Seventeen years ago, I was 20 weeks pregnant with our first child, and my husband and I learned through an ultrasound that we were having a healthy baby girl. When Penny entered the world, she scored 8 out of 10 on her Apgar test, an immediate measure of infant health. She nursed and made eye contact and slept and pooped and cried. She came home from the hospital two days later.
But the doctors also told us they suspected Penny had Down syndrome. We wondered whether she was a healthy baby girl after all. As we took her to regular checkups, we learned Penny was so small she didn’t show up on the growth charts, and she rarely achieved developmental milestones “on time.”
She had a little hole in her heart that needed surgical intervention. She needed glasses. Her ears were filled with fluid. She had a greater risk of childhood leukemia, celiac disease, and autism. She also was learning, growing, and smiling. She loved us and we loved her.
We live in a world that measures health by a lack of illness, injury, and disability. The multitrillion-dollar global wellness movement tries to expand our understanding of health through proactive efforts to promote human flourishing. Yet neither health nor wellness as we define them in contemporary society makes room for people with disabilities.
Moreover, despite the trillions spent on wellness and health care, we are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness, pain, depression, and other mental health concerns, not to mention the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 and an epidemic of chronic pain.
We need more than medical interventions and wellness retreats in order 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 to receive healing and bring healing to our hurting world.
Dozens of stories throughout the Gospels testify to Jesus’ holistic approach to restoration that extends beyond the bodies of individuals in need. Not only does Jesus heal people without bodily ailments—his encounters with Zacchaeus and the woman who washes his feet with her hair are moments of both healing and salvation—but his healing extends beyond the individual to the community.
Jesus reconnects the widow of Nain to her deceased son. He sends the Gerasene demoniac back to his people. He sends the lepers to the priests so they can be welcomed back to the life of worship. For Jesus, healing is about reconnection to self, to God, and to community. The contemporary body of Christ can reflect this renewal by creating communities of welcome and belonging.
In antiquity, the Greeks and Romans glorified idealized bodies and rejected abnormal ones. Both early and contemporary Christians often followed in their footsteps, equating bodily strength with God’s blessing and disability with evil. And yet early theologians understood that a biblical framework for health diverged from this pagan way of seeing human beings.
In Wondrously Wounded: Theology, Disability, and the Body of Christ, Brian Brock draws upon Augustine’s insight that, due to our own sinfulness, we can mistake physical prowess for signs of God’s favor and therefore dismiss “wonders” of God’s creation. Augustine considers how the physique of an athlete may well be a sign of hedonistic obsession with the flesh, and the abnormalities of a baby born with a chromosomal condition may well be a wonder. According to Augustine, unusual bodies and minds are sometimes intended to be communicative acts of God given for our mutual well-being.
The church has a history of rejecting or wanting to fix disabled individuals instead of looking to people with atypical bodies as those who might help us all see who God is. But both biblical writers and early theologians saw that God includes people with atypical bodies and minds among those who are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Just as Penny upended our ideas about health and wellness from the early days of her life, so people with various intellectual 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 depicts the kingdom of God as a banquet where “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” come to the table first (v. 21). Then the rest of the town is invited. Disability and illness remain at this feast.
But this healthy community is defined by relationships—giving and receiving alongside one another and in God’s loving presence. If our churches begin to extend welcome to those living in bodies and minds that do not conform to our social norms, perhaps we too will create healthy communities that point to the kingdom of God.
Penny is 16 years old now, and last summer we traveled to Nauvoo, Alabama, for a week of Hope Heals Camp. It’s a camp for families affected by disability. Adults and children with autism, spina bifida, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, and various neurodegenerative conditions come together for a week of celebration. There’s a talent show and a spa day and a dance party and tremendous joy amid visible hardship.
On the final night of camp, I had the honor of opening the doors so campers could enter the dining hall for a celebratory feast. Everyone streamed in—people limping, walking with canes, pushed in wheelchairs, wearing earmuffs to protect against excessive noise—and smiled with visible delight. In that moment, I saw a healthy community filled with people with diverse abilities who bore witness to the healing love of God.
The church can extend a different message of health and wellness if we broaden our understanding of healing beyond biomedical fixes and the individualistic and hyperphysical emphases of wellness culture. Jesus invites us to turn instead toward a more expansive, humble posture informed by God’s healing work and the biblical and theological witness to the Spirit’s surprising way of bringing healing into the world.
This concept of health and wellness does not ignore or denigrate the body, but it also does not idolize bodily health or even life itself. Rather, a biblical understanding of health centers love for God and love for one another rather than individual strength or bodily ideals.
The purpose of health from this perspective is not personal fulfillment, individual longevity, or even freedom from pain, though all those things may come. The purpose and measure of health is mutual relationships of sacrificial love.
Amy Julia Becker is an author and speaker. Her most recent book is To Be Made Well: An Invitation to Wholeness, Healing, and Hope. Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column.
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