Seeing Invisable Disabilities
Jesus had a way of seeing what others missed and ministering to those who were forgotten, shunned, or misunderstood. He touched and healed lepers when everyone else scurried away. He cared for those with chronic afflictions - such as congenital blindness and incurable hemorrhage - while others gave up. He bestowed hope where others scattered the ashes of despair. He was love Incarnate (John 1:14; 1 John 4:16). We need that character of divine love if we’re to see and minister to the hurts of others.
America has made strides in recognizing and assisting people with disabilities. Most public facilities are now accessible to the handicapped. The pool where I swim has a lift for the disabled. The law rightly forbids discriminating against the handicapped (see Lev. 19:14, Deut. 27:18, Matt. 25:40).
In the Christian community, Joni Eareckson Tada has raised people’s awareness of the needs of those who suffer from severe disabilities. She has encouraged the afflicted not to despair, but to trust God to use their broken lives for the glory of God and the good of others.
Still, many disabled people continue to suffer both chronic physical distress and misunderstanding. Their suffering is masked by a healthy appearance. They are not in wheelchairs and do not use canes. Yet their pain and debility is real and chronic. They have "invisible disabilities."
It may be the soul-sapping fatigue, environmental sensitivity, and chronic pain of fibromyalgia, or lupus, or Lyme disease, or multiple sclerosis. These souls suffer not only from their diseases, but also often from the uninformed and hurtful reactions of others.
Those suffering from fibromyalgia, such as my wife, often ricochet from one physician to another, repeatedly encountering the impatience and defeatism that often characterize the medical community's attitude toward those whose ailments are intractable, invisible, and (usually) non-terminal. Insurance routinely refuses to cover needed treatments.
Worse yet, loved ones frequently do not understand the nature of their invisible disability and respond wrongly.When someone looks healthy, we are tempted to tell them to "just buck up" and do what we think they should do. Those with invisible disabilities are often expected to do what is beyond them. We would never tell someone who uses a cane to run a marathon, but just going to the store may be a marathon for someone with lupus.
A seminary student of mine looks healthy, yet he suffers from such chronic and extreme back pain that he lost his medical practice. He also lost a friend who could not accept the limitations that chronic illness put on their relationship.
What can Christians do to discern people’s invisible disabilities and display the love of Christ?
First, we can empathize with them, instead of lecturing or ignoring them. The Book of Hebrews tells us to remember those in prison as though we were shackled with them (13:3). Similarly, we must try to put ourselves into the prison of the chronically ill person’s life. This is difficult, and almost nothing in our hedonistic culture encourages it. Nevertheless, we need empathy to be agents of love and encouragement. Jesus wept; so should we (John 11:35).
Second, we should listen to and believe what the afflicted tell us. My wife looks so healthy and fit that someone in the locker room where we swim thought she was a woman who’d been swimming at top speed for an hour. But if you listen to Rebecca’s story — one of pain and frustration mixed with faith and determination — you’ll find things quite different from how they appear.
Third, we can look for ways to minister to those we know with such conditions. Sherri Connell’s web site, The Invisible Disabilities Advocate, (www.InvisibleDisabilities.com) offers a wealth of materials. Sherri, who suffers from an invisible disability, has a big heart, an indomitable spirit, and much practical and spiritual advice.
Let us seek to have the eyes of Jesus, so we may look beyond appearances and gaze deeply into the lives of those who are suffering. Then we can offer them our love, understanding, and encouragement.