Tuesday, October 2, 2012


You have heard the testimonies over and over again. They are sincere and moving but sincere and moving does not always equal correct. The testimonies to which I refer are those by parents of children born with deformities, retardation or demonstrative handicaps which commonly result in some form of social stigmatization and of which they speak about God as having chosen to form their child in this distressed manner for a special purpose of divine intent, usually to teach the parents about God’s grace, mercy, and love and so on.

This is not to say that Christian parents do not rightly gain godly illumination through the process of parenting children who present (often lifelong) special needs and challenges, some to very severe degrees. But this is no different than any other Christian learning in any other situation with its unique set of circumstances and the enlightenment it offers as a result of interacting with all of its variables.

And when it comes to the formation of children it seems that for many, the exceptional circumstance of the birth of a handicapped or special needs child is an event which must have blame laid at the feet of God. However, instead of pointing to God as if he has done something wrong, a narrative is created to go along with this blame toward God in which God really means this for the good of the parent, no matter the suffering of the child or some such rationale. And understand, this narrative does not stand alone from the Bible, rather the Bible is appealed to (or should I say certain Scriptures) as support for the narrative that it is God’s fault.

Why Christians are Compelled to Blame God for Their Child’s Handicap

There are a number of reasons why Christians feel the need to compensate in this case and overreach, claiming God made their child, deliberately, with his or her deficiencies. And certainly I am not unsympathetic to any such parent's desire to find answers in such cases which is precisely why I have written this piece.

The Special-Purpose Theory - When things out of the ordinary occur we see them as exceptional circumstances. And because they are exceptional there is a natural tendency to want to explain them as if they have some inherent special purpose so that its exceptionalism can be understood. It explains why the event occurred outside the norm. And with Christians it is even more so because we indeed are a special people, God’s people, who are seated with Christ in the heavenlies, just to name one of the many special properties we possess.

But the truth is, in a single day, while many of its elements are the same day after day, many are not, yet we do not go about trying to explain those with a special divine intent in view. A good example is going to your favorite restaurant. Maybe every Monday you go out to eat spaghetti but each time you are seated at a different table. One is consistent and the other is not but you certainly do not try to find a special purpose in the unpredictable seating event. Why?
The reason is because it is not life-altering or at least one that will consume more than its moments or minutes in time. But with handicapped children, these are life-changing events therefore they must have a special purpose.

It is true that there are special divine-purpose events in the Bible but as described above, I see it no where that we may selectively prescribed the “special-purpose theory” and ignore it when it does not fit. However, this is precisely what is done with cases where there is an elevated profile of difficulty, suffering and so on; they are interpreted as special-purpose events placing ourselves in a privileged circle while other unique events are ignored because they do not rise, experientially, to a place of substantial self-consciousness. We are not given the liberty from God to inconsistently use the Scriptures this way nor to use them in this erratic fashion to interpret our lives.

What you should begin to already understand is that for the Christian, everything is a special-purpose event. Every day, hour, minute, second and moment and all of those things which are part of the life of every single Christian has been elevated to a special-purpose event by means of Christ. In Christ you are now the recipient of endless, boundless and eternal love in which “all things” are worked for your good. Christ is the cause of your whole life being a special purpose. When you believe on Christ you are placed in Christ, therefore, making every single element of your life a divine special-purpose.

Confusion and Embarrassment – It is quite natural to be proud of our children when they receive attention in a positive manner. We believe it is a reflection of ourselves, to a fault usually. The same is true when children receive attention in a negative manner. We believe it is a reflection of us (the parents), though we often resist that thought. And with respect to the negative attention imposed upon us by our children, customarily we seek to change or modify this so it does not occur again (or at least less often). But the parent of a deformed or handicapped child rarely may actually change that, it very often is permanent.

Now, there is no reason for embarrassment but it happens all the time. Parents instinctively ask themselves, “What is wrong with me that I would produce a child like this?” Added to this is confusion for many in which they ask, “Why would God give me a handicapped child?”

So, though many do not come right out and say it, Christian parents routinely are confused and embarrassed in these cases and in order to compensate for this they seek a narrative which alleviates, from themselves, the greater embarrassment and reassigns blame, in part or in whole, to God. And part of this narrative entails the explanation that though God has done this, there is a hidden and good motive which God had in mind (though the baby was born suffering, screaming in agony and dying a slow and painful death over months, or the baby faced a lifetime of agonizing surgeries and personal suffering). Ultimately, the confusion and embarrassment is handed off as God's doing and not that of the parent's fallen genetics.

The Divine Sovereignty Theory – The divine sovereignty theory is, of course, based on a shallow and theologically deficient view of God’s rule of the universe. That theory basically stems from the Augustinian/Reformed/Calvinistic view of divine sovereignty as one of absolute control instead of ultimate rule.

To Augustinians or Calvinists, divine sovereignty is viewed as that of control. This specialized or proprietary understanding of sovereignty stems from the rationalistic outcome of trying to understand the mechanics of divine sovereignty instead of taking, at face value, the expression in Scripture of divine sovereignty, both in definition and exercise. That is to say, in Scripture we observe that God allows freedom of choice and action in which he (God) is not the one controlling (see the book of Job and Satan’s persecution of Job). However, the Calvinist cannot bring himself or herself to see this as it is because it would force a change in their definition and understanding of divine sovereignty. Their commitment to a school of theology and its properties (definitions) is greater than what they, at times, find in Scripture which contradicts their system. Hence, these eager and sincere but errant theologians wittingly and unwittingly, reduce God to something less than even human sovereigns.  

Much of this has to do with a misunderstanding of the general decree of God. The general decree of God refers to what is observed in Scripture, namely the working of the omniscience, omnipotence, and sovereignty of God in all matters, whether it be the events of nature, elect angels, fallen angels, and men.

There is no such thing as one single passage which states the doctrine of the general decree of God. It is a theological conclusion based on many passages whose principles, when compared and related to one another, results in the dogmatic certainty that God, indeed, gave the general decree that all which ever will be, shall be, and is. One passage which may help, reflects, in part, some of the whole of the Bible which gives us the understanding of the general decree of God is Psalm 139:15-16 (NASV):
15 My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
16 Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.
It is well defined by Robert McLaughlin:
his eternal [always existed], holy [having perfect integrity], wise [application of omniscience to creation] and sovereign purpose. God simultaneously comprehended all things that ever were or ever would be. He comprehended every event that would ever take place, along with its causes and interaction with other events, and he knew in eternity past every decision mankind would ever make.
So, with this in mind the over-simplistic conclusion is made that because God can and did decree that all that ever will be, shall be, and is, then God is the one who decided to create a handicapped child. He issued the decree (ordained it) and it happened. But it isn’t that simple because one must understand what the decree of God involves, particularly when it involves other volitional agents, consequences of sin and laws of God. To over-simplify the general decree of God is to remove from it essential properties and elements which are critical in order to form right conclusions about many things concerning the person and work of God and other free agents God has created.

The General Divine Decree and Human Volition

Remember, the understanding of the general divine decree does not say, “God would determine all that would be”. Rather, God decreed that “all things which would take place, will take place” (all that will be, shall be, and is). And there is a consequence here which should not be understated.

One of the variables in God making his general decree is the operation of human volition or the human will. And that is just one of many of the variables God’s decree took into account when the general decree of God was made.

That is to say, God saw down through the corridor of time that you would make this decision and that decision and decreed to permit that history to take place thus, he ordained it to be so. Therefore, those decisions you made and will make are not ones God has forced or predetermined that you will or must make, rather ones God decreed or ordained to permit you to make them and his decree or ordination makes that a certainty.

Divine Foreknowledge - God’s foreknowledge informs him that you will make all the decisions and take all the actions you will in your lifetime. Hence, God is able not only to decree to permit your making of these decisions but his foreknowledge, combined with his greater omniscience, enables him to take all of these into consideration and make his general decree of bringing to pass, all that will be with many volitional agents doing as they will, while never, himself, being the cause of the decisions and actions of others.

God’s power is so great, his being so immeasurable, that he is able to allow human volition and/or human freedom - with all of its decision making, consequences and accountability - not only to exist but to function without disruption to his sovereign rule and work.

But the Calvinist believer who defines divine sovereignty as that of absolute control is forced into fractional view of God where God is small and unable to permit human volition without, ultimately, ascribing to God himself, the responsibility of the decisions of humans in exercising their volition. “If God is not in control then he cannot be sovereign”, they assert.

What the absolute control Calvinist is missing is the understanding that sovereignty (and particularly divine sovereignty) is not about control but about rule. I am going to borrow from an earlier piece I wrote on divine sovereignty to bring home this point. Romans 8:28 gives us this promise from God (Romans 8:26-30):
26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
27 And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
30 Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
Romans 8:26-30, with special emphasis on verse 28, was posted for a reason. You will find, rather astonishingly, in its context, God communicating to us about suffering, about God working all things together and immediately following a reference to God’s foreknowledge and predestination (that we be conformed to the image of his son and this cannot be overstated in helping people understand what predestination is and is not). Frankly, you could not find a more fitting place to consider divine sovereignty and how it works.

And so, when God revealed himself to us through Paul who wrote about divine sovereignty “working all things together”, did God describe divine sovereignty as absolute control of all the details or instead, did God describe divine rule and ultimate control of all the events, hence, using them for his ends and purposes?
Do you see the point? Paul cannot be clearer. Things are against us. There are volitional agents who are not God and who are working their will against us. Does Paul resort to the Augustinian/Reformed/Calvinistic error by trying to tell us that God is in absolute control of these bad volitional agents making them do bad things for our good? No! Not at all. But he does tell us that God takes these bad things and, in fact, "all things" and works them for our good.
Getting the Cart (Sin and its properties) before the Horse (God)

For the Augustinian, the Reformed and the Calvinist, the cart comes before the horse with regard to God’s sovereignty and his working of things for the good of the Christian. Bad, sad and difficult events are part of our life. The Scripture plainly states that these are not good things but that these “not good things” are worked by God for our good.

However, to the class of students and teachers above, they see God as assigning these bad things to us in order to work his good (because his divine sovereignty makes him responsible for everything that happens in their mind). In other words, “God does bad in order to do good”. Wrong, wrong and wrong.

The Horse (God) before the Cart (Sin and its properties)

God has always worked his good through sin and through evil but he does not initiate evil or sin with its consequences (such as genetic deficiencies) as his work. God’s work is not to create or sponsor sin and evil with its properties rather that though sin and evil are present with their consequences in our lives and in the universe around us, not only can these not subvert God’s work but God will use them, without being their author or cause, for his purposes. This is most effectively reflected in Joseph’s reply statement to his brothers in Genesis 50:20:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
As the saying goes, God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick but it doesn’t change the crookedness of the stick nor makes it God’s intention that the stick be crooked.

Where Do Deformed, Retarded or Handicapped Children Come From?

Retarded, deformed or handicapped children in general come from the same place you and I come from, sinful human parents who carry with them the properties of sin. And as a consequence of falleness we are genetically deficient. We are fallen thus, death is within our genetics and it manifests itself in many ways with the ultimate genetic expression of death to the body.

God did not create Adam and Eve to sin but they decided against God’s will and sinned. God did not create them to die but because they sinned they did die and so will we. Yet, God used both occasions to accomplish his purposes. This does not mean we are to try and reverse rationalize and somehow conclude that God made Adam and Eve to sin and die because he decreed to allow its history to occur. Had they made another decision God would have known that, too, and would have decreed that, too. God is responsible for decreeing to permit volitional agents to exercise their volition but God is not the cause for the decisions and actions with their consequences themselves. God, however, is responsible for and has promised to use all things to accomplish his sovereign rule and ultimate purpose which includes our sinful state and all of its consequences.

If you decided to have children and possess in your genetics or in your life circumstances that which would result in a handicapped child, God did not do this, sin did. Sin is the culprit, not God.  Today we die; today sin takes its roles as giver of death, disease, deformity and dysfunction.

Why Do You Have What You Have? Let us move from the extreme to the less extreme. Let us go from great handicaps to lesser imperfections that, while within the range of being present in a substantial part of the population, are still imperfections and genetic deficiencies which can be disturbing at some level. Consider:
  • Extreme freckles
  • Bright red kinky hair
  • Wide eyes,
  • A missing finger,
  • A large forehead, and
  • Disproportionate fat deposits on the body.
Obviously the list can be must long but these suffice to make my point. There is one of two things here. Either God is busy working all kinds of deficiencies and dysfunctions in our formation for our good or all kinds of these deficiencies and dysfunctions are being worked (synergized) by God for our good. I believe the latter describes how God redeems every portion of our sin-affected lives instead of the former where God creates people, each with special deformities and problems (making him the culprit of sin's consequences) so he may work them for our good.

On an important side-note, the view that our disease and deformity is not a special creation by God but the consequence of sin, removes from the narrative the creation by God of an especially attended people of God in having severe deformities with those who are apparently less specially attended by God because they lack such severe handicaps. This is important to the dignity of all of God’s children who, in Christ, are equally valued in an immeasurable and eternal way.

This is not to say that among humans those of special needs do not have a special class and care nor that our sympathies, grace and mercy need not be directed toward them. Not at all lest someone suggest I am forwarding this view. But that has to do with our brotherly care of one another, not with matters of assigning to God consequences of sin.

Isn’t God Involved in Our Creation?

The Bible says of Jeremiah 1:5:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
But just as that, the Bible says God makes the sun to rise Matt 5:45:
that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Does God actually manipulate, on a daily basis, the motion of the earth in order to cause the appearance and disappearance of the sun from our vantage point or has God set in motion physical laws in which he accomplishes this? That is right; he has set in motion physical laws which accomplish this.

In the same way as God makes the sun to rise he forms us in the womb via the laws he set in motion. This does not, then, have in view that he created sin and its consequences which are part of our formation. That is our contribution in which the law of procreation has been affected.

Both of these references are with respect to God’s superintendence of his general decree or his sovereign rule. It is true that along with the superintendence of the general decree of God, in the case of Jeremiah, God involves himself directly in determining Jeremiah's life as that of a Prophet to Israel with the gifts/capacities to fulfill that role but it is not attempting to inform us that there is cause to believe a specific manipulation of God occurred to form Jeremiah. Rather we are to understand that it occurred as it would from the copulation of his parents and God incorporated that into his general decree of all that will be, to be. And this is precisely how divine sovereignty works.

Procreation - It is clear from Genesis it was God’s intention for Adam and Eve to have children in their state of innocence (before they sinned) seeing that part of the consequences of their sin was painful childbirth (as opposed to the implied painless before hand). So the law of procreation was set in motion. The consequences of sin which has, at times, serious handicaps of deformity and/or retardation in human offspring, are not God’s contribution to the procreative process but man’s. The genetic distortions are not there because of God but because of man. And God does not manipulate genetics in the womb to produce a handicapped child so he can “bless parents” with this. The genetic alterations and deficiencies which are present in our chromosomes are inherent due to our fallen state.

The Law of Procreation, Divine Sovereignty, Human Volition and all Other Divine Laws - When a baby is conceived, apart from exceptional involvement of divine intervention (Hannah’s prayer-that there are exceptions demonstrate that there is the rule) it is done so by a law already established by God. God does not need to regularly intervene and make sperm travel nor to position the unfertilized egg in an advantageous location. A woman’s cycle places the egg where it needs to be and the male sperm is programmed to travel toward the egg.

God decreed to establish and allow operating, under their divine regulations, the law of procreation. So God does not need, each time, to force the egg and the sperm to their locations. They take their course by law (divine law and the effects of sin combined) and God uses that course for to his ends.

This is no different than gravity. If you drop a ball from a height, it falls to earth. God did not choose to drop the ball, you did. God did put in place the laws of gravity and from that people involve their own decisions in accordance with those laws.

When parents choose to engage in sexual activity they are like the person who drops an object from a height. There are potential consequences. Various factors will go into the process each time with different but similar, results. No more than God seizes upon an object dropping from a height does he seize upon sperms or eggs because he has already set in motion laws (again, the Bible points out exceptions which demonstrate the rule).

If you become pregnant you chose to become pregnant by virtue of engaging in sex (I am speaking only to voluntary participants here). If the person dropping a ball from a height says he did not wish the ball to fall but only to release it from his hand, he is ignoring the divine law of gravity and blaming God, the gravity law creator, and not himself for the ball falling.

When someone conceives it is not God’s fault, it is theirs. They chose to copulate and with it come the laws of procreation which were already set in motion (again I only have in view the normative voluntary context with regard to the sensitivities of other contexts but even in other contexts, physical laws are not suspended).

Direct Divine Work and Special Circumstances

This does not mean God does not work directly in the case of any or many things. That is to say, it is clear God intervenes in many ways determining or influencing the outcome of an event which, otherwise, would have alternate results. However, to state that “God intervenes” is to declare that this is exceptional rather than the constant.

This point highlights the fact that God’s sovereignty is not one about control but about rule. If God was in absolute control then it would not need to be said of God that he “intervened” since he is in absolute control. If one is in absolute control it does not allow for that person to intervene since, by definition, that person is already in control.

The Direct Acts of God of Divine Volition in Action - As we see in Genesis, God directly creates humanity, it is not a product of the will of another. This is God’s direct act. Humanity, in its state of innocence, is God’s product.

Another case of God acting directly, which was already covered, is answering prayers such as Hannah’s request for a child. God directly acted in insuring the conception, birth and life of the Hannah’s baby, Samuel.

And in fact, the Bible makes it explicitly clear that God directly involves himself in the lives of his children in answering their prayers. Matthew 7:7 states emphatically:
Ask and it shall be given, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened unto you.
One cannot pray to God and those answers be given without God directly involving himself. Interestingly, however, is that God gives you the freedom to ask for things that he might not, otherwise, give. It is not an sound Biblical assumption that because God answered a prayer of yours it was his will all along and because of divine sovereignty he would have done it anyway. That is a very bad assumption and the Bible, no where, teaches that, even though God does directly involve himself (often unbeknown to ourselves) in our lives. Thus, it is an erroneous assumption that everything which happens is God doing what he will, with or without us.

The Special-Purpose of Abraham and the Nation of Israel – We need only read in Genesis and throughout the Old Testament to the Gospels where God had a special purpose for Abraham and his off-spring. God directly called out Abraham and formed the nation of Israel from his descendants. And through out its history until the inauguration of the Church Age, God is recorded as acting directly on behalf of individual Israelites and the nation as a whole.

And much more can be said but the point is simple, God does act directly, at times. This is not to be removed from our understanding of God’s person or work. However, when we define God’s sovereignty as absolute control we remove the distinction of God working directly from the indirectly (but purposefully). We obliterate the work of God through other agents and sinful conditions and make God responsible for everything.

Then What Does God Give?

God gives grace, grace and more grace. My grandparent’s death was not due to God but due to sin. The affliction of Alzheimer is not a creation of God’s nor his work but that of sin. God’s work is within that construct in which he bring “all things” to work together for our good and his ultimate purposes.

The parents of the handicapped child are no different than the parents of the child who is born with exceptional genius. God will use them both and all of these are intended to be cared for and attended to with the glory of God and the overflowing measure of his grace in mind.

The genius child requires his or her special set of instructions and God’s grace is there, just as it is in abundance for the deformed or mentally and emotional handicapped child. It may be that visibly the genius child physically manifests less of the consequences of sin than the other but even then, what about what you do not see?

God gives good gifts; salvation, His Spirit, wisdom, grace and mercy. There is no doubt a child with unusual or extreme disabilities can result in experiences and enlightenment which are different than others. Yet, those others, remember, are also experiencing enlightenment that you are not.

This is the point. God gives us grace in this life to meet the challenges of a fallen world. He does not assign bad so he can bring good, he assigns his good so that bad is defeated in being worked for his purposes.

Joseph told his brothers, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good”. God did not make Joseph’s brothers commit evil against him nor desired it. But God used this evil of his brothers (selling him into slavery) to work his purposes. Joseph’s brothers could have made another decision and we would be reading a different account but with the same ending, God working his purposes.

You see? This isn’t divine micromanagement this is divine macro-rule. All babies are special, not because God assigns deformed or non-deformed ones to you but because he assigns his work of grace to all things in the life of the Christian.

John 9 The Man Born Blind for God’s Glory – Some may, at this point, call into their argument that God creates handicapped people on purpose with a reference to John 9. I will post the relevant portion, verses 1-3:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.
Understand that the Pharisees were not asking about the effects of sin from Adam but from the assumption that handicaps were punishments from God for sinful behavior of either the person or their parents.

Secondly, notice the answer our Lord gives, “this happened”. He does not assign blame to God; rather he acknowledges its occurrence. So on this day God chooses to use the handicap in a redemptive manner, to display the works of God.

Our Lord is being instructive regarding the nature of God, not who is to blame for handicaps. And this echoes just what is being said here, that God brings his glory to the effects of sin while not being its author of either sin or its consequences/by-products.

Concluding Thoughts

Think of the parent who is taught to assign blame to God instead of taking responsibility for the condition of their child when they are handicapped. All of their lives they blame God for this (because of the incorrect understanding of divine sovereignty as one of absolute control, thus absolute responsibility) yet force themselves to create a narrative where the good God gave a handicapped child for good reasons.

Their thinking is forced to follow a course like this:
God is good to me, even when he gives handicapped children, because he is sovereign. As well, I cannot understand the purposes of his sovereign work and I must not question this rather, simply understand it as divine sovereignty at work and nothing else or else I am questioning God's honor and integrity in giving me a deformed and/or mentally handicapped baby.
No, you are questioning, and rightfully so, some very bad theology. It is mind-bending if you attempt this for some time. In fact, it will slowly destroy the soul.

The unpleasantness of this world is from sin, whether it be cancer, losing a limb, depression, financial loss and poverty, or handicapped children. This is not the work of God but of sin. God gives good gifts and one of those good gifts is to take the products of sin and use them for his purposes. He redeems everything in our life for his purposes. It does not make him the blame for these miseries; rather it makes him the redeemer of these miseries.