My treasured and brilliant friend David O’Brien, founder of Tryad Ministries, a discipleship ministry to the disabled community, went home to be with Jesus several months ago at the age of 81. David lived with a severe form of cerebral palsy since birth, yet he demonstrated joy that transcended his body’s bondage.
I first got to know David in the seventies when I was teaching at Ecola Hall Bible School at Cannon Beach Conference Center. David told me that God used his cerebral palsy to draw him to depend on Christ. Was he better off with his disability? He was convinced he was. His eighty one years of difficulty and sometimes considerable suffering were no cosmic accident or satanic victory, but a severe mercy from the good hand of God.
I haven’t met many people more convinced of God’s goodness than David O’Brien. He experienced a lifetime of serious afflictions that many consider senseless evil, but he saw them as tools in the hands of a good God.
I share in my book If God Is Good (and also hand in Hand) that David asked me to speak at a conference for the disabled at Cannon Beach, and then requested that I be his interpreter/reader after he laboriously spoke each line he’d written. After speaking, he would pause so I could read aloud every line to be sure he was understood.
Before continuing this story, I ask you to watch this 55 second video of David speaking to give you an idea of the man and his disability and his wonderful heart and presence:
That day at the handicapped conference, David’s message began (I have the complete transcript), “Is it possible that God has his hand in shaping the events that could lead to a handicap or suffering?” Following David’s notes, I read from Genesis 32:24–28, the story of Jacob wrestling with a man identified as God in human flesh. David observed, “We see Jacob’s thigh touched by the Hand of God. Thereafter, his hip was out of joint. This handicap was caused directly by God’s Hand.” He continued, “I believe that the result of God’s blessings [David called Jacob’s handicap a blessing] were preservation of Jacob’s life and a lifelong dependency upon God’s ability to carry out his plan.”
David spoke of God’s affirmation in Exodus 4:11 that he creates people deaf, mute, and blind, and doesn’t merely permit those conditions. Then he said, “God knows the spirit and will in each person, and he shapes the body to mold that will to his purpose. A gardener uses gradual tension to shape a tree into a beautiful arch. A special body is the gradual tension that shapes spirit and will to glorify God.”
David then turned to John 9:1–3. The disciples wanted to attribute a man’s blindness to human sin. Jesus corrected them: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Then Jesus stated the disability’s purpose: “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” While God would receive great glory in the man’s healing, surely he had a deliberate, divine purpose within the man’s life, long before his healing. I think David O’Brien would agree that Satan, genetics, and many other things can serve as immediate or secondary causes, but God is still the ultimate and primary cause.
David commented, “If Christ had to suffer to be made complete, how can we expect not to have some form of suffering?” Then he said something unforgettable: “God tailors a package of suffering best suited for each of his own.”
David spoke the following, in words difficult to understand, yet prophetically clear: “Dare I question God’s wisdom in making me the way I am?”
My dear brother lived his earthly life trapped in a body that groaned for redemption. I’m delighted to say that his cerebral palsy disappeared the moment he left this world for the present Heaven. But the biggest treat will be at his resurrection, when he will have a new body, forever free of disease. I picture David in that new world, never having others think he was stupid and never having to repeat himself because others don’t understand him. I see him running through fields on the New Earth. I look forward to running beside David . . . and, I think, behind him.
Farewell, David, my friend, I will see you soon. Thanks for the amazing life you lived here in the old world, by the grace and power of Jesus. I look forward to exploring the New World with you, to the glory of our King!
Your brother always,