How My Special-Needs Sister Teaches Me to Trust God’s Heart

by Allyson Howell (Todd) July 18, 2016

“God is too wise to be mistaken, God is too good to be unkind, so when you don’t understand, when you can’t see His plan, when you can’t trace His hand, trust His heart.” – Babbie Mason 

It seems like part of growing up is finally realizing how much your childhood affected your adulthood. You start to realize that you have habits and presuppositions because of your family, and you also have interests and values that are shaped by your experiences as a kid. 

One of the most formidable things that shaped who I am today is my sister, Amanda. She is now 21 years old, reads more books than I do, just graduated high-school, and has Down’s Syndrome. 

There is no denying that having a family member with Down’s Syndrome has negatively affected my family in different ways. From the first diagnosis of this disability, to the indeterminate years that follow her graduation, the hand of God has been hard to find. By God’s grace, He has used these moments to point my family towards Himself, not His plan. Amanda is a means by which God has taught us to love Him more. I want to focus on three ways my sister with special needs has taught me how to trust God’s heart. 

She has taught me how to have simple, unadulterated faith. 

Amanda wasn’t really able to talk until she was four years old. She couldn’t walk until she was around 18 months old. She didn’t write her name until she was about 7. She is extremely high functioning considering her circumstances, yet so many “basic” things are outside her grasp even today. It is clear that she is impeded from what we would consider “normal life,” but I would argue that Amanda’s weaknesses in these areas actually free up space for her to love God. 

My understanding of God is often obstructed because I think that I can accomplish things on my own. I am unaware that I am helpless without the Lord because I can do most basic things for myself. Amanda is like a child in many ways. She knows when to ask for help with things and trusts others without doubting them. Her weaknesses call me to remember that nothing I have and nothing I do is birthed out of my own accomplishments. 

When I think about my Christian life, I often think of my struggles, how I want to know more about God, and how often I forget the truth of the Gospel. Amanda decided to follow Jesus when she was 17, which was a joyous occasion for our family. I recently asked Amanda what she loves about being a Christian and what it means for her. Here’s what she said: “My favorite thing about being a Christian is that God loves me no matter what and He always protects me. I am learning that we always need to pray, be kind to others, and tell them about God.” 

There are some things Amanda doesn’t fully understand, but she has a transcendent child-like faith in the heart of God that challenges me when I am striving to make my Christianity more complex. Of course, it is not that I should avoid seeking knowledge about God or that my struggles are not real. There is just something beautiful about remembering my first love and letting the simplicity of trusting God shape my life. This child-hearted love of God and innocent trust in Him motivates me to heed the words of Matthew 18:1-6 and become like her. 

This boundless faith in God reminds me that Amanda is fully a child of the King, and with that has become an heir of God and fellow heir of Christ (Romans 8:15-17). 

She has taught me what it looks like to welcome outcasts to the table. 

Living with Amanda, who is visibly different from most other people, gave me a deep compassion for the marginalized and those often kept on the outskirts of society. Vowing not to say the word “retard” or choosing to avoid jokes about people with disabilities is a noble task, yet it is simply not enough. The relationship must change from cognitively or verbally honoring people with disabilities to welcoming them into our lives. 

At Amanda’s graduation party, people from every part of her life showed up. Extended family, teachers, church members, coaches, and classmates. These people didn’t just show up because of some awkward obligation. They ate meals with her, let her play on their softball teams, challenged her in school, became her friend in the hallways of high-school, and let their guards down to welcome a goofy girl who doesn’t always have social awareness into their clean and disability-free worlds; they desired to have Amanda in their lives. 

According to my mom’s doctors, Amanda would have had a low quality of life and they recommended abortion. 90-92% of babies diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome in the womb are aborted. Thanks to the faithfulness of my parents, Amanda has proved those doctors wrong, and her graduation party is a testimony of that. Not only is her life “quality,” it is exemplary. I can’t fathom what my life would be like without Amanda. She has brought joy, forgiveness, laughter, and hope into my world. This is irreplaceable because all of these things have pointed me to Jesus. She is welcome into the Kingdom and will feast right next to the King with the rest of us at the table He has prepared. 

When there is life within a human, there is the Image of God. This alone should be enough to push past the visual differences we see in people and welcome them without hesitation into our lives. 

Amanda has taught me what a blessing it is to welcome those who are societally outcast into my life and she has been an example of this boundless love that sees nothing but humanity in others. 

She has taught me what love really is. 

When Amanda was a toddler, she learned how to give kisses. She would stick out her tiny bottom lip to offer anyone, regardless of race, gender, or economic status, a kiss if they took an interest in her. She would kiss total strangers in stores. It didn’t matter who you were, she loved you freely and unconditionally. The barricades of prejudice towards other people that our society and our sinfulness have built don’t exist for Amanda. 

Amanda never grew out of showing this kind of love. I have sinned brazenly against my sister in my frustration towards her, enough so that she would have every right to distance herself and be angry for a while. Even if she feels hurt or upset by someone’s actions against her, she lets love overcome evil and freely and unconditionally forgives. She welcomes me back into her life and when I apologize she wipes my wrongdoing away from her memory and loves me still. In this way, she is more like Jesus than I am. No one I have ever met shows this kind of Christ-like love and forgiveness like Amanda does. 

She has taught me that true love is that which is shown to all, even those who hate you and who do wrong towards you. Amanda loves others simply because they are human. Though she may not have the language to explain that she sees the Image of God in everyone, she is living in this reality. It is as if all of the things that prohibit Amanda from a life of independence actually free her up to be more dependent on God. “Amanda” means worthy of love and this is an incredibly fitting description of her. Not only is she worthy of the whole love of God, she shows everyone she meets that they are worthy of the same love, all because God has first loved her. 

The song quoted at the beginning of this post comforted my parents when they first learned who Amanda was going to be and all the difficulties that would develop as they raised this little girl. Today, those lyrics describe the life she lives and now serve to embolden us all towards a more God-trusting Christianity.

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