“You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first. And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus” (Galatians 4:13-14 NKJV).
It is a common, though not commendable, human tendency to be repulsed by obvious physical deformities. The handicapped and injured among us are often greeted by rude stares, grimaces, averted eyes, and even worse evidence that their condition is offensive to “normal” people.
Fear of these reactions often prompts the sufferer to disguise his or her appearance or to shun public exposure. We are embarrassed by any flaw that we think might provoke negative reactions, even from friends or relatives.
Those who travel in undeveloped countries often find themselves more sympathetic to the afflicted, and less likely to be shocked or offended by gross deformities. There are simply too many victims of affliction to avoid, and familiarity in this case brings acceptance and often compassion rather than contempt. The more one is surrounded by suffering, the more he or she learns to recognize and value other qualities that are of far greater importance.
Paul’s comment in Galatians 4:13-14 reminds us that neither affliction nor adverse reactions to the afflicted are unique to our times and culture. He expressed gratitude to the Galatian Christians for their compassionate acceptance of his physical trials. In other letters he indicates that not everyone had such a reaction (see 2 Corinthians 10:10).
Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be vulnerable to scorn and contempt because of an unattractive appearance and wounds he would bear for others (Isaiah 53:2-5). Jesus is invariably depicted in religious art as a handsome man. The prophet suggests that this assumption may not be justified, but rather that “He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him there is no beauty that we should desire Him” (Isaiah 53:2). Some argue that this description depicts only the effects of his trial and crucifixion, rather than his normal appearance. However, Isaiah’s prophecy is emphatic that Jesus’ appeal would be based on elements other than physical beauty.
One of my favorite statements from Jesus’ ministry is found in John 9:1: “Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth.” He did not “see” a beggar, or a blind man. He saw a man, who also happened to have a handicap. The emphasis in John’s account is on the Lord’s acceptance of this man’s humanity, not a focus on his affliction.
There is much evidence of division, bigotry, and prejudice in our society today. Some is racial in nature; other factors include religion, nationality, and, yes, physical appearance including handicaps. Politicians are calling for unity, urging all parties to practice tolerance and understanding.
As Christians we should not need to be reminded of the necessity for these virtues. Jesus gave “A new commandment . . . that you love one another” (John 13:34). The Galatian churches set an admirable example by loving and accepting Paul “warts and all.” Let us do the same towards each other.