Celebrating Easter should always include sharing the good news of the Gospel with those we love. The story of God’s perfection, our sinfulness and separation from God, and the saving work of Jesus is the ultimate Easter message. As Christians, our love and value of people go hand in hand with sharing the good news. But, does the good news of the Gospel apply to those with intellectual disabilities? Should we share about Jesus’ death and resurrection with them when we don’t know if they can respond?
Since Jacob has autism and speech and language communication disorder, it is often tempting to do everything for him and to simplify life. For instance, Cret and I can tell that he wants milk when he is looking in the refrigerator, so we get it for him. We can tell when he is frustrated at the sound of thunder and we quickly grab his headphones for him. Though his therapists continuously remind us of the hindrance we can cause when we assume instead of having him ask us for things verbally, we still occasionally take over. Since each word and thought he has is slowly articulated, we often answer for him when we are in a rush or not thinking.
People that teach individuals with special needs can sometimes make this mistake, as well. The Gospel may not be preached because of the assumption that the learner doesn’t understand right from wrong or the concept of God and His good story. While merely singing songs and loving on students or our children is good intended and may well be appropriate for some, often the most growth comes from not placing limits on them and raising expectations for them in a reasonable way. I love to watch Jacob and observe for potential opportunities to teach him about God in a deeper and meaningful way. Most importantly, we should never assume that God cannot work amazing things in and through people with cognitive differences. Colossians 1:16 says, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.”
Just like when I share the Gospel with neurotypical individuals, I describe God, man, sin, Jesus, and ask if they want to make a decision to place their trust in God. However, sharing the Gospel to someone with a cognitive disability can be more challenging if there are language barriers. My son, for instance, thinks in a very concrete and literal way. Therefore, I try to share the Gospel in a way that he can understand. Just as we have Gospel tracts for children, I believe it is valuable to try and discover ways to share the Gospel to thinkers like my son.
I like to keep a few helpful things in mind. First, I try not to overcomplicate things. Just like when I modify curriculum for individuals with communication disorders, I make sure I use language that is easy to understand and direct. Next, I don’t discriminate based on cognitive ability. Many people are under the assumption that individuals that are nonverbal or that have cognitive impairments can’t understand the Gospel, but that is absolutely not that case for everyone. It is incredibly dangerous to assume someone is incapable of making the decision to live for Christ and the consequences of assuming are far too great. I have seen many accounts where parents or caretakers are amazed to realize their children understand so much more than they ever thought possible. Mark 16:15 says, “And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” I trust the Lord’s goodness and grace with those that can’t comprehend, and I believe sharing the Gospel with all of God’s people acknowledges their value and dignity. Last, I ask them if they want to make that decision to trust in Jesus and make Jesus the boss of their lives. I continue to share the Gospel again and again and I pray for them before and after I share that God will open their eyes to His truth.
Sharing the Gospel doesn’t have to be a 30-minute conversation and it doesn’t have to be in a perfect ‘tract’ format. I like to have a conversation. Here is one example of how I would share the Gospel with a child like my son:
God is our creator. Here look at your windchime. Someone created this windchime. That means they made it. Just like you make silly videos on your iPad. Well, God made us! But God is different than the person that made this windchime. Do you know how? God has never done anything bad ever.
Can you think of something that you have done that is bad? What about when you hit your brother or when you threw a fit? Those were bad things. The Bible says that everyone does bad things or things that God doesn’t want us to do. You do, the person that made your beautiful wind chime does, and even Mommy does bad things! Everyone does! But not God.
God has a rule about those bad things. Those bad things mean that we can’t be with God now and we go to a very bad place forever after we die. It means we are in trouble. Mommy’s punishment for bad things is time out. God’s punishment means not being with God forever.
But guess what? God did a very good thing for you. He sent his son, Jesus, to take the punishment for the bad things we do so that we don’t have to get that punishment!
Jesus died on a cross and then rose up from the dead and that was the full punishment. If you believe that and make Jesus the boss of your life and you can be with Jesus forever. You don’t have to go to the bad place when you die, you get to be with God. Making Jesus the boss of your life means listening to God. Mommy can help you to learn about God by reading the Bible to you.
I want to encourage you not to underestimate your child’s/student’s ability to learn, understand, or accept God’s truth. I believe God is capable of opening anyone’s eyes. As we embark upon an Easter Sunday like no other due to the Coronavirus quarantine, wont’ you be faithful to share the Gospel with all people. I pray this Easter many individuals with cognitive impairment will come to a saving faith in Christ.