If God Makes Us “Very Good,” Why Are There Birth Defects?
The idea that we are “perfect just the way we are” is difficult to square, both from a biblical perspective and also in light of the lived experience of so many people. How can we talk about “perfection” when human suffering surrounds us and when we ourselves are confronted with our own imperfection? This week, Vince and Jo are joined by Naomi Zacharias, leader of Wellspring International, RZIM's humanitarian arm devoted to helping at-risk women and children. Together they consider what it means to affirm that we were created “very good,” while also recognizing that we live in a fallen world that includes disabilities and birth defects. If God makes us, how can some people be made with such physical challenges? How does Christ meet us in the midst of imperfection?
Learn more about Wellspring International here.
Question Asked in This Episode: “If God makes us, as it says in the Psalms, how can some people, like my daughter with spina bifida, be made with such physical flaws, making parts of her body unable to function?”
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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale, I'm your host, Michael Davis. The concept of being, “perfect just the way you are,” is not only impossible to reconcile from a biblical perspective, but flies in the face of so many people's lived experiences. The idea of perfection makes no sense in the light of human suffering, but makes even less sense when considering our need for the cross.
Michael Davis: Confusing the matter, is that many people have an incredibly difficult time differentiating between what culture says about us, and what scripture says about us. How are we to consider our imperfections when the Bible says that we are fearfully and wonderfully made? How are we to engage with a culture that disagrees with us in regards to what the Bible says about humanity? But before we get started, we are excited to say that we have Naomi in the studio with us today. Naomi, can you tell our listeners for those who don't know a little bit about Wellspring International?
Naomi Zacharias: Sure. Wellspring was launched in 2004 as the humanitarian arm of RZIM and our mission is to come alongside existing organizations that are supporting women and children at risk internationally. And so, that's given us the chance to engage in some very specific forms of human suffering that are happening around the world—domestic violence, HIV care, poverty related issues, war related issues. We have supported a couple of programs that are supporting children with special needs, issues involving human trafficking. So just some of those just very dark and painful realities that we're facing today.
Michael Davis: Awesome. If someone wants to support you or to learn more about Wellspring, what can they do?
Naomi Zacharias: They can go to our website, wellspringinternational.org and that should give them all the information they need.
Michael Davis: Excellent. Wonderful. I'm a big Naomi fan, so I'm super excited to have you on the show.
Naomi Zacharias: Oh, there aren't many of those.
Michael Davis: There's three in the room.
Naomi Zacharias: I might never leave this room.
Michael Davis: Well, let's get today's question from Brittany. And actually Dustin, if you're listening, we're actually going to be addressing some of your questions as well. “I am a Christian. I grew up hearing many phrases like ‘God made you perfect just the way you are,’ and ‘God made each of us unique in our own way.’ These were pleasant phrases thrown around, but after having a daughter be born with spina bifida, I realized that these must not be biblical. If God made us perfect, we would not need his redemption. If God made us, wouldn't we all be very good like, Adam and Eve, and without any physical or health flaws? If God made us, that means He made my daughter have a disability. I've come to this conclusion and I would like to know your critique of it. God literally made Adam and Eve. Then He told us to be fruitful and multiply. Meaning that the natural process which God created are now the source of how humans are made. Once they sinned, all of nature became tainted with death and disease, resulting in the potential birth defects we have now. But then how do we explain the Psalms that say He knit us together in our mother's womb and that He knows her innermost parts? I reasoned that this must mean that He knit us together, placing our souls, our inner most parts into our bodies, and then breathing the breath of life into us. Can you tell me, if this reasoning is correct, and answer the question, “If God makes us, as it says in the Psalms, how can some people, like my daughter with spina bifida, be made with such physical flaws, making parts of her body unable to function?”
Vince Vitale: Well, Brittany, thank you for such a deep question. Thank you for trusting us with it. Thank you for being willing to ask something that's so personal to you, and to be honest, I wish we could just listen to you, continue to speak and learn about the insight that you have from what you've experienced. We can see how deep that is even from the question that you ask. Your question, I do think, is relevant to all of us.
Vince Vitale: Many of us will, at some point in our lives, wind up disabled, if not us, that will be true for many of those whom we love. Even for those for whom that's not the case where we are never designated in a humanly constructed way as a disabled. It's still true that we all have limitations. We all have inabilities and so we need to know how to think about this, whoever we are, we need to know how to think about those limitations and how to live in light of that.
Vince Vitale: As a Christian coming to your question and to this episode, I'm just really thankful that we can turn to, I think the only God who understands because Jesus, in some sense, underwent massive disability in the incarnation. The God of the universe, who is omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent, came to live in a finite, limited body. I don't know if you've ever thought about it that way, but there's a significant sense in which what would have been natural to him in his perfected form was not true in every sense of Jesus and the life that he lives. I think because of that, he is precisely the person we should be going to. As we asked this question.
Jo Vitale: And Brittany, I really am...I completely hear your mother's heart in the way that you're asking this and also the way you've so clearly, deeply wrestled with it, and such a thoughtful way. And I think you've set up that the problem that we have to wrestle with really well here because on the one hand, you're right, if we're saying that God is still intimately involved in the way that we're made and we're not made perfect, as you rightly pointed out, how do we make sense of that?
Jo Vitale: And yet on the other hand, we have this challenge that, if we say God isn't involved in the way that each individual is craft, in the way that they come together, then what we wind up with is this sort of picture, a very deistic God, a God who kind of kicks off the processes involved at the beginning, but then when things go wrong, it's kind of like, he's like, “Well, I'm wiping my hands of that. I'm just going to let them come out, however they come out and however messed up the process gets, I'm just going to kind of step away from it.” And in my mind, it's kind of a picture of two different images. One is the image, of like in a factory where something goes wrong when it's programmed in and then everything comes out in this kind of botched away and you just let it go down the conveyor belt or on the other hand, the image of people being lovingly handmade and handcrafted and I do actually believe that the picture we really get from the Bible is of the second one.
Jo Vitale: Now I recognize that we're getting into your question here. What do we do with that? If we believe that actually God really chooses each one of us, that He is intricately involved in the knitting and the weaving together of who we are, then it does leave us with this question of how do you make sense of that with the imperfections that we all come with.
Jo Vitale: But my instinct and what I think the Bible is saying here is actually no, God is a hands-on God, He's not a God who's staying at a distance. And even just that image of just putting a sort of soul in us and that being how He's involved, it still says to me something there about a kind of distancing from the physical, but I think God really treats us holistically and is involved in every part of us.
Jo Vitale: So there's something in me that feels uncomfortable with that idea as well. And so when you bring up these few phrases at the beginning, “God made you perfect just the way you are.” And “God made each of us unique in our own way.” And I guess my own feeling on this and thoughts are that actually I disagree with the first one. I don't think God made us perfect just the way we are at all. We all full and clearly every one of us has limitations and challenges and struggles and things that aren't right with us. But I do believe that God made each of us unique in our own way.
Naomi Zacharias: This question is such a deep and rich question and there's so much heart in it and there are some deep theological aspects to it. But as I was reading it too, I feel like there's also part of it where it is just, this reality that Brittany has had to live with, and that some of us have experienced in different ways of the kind of impact of some of the well intentioned, yet often try and unhelpful ways that we answer some of these questions from the heart.
Naomi Zacharias: And when I say “we,” I'm actually meaning specifically Christians too, and sometimes we have, I think the best of intentions. I do not know what it is like for this little girl to have to live with these kinds of challenges, or for this mother to have to watch her child struggle in this way. But in a different situation, when I lost two babies while pregnant, some of the most common responses from Christians was, “Well there's probably something really wrong and it's probably for the best.”
Naomi Zacharias: And it honestly would make me so angry inside because what I felt was like, “I don't care what was wrong. I wanted those babies and I wanted them the way that they were.” And I think we tend to want to play it both ways and it is coming from, I think we're desperate to try to stay something that is comforting to someone who's hurting. But the thing is, we can't both value the body and make statements about the value to the body and then undermine that in different circumstances when it helps us at the same time. There's a writer, Thomas Lynch. He's an undertaker as well as he's an Irish poet, I believe. But he talks about his experiences as an undertaker and just some of the really unhelpful things that he's heard people say to family members in a funeral home.
Naomi Zacharias: And he said, one of the common things is they'll say, "That's not your loved one, that's not your mother, that's not your daughter, that's just a shell." And he says, he always thinks how horrible that is to say, because the body is never just a shell. And to that person, that body was invaluable and it's invaluable to God because the body matters. The body matters so much that Jesus took on that form of humanity and took on the human body. And by doing so he was affirming the body matters. So we can't play it both ways. So when the body is lost or hurt or wounded or suffering, I think we have to be willing to face on the difficulty of that question and what this means about the character of God.
Vince Vitale: Yeah. To your point, Naomi as well, just about the way that we use words. Brittany, I thought you used this phrase, “Throw around pleasant phrases that gets thrown around,” and that really stuck out to me as well. We need to be so careful and caring with our words because when you throw things around, they hit people. That's exactly what happens with these sorts of phrases, so we need to be careful, we need to be thoughtful and we need to love people in the way that we use our words.
Vince Vitale: And I thought it was really insightful. You said, “If God made us perfect, we would not need his redemption.” I'm going to be thinking about that for quite a while. That's a really deep claim to make. I think you put that extremely well. If something is made perfect just the way we are, then that thing, that person or that thing, whatever it is that God's creating, it doesn't have to be perfected.
Vince Vitale: Maybe that's too small a vision of who God is and what God is up to in our lives to just say, well, He made us perfect as we are. Even you go back to Genesis and you think of Adam and Eve being created as you referenced, it says they were made “very good.” That's different than saying they were made perfect and maybe our God is a God, as you say, of redemption, where He's not just looking to make us perfect from the start, but He's actually looking to invite us into a process of being perfected by his grace. And so light is a beautiful thing, but our God is the light that shines in the darkness. Life is a beautiful thing, but our God is a God who brought life out of death. And I think that's one thing that we see as God is at work in our lives.
Michael Davis: In Reed's question, he actually even makes the statements where it says God makes no mistakes. But if you can expand a little bit, we do. And that's the whole point, we're not perfect.
Naomi Zacharias: Well, and even to that, one thing that's interesting as we look at this, because when we talk about the way Adam and Eve were made and that the beginning of humanity in that way. And so there are none of the kind of health struggles that some of what we see today. And yet it's just this reminder, the body is what one facet of what it means to be human, because it is Adam and Eve that ultimately made the choice that banned all of humanity from the garden of Eden and took life in a different direction.
Naomi Zacharias: Now, not to say, because we all would have done that, that's kind of the point of that, it was sort of this communal suffering that we entered into as human beings because of that. But so I think even when we talk about Adam and Eve, we have to kind of look at the full picture of what it means to be human and perfected because they did make that quite dooming choice.
Vince Vitale: Yeah. And it is again back to that point of why the precision of the words is so careful and so we can affirm everything the Bible says. You think of Psalm 139, “For you created my inmost being. Yes, you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I'm fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful. Your eyes saw my unformed body.” And I affirm every one of those words and I affirmed that Adam and Eve were created “very good.” And interesting, we often take what scripture is actually saying and we tried to put a trite phrase on it and then throw that around and when we do that, we wind up distorting what God is actually communicating to us.
Jo Vitale: I think you were drawing out the right distinctions here in the sense that yes, there's a sense in which God does create differently with Adam and Eve because as has just been pointed out that is in a state before as sin and then you also rightly point out how it's absolutely true that nature becomes tainted with death and disease. And that is what results in the birth defects that we do see now, I think perhaps what we're trying to also emphasize here is that God isn't detached from that process. That actually in a way the question you're asking is the same sense of why didn't God just start over. When it all goes wrong, why doesn't he just start over again? But I don't think it's one or the other.
Jo Vitale: I don't think it's the case that either God has to start over again and be involved or it's sin and destruction and God isn't involved. I think the challenge and the struggle that we all wrestle with as Christians is that we are in a fallen world and yet God is still intimately involved. It's the same struggle of the question of why just some people get healed and not others. Because sometimes we see God be involved in this intentional way that brings healing in the now and sometimes the healing comes in the afterlife, in eternity and we don't understand why does this child come out in this way, and this one is struggling in this area?
Jo Vitale: We don't understand what the process is there, but somehow God has grace for our full in this, that even in the midst of the, as you say, the taintedness and the death and the disease, He is working that redemption. And I actually think it's so important for us to be able to say that it's true that actually even with all of this that we're dealing with, that God has made us fearfully and wonderfully.
Jo Vitale: He doesn't say perfectly, but fearfully means like with great reference and wonderfully means with a sense of wonder. And actually in the Hebrew has connotations of the uniqueness, the uniqueness with which were made. And I actually think that's so crucial for us to be able to affirm in a world that values people differently and says that your worth as a human being is greater or lesser depending on different things like how smart you are or how able you are to do this or that. And human beings might be tempted to have a scale in which they rate people and their worth according to what they're capable of or what they achieve or all these different things.
Jo Vitale: But God is actually saying, “How fearfully and wonderfully you’re made has nothing to do with what defects you might be experiencing and what suffering you might be going through or the things that you're enduring. It doesn't change the fact that you're made in my image and it's with great reverence and one day and that will not be determined by whatever physical limitations you're dealing with, which is a relief to us because to one degree or another, we all have them. And if we don't have them now, we will have them. And when they come at whatever point in our life that will not lessen your value when they do come.
Vince Vitale: John nine, the passage there, has been really significant for me in this. When Jesus sees a blind man, blind from birth, his disciples say, "Rabbi, who sinned? This man or his parents said he was born blind." And I think Jesus's answers so significant. He says, it was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him, and I always loved those last two words at the end.
Vince Vitale: He could've just said so that the works of God might be displayed, but those words at the end in him in this specific unique individual who was wonderfully made for a specific purpose, and I love this passage in one line, Jesus tells us it's wrong to assume it was the person's fault. Don't make that mistake. We don't go down the line of saying somebody has a disability, that must be karma.
Vince Vitale: As some Eastern worldviews would say, we don't assume it was the family's fault. It would be wrong to make that assumption. He speaks that in the single sentence and then he says, “So that God's works might be displayed in him. God has a specific purpose to reveal his glory in each individual, not merely despite their disability, but even incredibly in some way which is going to be intertwined with that. That is really a big, powerful, loving God.
Naomi Zacharias: Yeah, no, I think that one of the things that we can tend to do or that's easy to do is we think about the fall in a way that's sort of purely about the condemnation and yet part of what is representing a fall too is just brokenness and suffering. And so when Jesus went to the cross, he is as he was carrying sin to the cross, but he was also carrying that suffering, our suffering to ultimately redeem that and carry that to the other side as well.
Naomi Zacharias: And so I think sometimes to me, I feel like when we look at a question like this and what it's like for a little one, for an adult who has to live with this kind of challenge, really, it's not just what...the question isn't just what does it say about their body and what their body is having to face, but it really is a question that reveals something about the rest of the world.
Naomi Zacharias: Because some, there is just an element to this physical suffering that ought not and cannot be denied. However, there is also a layer of why life is as difficult as it is for her is because of some of what is wrong with this world and what is wrong with the rest of humanity that struggles to recognize the ultimate value in essence of a human being and how to come alongside one who need your help and needs your assistance in a particular kind of way.
Naomi Zacharias: So I feel like it really kind of puts a spotlight on that too, that we have to answer like what is wrong with the rest of us and what the rest of this world, why life is as hard as it is for somebody who's living with particular challenges. And so I think when we look at redemption and brokenness and suffering, it really calls all of that to the table.
Vince Vitale: Right, and I love then how God challenges us through the limitations that each of us has. And so I was just thinking of Moses, someone with a speech impediment and God decides this is the man that I'm going to use to communicate through one of the last people that everyone else would have chosen and God chose him. And that challenges all of our presumptions about what is strength, what is weakness, what is ability, what is disability causes us to not rely on our own understanding and seek an understanding that's far beyond our own.
Michael Davis: So that actually begs an incredibly difficult question. Did God intend on someone to be born with spina bifida or somebody to be born with a disability?
Jo Vitale: Yeah. That is in a way, it's really at the heart of this question. Is an exceptionally difficult question. I think what I want to say here is actually I don't think God ever intended for anyone to suffer, for any sin to come into the world for there to be evil in death, for life to be the way it is with all the agony and tragedy and hardship.
Jo Vitale: I don't think that was ever his intention. I think that came from all actions, not his intention, but I do believe that there's a grace to the fact that God has mercy enough not to write us off, but to work with the world in its brokenness and in its fullness. And I think we have to say that God has the capability to stop anybody from suffering from any of these things.
Jo Vitale: So there's certainly a sense in which, and as He's involved in that process of us being made, that He does allow for us to live out in our own bodies. Sometimes the brokenness and the consequences of the fool and wealth that we're living in, I think He allows that to go forwards. And that's a hard thing to say, but I think we've been speaking to that in the sense that as you said, if we were made perfect, there wouldn't be that place for redemption. I think the way God chooses to work out his redemption, it's not on our timeline. It's not the way we would want it to be. And we don't want to have to work it out in this lifetime. But God is involved in this process where the threads of brokenness are running through, but He's still weaving something beautiful and redemptive out of it.
Jo Vitale: And we're part of that story. And as Vince has said, in every life, God can then take even the most extreme forms of suffering and purpose them. And I think that's something so unique to Christianity that you're not written off, regardless of whatever you might be suffering or enduring or going through that God, not that He desires for you to suffer in that way, but He can redeem it and work it for good and actually turn it into something tremendously beautiful.
Jo Vitale: And I think that's really what we see in Jesus. The one who was ultimately beautiful but, became nothing. He made himself nothing in order to take us and our brokenness, and in many ways, the ugliness that we experience in life and turn that into something beautiful. And I think that's a story we work to. And it's a drawn out story. And it's hard because we don't get the interventions that we want to the way that we desire to see them every day, but I do think that God is doing something profound and stunning in the lives even in the worst times of suffering…that you're not written off in that sense, that we can't just say, “Well, that was a wasted life or that person was a mistake.” I don't think anybody is a mistake.
Vince Vitale: No, and I think if God's grace is actually shown in a particularly wonderful way, in a majestic way, when you see that play out in the life of someone that the world might say is weak, but that God sees great strength in. And there was this quote that I came across from Joni Tada, who's a quadriplegic, and I thought she put it really beautifully. She said, "Our savior chose to flash his credentials as Messiah, through ministry to disabled people," and we might add here, through ministry by disabled people, oftentimes in the Bible. She said, "A disability magnifies God's grace. We, in our wheelchairs, get to prove how great and how trustworthy God is.”
Naomi Zacharias: And I think all of this too, points to that there is an answer for this within the Christian faith and worldview that cannot be found anywhere else. And so even when I was saying earlier that as Christians we can often give kind of trite and unhelpful responses. The thing is we actually have what something very unique to be able to draw from the answers this in a way that I think no other worlds we really can. And I think that some of what God gives us the grace and the ability to do because what it means to be human is based on some more than what we can then what we can do, what our bodies are able to achieve. In some ways like this little girl has to live with an honesty that the rest of us don't have to live with because the fact is we all are so broken on the inside, but you can walk around with that and nobody knows.
Naomi Zacharias: Nobody knows what's going on in there. Whereas, the body displays those things in such an outward way. And I was talking to somebody the other day, when one of my babies was born, you're holding this little one. And then the very first thing that happens, like with one of, with my last one, it was an eye infection. So you get an eye infection when he was like five days old. And I just remember where you're feeling like, “Oh,” because there was this healthy body that was born and then this first sign of infection that hits and you're like, “Ah, that eye didn't know that infection before.” And I was saying, in a way almost don't you wish, because we all walk around with the thing is the incidents, the experiences that happened in life, they wound on the inside, but there's no evidence of that.
Naomi Zacharias: In some ways you feel wouldn't it be helpful if they were all these signs around someone's head of all these things that happened. So you know of what to be aware of and where the landmines are, but we don't have that. But so I just think all of this, I think what we have in the Christian review is just this beautiful picture of what it means to be human that's based on so much more than what we tend to value in this broken world. And so I keep thinking about that first comment, “God made you perfect just the way you are,” and how we don't believe that that's true.
Naomi Zacharias: And yet, as you were commenting on that Jo, and how that's not true. Like how many times if I said that to my daughter, and I'm actually not trying to lie to her, and I do need to be careful with that, but I think what we're actually trying to say with that is that even as because, I do see her that way. And there's no way I'm more benevolent than a loving God. But I think what we're trying to say is that with that picture of seeing in a way that God does, God doesn't promise that we are perfect, that we are created perfectly. But He promises to see us as worthy and perfect. And I think that's what we are able to offer to one another and to recognize in him.
Vince Vitale: I love that you used the word, “picture,” as you were speaking, I was thinking of a sort of Monet painting and if you're too close to it, if your view is too narrow, you might just see a sort of normal patch of brown color and you might think that's pretty ordinary. And when you step back and you see it from a wider vision, you see the entire painting, you see that it's perfect that you couldn't imagine how to make that any better. And I think that's exactly right, we see our children and yes they have imperfection, but when we look at them, the Christian story invites us to see them from that wide perspective, the totality of who they are and who they're going to be in God. And so we see that as perfect and rightly so. Yeah.
Michael Davis: And that's actually, I love that as well because what God promises is for those who put their faith in Christ, that is literally how God sees them, that He doesn't see the mistakes. He doesn't see the sins. He literally sees them as perfect.
Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's right.
Michael Davis: Well guys, we're out of time. Naomi, can you sum it up for us?
Naomi Zacharias: Well, I was reading an article about an artist named Tim Lowly who has a daughter who is born with cerebral palsy and cerebral palsy with spastic quadriplegia. And he describes that what that means is that she has physical limitations of a quadriplegic, but that she also has the brain capacity of a newborn he says. So he says she does not seem capable of learning or understanding much beyond a very basic level.
Naomi Zacharias: And then he says, wow, that is how one might think of Temma from a measure of ability, that measure has long since fallen aside in terms of how we primarily understand Temma, She is a great and utterly innocent mystery. As Tim goes on to describe his daughter, he says, I feel like Temma informs me about who God is. It's not so much a matter of looking at her and saying, I see God as in what she tells me by her day-to-day existence.
Naomi Zacharias: When God identified himself to Moses as “I am that I am,” He didn't say who He is. God is about being in Temma is not about any of those other things. Power, possessions, ability, title, race or ethnicity. None of that has any meaning to her. By saying she informs my understanding of God, I don't mean to put her on a pedestal. It's more of a matter of bringing us continually to what is essential about being human. And then her mother said the essential quality of God is love. Temma loves to be touched. She could sit on your lap all day and be content, although she will still have seizures occasionally. And then they say, Tim says, I long for my child to know who I am. But the quest for being known and receiving something in return is not the essence of love.
Naomi Zacharias: So he's an artist. And so what he's done is he has several paintings of his daughter because he feels like people don't see her in all of her humanity. And so part of what he has tried to show through his art is to help people see who she is. And so they have a friend who's talking at the end of this article about how Tim had done several paintings of his daughter. And at first glance they actually all looked the same. So he walked into a church sanctuary and they had these paintings up and he wondered why the dad had painted the same portrait of his daughter each time. So he says, I remember that Tim had seven drawings of Temma in the same pose hanging in the church sanctuary. And when you looked at them quickly to appear that it was the very same picture.
Naomi Zacharias: But when you actually pause and really reflected on each one, you saw that Temma had moved slightly between the pictures. Many of us want the world to change and we may even give up on God when nothing seems to change. He says, but when I looked at those images, I was reminded that if we aren't careful, we'll miss the ways that God is work in the world. And I want to say, and I mean this sincerely in a no way, and try it away, I think this is such a special little girl who reveals God and the beauty of what it means to be human in a way that is positively unique, as you've said, but also entirely beautiful and a picture of God himself.
Michael Davis: Wow. Naomi, Vince, Jo, thank you guys so much for joining me. Thank you all for listening and we will catch you guys next time.
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