and lost functionality of basic faculties (e.g., speech, incontinence, concentration, etc.).
Anger is a secondary emotion, often triggered by primary feelings of despair (e.g., fear, sadness, anxiety, etc.); in this case, discontent over the losses associated with the disability. Furthermore, the fallen human condition instinctively uses anger to create a false sense of power and control out of this helpless condition, which is not only undesirable behaviour (Proverbs 29:11, James 1:19-20), but also misplaces the responsibility of managing the situation on self instead of entirely on the Lord. The bargaining phase includes seeking therapies for the disability (via conventional and/ or alternative treatments) with the sincere belief that regardless of the outcome, the Lord’s will be done in the matter. However, once it becomes evident that the therapies are not having the desired effect, it is easy to become discouraged by the apparent permanence of our disabled condition.
Stage 4: Depression
Depression is typically the most difficult stage to overcome, often referred to as an inescapable “black hole.” Hopeless and helpless feelings pervade our mind and transcend our daily activities, resulting in a negative feedback, causing a variety of symptoms: apathy, fatigue, negative thinking, distractibility, and irritability. Modern psychology has shown that anger turned inward is the root of depression, which explains why self-loathing is common among those suffering from depression. Bible Students recognize that the prophet Elijah pictures the Church of Christ in the flesh on many levels. Our fleshly weakness under distress is aptly represented by Elijah’s depression, which manifested itself by his request to die (1 Kings 19:4), despite his recent miraculous deliverance by God at Mount Carmel amidst hundreds of enemies. Likewise, we can easily become depressed when focussing on a seemingly hopeless situation, instead of looking up, recalling God’s overruling providence and His assisting grace in every time of need (Psalm 86:7, Philippians 4:6-7, Hebrews 4:16).
Stage 5: Acceptance
Our theme text contains two precious promises: our merciful and faithful Creator will not allow the disability to exceed our faith’s breaking point; and He provides us a way out, so that we may endure the trial. Some may expect the Lord to provide a therapeutic escape to avoid the trial by removing the disability; however, the text concludes with the thought of enduring the trial. Thus the “way out” God provides us is not a miraculous cure. God has allowed past faithful ones to endure “thorn in the flesh” disabilities (e.g., Jacob’s hip, Moses’ speech impediment, and Paul’s impaired vision).
The Greek word rendered “way out” (ekbasis, Strong’s G1545) has the root meaning “moving forward.” By accepting the fact that God allowed this disability, for our highest spiritual welfare, we can overcome the effects of our disability and move forward. Conversely, dwelling on lost functionality inhibits our ability to endure the trial. Having a broad spiritual viewpoint prevents a painful emotional rut and missing the intended spiritual blessing. The way out is an empowering three-fold “big picture” spiritual perspective.
(a) The experience is unremarkable and common to man. We are not the first to experience our disability, and we certainly will not be the last. In fact, our disability is statistically insignificant relative to the millions of others who have shared the same experience over the past 6000 years. However, God is the Master of using something insignificant to achieve something significant (i.e., developing the New Creature), for His eternal purpose.
(b) The experience easily could have been much worse. Our disability is tempered by a merciful God, so be thankful that it is what it is, because others have experienced much worse. Knowing that the experience is overruled perfectly by God helps mitigate disappointment and discouragement (Romans 8:28, 1 Thessalonians 5:18). Be cognizant of others around us, particularly those with greater disabling trials than ours. They provide tangible examples that an overcoming mindset is attainable with the Lord’s assistance (Philippians 3:17, 2 Corinthians 3:5 and 12:9).
(c) The experience is “tailor-made” for us. It is imperative that we recognize that the disability is the Lord’s will being done in our life. Nothing happens to us without Divine approval, and His unerring wisdom makes no mistake (Matthew 10:29-31, Ephesians 1:11). Moreover, God is a merciful Divine Economist. He allows no superfluous sorrow in our life; only those experiences necessary for making our calling and election sure, because He knows, loves, and cares for us (Psalm 139:2-5, Nahum 1:7, 1 Peter 5:6-7).
This is From Me
All of us are disabled by “Adamitis” to some degree. Sooner or later, most of us will experience a severe disability; either personally or as a caregiver for a loved one. God does not change (Malachi 3:6, James 1:17). He has allowed such intimate trials to test the fidelity of His faithful ones for millennia. Thus, recall “this is from me” (1 Kings 12:24, 2 Chronicles 11:4). Do not worry about the trial and its effect on our daily life. Instead, focus on our consecration vow, and God will care for the rest (Matthew 6:25-34). Such faith in God’s provisions is a buttress to anchor our feelings, in order to keep our emotions in check and endure the experience, because the trial of our faith and resultant spiritual fruitage is priceless (John 15:8, 1 Peter 1:7, James 1:4).
Why God Permits Disabilities
Experiential learning is fundamental in the School of Christ curriculum. Though a large portion of our learning is theoretical, pedagogical studies reveal something that God has always known; namely, experiential learning is the most effective method of teaching us the principles intended. Old and New Testament examples of experiential learning augmenting faith in God are observed with Job, the nation of Israel, and the Apostles (Job 42:5, Isaiah 29:23, Philippians 4:11, 1 Peter 5:10). Jesus was no exception, and it should be no surprise that we are trained in like manner (Hebrews 5:8 and 12:11). God’s intended outcome is to develop Christ-like characters, for sharing the reconciliation work of the Bride of Christ (Luke 12:32, Colossians 1:12, Revelation 20:6).
God’s plan, developing a perfectly-trained sympathetic priesthood during the Gospel Age, who collectively will have overcome life’s hardships, for later ministering to those who suffered the same experiences, is brilliant! What better teacher for a student to learn from than one who can intimately relate to the student’s struggles, knowing exactly what lessons are required to overcome their emotional baggage? There will not be a single individual on Earth without a corresponding Church member who successfully overcame the same trial, to provide essential therapy for their recovery. This will greatly facilitate their learning in the Kingdom. The Apostle Paul confirms this thought in 2 Corinthians 1:3,4 (NASB): “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction.” This same peer-mentoring relationship has been successfully used by support groups for decades (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous), so we know that it is an effective educational support model for those in need, let alone when it is implemented by a Divine Administration.
Our Disability Promotes Spiritual Development
In our Christian life, many plans “look good on paper.” But despite a willing spirit, the flesh is weak and it is easy to periodically fall back into a depressional rut. Our older brother, our Advocate, provides necessary support (1 Corinthians 15:57, Hymn 275A). We need to remind ourselves that the fruitage God cultivates in us is not elite mental or physical traits, desired by the world, but spiritual fruitage (Galatians 5:22-23, 2 Peter 1:5-8). Differentiating between how this acquired disability disadvantages our fleshly life, contrasted with how it advantages our spiritual life, helps emancipate our mind from debilitating depression, because conquering the fleshly Old Creature is the precise goal of our consecration (1 Corinthians 9:27, 2 Corinthians 5:17-18, Hymn 224).
Contrary to the world, where contracts are swiftly annulled when a party becomes disabled and is no longer capable of the agreed upon performance, our merciful Heavenly Father continues to honor our agreement, based on our current abilities, not according to our previous abilities (2 Corinthians 8:12). As a result, let us strive daily to overcome the disability through patient and joyful endurance for the remainder of our days. This will be a powerful testimony of God’s glory (Matthew 5:16, 1 Corinthians 10:31, James 1:2-4). To that end, never forget Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 1:6 (NASB): “I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”