Sunday, October 16, 2005

Seeing Invisable Disabilities

[This essay first appeared in Moody Magazine in 2001. It relates to my recent post, "Suffering Well With Others.]

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, ( 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.


Suzi said...

I hope your wife has some success in finding a doctor who will listen, learn, and help.

It is hard to realize that people DO have an invisible disability, unless they tell you. Then it is hard to know, unless you've had previous experience, what that means.

Bo Grimes said...

I was just, and finally, given a positive diagnosis of celiacs disease after 20+ years of being told I had irritable bowel syndrome. It took getting a B-12 deficiency and peripheral neuropathy to finally get the doctors to dig deeper. When you have IBS you're told to eat lots of fiber. When you have celiacs, wheat, rye and barley (i.e. fiber) slowly debilitate you.

Thanks for the post and the link. I also read your companion post on suffering. God has led me over the past several years to begin to pray as soon as I learn of suffering that He send someone to suffer with the suffering, a "wounder healer" in Nouwen's phrase. His book by that title is also an excellent resource on this topic.

The psalmist tells us, and Paul quotes: "To be angry and sin not." I think we need to learn how to also be compassionate and sin not. We do this in several ways. One you present very well here, and we need to stop letting our good, but thoroughly inept, intentions to cause us to "shoot our wounded." The other way we sin with compassion is by tolerating sin in an effort to love the sinner.

I hate to confess, but I had and sat on your book "Truth Decay" for a couple of years, never finding time for it. Then my church started a Sunday school class last month based around Kimball's "When Religion Becomes Evil." I skimmed the book and was appalled. The bottom line, as you know, is that in order to have peace we must abolish Truth. I was reminded of "Fahrenheit 451." In searching for reviews of the book I found yours, and finally dug into "Truth Decay." Excellent stuff!

I don't mean this pretentiously--as though you have MY approval--but I am so pleased to see someone combating this problem on both fronts. American Christians desperately need more voices like yours (and Stanley Hauerwas's and Robert Jenson's and Richard Neuhaus's, et. al.). I have just started a web site (which I won't plug here) to try and get such views more easily accessible in the public square.

Your writings prove that the head is not the opposite of the heart. They truly exist in a kind of double helix, in a both/and rather than an either/or. Thank-you.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Dear Bo:

Thank you for your reflections. May the God of all comfort encourage you and help you cope.

You can find a review of the abysmal "When Religion Becomes Evil" by me on If you email me, I can send you an electronic copy. The review was first published in "The Denver Post."

Pilgrim said...

I attended a conference of the Christian Council on Disabilities last year that had a section on invisible disabilities. I thought they were talking about cognitive issues. I did not attend that session. Thank you for your post. The woman blogging at My Kid's Mom has fibromyalgia.

Bo Grimes said...

Thanks for the offer, but, as I said, I have already read the review about 6 weeks back, like I also read your review of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Christianity, and Culture: Between God and an Illness, from which much of this is taken, but I had never had a chance to comment on either, or to say thanks.

I'm working on my own review of Kimball's book at the moment, mostly as an exercise, so I'd rather not have other reviews directly in front of me, but thanks again.