Comparison based on performance. We so naturally live this way that we hardly notice it anymore. And yet, this badge of honor is meaningless to God and deadly to us. God uses our special needs kids to rip off the masks we create and show us that our value has nothing to do with our achievements.
We were just sitting down to dinner. Since we were having chicken nuggets, we clearly couldn’t proceed without honey mustard, so I asked (our thirteen-year-old, autistic son) Matthew to go downstairs and find a reinforcement.
Moments later, Matthew came up frustrated and empty-handed. This wasn’t the first time. Matthew’s autism simply doesn’t allow him to find or keep track of things very well. I didn’t say anything, but I was frustrated. ‘God, does something this simple really have to be this hard?!’
Before Matthew was born, I had grandiose dreams for him. As my son, of course he was going to be smart, athletic and do great things for Christ. But shortly after his diagnosis of autism at 20 months of age, it quickly became apparent that none of this was going to happen. I was devastated.
Anyone could understand our sense of loss, which was painful and real. But looking back, some of the despondency was my fault. I had unknowingly allowed Future Matthew and all his supposed achievements to define my sense of value and worth. I had been defining my own life by what I produced and achieved, so I was unwittingly defining Matthew this way, too.
We do this all the time, in different ways. We drive by a beautiful home and think ‘how lucky’ the owner must be. We feel inferior because our salary is way less than our co-worker’s. We’re jealous because our classmate gets great grades without lifting a finger.
Because we focus so much on our performance and achievements, we get proud when we do well and feel insecure when we don’t. Have you ever felt like that?
In a driven culture like ours, special needs children are one of God’s megaphones. But what is he trying to tell us?
No doubt there are many lessons, but chief among them is this:
God doesn’t need our achievements. He appreciates our hard work and accomplishments, but they don’t impress him and they can’t give us value. Only he can do that.
The Apostle Paul, reflecting on his own, impressive CV, learned this lesson in spades:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4-6)
Most of Paul’s pedigree doesn’t impress us today, but in his day, he was the man. He was from the right nation (‘the people of Israel’), the most holy, strict religious sect (‘a Pharisee’) and kept God’s law to an amazing degree (‘blameless’). He was bulletproof.
But none of that mattered to Paul anymore.
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Philippians 3:7-9)
In comparison to Christ, everything else – no matter how good – is ‘loss’ and ‘rubbish’. They can’t create ‘righteousness of [our] own’ – they don’t make us intrinsically good, don’t give us standing before God. In fact, even more than our worst sins, our best qualities and efforts threaten to cut us off from God because they subtly trick us into believing we can get it done.
Now do you see why our special needs kids are such tremendous teachers?
It’s because most of them will never accomplish most of what we ‘typical’ people value. Depending on their particular challenges, they may never play sports, participate in the ‘right’ activities, go to college, get married, make new discoveries, hold a high-powered job, or, start a family. Barring a miracle, Matthew is certainly never going to do any of this.
Precisely because they will not achieve what we naturally value, they invite us to consider that our own value lies beyond what we can achieve. This is the road to sanity, seeing things as they really are. Our special needs kids are a living reminder that we are not what we accomplish.
So let’s bring this in for a landing and make it personal in two steps. Ready?
- Think of a special needs child or adult that you know. What limitations does he or she have? What is beautiful about them apart from what they can/can’t do?
- Now think about your own life. Where is your identity wrapped up in what you accomplish? How would your life be different if you started finding your identity in Christ instead of your accomplishments?
Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments section below so that we can all benefit.