This past weekend I attended the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. I didn’t really know what to expect (it was my first “writers conference” in my life!) but my favorite part was, by far, connecting with other Christian women writers. Shout out to all you amazing ladies!
One of the writers I FINALLY got to meet was Amy Julia Becker. You may remember that I’ve featured her here on my blog before. She recently came out with a memoir about her daughter, Penny, who was born with Down Syndrome, and I posted two excerpts from her book last Fall.
Amy Julia’s book has received rave reviews, and even if this is a topic that does not seem immediately relevant to your life, I would still encourage you to check it out. Amy Julia has processed her daughter’s life from a profoundly theological perspective, and the conclusions she has reached are not only powerful, but applicable to us all.
At the conference, I attended a session that Amy Julia presented on the topic of perfection. Upon the birth of her daughter, she began to question whether or not Down Syndrome should be considered a result of the Fall. Would children have been born with Down Syndrome prior to the effects of sin? And even more thought provoking, will people still have Down Syndrome in Heaven?
For a lot of Christians, we answer those questions without even giving them much thought. Of course Down Syndrome would not have existed prior to the Fall, and of course no one will have Down Syndrome in Heaven. …Right?
Amy Julia, on the other hand, challenges this notion by looking at the nature of human limitation. For many of us, it seems natural to think of limitations as a consequence of living in a broken world. Had sin not entered the world, we would not be inhibited by the limitations that make life challenging.
Or would we?
Here Amy Julia points out that humans had limitations long before the Fall. They were needy beings who were dependent on God for both sustenance and spiritual wholeness. They could not function without stopping for food or rest, and they certainly couldn’t live an abundant, joyful life apart from unity with God.
In a state of perfection, Adam and Eve had limitations.
Likewise, Jesus himself had limitations. He too needed food and rest like any other human being. There were also times when he needed comfort from the disciples. He was not an autonomous person without limitations, but a “needy” human being who needed both God and his community.
From these examples, Amy Julia concluded that limitations are not a mark of the Fall. Instead, these examples display what it means to be human. God created us to have limitations because they unite us to Him and to one another. And because these limitations serve to unite us with God, we can fully expect to have limitations in Heaven. We will forever be “needy” beings who can have no true existence apart from the sustaining grace of God.
This re-envisioning of limitations is important for many reasons, one of which is the way it shapes our language about human perfection. For example, Amy Julia noted that during prenatal check-ups it is common to hear ultrasound technicians describe a baby as “perfect.” “Perfect” meaning without flaws and without evident limitations.
But Amy Julia questions this definition of perfection. Is perfection really the absence of flaws? Does perfection really require the absences of those things which make us fallible, ugly, or weak?
Amy Julia argues that this is a worldly definition of perfection, and that we should instead think of perfection as that which makes us whole by bringing us closer to our created design, which is union with God and one another.
Worldly perfection, on the other hand, can actually thwart this design by alienating us from one another as we all strive to be perfect in competition with one another. Worldly perfection also leads us away from God–why would we need God if we’re perfectly perfect without Him?
Christian perfection, however, is not the absence of worldly limitations. Instead it embraces them. Christian perfection means becoming that which God created us to be–in His image–and joined with Him in perfect union.
This understanding of perfection sheds a helpful light on Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 11:30:
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
This verse, and others like it, is a paradigm shift. Although some limitations are certainly the result of sin (such as systemic injustices that keep populations of people in poverty), it is important to remember that we have God-given limitations that are good because they ensure our dependence on Him and on one another.
It is with this understanding of perfection in mind that Amy Julia can look upon her daughter, a child that the world would label “imperfect,” and confidently declare that she is a good and perfect creation. She may not be perfect by worldly standards, and she certainly bears the mark of sin just we all do, but she is also perfect in the sense that God designed her according to His own good plans. What’s more, Penny’s “limitations” not only draw her closer to God and others, but they have a similar effect on her family as well.
In a world that seeks to rid itself of limitations in the quest for perfection, I find this to be a liberating perspective, though it is certainly difficult to live out. I am more inclined to hide my weaknesses than boast in them. Even so, I hope it is a perspective that more Christians will endorse. We are, after all, in the business of glorifying God, not ourselves. A model of humanity that affirms the beauty of limitations is certainly compatible with–and even necessary for–our created end.
Thanks for this very thought-provoking post. I’ve been aware of Amy Julia’s book for a little while but haven’t read it myself yet.
I think the issue of limitations is a good one and I appreciate the perspective here that perfection is not the same as independence; in fact, dependence is a good thing. The emphasis on wholeness rather than a lack of deficiency is helpful but I still have three questions.
The first is whether we ought to think of ourselves as being needy beings in heaven. Won’t need be unknown in heaven? Ought we not to think of ourselves then as satisfied beings?
Secondly, I wonder how far we can extend this language of limitations. Do we see Downs Syndrome as a similar limitation to blindness, for example? I ask because I’m not sure I can think of Bible passages where blindness is seen as a good thing (which is not to say God can’t use it for good, of course.)
Third, where does this fit with a theology of physical healing? Jesus’ healing ministry is physical as well as spiritual and relational. Aren’t we to see Jesus’ healing ministry as in some part giving us a picture of the new creation?
Loving your blog btw!
Tamie, those are really great questions that I have wrestled with myself, and I won’t pretend to have all the answers yet.
Regarding your question about being “needy” beings, I think you are right to point out that we will not exist in a state of want in Heaven. Our needs will be met, so I debated on whether or not to use that word since it implies deficiency. Even so, I hoped to capture the idea that while our needs will be fully met in God, the fact remains that He is still the sustainer of our beings and we cannot exist without Him. In that sense we will always be “needy,” but not because we will have unmet needs.
As to your second and third questions, I don’t have a really good answer–those are questions I have wondered about myself. Perhaps I can get Amy Julia to respond. In the mean time, I think that Amy Julia’s perspective does raise some questions about what exactly is the ideal “type” of human being. Although we assume that the ideal is one who has full function of their physical and mental capacities, there are certainly individuals who do not have these things and lead perfectly wonderful lives, and some who would not have it any other way.
This topic certainly challenges us to think about what it exactly means to be made in the image of God. It also pushes us to think more deeply about healing and its purpose. Is healing for the sake of fixing a flaw, or simply eliminating suffering? And if the latter, then would God heal someone who enjoys the life He gave them, even though others would call their life “imperfect?”
I was at Amy Julia’s session too. I’m sad I didn’t see you there – or at the Redbud reception! I also have a child, a son, who can be classified as “mentally retarded” or at least very limited in his intellectual capabilities and have given the concepts of perfection and whether God “makes mistakes” a lot of thought. What I’ve come to is this: I don’t think any of us will have our physical limitations when we finally see God face to face and live in his presence forever. Any pain and suffering we endure would have to be erased, I imagine. BUT I think we will all be MORE like my son and Penny in terms of WHO they are. My son has a neurological condition in which part of his cerebellum is missing. By design he could clearly be labeled as imperfect. But the beauty of his condition and what he “lacks” is that – at least in the first five years of his life – he displays little, if any, ego. And I would guess that Amy Julia can say something similar about Penny. It’s as if my son was born to bless people. The first word he spoke was “hi.” One of the first phrases he started using with regularity and in earnest was “what’s your name?” He loves people, with no gain for himself, and is enthusiastic about elements of God’s creation that we usually overlook. He may never read books on theology or debate like a great thinker or understand algebra or other abstract concepts. He still struggles to identify colors and recite the alphabet. But although there is a human sadness in knowing he may never “measure up” by the world’s standards, I have come to believe that in the ways that truly matter, my son is farther along than most. Maybe Jesus really knew what he was talking about when he said “the last shall be first.” (This is one of many blog posts I have written about him that shows, I think, how disability or imperfection may really be closer to God in the world than we think: http://dontstampthebaby.blogspot.com/2011/10/bliss-of-innocence.html)
Wow Amy, thank you for sharing that reflection! Your words are so beautiful and true!
Sharon, love this line – “We will forever be ‘needy’ beings who can have no true existence apart from the sustaining grace of God.” It reminds me of Revelation 21:23 – “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.” I like sunshine and I could stare at a full moon all night long, but God is who I really need.
We will always need God. Thanks for the reminder, Sharon.
Tamie, You ask some really good questions, and in many ways I am still asking those same questions with you. I have two overall points to make. One, that I used to think about heaven in largely physical and individualistic terms, which is to say I thought about myself “perfected” in heaven and I pretty much envisioned myself as a superhero. In truth, I have very little knowledge of what I will look like or be like in heaven. I know my body and mind and spirit will both be the same as they are now and very very different as they are redeemed fully (perfectly) by the Lord. The same is true for Penny. We are equally broken and equally beloved. We will be changed and we will stay the same. But the much more important thing, the thing we do know without doubt about heaven, is that the Lord is there. And where the Lord is, there is freedom. Where the Lord is, love abounds.
Two, brokenness and limitations are not the same thing. We often conflate them in our culture and also within the church, but it’s important for us to recognize the difference. In our culture, we generally try to ignore our brokenness and deny our limitations (the sky’s the limit! and so forth). In the church, we often assume that limitations are the same as brokenness when they are actually quite different. Brokenness–which can result, of course, in limitations–is what God longs and intends to heal. Certainly disability can involve brokenness, although often the brokenness is more external than it is intrinsic to the disability. Notice that Jesus rarely simply heals a disability, but almost always insists that the disabled person be restored to community. Sure, it’s great that the blind man can see. But it’s even more important that he be restored to community.
Disability aside, for all of us, limitations are a part of what make us creatures, not God, and they are a part of what allow us to be in relationship with one another and with God. They will continue in some form even in heaven, and they will be received as gifts because they will enable us to–with humility and confidence–give and receive to one another and to receive what we need from the Lord.
I have written a bit more about some of these topics in an essay for First Things called “The Good Life”: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2008/12/the-good-life and for Christianity Today in an essay called “My Perfect Child” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/december/perfect-child-disability.html
Thanks Amy Julia! Those are helpful points, and as you say, these are questions to continue asking, not necessarily because we’ll find answers but because they lead us to deeper reflection on God and our relationship with him and others.
This is such an interesting post especially as I had just meditated on the passage in John 9 where the disciples question Jesus about the man born blind. “Who sinned?” they ask. Answer: “No one.” God’s works are displayed in this particular weakness/limitation and subsequently in the giving of sight. The reminder of our creatureliness is an impetus for worship of the Creator God. Even if our “blindness” is not healed God’s glory can still be displayed in the life of a person surrendered and available to magnify God.
The emphasis on human perfection can lead to idolatry and humanism. Our culture is rife with both. Let’s take care in the Body of Christ that our central focus remains on God and who He created us to be–representatives of His glory not our own notion of human perfection.
I have a60 year old sister who lives with us who is severely learning disabled and has a congenital rare heart defect. She has lived with us for 7 years now-was able to work until 2010 when her heart condition became too severe. I, too, have learned her life is in so many more ways reflective of the grace of God than mine-she is rarely angry, she carries no grudges, she has no prejudice, she only wants to make us happy (which BTW-can sometimes make you crazy!). She has taught me so much about what love really means and looks like on this earth. I have thought about her “wholeness” in heaven-will she finally understand some of the hard choices we made were for her good, will she understand more fully or will she understand enough. We will find out someday,.
Thank you for posting regularly. I’ve been reading your blog weekly for over a year. Your posts are both thought provoking and encouraging.
Hi Sharon. This is such a thoughtful & meaningful post. As the mother of a young daughter with Down syndrome, it speaks volumes to me. I wholeheartedly agree with Amy Julia & believe strongly that my daughter is perfect in the sense that she was planned for by God & he has a very specific plan for her life. She is gifted and talented uniquely for what he has called her specifically to do. She is who he created her to be and therefore is a perfect & whole creation. There is beauty in that. Thank you for sharing this.
BTW, I enjoyed your thoughtful comments at the FFWgr session on Saturday for Women Writing Online. So glad I found your blog. Thank you, again, Sharon! Blessings to you!