It was a weekly bible study that changed everything. All I remember was someone storming from the room in which we were meeting shouting something like “I can’t stand looking at those arms any more”. I don’t recall anyone reassuring or comforting me, although I suppose they must have done. All I remember is that, for the first time, I felt the pain of rejection by fellow Christians because I was different. I began to wear thick jumpers with long sleeves, even in the summer. I took the mirror out of my bedroom.
Jacob’s wrestling match became a personal metaphor. In confidence that the bible provided ‘answers to every question’, I began to study. But that led me to Leviticus 21 where we read that God instructed Moses: “No man from the descendants of Aaron the priest who has a physical flaw may step forward to present the Lord’s gifts; he has a physical flaw, so he must not step forward to present the food of his God.” The fact I was probably not a direct descendant of Aaron made no difference because the context of the passage is clear. Disability is a defect and defects are unholy.
I have since encountered situations where such logic made Christians refuse to attend a communion service whenever I broke the bread. Others stated their belief that someone in my family line must have sinned. But if someone made such a statement out loud in a church today they would be in a minority, maybe of one. However, the passage still remains in the bible we read and declare as our authority. The writers of our scriptures record God as setting himself against certain foods, what seem like a random set of customs and practices and people who are not visually perfect.
I need to mention at this point that the ultimate destination in my wrestling match was with the nature of scripture, not God. We will come to that question in the next post. It is worth sticking with God for a little longer, because there are some who have such a high view of scripture that they defend the position that disability = unholiness with no questions asked. They are therefore ready to defend God, and it is worth engaging with their argument.
I will take John Piper as representative, because he has written on this passage and does not duck the central question. I also have some respect for Piper having found his book Future Grace very helpful many years ago. Essentially Piper’s starting point is the perfect nature of God: because he is perfect, his sanctuary must be perfect and anything imperfect therefore defiles the sanctuary and is profane. Piper then creates a bridge into the New Testament which reveals God also to be perfectly merciful and gracious. It is worth quoting Piper at this point:
“Those are the two: unapproachable holiness and overflowing mercy and grace. This overflowing mercy and grace reaches out to the physically, morally, and spiritually imperfect and finds a way in Jesus Christ to declare them to be perfect.”
I find myself a little cowed by this argument, because it feels like he considers it a slam-dunk conversation stopper. But I will push on because I see a flaw. God allows priests who are imperfect in other ways to perform their duties. But when God looks at a disabled priest he sees their physical imperfection as a defect that disqualifies him from performing the duty that his family was selected for. So physical disability is a special kind of imperfection in the eyes of God.
But, for Piper, everything is excused by the fact we will all be complete in heaven:
“[God] would one day not only justify the ungodly and be willing to touch lepers — God himself touching lepers in the flesh — but he would also utterly transform the ungodly into sinless, godly people and take away every leprosy, every disease, every disability, and every deformity.”
I respect John Piper for tackling a tricky question head-on. But I am not convinced by the idea that God cannot deal with disabled people until he has found a way to justify them – surely the justification he is referring to is for every person equally? I also baulk at the idea that this definition of ‘holiness’ is present in Jesus’ understanding of his Father. How is it possible for a disabled person to feel accepted by a god who at some very intrinsic level is offended by their difference?
The quotations in the post above are taken from: https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/does-the-old-testament-alienate-the-disabled