Blindness, Loneliness, and the Abundant Christian Life

Guest blogger

My wife and I had been married for nearly a week.  Getting home from work, we decided to order a pizza that night for supper.  About a half hour later, we heard a knock at the door and asked, "Who is it?"  There was silence. 

"Who is it?" we again repeated.  Still, there was no answer.  We opened the door, and a man stood there and handed us our pizza without saying a word.  We said several things to the gentleman to try to engage him in conversation, asking the standard question "how are you?" for starters.  Finally, my wife leaned into the man and asked irritably, "Why won't you talk to us?"  The man answered with the only words he spoke to us that evening, "I'm deaf." 

Completely bewildered, I did what ignoramuses usually do in situations like this; I began speaking louder and slower so that the man could understand what I was saying to him. 

"Would ... you ... please ... help ... us ... write ... out ... a ... check?"  It was one of those rare occasions in the history of humankind when the blind and the deaf meet accidentally to do business.  Now, I learned from that experience that targets of misunderstanding can become equally perpetrators of misunderstanding themselves.  I hope it is a lesson I'll never forget.  This was nearly 17 years ago, and the incident is still fresh in our memory.  It's still one of the best stories I reserve for occasions when we meet new people. 

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.  Taking a step back though, I want to ask how my fumbling and bumbling during the episode with the deaf pizza delivery driver made him feel.  If I had been in his shoes, I suspect I might have felt, momentarily anyway, lonely.  "Here is another customer who does not understand me, who does not and cannot be expected to grapple with my disability."  In point of fact, he might have laughed the incident off as my wife and I did, but what if he didn't?  The point is that we have the capacity, intentionally exercised or not, of making others feel profoundly isolated and cut off by the way we socially interact or do not interact with them.  What a fearful thing this is! 

What does all of this have to do with the abundant Christian life?  Well, first of all, we need to come to terms with what it means to live the abundant Christian life.  When Jesus promised abundant life to His immediate followers in John 10, He could not possibly have meant what we have come to regard as a life of abundance.  Church history records that all of the original disciples save John were persecuted to their death because of their profession of Christ.  Most of us living today would hardly call this a sign of abundance.  How might Jesus' original audience have understood what Jesus meant by His offer of abundant life?  We get a clue at the end of Acts chapter 5.  The religious leaders arrested the apostles for teaching the faith and by the grace of God converting many to Christ.  After prolonged discussion, the apostles were beaten and released to go about their business with the exception that they no longer teach in the name of Jesus.  Verse 41 of Acts 5 says this: "Then they (the apostles) left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name."  Whatever else abundant life means, it surely means identification with the Lord in His suffering.  The apostles did not gripe about their trials in this instance but counted them as a badge of honor given to them by the Lord Himself. 

What I have alluded to above might be called the unique aspects of the Christian life.  However, Christian life is first and foremost just life that happens to be lived in Christ.  But since it is also "just life," this means that one should not expect necessarily higher or lower degrees of emotional health and stability than one's nonChristian neighbors experience.  For some, this will be liberating.  Too often, the gospel is preached in such a way as to lead people to expect immediate fulfillment, great relationships, healthy marriages, faithful children, and on and on.  By this type of message, as Carl Trueman has noted, "the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate."[1]

By implication, the church by preaching a gospel centered on this-worldly fulfillment also effectively excludes the voices of the blind.  This claim will require a little justification.  Blind people are, to borrow language from the National Federation of the Blind, a cross-section of society.  This means that many of them have dreams of financial and social success like most of their fellow Americans.  Let's focus on the aspect of social success.  Part of what makes social success possible is the feeling of not only belonging to a group but being responsible for its flourishing. 

In my experience, two attitudes toward the blind are dominant both in and outside the church.  The first attitude is one of pity.  "I don't know how I'd handle life as a blind person.  If I were blind, I could not imagine cooking for myself, cleaning for myself, enjoying a meaningful physical relationship with my spouse, and therefore, I can't imagine how this poor blind guy I just met does it.  Since I can't imagine it, then it must not be possible.  Therefore, it is not possible for the blind to do any of the things that make life meaningful."  I suspect most people don't self-consciously work out their thinking in this way, but that is roughly how the first attitude works.  Blind people are necessarily inferior to the sighted since the sighted according to this view can do all of the things that seem to make life worthwhile. 

The second attitude is one of amazement.  "I could not imagine being blind and cooking for myself, cleaning for myself, having a meaningful physical relationship with my spouse, etc.  But this really amazing blind guy over here does.  He must be the exception rather than the rule since I cannot imagine how this is possible." 

Now, stop and think about what kind of framework is created by these attitudes.  Silent pity and silent amazement each in their turn create a situation that is quite lonely for a blind person.  Both to my way of thinking have more than a little to do with feelings of guilt that the presence of those with disabilities generally fosters.  Those who pity you can only relate to you from a position of superiority, and those who idolize you as amazing put you high on a pedestal.  Both attitudes to my way of thinking are antithetical to the biblical injunction that we are to love one another.  This is not to suggest that feelings of compassion or indeed feelings of respect for work well done are out of place.  But that is just the point.  Blindness should not be, though it often is, the first thing noticed about a person when they walk into a church building or a shopping mall or a restaurant.  Their humanness should be the first thing recognized. 

Going back to the notion of abundant Christian life, it is curious to note in Psalm 25:16 that David prays the following: "Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted."  David tells God Himself that He is lonely.  Again, sometimes, one gets the impression from much teaching about the results of believing the good news of the gospel that loneliness will just be a thing of the past.  "Feeling lonely?  Turn to Jesus, for He is there to comfort."  There is of course something right about this, but it hardly tells the story of many saints both in Scripture and throughout history who experienced profound loneliness as a result both of human injustice and insensitivity and sometimes because God seemed to hide His face.  Blindness provides a good case study for just how promises of fulfillment from God are misapplied when they are taken to include primarily this life.  St. Augustine's dictum that "our hearts are restless until they rest in God" is true, but I doubt very much whether he meant to suggest that all of the ramifications of what rest in God entails could be realized on this side of the Celestial City. 

Christians like everyone else partake of fallenness.  In the case of the blind, this means that if one is a blind Christian, they may in spite of being Christian still experience the profound loneliness that comes when it is realized that not everyone can understand or even care to understand their situation.  Silent pity and silent amazement on the part of onlookers are no substitutes for genuine love and acceptance that community, a much over used and practically meaningless word nowadays, carries with it. 

I wish to say one more thing lest some think that loneliness is always the result of the mistreatment of others.  Blind people themselves like everyone else can participate in what philosopher Eleonore Stump has called willed loneliness, the type of loneliness brought on by behavior that is by its very nature destructive of genuine community.  Bitterness against intentional or unintentional misunderstanding on the part of others, being too sensitive about the way people perceive us, an unwillingness to accept help when one knows one needs it, and a distrustful attitude toward those who have sight, are behavioral patterns that alienate others.  As this is for now my final post related to blindness and Christianity, I end where I initially began.  The partial remedy for the ills I have been discussing is mutual love and respect.  The lack of imagination that enables me to put myself in someone else's place and see through their eyes contributes in no small way to the incredible lack of sensitivity on the part of those who pride or demean themselves for not having a disability.  The same lack of imagination cripples the blind as well since it inhibits them from realizing that sometimes, help being offered by a sighted person is not meant to be malicious or belittling but rather a genuine offer of help that can be gratefully received or politely declined.  In short, for those in the church who are blind and for those who are not, the principle is still true that "love covers a multitude of sins" on both sides.  Covering of course does not mean remaining unaware of our own culpabilities in all of this but rather being willing to show mercy when they are pointed out. 

I am grateful to Reformation21 for allowing me to reflect a bit on the relationship between Christianity and blindness.  It has been a good experience for me, and I hope it has been so for readers of the blog too. 

[1]Carl R. Trueman, The Wages of Spin, (Fearn, Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2004), 160.

Cody Dolinsek is working towards a PhD with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth TX. Be sure to also read Cody here, here, and here.

Cody will soon be joining a team of writers contributing to