Like many disabled people, I am often approached by Christians who want to pray for me to be healed. While they may be well-intentioned, these encounters often leave me feeling judged as faulty and in need of repair. So I set out to discover what Christianity has to offer disabled people beyond promises of miracle cures.
From time to time, without warning or encouragement, I get approached in the street by Christians who tell me they want to pray for me to get my sight back. Since I became blind as a teenager this has been a regular yet annoying by-product of being an independent disabled person who can walk about on the street.
The last time this happened was on the London underground. The train was packed full of people all studiously ignoring each other when a man put his hand on my shoulder and asked if he could pray for my sight to be restored. But more about that later.
I had always assumed that everyone knew these encounters are a fact of life for people who are visibly disabled. But when one day I told some colleagues about my latest brush with a would-be healer, they were variously fascinated or outraged that anyone would have the cheek to impose their beliefs on me about something so personal.
At this point I should perhaps confess that I am not religious. The message I’ve taken from the Christians who’ve offered me healing is that I need to be “fixed” – just as Jesus “fixed” disabled people in the Gospels. Far from converting me, this has put me off Christianity. So I was interested to learn that it also annoys some disabled Christians.
Reverend Zoe Hemming, vicar of St Andrews Church in the village of Aston in Shropshire, is a part-time wheelchair user who lives with chronic pain. She’s had her own encounters with strangers offering healing prayer and says she finds this approach can be “spiritually abusive”.
“I’ve been in situations where I’ve been talking to another wheelchair user in church and somebody was so determined to pray for us and we just kept ignoring them because we were in the middle of a conversation. In the end he just put his arms on both our shoulders and just prayed. It was really annoying and very disempowering. I was furious.”
Of course, Christians who offer healing do so because, in the Gospels, Jesus healed the sick and commanded his disciples to do the same.
At my school, we learned all about the healing miracles Jesus performed. He told a “cripple” that he was healed and should pick up his stretcher and walk. He cured a blind man or two, healed a woman with a haemorrhage and another who was bent double. He even brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead.
Find out more
Catch up with Damon Rose and Helen Grady’s documentary: Heart and Soul: Pick up your stretcher and walk!
Damon Rose is one of the producers behind the BBC Ouch disability talk podcast
For Candida Moss, the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham, these stories can be alienating for readers who, like her, are disabled.
“I think the main problem for disabled people reading the Bible is that while Jesus does spend a lot of time with people with disabilities, every time he meets them, if they encounter him with faith, he heals them and so he’s sort of like this cathartic scourge that wanders around eradicating disability from the world.”
Another difficulty, says Prof Moss, is that disabled people are often used by the Gospel authors to beef up Jesus’ credentials, showcasing his divine powers.
“When Jesus meets people with disabilities, he fixes them and that’s a sign that he is powerful,” she says. “That relegates people with disabilities to just being there to show the power of God. They’re not really real characters or real people who have feelings and needs and personalities. That pushes them to the margins of the story.”
But Lyndall Bywater, a Christian who writes and teaches about prayer and is herself blind, says it’s important to understand the historical context of Jesus’ healing miracles. While disabled people today might bristle at descriptions of the “pity” Jesus feels for the people he heals, Ms Bywater says Jesus was operating at a time when being disabled meant being poor, unemployed and excluded from mainstream society.
“There was obviously no welfare state, so you’d have been begging on the side of the road. Your life condition would have been pretty terrible and I think pity from Jesus in that context is probably a lot about that sense of exclusion, that sense of destitution that he saw.”
Another motive, she says, was the fact that many disabled people were banned from worshipping at the temple as, under religious law at the time, they were deemed “unclean”.
“Jesus did heal physical illness a lot and I think some of that was because it did restore people to social dignity at the time.”
So if Jesus met me today, empowered as I am with my job and my guide dog, would he still think I need healing?
Lyndall Bywater is sceptical: “If Jesus was walking the streets now,” she says, “I don’t know if he would be healing in the same way. I don’t think Jesus would look at you and think ‘there is someone who needs pity’.”
God has a wheelchair
Some Christians are going even further in rethinking what the Bible has to say about disability. Among them is 16-year-old Becky Tyler, who in 2017 preached to 6,000 people at the Christian festival Greenbelt. Tyler has quadriplegic cerebral palsy and communicates using eye-gaze technology and a speech synthesizer. She tells me she talks to God every day inside her head.
“God says to me that He loves me a lot. He says that I am made in His image and that my disability doesn’t make me any less than an able-bodied person. He loves us all the same.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone born with a severe disability, Becky hasn’t always believed this.
“When I was about 12 years old, I felt God didn’t love me as much as other people because I am in a wheelchair and because I can’t do lots of the things that other people can do. I felt this way because I did not see anyone with a wheelchair in the Bible, and nearly all the disabled people in the Bible get healed by Jesus – so they are not like me.”
She felt alienated by much of what she read in the Bible – until she was given new food for thought.
“My mum showed me a verse from the Book of Daniel (Chapter 7, Verse 9), which basically says God’s throne has wheels, so God has a wheelchair.
“In fact it’s not just any old chair, it’s the best chair in the Bible. It’s God’s throne, and it’s a wheelchair. This made me feel like God understands what it’s like to have a wheelchair and that having a wheelchair is actually very cool, because God has one.”
If you think this is a random moment of silliness from a teenager, Prof Candida Moss says Becky has chanced upon a fresh but perfectly legitimate reading of the Old Testament.
“We don’t get many descriptions of what God is actually like but we get one of them at the beginning of Ezekiel,” she says. “The Prophet has this vision of the Heavenly throne room, where God resides and God is sat on this throne that is pretty much on fire.
“But it’s also described as having wheels within wheels attached to it. And following this scene, if you think of all the scenes of the Bible laid out chronologically, God is always sat in this wheeled throne and in fact moves – leaves the city of Jerusalem – on the wheeled throne and returns to it later on the wheeled throne.”
Although God is depicted walking in the Bible, Prof Moss says this happens earlier – in the Garden of Eden.
“It seems like God is a wheelchair user maybe a thousand years before human beings themselves have thought about wheelchairs.”
So is God disabled? “That is certainly a way to read it” says Prof Moss, admitting that for many, this is a jaw-dropping and theologically challenging idea: “Yes, it’s very counter-intuitive to the image of divine power that we grow up with in Sunday school or Church, but that’s precisely why we should look at these passages – because they challenge us to reconsider what we think is important and what we value highly.”
Prof Moss is part of a group of academics who are carving out a new “theology of disability”. It’s a relatively new academic field, which has only really taken off in the past 10 to 15 years, inspired by pioneering texts like The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (1994) by Nancy L Eiesland.
The body of Jesus
For the Reverand Zoe Hemming, these contemporary readings of Christian scripture have provided new ways of seeing – and coming to terms with – her own disability.
“I can’t believe it took me this long to realise it,” she says, “but when Jesus rose from the dead, his risen body still had scars,” explaining that crucifixion left holes in his hands and feet as well as his side.
“It was profound for me to realise that the most powerful symbol of the disabled body in the Christian story is His.”
She says she is glad that Jesus didn’t come back from the dead as physically whole and perfect. “He came back better than perfect,” she says. “He wore his scars because they told his story.
“That’s the Jesus that I find in Christianity, not the one that wants to normalise everybody.”
Prof Moss says the fact that Jesus retains his scars after the Resurrection suggests that disabled people might also retain their disabilities in the afterlife – something she hopes for herself.
“I think that if I’m not disabled in heaven, I’m not myself so I certainly hope I’ll still be disabled in heaven. I certainly hope that I don’t feel pain in heaven – that seems antithetical to what heaven is. But I still want to be me. And I don’t think that I would be me without the conditions that I have. It’s shaped who I am, how I think, what I do. Everything about my life involves this part of myself, which is integral to who I am.”
I understand this. My visual impairment, along with the things I’ve come to love and cherish as a result of having it, is so bound up with my identity, I would feel a bit weird if I were to suddenly not be blind. That said, I think on balance it would be quite handy being able to see.
I asked Lyndall Bywater, who is also blind, if she would like to be disabled in heaven. “Oh no I hope not,” she replies. “That isn’t because I think that there’s anything wrong with being blind and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it thus far. I just want to be able to get in a sports car and drive a sports car. That’s really what I want to do. So I’m desperately hoping.”
But despite her personal hopes, she believes some people will retain their disabilities in the afterlife.
“The Christian message does have in it this sense of restoration,” she says. “Now what restoration looks like for each of us may well be different. I suspect there might be some surprises in heaven as to people that are like: ‘Do you know what, I have still got this disability because restoration for me was never about that.'”
Prof Candida Moss thinks disability may not have the same meaning in heaven as it does in this life: “I don’t know if you would need to see in heaven. Saint Augustine has a whole conversation about how he’s not sure it’s necessary to be able to see in heaven to love God. That might be because, when you look at descriptions of heaven, people just kind of stand around singing to God, so it might not be as necessary to be able to see because I don’t really know what it’s like. None of us do.”
Next time a Christian approaches me and offers healing, I might try to challenge their theology with some of the new interpretations of scripture I’ve learned from disabled Christians.
The notion that God and Jesus could be interpreted as being disabled may not be mainstream, but it’s a message that is more empowering for disabled people than the idea that we are all faulty and in need of repair. And who knows, maybe if we were approached with the message that God loves us as we are, more disabled people might welcome that conversation.
I was really taken by something Lyndall Bywater said to me. She said the “sighted world” might find it difficult to believe, but she thinks that being alive and at peace with yourself while being blind is a bigger miracle than having your sight restored.
And it’s true. I like me and I like the “blind person” things I do – for want of a better way of putting it.
At the start of this article, I told you about a man who spoke to me on a packed London underground train. Normally when people offer to pray for me to be healed, I say ‘No’. But this man told me that he was a recovering drug addict and alcoholic who had himself been healed by prayer. I got the sense that he really needed me to let him pray over me, so I said ‘Yes’ and let him lay his hands upon me.
I can’t claim to be cured of blindness as a result of his prayer, but I’ll never forget how happy and grateful he appeared to be.
To me it felt very much like the roles had unintentionally been reversed, and that it was the disabled man during the encounter who had given out a dose of healing. The man left the train after giving me a very big manly hug. I felt quite good too, and smiled wondering what the other people in the carriage had made of it, as I plugged my headphones back in.
Additional reporting by Helen Grady