Thursday, January 17, 2013

Crumbs of Evil: An Autistic Perspective on Sanctification

The CDC estimates that one out of every 110 children is born with some form of autism spectrum disorder. The underlying causes and most effective treatments continue to be debated among medical professionals. From a ministry perspective, however, one thing is clear. There is a large and growing population of people with autism who need to hear and understand the Gospel just as much as everyone else, but whose style of learning and interacting present challenges for the traditional approaches to youth ministry and evangelism.

This issue is particularly important to me because my son Zack, the younger of my two amazing children, has autism. Although he is “high functioning”, he nevertheless has certain challenges in communication, attention span, and sensitivity to environment that other children his age do not have. He, like many autistic children, thinks in very concrete terms that make certain abstract concepts difficult for him to understand. The Lord, however, has repeatedly shown me the power of His Word and has often worked through Zack to rebuke my lack of confidence in the power of the simple Gospel. I would like to share one of the more recent examples.

The doctrine of sanctification can be difficult for anyone to understand and especially so for an 11 year old child that does not do well with figurative language! How do you explain that when they believe the person that they were has died with Christ and a new person is created within them? How do you explain that although the old person died spiritually they will still struggle with the sinful tendencies of the nature that belonged to the old person? How do you explain that they are being transformed to be more like Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit applying the Word of God in their life? How can you help them understand although this work is taking place their confidence before God is based not on their own works but on the life of Jesus lived and not their own?

Nevertheless, Zack and I had a number of short conversations over the course of a couple months about what it meant to be a new person in Jesus and why we were to be “good” even though we are saved by grace through faith. I was not sure how much he actually understood when an incident occurred that clarified for me just how much the Holy Spirit had brought to his understanding. He became frustrated with something, lost his temper, and responded in a way that was less than appropriate. Concerned that his emotions would escalate further I took him aside and helped him calm down. Once he was calm, I asked him if he thought that he had made good choices in dealing with the situation. I was certainly not expecting to hear what he said next.

He looked at me, raised his hands shoulder high with his palms facing up, and said, “I know I am supposed to be a Christian, listen to the Bible, be swept clean by Jesus and baptized… but there are still crumbs of evil in there! (as he pointed to his chest)” Amazed that he was able to make that application all I could muster in response was “me too son, me too”. My son had just given me a very helpful metaphor for understanding what we had been discussing. It was far more helpful and articulate than anything I had come up with in trying to explain it to him.

He is right; the Word of God is like a broom that is sweeping us clean of all sorts of spiritual impurities and clutter. It is a continuing process that does not end until we are finally glorified with Christ. As long as we are in this world struggling with the flesh and sin, we know that “crumbs of evil” remain. This is why we need to be careful not to neglect the ministry of the Word so that we can put on Christ and lay aside the old man. I am grateful to have heard wisdom from the mouth of “babes” and I am reminded of how I should never underestimate my God or my son.

This and other incidents have encouraged me greatly and highlighted something interesting about the way the Bible teaches that I would like to highlight for the encouragement of others who are teaching children with autism. God has been most gracious in that He did not reveal Himself in a theology textbook. The abstract principals of theology such as holiness, sin, grace, regeneration, etc. are revealed to us through human experiences. We see constantly repeated illustrations of the character of God through the narratives and most clearly in the life of Jesus Christ. God has demonstrated in tangible figures the principals that theologians draw out.

For example, it is easier to teach the concept of grace by looking at the life of Christ or various Old Testament illustrations rather than trying to begin with the definition of grace as “unmerited favor”. These more tangible illustrations are helpful in teaching any person the truths of the Bible but since the autistic child is likely to be less responsive to many other methods, this approach becomes even more valuable. If we avoid using those narratives just to teach morality and instead emphasize the underlying Gospel truths to which they point they can be powerful teaching tools. Since so much of the Bible is already written this way, the teaching of Bible truth to many autistic children is not altogether different from teaching any other child. It just requires more patience and persistent, prayerful, confidence in the Word of God.

1 comment:

  1. This post was especially touching to me. I can relate to Zack. Abstract principles are hard for me to understand too, and your son accurately summed up the doctrine of sanctification better than most analogies I have herd. NFI