Seventeen years ago, I was 20 weeks pregnant with our first child, and my husband and I learned through an ultrasound that we were going to have a healthy baby girl. When Penny was born, she scored 8 out of 10 on the Apgar test, an instant measure of baby health. She nursed, made eye contact, slept, pooped, and cried. She came home from the hospital two days later.
But doctors also said they suspected Penny had Down syndrome. We wondered if she was a healthy baby girl after all. When we took her for regular checkups, we learned that Penny was so small that she didn’t appear in growth charts and rarely achieved developmental milestones “on time”.
He had a small hole in his heart that required surgical intervention. He needed glasses. His ears were filled with fluid. They had a higher risk of childhood leukemia, celiac disease, and autism. He was also learning, growing and smiling. He loved us and we loved him.
We live in a world that measures health by the absence of disease, injury, and disability. The trillion-dollar global wellness movement seeks to expand our understanding of health through proactive efforts to support human development. Yet health or wellness as we define it in contemporary society does not make room for people with disabilities.
Moreover, despite the trillions spent on health and healthcare, we are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness, pain, depression and other mental health issues, not to mention the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 and an epidemic of chronic pain.
We need more than medical interventions and wellness retreats to heal. A biblical understanding of health offers us a holistic experience of peace and connection within our bodies, minds, spirits and communities. It shows us a different way of receiving healing and bringing healing to our hurt world.
Dozens of stories throughout the gospels testify to Jesus’ holistic approach that goes beyond the bodies of individuals in need of restoration. Jesus not only heals people without bodily ailments—his encounters with Zacchaeus and the woman who washes his hair and feet are moments of both healing and salvation—but his healing goes beyond the individual and spreads to society.
Jesus reconnects Nain’s widow to his deceased son. Gerasene sends his demon back to his people. He sends lepers to priests so that they can return to a life of worship. For Jesus, healing is about reconnecting with the self, God, and society. The contemporary body of Christ can reflect this renewal by creating communities of welcome and belonging.
In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans glorified idealized bodies and rejected abnormal ones. Early and contemporary Christians alike generally followed in their footsteps, equating bodily strength with God’s blessing and infirmity with evil. Still, the early theologians realized that a biblical framework for health differentiated people from this pagan viewpoint.
Inside The Wonderfully Wounded: Theology, Disability, and the Body of ChristBrian Brock draws on Augustine’s insight that, due to our own sinfulness, we can confuse physical strength with manifestations of God’s grace and therefore ignore the “miracles” of God’s creation. Augustine thinks an athlete’s physique may well be a sign of his hedonistic obsession with meat, and the abnormalities of a baby born with a chromosomal condition may well be a miracle. According to Augustine, unusual bodies and minds are sometimes conceived as God’s communicative acts given for our mutual good.
The Church has a history of rejecting or wanting to correct people with disabilities rather than looking to people with atypical bodies as people who can help us all see who God is. But both the Gospel writers and the early theologians saw that God included people with unusual bodies and minds among those who were created in a terrible and wonderful way.
Just as Penny has upended our ideas about health and wellness from the first days of her life, people with various mental and physical disabilities, chronic pain, and other medical concerns can invite the church to a broader understanding of health and wholeness.
In Luke 14, Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a feast where “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” come first to the table (verse 21). Then the rest of the town is invited. Injury and sickness remain at this feast.
But this healthy community is defined by relationships of giving and receiving together in God’s loving presence. If our churches begin to welcome those living in bodies and minds that do not conform to our social norms, perhaps we will create healthy communities that point to the kingdom of God.
Penny is now 16 and last summer we went to Nauvoo, Alabama for a week of Hope Heals Camp. This is a camp for families with disabilities. Adults and children with autism, spina bifida, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries and various neurodegenerative disorders gather for a one-week celebration. There’s a talent show, a spa day and a dance party, and tremendous joy amid visible challenges.
On the last night of camp, I had the honor of opening the doors so campers could enter the dining room for a celebratory feast. Everyone flocked—people limping, walking with canes, being pushed into wheelchairs, wearing earplugs for protection from excessive noise—and smiled with visible delight. At that moment, I saw a healthy community of people with diverse abilities who testify to God’s healing love.
If we expand our understanding of healing beyond the individual and hyperphysical emphasis of biomedical corrections and wellness culture, the church can deliver a different health and wellness message. Rather, Jesus invites us to return to a broader, humble stance informed by biblical and theological testimony about God’s healing work and the amazing healing of the Spirit to the world.
This concept of health and wellness does not ignore or despise the body, but it also does not idolize bodily health or even life itself. Rather, the Biblical understanding of health centers on love of God and love for one another, rather than individual strength or bodily ideals.
From this point of view, the goal of health is not self-fulfillment, individual longevity, or even relief from pain, even if all these things come. The goal and measure of health is the interrelationship of altruistic love.
Amy Julia Becker is an author and speaker. latest book Being Well: An Invitation to Integrity, Healing, and Hope. To talk Christianity todayguest comment column.
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