“Father God, we pray for this beautiful young woman, and we ask you to remove all infirmities from her body and restore her to walk and run for You.  We rebuke any evil in her life and ask You to remove any sin that may be keeping her bound in this wheelchair.  Amen.”

I remember the day as though it were yesterday.  I was at the Toronto waterfront with friends, moving along at a leisurely pace in my motorized wheelchair.  I was slightly behind our group, enjoying people-watching, taking in the shoreline, and watching my dog walk along.

I noticed a group of women handing out Bibles.  One of them smiled at me quite pleasantly.  I smiled back and kept moving.

But in one moment, the woman I had smiled at had raced over to me with her friend/colleague, both with Bibles in hand.  Before I could speak, and without asking if I wanted them to pray for me (or what I wanted or needed them to pray about), both began to pray the prayer I paraphrased above.  It has been seven or eight years since this happened to me, so I can’t quote the prayer exactly, but what is quoted above is more than the gist of their prayer.

This incident has stayed with me for years.  I am conflicted about episodes like this.  I truly do relate to the feelings of connection and compassion and the calling to pray for others.  I have felt, and often do feel them, and I pray for others in my own life and in the wider world (quietly, in private) all the time.  But to ‘swoop in’ like these ladies did to me felt oppressive — even violating.  And I am a devoted, longtime Christian myself.  Let me be clear: Prayer is an exceedingly effective tool, powerful and necessary in the world.  Christians are indeed called to reach out to others and act with God’s compassion and wisdom on a complex and hurting Earth, and I take this seriously.

However, as these women prayed for me and the “infirmities” of my body, I cringed.  To understand disability as infirmity, and nothing more complex or worthy or valued or profound than an inferior state denotes a narrow, erroneous perspective.  More than that, I am certain that it is not how God perceives disability.  This problematic perspective also shows no awareness that disability has an ordained place in the world and ignores the fact that God can and does bless disabled lives, giving them purpose in their disabled state.

Worst of all, the ‘infirmity’ perspective only acknowledges one definition of healing: cure.  But God is infinitely more creative than that. God heals in countless different ways.  I will illustrate this through paraphrasing how I answered those women that day.  When they had finished praying for me, I told them that I am a Christian who has a close relationship with God, and I truly believe He is accomplishing His will in my life by filling me with peace and productivity — spiritual, personal, and professional.  (This was of course true at the time of this event, when I was still working as a librarian, before I earned my second Master’s degree in education and proceeded to make disability awareness, education and social justice a pivotal part of my career, mission, and ministry.)  That day, I told the women what I believed and will always believe: that I am meant to have my disability, to be used as a tool to make a difference in the world, and I believe God decided that to cure me of my disability would be to remove one of the ways He continues to work through me most powerfully. I told those women that they needed to broaden their definition of God’s healing, so that when they encounter disability and disabled people, they don’t automatically jump to understanding disability as curse, punishment, misfortune, or tragedy.  Healing and blessing involves and includes having the insight to perceive disability in this liberated way.  If you consider it this way, then these ladies needed to be healed of their misconceptions.  I told them: “You’ve prayed for healing for me.  But I trust the Lord and believe He has already healed me, in exactly the way He knows is best, exactly the way He defines healing in my case.”

I asked them to take another read of their Bibles and consider the many recorded miracles of Jesus involving healing — and how He heals differently every time.  Sometimes His healing involved touch, sometimes nothing more than a word.  Sometimes Jesus stood or sat with the person directly, sometimes He was miles away. Many times, He was perceived as “right on time”, and sometimes people–even those who loved Him—accused Jesus of being far “too late” to do any good at all.  (This happened in the case of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.  Contrary to popular belief He was not too late at all.)  Sometimes God’s answer to prayers for healing is “Yes”, sometimes it is “No”, sometimes it is “Later” …and sometimes even the “Yes” answer doesn’t seem like the resounding “Yes” that it is, for weeks, months, years.

I am reminded of the story of Joni Erickson Tada, a woman who became a quadriplegic after breaking her neck during a diving accident.  Joni faced losing all of her physical mobility and physical freedom, and she dealt with profound depression, but her faith and the strong support of family and friends who surrounded her with love and prayer sustained her.  Joni has learned to feel sincere gratitude for her disability.  She is an international speaker who runs a thriving disability ministry.

“That day, I told the women what I believed and will always believe: that I am meant to have my disability, to be used as a tool to make a difference in the world, and I believe God decided that to cure me of my disability would be to remove one of the ways He continues to, work through me most powerfully.”

She has written many books and paints beautifully with her mouth.  ‘Joni and Friends’ is her incredibly fruitful international disability ministry, founded to preach Christ, to give hope and important resources, support, disability education and awareness and faith encouragement to disabled people and their friends and family.  Her program, ‘Wheels for the World’, brings wheelchairs and other mobility aids and equipment to disabled people around the globe.  Without her disability, there would be no ‘Joni and Friends’ ministry, and much important work and progress in global disability advocacy would be missing.

To define disability only as curse or judgment or tragedy or proof that blessing is not in someone’s life is to make a grand mistake.  It is also a grand mistake to assume that every single person who experiences disability wants it gone, and that cure is the only real way God intervenes.   Also, walking up to someone in the street and praying aloud that God would remove their “infirmity”, lift the ‘scourge’ of their ‘pity-inducing’ disability is not a supportive move, indicative of divine grace.  It minimizes the many ways God can and does act in people’s lives.  If they are miserable, it assumes the source of their misery is their disabled state, rather than a separate life circumstance. This usually points more to the intruding person’s misconceptions of disability than anything else.

“Praying aloud that God would remove their ‘infirmity’…is not a supportive move, indicative of divine grace.  It minimizes the many ways God can and does act in people’s lives.”

Reaching out to someone involves getting to know them, meeting where they are, finding out how you can best show them that God cares, and you care in real, meaningful ways.  Talk to someone as a person and communicate over time.  If you want to pray for them, that is between you and God.  Do so, as I do, in private.  When you are friends and they trust you and need to talk, need advice about a situation, have the flu and need a meal brought to them or need you to take a shift for them at work, do it.  When they confide in you about a problem, you might gently say, as I do when appropriate, “I am praying for you.”  Observe a need, fill a need.  That’s how God wants us to work and to point to Him in the world, with sensitivity and respect, while in tune with what is really needed.

After I left those women on the waterfront and rejoined my friends, I thought about my interaction with those strangers for a long time. They never asked me what issues in my life I wanted and needed to pray about.  They assumed it was obvious.  They assumed they knew.  In the intervening years, I’ve often come across people I want and feel moved to pray for—a stranger, someone I just met but with whom I shared an interesting exchange, a person or people involved in a compelling scene (like a car accident, for instance), someone I pass in the street who seems clearly distressed, etc.  And I do pray, whenever this happens.  I pray “God, whatever the need is there, please look after it and show that person/ those people your grace.”  I never embarrass people or give even the appearance that I could be praying ‘for show’…

That day by the water, I wondered if I had said too much to those ladies and been too critical of them.  They had been working to serve the God I love, after all.  We’re on the same team, I reminded myself.  But while that’s true, I also knew that sometimes even committed team members don’t agree with certain strategic approaches, behaviour during a game, etc.  And when that’s true, it’s important that we say so.

About the Author:

Christina Minaki is a librarian, social justice educator, lecturer, published novelist, and disability rights advocate. She holds an M.A. in Education, specializing in Disability Studies, and a Masters in Information Studies. She .She lives and works in Toronto, and has been a Christian for 25 years.