My sister Syble has Down syndrome, so when our family goes out to eat or out anywhere, people notice us. Sometimes they stare. Sometimes they smile. Sometimes they just look away. Young children may ask questions or point. It becomes so expected we don’t even notice it anymore.
But our son James has autism, which can’t really be seen. Usually, it’s heard. If we go to the grocery store and he screeches, people look. If we’re at the park and he jumps and flaps, people notice. Depending on how loud he is or where we are, we sometimes get dirty looks or exasperated sighs in our direction. We’ve even gotten a few questions.
Last month James and I sat down at a potluck our church was having with another church. The lady I sat by gestured to James and asked, “Is he going to grow out of that?” I wasn’t sure what she meant. “His autism? Will he grow out of his autism?” “Yes,” she answered. Then followed up with, “What did you do when you were pregnant to make him that way?” In another conversation I had with a mom at my older son’s theater rehearsal, I was asked “Did you eat a lot of tuna when you were pregnant? I hear that’s what causes those problems.”
I don’t always know how to respond in grace to such questions. They remind me of a question Jesus’ disciples asked Him.
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).
What’s going on here, Jesus? Why is there suffering? Why do we have to see it every day? Why do we have to walk by it? Hear it cry out? Respond to it by either meeting the need or walking away? What is the cause of all this?
We assume they are still close enough for the man to hear this question. In verse six Jesus touches him, so they likely have this conversation just a few feet away. The blind man may have had the same question. If he had known who this man was who passed by and saw him that day, he probably would have asked Him the same questions. “Why Rabbi? Why God? Why this darkness? Why me?”
In Exodus 4:11 the Lord asked Moses, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” It is the Lord. And because it is the Lord who allows these disabilities, these differences, He must have a reason.
Jesus doesn’t answer His disciples with the cause of disability, He answers with the purpose of disability.
“It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).
It’s no one’s fault. His parents aren’t being punished and neither is he. Many parents of special-needs children struggle with this. We wonder if it’s our fault. If we’re being punished by God for something we did or didn’t do.
Nancy Guthrie lost two children soon after their births. She writes, “There is a purpose for this suffering. Like many people who experience difficulty, I immediately made the assumption that my suffering was my fault, that all my sins had caught up with me and I was finally getting what I deserved.” And Amy Julia Becker, who wroteGood and Perfect Gift about the birth of her daughter with Down syndrome, says, “Penny is neither a rebuke nor a reward. She is a child, not a product of sin or of biological happenstance or of any lesson we needed to learn. No. This happened that the glory of God might be revealed.”
The very first Westminster Catechism gets right to the point of our purpose in life:
Question 1: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
This man was born blind so his life would display the power of God. So his blindness would display the power of God. So his begging would display the power of God. So the very corner he sat on would display the power of God.
So in response to the question “What did you do to make him like that?” my answer is, “His life is a testimony of the power of God. He glorifies God. In his autism. In his struggles. In his flaps and screeches. In his triumphs and successes. When he tries a new food and learns to use the potty. When he is the reason our church now has a special-needs ministry.”
I’m learning right along with the disciples. It’s not about me (or the tuna I ate or didn’t eat). It’s not even about James. It’s about how everything in creation can bring God glory.
Sandra Peoples is a special-needs sibling and mom. She’s the author of Unexpected Blessings: The Joys and Possibilities of Life in a Special-Needs Family. She and her husband and their two boys live outside of Houston, TX.