My friend pointed to the girl across the room, acting as if I’d never noticed the severity of the girl’s Cerebral Palsy. My friend balked at the announcement that the girl would be baptized that evening, but not because she suspected the girl hadn’t really placed her faith in Christ. On the contrary, my friend knew that baptism signifies repentance from sin, and consequently wondered why we wanted to baptize her. She whispered critically, “Why does someone like her need to be baptized? How could someone that disabled possibly sin?”
I sort of understood my friend’s perspective. Like me, the girl was a quadriplegic, but she didn’t have the ability to type with a mouthstick or headstick. Like me, she had an extreme speech impediment, but I was really the only one who could decipher her grunts and facial expressions well enough to translate for her (thankfully my speech was clear enough for me to do so). Outwardly, the girl appeared to have few desires beyond skipping her peanut butter sandwiches in favor of dessert. How could someone that disabled possibly be considered a sinner?
I knew better. Having grown up with her at the school for disabled children, I knew quite well of her strong will and intense desire to have the social advantages that I enjoyed. Sadly, her learning disability prevented her from being mainstreamed part-time into regular school, and her unintelligible speech kept her from meaningful friendships — even with other disabled kids. Yet she definitely knew what she wanted, and she had no problem expressing her frustration in violent outbursts.
I’d helped her get rides to the Bible Studies I attended, and helped her convince the leaders to baptize her. Deep down, I think I knew that she wanted a social life more than she wanted the Lord, but I resisted those thoughts to avoid judging her. In truth, I could see her envy of my friendships with able-bodied teenagers, and her fierce determination to have the same social standing that I enjoyed. Even if she had to pretend she was a Christian.
My friend also professed to know the Lord, but her questions revealed a superficial understanding of sin. The girl couldn’t physically commit sexual immorality, steal or kill, and her speech defect made overt lying difficult. From those realities, my friend assumed that such a severe case of Cerebral Palsy rendered the girl incapable of sinning.
Maybe I see an element of charity in my friend’s assumption. But I also see (almost 50 years later) a terrible ignorance of sin’s insidious nature. Like the First Century Pharisees, my friend equated sin and righteousness with outward behaviors. She overlooked the very words of Jesus:
20 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” ~~Mark 7:20-23 (NASB95)
Even when a person can’t physically perform sinful actions, his or her heart can enjoy contemplating them. No matter what physical constraints block a person from carrying out wickedness, the seeds of wickedness still exist, and still cause a person to stand before God without excuse. For instance, a person may be physically faithful in marriage, but look at what Jesus said about a wandering eye:
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. ~~Matthew 5:27-28 (NASB95)
My friend undoubtedly wished to be charitable towards the girl with such an extreme case of Cerebral Palsy, and I appreciate her desire to assume that absence of opportunity translated into innocence. But even able-bodied people often lack the resources to put sinful desires into actual practice. The Lord still holds each of us accountable for sinful thoughts and attitudes.
My friend, in misjudging the girl’s moral responsibility, made the even greater mistake of minimizing God’s holiness. If He only judges our outward behavior, He compromises His purity and allows us to put our minds in all sorts of dirty little places. He lets us assume that our thought lives belong to us rather than to Him. Such thinking rejects Him as absolute Lord, permitting us to retain a bit of sovereignty over ourselves. Thus we diminish His authority over our private thoughts, comforting ourselves with perceived self-righteousness. If we convince ourselves that a practically non-verbal quadriplegic is without sin, we can persuade ourselves that we aren’t guilty of our own sinful thoughts.
Due to legal considerations that I don’t feel the liberty to discuss on a public blog post, my pastor eventually believed it necessary to ask the girl to stop attending Bible Studies. Not long afterwards, her interest in the Lord vanished, pretty much confirming that she’d been a false convert. Sadly, she chose the sin of selfishness over pure devotion to Christ. I haven’t had contact with her in 44 years, however, so I can hope and pray that she’s genuinely repented.
The Lord won’t give the girl (now a woman in her mid sixties) a pass just because she has such a severe disability, but neither would He withhold forgiveness if she comes to Him in repentance and faith. Although each of us must accept the bad news that we stand before God as absolute sinners, we can find hope in the knowledge that Jesus Christ paid for the sins of all who place their faith in Him. Just as we can’t assume that physically disabled people don’t sin, we can’t assume that any sinner is beyond the reach of His grace.Follow my blog with Bloglovin