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When Disability Hits Home

How does the suffering of disability fit within the framework of God's good work, and how does it fit within the framework of the gospel?

Oct 11, 2021

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast I am joined with Dr. Paul Tautges. So delighted getting to know Dr. Tautges. I remember, Paul, before I knew you well, that I always wondered, how do you say that guy’s last name? I was always curious and I’m grateful that I’ve sorted that out now. It’s been a delight, honestly, to get to know you, Paul, and to know some of your work. I appreciated a lot of what you had written even before we met personally. Paul is the senior pastor at Cornerstone Community in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. He’s written several books. And today, actually, we’re going to talk about your latest book, When Disability Hits Home: How God Magnifies His Grace in Our Weakness and Suffering.

Paul, you’re in a very unique place to be able to talk about this subject—And this most recent book with Shepherd Press, which I think is an outstanding volume and I’m glad that you’ve contributed in this way—But you’re in a unique position to write a book like this with, not just the theological knowledge and pastoral experience, but also, you’ve walked through this issue with several members of your own family. So, I appreciate the candor with which you write, the honesty with which you describe, but the beauty of doctrine that you bring to bear on the image of God in man and helping us to understand that and to understand that well. So I want you to talk about your newest book. This idea of when disability hits home. It’s not written from some sort of high and lofty position but the ups and downs of every single day. And I appreciate the way that you described that on the ground level where doctrine meets life. Help us to understand a little bit about that journey and how this book came about. 

Paul Tautges: Well, thanks Dale. It’s always an honor to be on the podcast with you. Well, disability has been part of our lives for over 30 years. So, Karen and I have been on this journey for most of our married life. It started out with hearing impairment in one of our children over 30 years ago and then later on, as more children came along, we saw this pattern of hearing impairment in several of our infants and then resulting in one of those four hearing-impaired children also then being cognitively disabled and also being on the autism spectrum. She is now 17 years old and cognitively somewhere in the younger elementary years, and that’s probably where she will remain. So, she will be with us as long as we’re able to take care of her. So this will be a part of our lives forever, which we think is a great blessing.

Some people wonder why I talk about the blessing of disability and I think it’s because it has done so much for us personally in our walk with the Lord. It’s done so much for our family and drawing us together. It has certainly expanded our heart for families affected by disability. As a pastor, I think it’s given me a lot more compassion for people who are suffering. As a counselor, I think I’m a lot more patient with people and I try to understand the situation that they are in before I just start spouting off biblical principles that they ought to know or they ought to be applying. But I think for myself, as a husband, as a father, what it did for me, in the beginning, it just drove me into the Scriptures to search for anchors of truth that would be for me, things I could run back to, to cling to in times of doubt and times of wondering how in the world I could be adequate for what God was calling me to be and do. And that resulted in really developing a theology of suffering that works in everyday life because it’s biblical and a theology of suffering that’s strong enough to stand up to the challenges of disability. Then I think too, as a pastor, it has developed within me a firm conviction that people with disabilities don’t need a separate disability ministry in the church, what they need most of all is to be fully integrated into the family life of the local church. I think that’s the challenge that I would like to, you know, through this book, give to every church leader because families with disability live with a lot of isolation, a lot of loneliness, and for them to be welcomed fully into the life of the church is—all of that together is really the passion behind this book. 

Dale Johnson: That’s great. I remember the church where I served in a small town in Florida. We became known as the church that would care for those who had special needs children and it was really interesting because I don’t feel like we did anything that special, to be honest. I think we were just willing to be people who took care of the parents, who were willing to take care of the children, who were willing to, you know, endure anything that might be awkward, but just to minister. So it was nothing special. No particular program that was instituted or anything like that.

I think it’s interesting because you’re helping us to see that the practical ministry of the Word first has to be rooted in theology. And you mentioned a theology of suffering which is absolutely necessary and critical. It even begins, I think with a proper theology of personhood—who a person is and the beauty of the value of a person being made in the image of God. And from there, it fleshes out to understand what God has given and entrusted us with, as a steward, to now build that beautiful theology of suffering, which I’ve heard you talk about and which you express even in this particular book. So, I love the way that you weave in and out, never leaving the foundation of theology but always helping people to see how it’s intended to be fleshed out. I think that’s a good encouragement for churches as well, to not be afraid of situations that might be awkward as it pertains to families with disabilities. They’re normal people made in the image of God and who want to be integrated into the life of the body. What a beautiful way to minister. Now the title seems to sort of imply, when we talk about disability, that it’s written for a person who has a disability, or maybe to a family that’s been affected in some way by disability, but I’m curious to know, do you have some other people in mind that expands the audience a bit? 

Paul Tautges: Yeah absolutely. I mean, it’s for every believer who wants to think biblically about suffering and specifically biblically about, how does the suffering of disability fit within the framework of God’s good work and how does it fit within the framework of the gospel? So, definitely, our hope is that the families affected by disability will read this book, but I really wrote it also with counselors in mind. You know, I’m a pastor who counsels his people. That’s how we like to describe myself. I’m not a counselor first. I’m a pastor first, but I’m a pastor who believes in the personal ministry of the Word. I want to always be trying to help people to apply the Scriptures to their lives, so I’m going to put something into the hands of counselors who are coming alongside families affected by disability and in order to give them a tool or resource, in order to walk through how to think biblically about disability. I wrote it with pastors and elders and deacons in mind. I would love for church leadership teams to go through this book together to think biblically about disability because like you said before, families affected by disability don’t need another program. Their schedules are overloaded with doctor’s appointments and therapy appointments and all kinds of things that are going on. But the American church has an infatuation with programs. So we think, well we’ve got to minister to people with disabilities so we’ve got to go out there and find a program. And that’s actually not what we need to do. We just need to look at disability through the eyes of the Lord, through the eyes of Scripture, and then start living out, what does it mean to be the family of God?

So I really also am hoping that anyone in a church that has a heart for disability will read this book. You know, what I kind of imagine and dream is that—let’s say a church that doesn’t really think about ministering to people with disabilities at this point, but maybe there’s two or three people in that church who start to have a burden— that they would then form a small group and they would go through this book together so that they would start thinking about “disability ministry” theologically first, not programmatically. Because the tendency is, again, think of it programmatically. How are we going to do this? What is this going to look like on a Sunday morning? And that’s actually not the place we should begin. We should begin with, what is God’s heart toward anyone who is suffering? And then, how can we be a loving family of God toward those people? 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s right. I think that’s a missing element, Paul, that you mentioned earlier. One of the common themes of families with disabilities is isolation and loneliness. And if we build—You know, our churches that have programs, I think there’s a right desire to minister, but sometimes in the wrong way and that contributes to that isolation that you’re talking about, whereas, if you have people who have the heart of God relative to disability, we want to see them involved in the life of the body, which is radically different than most families of disabilities are getting elsewhere in anything that they do.

So you wrote this book, interestingly enough, with contributions from Joni Eareckson Tada. Many people know Joni. It’s so funny. A couple of years ago, when I was getting to know Joni a little bit better, she was so excited to be working on this book with you, Paul. I don’t think there’s a better person to speak into this world, not just experientially, but based on her love of Christ, her love of God’s Word, and what she has seen as sustaining grace for many, many years. So, talk about—I mean, for those of you who don’t know who Joni Eareckson Tada is, she has spent the last 53 years in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. And her testimony and ministry—Anytime that you’re personally around her is just completely uplifting. Whether she’s having a good day or bad day, in her mind it’s a good day in the Lord and I love moments when she’ll just break out into song because she’s thought of some idea that we’re talking about and it makes her think of a song of worship and praise to the Lord. She’s just an encouraging person to be around. I want you to talk about how that came about with you and her working on some book together where she made some contributions to what she thought was a really important volume. 

Paul Tautges: Well, that was definitely another one of those unexpected workings of the hand of the Lord’s providence. I met Joni about four years ago at a biblical counseling summit where the topic that we spent two days talking about was the integration of biblical soul care, biblical counseling, into the lives of people affected by disability. I thought Joni was the perfect person—And she and about five others from Joni and Friends were present there—I thought Joni was the perfect person to embody that desire because, though she would never call herself a biblical counselor, I think Joni’s one of the best biblical counselors I’ve ever met. So, even though I didn’t meet her personally until four years ago, we had had a little correspondence over a number of years, mainly because some of her writings really helped me as a dad, you know, going through trying to be the best dad I could be to children living with disabilities and just thinking biblically about these matters. So, it was just such a privilege to finally meet her in person.

When then I shared the vision of this project with her, she was so excited and she just jumped on board and she said, any way I can help, just let me know. As it worked out, it seemed the best way for her to contribute to this project was to personalize every chapter. So every chapter closes with a brief reflection called, From Joni’s Heart. What she does there is, she shows how the theology that’s taught in that chapter is lived out in disability and how God is glorified through that. It just really warms up the book in a really special way. 

Dale Johnson: I think it’s phenomenal because not only does it show that theology is practical, but it also demonstrates that theology is substantial, that it matters in life and that, in a testimonial version, she’s experienced the sustaining grace of the Lord for that period of time. Now, I notice in the back of the chapters, you have a study guide with study questions and that sort of thing. Typically as an author, when you set up questions in a study guide like that, you have an idea in mind of people that you hope would use it. Maybe this is counselors. Is this a good fit for counselors to work through? You mentioned earlier church leadership, whether that be deacons or elders in the church to think about disability. Give me the best use of that study guide and some of the people you had in mind to work through it and how it can be helpful to the various people in their ministries. 

Paul Tautges: Sure. Let me, first of all, say, writing a good study and discussion guide is really hard work. It’s almost as much work as writing the book itself because you try and put yourself into the shoes of someone who’s reading this book for the first time and now—how could this material best be discussed? How could it best be used in a variety of settings? So it’s definitely suitable for an individual reader to work through those questions on their own, but certain parts of it are also directed to small group leaders. It serves as a homework guide for counselors. Biblical counselors can use this resource to help them teach and apply portions of Scripture because each chapter is built upon a key passage of Scripture that speaks into forming a biblical theology of disability. It is a key passage of Scripture that answers some of the most common questions that people afflicted with disability ask. So it helps counselors to be able to open those passages of Scripture and walk through them and then help the person to apply them to life.

But again, as I already said earlier, another reason that I created the study and discussion guide is because I do have this dream, this vision, that this book could be given to a local church family that is thinking about disability. Where do I start? Where do I begin? God is putting this burden on our hearts, but now what do we do with it? Where do we start? And that’s where I hope they start. They start thinking about disability from God’s perspective. And as they do that, the Lord will guide them in the practicalities of the hows. Each local church is unique. It’s a unique family of God. So, that’s why programmatic disability ministry really isn’t the answer. The answer is, how do we love people well as the family of God? 

Dale Johnson: Paul, this has been a helpful discussion and I commend this book to elders, to deacons, to those in church leadership, even to our counselors as you seek to, with the compassionate heart of Christ, minister to those who are in the deep throes of suffering, not just for one event but through their life. They’re enduring an immense amount of suffering and God has given the church, the family of God, to be on the front lines of ministry to needs just like this.

Paul, one of the things that I appreciate is the way in which you fulfill what Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 1, taking the comfort with which you’ve been given by God and then now taking that theology, that relationship with the Lord and who he’s revealed himself to be in His Word, and comforting others with the same. You do that throughout the book—Joni adds this testimonial aspect—and then you’re even furthering that through a discussion guide that I think will be very helpful to those who wish to minister in this way. Thank you brother for this contribution. I know it’ll be helpful to those who read.