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Counseling People Affected by Disability

Truth in Love 333

Providence assures us that not only is God working out His master plan for the universe, but He's also at work carrying out His will for our good and His glory.

Oct 18, 2021

Dale Johnson: This week, once again, I am delighted to have with us Paul Tautges who is the senior pastor at Cornerstone Community in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. Paul has been around ACBC for quite some time. He’s a certified member and a Fellow of ours as well. So Paul gets to do quite a bit of supervision for our members seeking certification. I’m so grateful for his ministry. He’s been faithful to pastor and I love the way he always describes his role as a minister of the Word —pastoral first and then counseling flows out of that ministry. For those of you who are pastors, I encourage you to think through that mentality. That’s a very biblical perspective of shepherding. Paul has several books that he’s written on those topics. I’ll include some of those in the show notes.

But today I want to talk a little bit more specifically about a book that he’s written recently. We actually talked about it last week. When Disability Hits Home is a book produced by Shepherd Press and I’m delighted that Paul has written this with several contributions from Joni Eareckson Tada. Last week, we talked specifically about the theology behind the book, the purpose, who Paul is targeting as an audience here. But I want to bring this into practicality because, you know, it’s one thing to have an idea of what I think to be true theoretically about theology and about an understanding of suffering, and having a view of the image of God in man and the value of a person. It’s one thing to have those ideas in your mind. It’s another thing, Paul, altogether, when someone who is ridden with some sort of disability who’s sitting in front of you —how do we address this? Or a family is sitting in front of you who’s wrestling with some of the turmoil and difficulty of the suffering of the one who’s disabled. That’s another thing altogether.

So, I want us to talk very practically today about how to counsel those who are affected in this way. So in your book you talk about several things, but two common temptations that we typically face when disability enters a person’s life —so what I want you to do is to help express some of those. The first temptation is to blame someone else. Like, why is this happening? And we’re looking for answers to try and settle our hearts, but can you explain some of the basic ways that you would counsel parents? For example, maybe if they’re blaming themselves or blaming something else around them because that’s their natural tendency. How would you start helping them? 

Paul Tautges: Sure, first I think, you know, it’s good for us to just acknowledge that this response is a typical human response. We find it in Scripture. We find it, you know, in everyday life. We want to automatically connect personal suffering to personal sin. You know, we reason that, well God is good and therefore He cannot be behind this accident or this tragedy or this evil. Therefore, somewhat, it has to be the fault of somebody involved in this, the person who is suffering or someone who’s connected to the person who’s suffering. I’m just so thankful for the honesty of the Scriptures. We have examples in in the Old Testament and the New that really help us in this regard. The classic example in the Old Testament is the Book of Job. We don’t want to be like Job’s three friends who were miserable counselors and who were blaming Job for the physical affliction and all the loss in his life – that there had to be something that he was to blame for. So thankful for the book of Job being part of the Scriptures because God has pretty much destroyed that notion. He destroys the credibility of the notion that all suffering is a result of the sin of the sufferer. Now obviously, you know, when we think of the whole big picture, there was no suffering prior to the fall in Genesis 3, so there’s a sense in which we say that all suffering comes from sin in a generic kind of way. But that’s very different than saying, okay, this person is suffering in this way and therefore there must be some sin caused. So the life of Job is a place that I go to to counsel.

But also John 9 is a great example. The disciples had the same problem as the counselors of job. They had an incomplete theology which resulted in men asking the wrong question. They were wrestling with the problem of this man born blind and so they were trying to figure out, okay, who should be held responsible for this man’s disability? So they asked Jesus, who sinned? Was it this man or was it his parents? And Jesus says, basically, you’re really wrong, disciples. You are wrong. It wasn’t this man or his parents, but that God would be glorified. That the works of God might be displayed in him. So, there’s a clear example that the governing force behind that man’s disability was not any one person’s sin, but it was God’s bigger agenda to bring glory to himself. Now in saying all of that, of course, I’m not saying that some disabilities and some physical suffering is not caused by someone doing something wrong. Let’s say a drunk driver runs through a stoplight. smashes into your car, and you or one of your children, or your spouse, is now going to live a life of disability the rest of their lives. Okay, so someone there was to blame for the accident. So there are secondary causes of disability, but when we think biblically, we have to understand that God is still Sovereign over all of that. Foremost in my mind, as I’m counseling a person affected by disability – whether they are the person or their family members are afflicted with disability – I want to counsel them with the good wise character of God. I want to counsel them concerning the attributes of God. What is God like? What is his character? And then I want to use Biblical truth that exalts the character of God to shift their focus away from themselves and what they think they might have done wrong to the bigger purposes of God, and also to introduce the concept of mystery. I think we are people who are uncomfortable with mystery. We like things to be nailed down. We like to understand things fully and so I like to use Deuteronomy 29:29, “the secret things belong to the Lord our God.” So there are some things that we don’t understand in the workings of God, but we do have so much given to us in Scripture that God has given to us to help us to know how to walk by faith. So I want to lift up the glory of God. I want to lift up the character of God. I want to lift up the comforting presence of God. And if a person is dealing with legitimate guilt over something they have done wrong that has resulted in suffering, then of course I want to take them to Jesus. I want to take them to cross. I want to help them to see that if they’re truly trusting in Christ then there’s no condemnation and they need to live in a joy that forgiveness. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s right. And the beauty of what you’re describing here is – for our counselors, I want you to see, Paul has a Biblical grid. Do you see how he’s looking through to help people to understand? No matter the situation, there is a perspective that God has given that helps us to understand how we respond appropriately to God, no matter what the situation. And I think that’s the beauty of what you’re trying to do here, Paul, is help us to destroy our natural tendency to ask these questions. And it’s not that these questions are evil in and of themselves, it’s a natural tendency, but you’re responding with Biblical realities that we often dismiss in moments like this. Now, I don’t want to keep you paused here for much because I want you to keep going, but you talk in the book about four pillars of truth, which sort of build this framework of thinking Biblically about disability. So I want you to describe a little bit about those pillars and how they influence as sort of a framework the way that you counsel Biblically. 

Paul Tautges: This framework does form that grid through which then we interpret. And as Biblical counselors, that’s our goal. Our goal is then to interpret the information that we have through a Biblical grid because we don’t trust our own reason. We should not trust our own reason because of the effects of the fall. We have to interpret all data gathered through general revelation through the infallibility of special revelation, which is Scripture. So, these pillars are just so crucial. The first one deals with the image of God. Every being is created in God’s image and for His purposes and therefore it has immeasurable value. Every human life has immeasurable value. So that has a direct impact on, okay, what decision do I make now? This impacted my daughter and her husband few years ago when they discovered that their first child would not survive birth. And so this truth impacts, how now do we care for this unborn child who will, by all human prediction, probably die before birth, and if she does live through the birthing process, she will not survive long. And so that truth, that pillar of God’s immeasurable value of that human being, has a direct impact on how now do we treat this person? The second pillar is that God hides gospel treasure in earthen vessels. We are earthen vessels. He has hidden gospel treasure within us and the way He makes that treasure more visible is through weakness, through the weakness of suffering. So He uses our weakness. He uses suffering to actually draw attention to His strength in His glory. This is, I think, perhaps the greatest contribution of Joni Eareckson Tada’s life to the body of Christ. For the last 53 years, God has been showing His glory and His strength through her incredible weakness and the gospel is more visible through her suffering than if she was physically strong. A third pillar is that God’s grace is sufficient for us. And so, then our weakness then becomes a platform for the greater display of His glory and His power and His grace, but it’s to be displayed not in isolation, but in loving community. And He has designed the local church according to God’s brilliant design. He created us as interdependent beings. He has saved us by His glory, through the grace of the gospel. And now He has placed us within these interdependent relationships within the family of God. And so our weakness actually is a platform for God to get more glory. And then the fourth pillar is that we have to remember that all of our earthly suffering is temporary and it is given to us by God to shift our hope away from all of the things that we naturally, in our flesh, look to for hope and confidence. To shift away from that to the hope of the resurrection glory. That none of the suffering is worth comparing, Paul says, to the glory that is awaiting us in Christ. We are earthbound people and so it is natural for us to look to earthly things for confidence, for stability, for hope. God uses suffering to strip those hopes away so that we will look to Christ and Christ alone. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s right. Even when you talk about this framework, you use the word providence and you talk about a common question that people ask when they’re in situations like this, or when they’re enduring suffering. Where is God in all of this? Or where’s God, particularly, in this case, in my disability or in my child’s disability? In that, you respond with this idea of providence. Explain a little bit of what you mean about the beauty of the providence of God in answering this question. 

Paul Tautges: I think providence and sovereignty here are very much connected. But when we think of sovereignty, we think more of power and authority and governance. Providence has more to do with how God uses his authority, and his infinite power and wisdom to guide and preserve every part of His creation toward His good purposes. What I love about the doctrine of providence is that providence assures us that not only is God working out his master plan for the universe, but He’s also at work carrying out His will for our good and His glory. He is not disconnected from what is happening in our lives. He is not far away. He’s always present. He’s near. He’s attentive to all of our ways and all of our needs. I think one of the best statements on the providence of God comes from Jesus in Luke 12 where He says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” So, if God knows even the number of hairs on our head, then that seems to me to be Jesus’ way of saying to us that God is very well acquainted, intimately acquainted, with everything that is going on in our lives. Well, I want to run to that kind of God. I want to run to that kind of God for the help that I need. 

Dale Johnson: You mentioned Joni’s weakness. So much so in folks who struggle with disability, or who have been given the stewardship of disability, we see that beauty of the Gospel in earthenware, was the language that you used. One of the things that I’ve said about Joni, and I say this about so many others with physical disabilities, is, they see reality better than the rest of us. What I mean by that is, Joni wakes up every day knowing that she’s dependent on other people for help. She’s dependent for moving about, being able to eat food, being able to do most of what she does. That’s more of a reality that the Scripture gives for all of us. It’s that utter dependence on people. In Chapter 3 of your book, you sort of hint at some of these ideas where you describe that physical disabilities provide a visible image of spiritual realities.In God’s sight, we are all disabled. I think that’s really insightful, Paul. I want you to talk a little bit about that idea and how we care for those who have disability. How they see differently than we do. And I would even say, maybe they see more clearly than the rest of us do. 

Paul Tautges: Yeah, physical suffering has a way of causing us to look at life through, I think, a more accurate lense. If we are humbly submitting, you know, our intellect and reasoning to the authority of Scripture. You know, according to Scripture, every human being is blind, deaf, cognitively disabled to some degree in our hearts. And I like to say that inability is our greatest disability, but that’s why Jesus came. Jesus came to cure that spiritual disability. What I love about Jesus in the gospels–we’re going through the gospel of Mark as a church, we’ve been going through it for quite some time–in the gospels, you see Jesus meeting real needs. Not always does he meet the real physical needs of people, but sometimes He does. But He always uses those contexts to draw out spiritual lessons and to draw attention to the greater needs, which are the spiritual needs. I think that we should do the same. Like Jesus, we should show genuine compassion for the suffering of others, but our ministry needs to go deeper than meeting physical needs. We need to care for their souls and there’s no better place to do that than within the local family of God, known as the church. So we need to minister the beautiful truths of Scripture that lift up the character of God and the love and compassion of Christ. I like to say this way, we need to counsel people with a person not merely with principles. The principles of Scripture come to us from a person and sometimes as biblical counselors, we forget to make that connection. If all we’re doing is counseling people with principles, then we run the risk of detaching those principles in a law like kind of way from the person who gave those principles to us. So, I don’t want to connect people to principles. I want to connect people with the person who gave the principles. The principles are true and they should be applied to our lives because the one who gave them to us is the way the truth and the life. And that’s what I want to connect to people. That’s who I want to connect people with and that’s the key. 

Dale Johnson: That is the key. Now, you made sort of a transition there where you’re talking about how care rooted in the church is really the aim. I love that. When I’m working with my counseling students and we’re talking about any particular counseling issue, I always help them to think through this question, how can the church contribute in this case? How can the church be a part of the solution for the problem in this person’s life. In the final chapter of your book, it’s titled, Doing Life Together in Gracious Community. I want you to sort of flesh out what that’s about, because you’re really answering that question, how’s the church part of the solution here? And what is it that you and Joni are really hoping to accomplish within the wider body of Christ on the subject. 

Paul Tautges: Well, I think it really comes down to us getting church right. Getting our ecclesiology right. The doctrine of the church. And I think for me, what stands out most of all is when we look at the New Testament. The number one analogy for the church is family. Familial language–brother, sister, brotherhood–is the number one language use of the church in the New Testament, familial language. So that tells me then that the local church is first and foremost a local family of God, a local visible representation of the family of God. So, that is how we have to think of the church–as a visible representation of the family of God. And when we get that right, then it opens up our minds to, how do we function best as the family of God? How do we love people best as the family of God? And then we see the brilliance of God’s design and then we understand, for example, Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12, that the church is the body. The church is a body. In fact, it’s interesting that Paul doesn’t say the church is like a body. He says the church is a body. In other words, it is a living organism with many different parts. No single part is more important than another. Every part, it says, is indispensable. So disability draws attention to the value and the necessity of every member of the body of Christ. See, we live in a world that deifies human strength and glorifies human abilities. Disability reminds us that the church cannot function without the weaker and the weakest members. That’s why I say disability blesses our churches, because it serves as a constant reminder of the temporal nature of our bodies. We’re looking forward to the day when the Lord Jesus returns. I think of 1 John 3:2, “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” That’s what we are now. We are now God’s children and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him because we shall see Him as He is. So, disability has a way of reminding us how temporal the human body is. When you think about it, Dale, if you and I live long enough, you and I both will get to the point where we have a disability and we will be fully dependent on other people to continue to function. So, when we get to that point, do we want to be able to function as fully as we can within the family of God? Or do we want to be an isolated member outside somewhere on the fringe? Well, I know what you think of the family of God and I know what I think, so I know the answer to that question. That’s that’s the role the church has to play. 

Dale Johnson: Well, I think that what you do to shake people’s paradigm is, it’s not just the church ministering to those who are disabled. They become a part of the life of the body to where that ministry is mutual and that’s a part of what the family of God is intended to accomplish and the beauty of what God can teach us with every member of the body. I think that is a profound statement that we need to carry with us as we think about the beauty of God’s design of the church and then every member that he brings to us and how they contribute to the ministry of sanctification among the body which is the purpose. Paul, this has been great, brother, and I know this is going to be an encouragement to our counselors. Very practical, Biblical wisdom on how to how to talk through specific issues, even when they’re really difficult. God, in His wisdom, has given us the beauty of his Word that’s life-giving, no matter the situation and you’ve helped us to see that through these past couple of podcasts and I appreciate that. 

Paul Tautges: Thanks Dale. I really appreciate being with you. If I could just say one more thing, I think that what Joni and I really hope and pray about this book is that it’s going to be used in churches to help them develop a Biblical view of suffering, that includes disability, and that God will use it to awaken the church to one of the largest unreached people groups in the world, which is people affected by disabilities, who need to know the love of God and the peace that comes from knowing and walking with Christ. And to the degree that God uses it, to that end we will be thrilled.

Dale Johnson: Amen. We even see in the Scriptures where God uses these things for his glory and the church needs some of that and I appreciate that.