Seventeen years ago, I was 20 weeks pregnant with our first child, and my husband and I found out via an ultrasound that we were having a healthy baby girl. When Penny entered the world, she scored an 8 out of 10 on the Apgar test, an immediate measure of baby health. He made eye contact with the nurse and fell asleep and pooped and cried. She came home from the hospital two days later.
But the doctors also told us they suspected Penny had Down syndrome. We wondered if she was a healthy baby girl. As we took her in for regular checkups, we learned that Penny was so small she didn’t show up on the growth charts, and she rarely achieved developmental milestones “on time.”
He had a small hole in his heart that required surgery. He needed glasses. His ears were filled with fluid. She had a higher risk of childhood leukemia, celiac disease, and autism. She was also learning, growing and smiling. She loved us and we loved her.
We live in a world that measures health by the absence of disease, injury, and disability. The multitrillion-dollar global wellness movement seeks to expand our understanding of health through active efforts to promote human flourishing. Yet neither health nor wellness, as we define them in contemporary society, does not make room for people with disabilities.
Furthermore, despite the trillions spent on wellness and health care, we face an epidemic of loneliness, pain, depression, and other mental health concerns, not to mention the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 and the chronic pain epidemic. .
We need more than medical intervention and wellness retreats to heal. The biblical understanding of health gives us a holistic experience of peace and connection within our bodies, minds, spirits, and communities. It shows us a different way to receive healing and bring healing to our hurting world.
Dozens of stories throughout the gospels testify to Jesus’ holistic approach to restoration that extends beyond the bodies of individuals in need. Not only does Jesus heal people without physical ailments—his encounter with Zacchaeus and the woman who washes his feet with her hair are both moments of healing and salvation—but his healing extends beyond the individual to the community.
Jesus reunites the widow of Nain with her dead son. He sends the Gerasin demonic back to his people. He sends the lepers to the priests to welcome them into a life of worship. For Jesus, healing is about reconnecting with self, God, and community. The contemporary Body of Christ can reflect this renewal by building communities of welcome and belonging.
In antiquity, the Greeks and Romans glorified ideal bodies and rejected abnormal ones. Both early and contemporary Christians often followed in his footsteps, associating physical strength with God’s blessings and invulnerability with evil. And yet early theologians understood that the biblical framework for health differed from this pagan way of viewing humans.
In Miraculously Wounded: Theology, Disability, and the Body of Christ, Brian Brock draws on Augustine’s insight that, because of our own sinfulness, we may mistake bodily prowess for signs of God’s favor and therefore dismiss the “wonders” of God’s creation. Augustine considers how an athlete’s physique may be indicative of a hedonistic obsession with the flesh, and the abnormalities of a child born with the chromosomal condition may be a surprise. According to Augustine, the abnormal body and mind are sometimes interactive acts of God given for our mutual welfare.
The church has a history of rejecting or healing individuals with disabilities instead of looking at people with abnormal bodies who can help us all to see who God is. But both biblical writers and early theologians observed that God included people with abnormal bodies and minds among those who were created awesomely and wonderfully.
Just as Penny transformed our ideas about health and wellness from the earliest days of her life, people with various intellectual and physical disabilities, chronic pain, and other medical concerns are invited to join the Church for a broader understanding of health and wholeness. can do.
In Luke 14, Jesus depicts the kingdom of God as a banquet where “the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame” come first to the table (v. 21). Then the rest of the town is invited. Disability and disease remain in this feast.
But this healthy community is defined by relationships – giving and receiving with each other and in God’s loving presence. If our churches begin to welcome those who live in bodies and minds that do not conform to our societal norms, perhaps we too will build healthier communities that point to the kingdom of God.
Penny is 16 now, and last summer we went to Nauvoo, Alabama, for a week of Hope Heels Camp. This is a camp for families affected by a disability. Adults and children with autism, spina bifida, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, and various neurodegenerative conditions come together for a week of celebration. Amidst the visible hardship is a talent show and a spa day and a dance party and tremendous joy.
On the last night of camp, I had the honor of opening the doors to usher the campers into the dining room for a celebratory feast. Everyone came in—limping, walking with canes, pushed in wheelchairs, wearing earmuffs to block out the excessive noise—and beamed with visible happiness. In that moment, I saw a healthy community filled with people of diverse abilities who bore witness to God’s healing love.
The Church can extend a different message of health and wellness if we broaden our understanding of healing beyond the individualistic and metaphysical influences of biomedical reforms and wellness culture. Jesus invites us instead to turn to a more expansive, humble posture that informs God’s healing work and the amazing way the Spirit brings healing to the world through biblical and theological witness.
This concept of health and wellness neither ignores nor denigrates the body, but it does not idealize physical health or even life itself. Rather, a biblical understanding of health centers on love for God and love for one another, rather than personal power or physical ideals.
From this perspective the purpose of health is not personal fulfillment, personal longevity, or even freedom from pain, although all of these things may come. The purpose and measure of health is a mutual relationship of sacrificial love.
Amy Julia Baker is an author and speaker. his most recent book is To Be Good: An Invitation to Wholeness, Healing, and Hope, is speaking out Christianity TodayGuest opinion column of.
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