Disability Doesn't Preclude Wellness

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A man who uses a wheelchair told me that he has had strangers approach him in public and offer to pray for him. When he agreed, he found that these individuals usually prayed that he would be cured of his disability. He tired of that because he has grown to love his life as it is and is not looking for a cure. Now, when people approach him to pray for him, he says, “Sure, I’d appreciate your prayers. But please understand that I’m happy with my life as it is.” One time, when he said that, the person who offered to pray turned around and walked away without offering a prayer!

Many of us who live without disability have a hard time imagining ourselves acquiring a disability and making peace with it. For example, recently I heard a man in his seventies say, “I’d rather die than go blind.” I would guess that his sentiment resonates with a lot of people. Not only does that attitude doom our future selves to a life of self-pity when disability enters our lives, but also that limits our imagination for people currently living with disability. Yet statistics suggest that most of us will acquire a disability someday, so we would do well to adjust our attitudes about disability and wellness for our own sakes as well as for the sake of people with disabilities among us.

SAMHSA (the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration) has designated this week (Sept. 13 through 19) as National Wellness Week. Though SAMHSA’s focuses on people with serious mental and/or substance use disorders, their emphasis on wellness applies to us all. According to SAMHSA, the eight dimensions of wellness are 

  • Emotional—Coping effectively with life and creating satisfying relationships
  • Environmental—Good health by occupying pleasant, stimulating environments that support well-being
  • Financial—Satisfaction with current and future financial situations
  • Intellectual—Recognizing creative abilities and finding ways to expand knowledge and skills
  • Occupational—Personal satisfaction and enrichment from one’s work
  • Physical—Recognizing the need for physical activity, healthy foods, and sleep
  • Social—Developing a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed support system
  • Spiritual—Expanding a sense of purpose and meaning in life

Take note of a couple aspects of wellness as they describe it. First, one can be well and live with a serious mental illness (or some other disability for that matter). Disability and wellness are not mutually exclusive. Second, most of these dimensions of wellness cannot be practiced alone.

Wellness requires community. So let's bring this around to church. In a church community, if someone has a lifelong disability or a newly acquired disability, he or she needs to be in community to be well. The church can be that community if we truly welcome and embrace one another with love, grace, and appreciation. Is your church the kind of community where people can be well even as they live with their brokenness? Or must people hide their challenges and struggles, pretending that everything is just fine? Do the people living with depression and other mental illnesses know that they can share openly about their struggles or must they bear their burdens alone? 

When Jesus approached a man who was lame, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?" The man answered in the affirmative, and Jesus cured him of his disability. Usually God doesn't work that way. Usually God works through community, and wellness and health can include living with a disability. So maybe today the question we need to ask is this, "Is my church the kind of community where people can be well?"

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I have Multiple Sclerosis and have come to accept my life and enjoy it most of the time. I recently had a conversation with someone in my church who asked if I prayed for God to cure me. I said that I prayed for daily strength, to do meaningful ministry, to learn well in my studies, to grow in intimacy with the Lord but no, I really didn't pray to be cured. I always pray for greater remission though. He was surprised and I realized that accepting I have MS and embracing all God has for me now, I'm happier and have greater wellness then I did when I was fine and working. God is faithful, no matter what is happening in our lives.

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Angela, thanks for sharing. For those of us who do not yet live with disability, it's hard to imagine ever coming to the point of being able to say with you, " . . . accepting I have MS and embracing all God has for me now, I'm happier and have greater wellness then I did when I was fine and working." Considering that so many of us baby boomers will be acquiring disability in the coming 20 years, the next big thing for ministry is for people, like you, who have learned to be well and live with a disability to teach people who have newly acquired disability to do the same. Doesn't that sound like an exciting new arena for ministry?

This is  an excellent post, Mark.  Not only do you note that one can live with disability and still be well, but you ask a critical question for all of us:  Is my church the kind of community where people can be well as we live with our challenges?  Focusing on the eight dimensions of wellness from SAMHSA can help us be the kind of community Paul envisioned in I Cor. 12.  Thanks!

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