In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble– – C. S. Lewis
I’m uncomfortable when people use words like “superhero” to describe persons with disabilities. Don’t get me wrong – I know (and have listened to firsthand) amazing stories of people who’ve overcome the most crushing circumstances imaginable. But when I listen to persons with disabilities tell their own stories, there is language like “one day at a time” and “overcome challenges” – a “do what you gotta do” attitude permeates their storytelling.
I understand the impulse to use extravagant comparisons. Overcoming a severe stutter or blindness or a crippling illness is no small feat. We are awed by the effort and tenacity these stories display. But that’s exactly why the superhero language makes me uncomfortable – it denies the very human level of struggle that makes the tenacity remarkable.
We do the same thing to people from the Bible, treating them as something more than human, and therefore not really human.
Abraham wanders off into the desert, following a God who He barely knows, leaving behind a family and friends and a life. He never sees the entirety of what God promised him. And somehow we think he never had a dark night of the soul? Never wept in the dark until his pillow was soaked through? Never snapped at Sarah because the stress had worn them down to frazzled, emotional messes?
1 Samuel 21 is not David’s most flattering chapter. He’s scrambling, running headlong away from Saul without a plan. He filches bread from a priest, babbles on, lying, about how he’s on a holy mission, and ends up drooling on himself to convince his former enemies that he’s gone mad. This is not a man who sat down that morning, had a peaceful quiet time and wrote a beautiful Psalm about God’s care and protection. This is a man panicking and doing the very next thing that pops into his mind.
Ezekiel begins writing his book saying “I saw visions… I heard voices” and you wonder if he wondered if this is what it feels like to go insane. Jeremiah’s specialty seems to have been writing long complaints to God in between his prophesying sessions. Paul talks over and over again about being in for the long haul… waiting not-so-patiently for the Corinthians and Galatians to finally – finally! – get it.
When we label these men and women superheroes, we deny the integrity of their story. We edit out their dark night of the soul, their process, their long and winding road. We gloss over the long days and months of painful rehab. We ignore the disappointment, the heartbreak, the ongoing struggle of living life (no matter how successfully) with certain limitations, certain accommodations. We discount the validity of the struggle, the deepness of the doubting, the wounds that left unfading scars.
But when we use the label superhero, we also deny ourselves something. We can say Oh I could never do something like that and believe it, because what “they” did is not in the realm of human possibility – only that of superheroes. (And is there really someone out there who thinks, “I could definitely suffer a stroke and spend the next year of my life learning to walk and feed myself again. I could DO that!”?) We ignore God’s insistence that He only uses the weak, the broken, the fragile. We do not see that struggling with every last drop of courage, strength, resolve in us – and borrowing more from those around us – is what marks the very best of humanity. That, marred and broken as it is by sin, the human nature has been endowed with some fantastic qualities. Courage. Strength. Grace. Tenacity. Qualities that make it possible to overcome.
When we say that these are superhuman qualities, we take them out of the realm of possibility for normal human beings. We can recast them as something gained easily by those who have the makings of superherodom.
But it is not superhuman to fight to the death, to remain undefined by limitations, to follow despite the pain and doubt. It is the very best of what it means to be human.