Trust, Disability, and the Cult of Normalcy (Psalm 115)

I currently know several young couples who are expecting a child.  For some it’s their very first—for others, the latest model in the assembly line.  While some prefer to know the sex, others prefer the element of surprise.  But all of them say essentially the same thing: “As long as it’s healthy.”

But there are countless young couples whose children don’t fit traditional definitions of “healthy.”  Autism, Down’s syndrome, Sickle Cell anemia—these represent just a few conditions that one can be born into, and endure a lifetime.

Today we’re talking about how to trust God when confronted with the reality of disability and illness.  This subject, of course, extends beyond the boundaries of childbirth, but into the various infirmities that come our way—whether it be cancer, disease, or debilitating forms of depression.  While there may be seasons of life that bring more suffering than others, what holds the above conditions together is their durative character, their tendency to not shape not just our lives, but those around us.

Mind you, I write this as a 30-something single man; I’ve never really endured life with an autistic son or daughter, never directly faced any long-term illness.  But I also know that the Bible makes no promises of smooth sailing for any of us—the book of Ecclesiastes ends with the author admitting that at his age, he often wakes up wishing he hadn’t.  Live long enough, and you’ll feel the same.

All the more frustrating is the sense that no one understands.  Other parents with their (ahem) “normal” children could never understand the nuances of dealing with a son or daughter with disability.  No one could understand how daily rituals become battlegrounds when fighting cancer, disease, or depression.  And although we worship a powerful God, it’s actually relatively rare that He would reverse these infirmities.

TO YOUR NAME

Psalm 115 is what’s known as a “communal trust psalm,” meaning it moves from an individual psalm of trust to a community’s promise to trust in God.  The original author is unknown, as is its circumstance.  But perhaps that helps its message seem all the more timeless.

The psalm opens with familiar words:

Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!

In his commentary on psalms, Derek Kidner lists the many historic individuals who quoted these lines following a personal victory—such as William Wilberforce when the bill passed abolishing the slave trade.  What is “glory?”  If you recall from a previous post, the word “glory” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “weight” or “significance.”  To give God glory means to reveal His significance—even in times of difficulty.  This is why Pastor John Piper could write a popular article called “Don’t waste your cancer.”  Why?  Because if our goal is joy and not merely earthly happiness, then even disability, disease, and death can be opportunities to reveal God’s significance.

IDOLATRY OF NORMALCY

The next verses deal with the reaction of others to the same situation:

Why should the nations say,  “Where is their God?”

Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.

They have mouths,  but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.

They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.

They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.

Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.

In Israel’s day, the nation turned to the makeshift gods of other religions as a source of comfort and protection.  But while the idols may look different, we are just as guilty.  An “idol” is anything you look to for security, comfort, and protection apart from God.  And when confronted with disability and disease, it’s only natural to look with longing eyes at images of “health” and “normalcy.”  In a famous article “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair,” David Powlison observes that the surest indicator is the way that our emotions become entangled with these idols.  Lust, yearning, fear of losing control—these are all examples of hidden idolatry.  Mind you, we need not heap more grief and blame on those struggling to deal with situations of disability; all of us are guilty of this at some point or another.  But my larger point is that our world largely places enormous value on being “normal.”

In an article for the Baylor University ethics journal, Thomas E. Reynolds writes of what he calls the “cult of normalcy.”  According to Reynolds, the cult of normalcy arises when we see a healthy, able-bodied individual, and assume that all people should possess the same faculties.  But we know from experience that this is not so.  And, ironically, in a society that values “tolerance” and the embracing of “diversity,” we have little room for those who deviate from social or medical norms.  So much so that it’s not unusual for parents to be pressured to terminate their pregnancies if prenatal screenings reveal such things as Down’s syndrome.  But Reynolds writes:

“Against the cult of normalcy, disability foregrounds vulnerability as a fundamental condition of sharing life together.  It reminds us that wholeness is not self-sufficiency, but the genuine communion that results from sharing our vulnerable humanity with one another in light of God’s grace.”  (Thomas E. Reynolds, “The Cult of Normalcy”)

Therefore to repent of the idol of normalcy means recognizing the ways that God remains at work even in a life that has been so radically altered.

OUR HELP AND SHIELD

The psalm returns focus to God:

Israel, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield.

10 house of Aaron, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield.

11  You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield.

12  The Lord has remembered us; he will bless us; he will bless the house of Israel; he will bless the house of Aaron; 13  he will bless those who fear the Lord, both the small and the great.

14  May the Lord give you increase, you and your children!

15  May you be blessed by the Lord, who made heaven and earth!

16  The heavens are the Lord‘s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man.

17 The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence.

18  But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and forevermore. Praise the Lord!

In other words, the psalm hopes that God would exchange suffering for blessing.  Granted, we are never actually promised lives of blessing, but the larger point is that God can be counted on in times of great grief.

In the gospel of John, Jesus’ close friend Lazarus dies.  When Jesus arrives at his home, He is greeted by throngs of mourners, and even some individuals who blame Jesus for Lazarus’ death: “if you had been here,” Lazarus’ sister said, “my brother would not have died.”  But Jesus, His eyes brimming with tears, surveys the scene only to respond: “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”  And Jesus proves His point by bringing Lazarus back from the dead.

What’s happening here?  It’s easy to get distracted by the “creatureliness” of the human condition.  Friends and loved ones may furrow their brows at the outbursts of an autistic child, or the webbing of tubes and wires that monitor and sustain a loved one while in the oncology ward.  Survivors may live with a complex regimen of medication that they live with the rest of their natural life.  Jesus is saying—then and now—You’re focusing on all the wrong things.  Don’t look at those things; look at me.  You want life?  I am life.  You want health restored?  I am the resurrection. 

And the most miraculous thing of all is that through Jesus, God entered into the human story so that He could identify with our every struggle, to die a death that we deserved, and then rise to life again to show us that there is a brighter future regardless of our present.  And so we can sing a song of trust—not because we sugar-coat the cares of our present, but because we know that they point us toward something greater to come.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

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