Imagine a British blind woman in a packed subway car on the London underground. A man touched her shoulder and asked if he could pray for her sight to be restored. She said “no.” This situation was one of several encounters this woman experienced since she lost her sight in her teen years. The Christian had approached her without any encouragement from her or warning. She did not give him permission to touch her.
The woman wrote an article about her experiences with some Christians called: “Stop trying to ‘heal’ me.” As a Christian writer and disability advocate, I was struck by the title. I wondered: Is there a right way and a wrong way to pray for strangers with disabilities?
One of the founding principles of our faith is to love our neighbors and pray for them, even if they are our enemies. We are supposed to be compassionate, caring, and willing to help if we can. Our desire to pray for people with disabilities can well-intentioned.
Getting in the face of strangers with disabilities in a public place, touching them without permission, and asking if we can pray for them, however, can be rude, demeaning, and embarrassing for disabled people.
God Does Not Always Heal – The Apostle Paul
Some Christians seem to assume that illness and disability can just be prayed away. God does not always choose to heal people, however. The apostle Paul was a leader who was actively involved in spreading the gospel, yet he had what he describes as a “thorn in my flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). The Bible does not explain what the thorn is, but many Christians and scholars speculate that Paul had a severe physical infirmity that hindered his ministry.
Paul prayed three times for the thorn to be removed. God’s answered that His grace was enough for him because His power was made perfect in weakness. Paul concluded that his condition prevented him from being conceited and said he would boast about it to receive God’s power. When he was weak, he was strong.
God wants His people to prosper and to be in good health (3 John 1:2). He has plans for us to thrive so we can have hope and a future – plans that are not intended to harm us (Jeremiah 29:11). God does not heal some people for reasons we often do not understand. We need to accept this and not judge others because they have challenges or illnesses.
Why Asking Disabled Strangers if we can Pray for Them is Problematic
We assume that disabled people want (and need) to be fixed
When we approach them and ask if we can pray for them, we think we are saying: “I care about you and want you to be healed.” Instead, we may actually be saying, “There is something wrong with you. I can fix it by praying for you.” In other words, we are judging them as deficient and in need of our assistance.
Many people, especially the media, assume that disabled people want to be cured and are held back from living a normal life by their difficulties. This is not true in most cases. People with challenges can get a good education, marry, and lead full and happy lives without being “fixed.” Their difficulties are not a source of shame, but they accept them as a part of who they are. If someday a medical intervention or miracle can help them, great, if not, that is OK too.
Not everyone wants prayer
Asking strangers if they require our intercession puts them on the spot. Religion is a touchy subject with many people. They may not be religious, part of a faith other than Christianity, or on the fence about what they believe. Church attendance does not necessarily mean that the person is a believer. People with disabilities may resent someone who invades their privacy under the false assumption that the disabled believe in prayer and the Christian faith. People may also feel humiliated by a Christian’s request to intercede, especially if they are in a public place or church.
Some Christians will not take “no” for an answer, touching them without permission and praying over them anyways. The objects of their prayers will probably feel disrespected, frustrated, and angry as well as turned off at Christianity.
We do not have the power to fix people
It is God and not our intercession that heals people. Our interaction with Him can influence him and make him change His mind at times, but in the end, whether people with chronic illness or disability become well or not is up to him. We need to accept that his answer to our intercession may be “no” or “not yet.”
Alternative Approaches to Offering Prayer for the Disabled
Examine why we feel the need to intervene
We may think we act out of love when offering prayer but are motivated by pity instead – the last thing a disabled person wants. In our pride and arrogance, some of us may think that we have the power to heal others instantly by our prayers.
One way to do a heart check is to ask questions like these:
“How would I want people to treat me if I became injured or developed a chronic illness that put me in a wheelchair?”
“Do I want to be treated like a “suffering” cripple who needs to be rescued?
“Do I want other people to pity me?”
“How would I react if people praised me because I “overcame” obstacles and did not let my “disabilities hold me back?”
“Do I want to be viewed as “inspirational” just because I live an ordinary life with some challenges?”
Respect disability rights
People with disabilities have rights such as:
• The freedom to live their lives as they choose without being judged
• Respect for their personal space shown by keeping a fair distance away and not touching them or their equipment (wheelchairs, canes, etc.) without their invitation
• The ability to be in public places or churches without being harassed by those who insist on praying over them, whether the disabled want it or not
• Respect for their decisions not to seek medical intervention for their condition or explore controversial solutions for their challenges
• The right to be treated the same as people without disabilities
• Recognize the stigma and discrimination they endure
Disabled people face discrimination every day. They are put on pedestals as “heroes” or treated like pitiful lower species of humanity. In some cultures, their families and communities may view them as a curse or a punishment for someone’s sins. People with challenges will be leery of strangers approaching them.
People with disabilities desire the same things everyone wants such as acceptance, respect, and love. They usually do not see themselves as “suffering” or in need of help. They do not want obnoxious strangers accosting them and telling them they need prayer because they were disabled or ill.
We can pray silently and discreetly for healing for people with challenges if we felt led to do so. This act shows our love and that we care about them. We should also treat disabled people with dignity and respect by only praying with them if they ask us to do so.