Commanded Affections, The Gospel, and Asperger’s
I don’t have any personal experience with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, which for a while has been placed in a distinct position along the autism spectrum (but may soon be re-labeled and folded back into it), but I do have a few friends with children who are either diagnosed with or presumed to have Asperger’s.
If you’re not familiar with Asperger’s syndrome, in a nutshell it is commonly described as a “high-functioning” form of autism, most often characterized by a profound social awkwardness or disability. People with Asperger’s — and there is a spectrum of ability and function even within the syndrome — tend to be incredibly artistic and highly intelligent, and often very polite and mannered, but lack the ability to pick up on emotional cues, understand metaphor or irony or sarcasm, and empathize. A friend of mine recounted a conversation between coworkers including one with Asperger’s that went something like this:
One employee is consoling another who is crying. Employee with Asperger’s approaches and asks the tearful lady, “Sheila, do you have the reports from last Wednesday?”
The consoling coworker says, “John, Sheila’s father just died.”
John says, “Oh.” Pause. “Can I get the reports off your desk?”
It’s funny, but not “ha ha” funny. And John (a name I made up, just paraphrasing my recollection of the incident) was not trying to be rude. He just wasn’t able to emotionally understand what was appropriate at the moment. In the article linked above there is this anecdote:
Rachel Klein, a child psychiatrist at New York University’s child-study center, describes a patient she saw for two years before realizing that what she was looking at was Asperger’s syndrome.
The child, who was 9 when Klein started treating him, appeared to have attention issues, she says, yet “there was something very strange about him. He would walk into my office, shake my hand, say, ‘Hello, Dr. Klein, how are you?’ Pseudo-adult. Mechanical. Stilted.”
His only friend lived nearby in New Jersey. One day, he went outside to borrow a bicycle. There’d been a car accident, and his friend had been run over and was lying in the street. “He walked over to where his friend was lying and asked him, ‘Can I borrow your bicycle?’”
“He was completely matter-of-fact about it—he wasn’t being cruel or vicious, just totally self-absorbed,” Klein says. “This was when I realized this was Asperger’s.”
One of my friends who has a child with (undiagnosed) Asperger’s says this can be a mixed blessing. They worry about their son’s inability to understand and empathize but they also see it could be an advantage as he is typically unable to pick up on when other children are making fun of him for being different.
All of that is just set-up for something I began thinking about yesterday morning. As we look through so many of the commands of the Scriptures, we see that it’s not just our will being commanded but our desires. God commands our affections and our emotions. A very tiny sampling:
“Love one another with brotherly affection . . .” – Romans 12:10
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” – Romans 12:15
“But take heart . . .” – John 16:33
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility . . .” – Colossians 3:12
These and others would appear to be commands of which most with Asperger’s (and many other forms of autism) cannot obey. If one’s “compassion” switch is turned off in the internal wiring — indeed, may not even exist — does it makes sense to command him to feel compassion? Romans 12:15 is the verse that first prompted me along this pondering. If one of the key signifiers of Asperger’s is an inability to empathize, what do we make of God’s command to Christians to empathize? He’s not just commanding that we do nice things for people or to commit loving acts to them regardless of an inner disposition — that’s hypocrisy. He’s commanding that we actually feel joy for our brother’s joy, grief for our sister’s grief, actual love for all.
I have come around to this: Am I really that different from my brother with Asperger’s in this regard? The biblical commands do a few things, but one of them is this: They tell us things to do while simultaneously exposing our inability to do them. Now, these commands, as all commands, don’t mean the opposite of what they say. God says do something, he means do it. God is not a reverse psychologist. Yet the Law as mirror shows us how far short we fall. It’s not just those with autism who are unable to rejoice and weep with others, it’s me. How many times has my wife had a bad day and I just want to know what’s for dinner? Too many to count. How many times has my brother enjoyed some measure of success, and I was not only not joyful over it, but bitter? An Asperger’s “ambivalence” would be a step up!
I can’t muster up emotions for things I don’t naturally feel emotional about. I need re-wiring too. I need God desperately. And so here we all stand at the foot of the cross where the ground is remarkably level.
Romans 12:3 implies that God has assigned diverse measures of faith to those in Christ’s Body. To whom much is given, much is expected. And I suppose there is a corollary there for those with God-assigned disabilities, as well. When we do obey God’s commands, we can thank God for the grace that has enabled and empowered our obedience. That work is ours, but it’s his first. And when we disobey, we can thank God for the grace that does not produce sin but forgives it, covers it, replaces it with the perfect righteousness of Christ.
Our holy God demands perfection from all of us, abled and disabled alike, yet in the richness of his loving mercy he supplies it in eternal abundance, regardless of our relative-to-each-other badness or goodness, received through faith alone, which need not be big or strong, only true.