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.

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18 thoughts on “Commanded Affections, The Gospel, and Asperger’s”

  1. Andrew Faris says:

    Yikes. This is a great reflection, and a reminder of how hardened my heart is to my own sin in that I honestly did not see the gospel turn coming. Why not? Why did I not see where this was going, and easily think, “Oh, I’m like the kid with Asperger’s too. I can’t be compassionate either, since I’m a sinner”?

    So thanks.

    Also, for what it’s worth: I’m in a band called The Devious Means. My brother, the lead singer, is a therapist who used to work with a kid with Asperger’s. He wrote a song about that experience that I think quite highly of (and I can say that humbly, since I literally had no part in writing it), and one thing we’ve hoped for as a band is that it might be a blessing to those who have family or friends with autism and Asperger’s. It’s not explicit about this point, but I think it’s a nice look at one of the ways that God redeems a difficult thing.

    The song is called “Orange Bird”, and we haven’t recorded it yet, but we do have a youtube video of us playing it (click here for that) and my brother wrote in some detail on our band’s blog about the back story, which I also think is pretty cool.

    Also, Jared, I want to be mindful of the “Don’t use my comments as a place to simply advertise your stuff” rule, so if this feels at all like that I apologize. That’s not my intent at all, but if it comes off that way and you want to cut this comment off at the first paragraph or delete it entirely, I understand entirely.

    Andrew Faris
    Someone Tell Me the Story

  2. Flyaway says:

    We enjoy a character called Sheldon on the TV show “Big Bang Theory.” We think it is because of my brother who displayed some of the same characteristics. Yes, we all have something in our lives that we need to overcome with God’s help.

  3. I love your passion for the Lord, and your desire for us to press on toward the goal! I have to be honest, I have a BIG problem with the phrase “God-Assigned Disabilites”. No matter what your stance on healing, that’s quite a leap. Are we to assume that every thing the believer faces is God assigned? Is a tornado that destroys a house God-assigned, or the wreck that takes a family? Then what about the believer who never achieves victory over that besetting sin? Is it not God’s will that they rise above?

    The world already blames God for everything “unloving” that happens even though they operate according to the principals of a lawless corrupt system that God did not institute. If everything is God-assigned, then why pray? And if not, when do we know to abandon “standing” and assume it is God assigned? If we base our conclusion on the “evidence” where is faith! Of COURSE the evidence will oppose us, but we are called to live by faith not sight!

    I think the believer has gotten too comfortable using God’s “sovereignty” as a scape goat to stop standing when our experience doesn’t mirror His promises? Have we given preeminence to our experience? Or do we fully expect that what He has promised He is able to perform?

  4. Jared C. Wilson says:

    I know that the notion of “God-assigned disabilities” is a hard pill to swallow — perhaps impossible for some — but I find it a comfort now, rather than a stumbling block, to know that a loving God is in control. I would rather believe that than to believe things happen randomly apart from his say-so. Not everyone can get “there,” and I respect that.

    “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” – Job 2:10

    “Does disaster come to a city,
    unless the LORD has done it?”
    – Amos 3:6

    “Who has spoken and it came to pass,
    unless the Lord has commanded it?
    Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come?”
    — Lamentations 3:37-38

    1. Katie says:

      Only a loving God would bring disaster to a city. That’s how I give people tough love, too. I kill them.

  5. Jennifer Ledford says:

    I don’t have a problem with calling it “God-Assigned”…though in some ways I wouldn’t necessarily call it a disability. ;) (not that I get offended by the term, mind you) More just a different sort of brain – that in some ways is an advantage and in others a disadvantage. I have two (out of four) sons with Aspergers and am borderline for it myself. We’re very artistic- my sons are legitimate musical prodigies – and I have my own skills. On the other hand, social skills are hard-won for us. But yes, God’s Word stands. And I like your analysis, Jared. I said once, in a moment of frustration, “90% of parenting is simply teaching kids there actually OTHER people in the world”. And it’s true. Autism makes the job a bit harder…but really – we ALL have to learn that. Other people’s needs and feelings are just as legitmate as our own. We all tend to consider our own wounds, interests, and needs as more important – thus we all have to *learn* to love others as we love ourselves and rate their needs – emotional or otherwise – as important – even MORE important than our own.

    I will say too – that with my own boys – It doesn’t seem to be that they actually lack the empathy. What they lack is the subtlety to recognize the social cues and then act appropriately on them. They *do* have the feelings – affection, sorrow, etc. But it doesn’t always come out in a recognizable form.

  6. Katie says:

    I find it very interesting that you’ve used the implications of Asperger’s to show your own hardness of heart, perhaps falsely implying that someone with Asperger’s heart is unwaveringly hard by default. It appears to me that you have avoided the deeper issue, which is whether the fruits of the spirit can actually be lived out through one with Asperger’s or through one with even more serious mental disabilities (like my 21-year-old sister who mentally functions at the level of a toddler). I seriously question whether my sister can understand anything about God at all, which makes me question the importance of everyone understanding their “sin” and their need for salvation, which are required for having the “humility” that brings one to have faith through God’s grace. I am not sure that it is possible for my sister to comprehend such ideas.

    This is one of those cases that seems to be chalked up entirely to the mysteries of God rather than being inspected any further. The implications I see from the case of mentally disabled people is a perhaps flawed understanding of God and how humanity relates to God. I was actually highly intrigued by the title and then sorely disappointed by the content.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      perhaps falsely implying that someone with Asperger’s heart is unwaveringly hard by default

      No, I meant “unable” by default. I tried to express that people with Asperger’s aren’t trying to be rude or self-absorbed; there is nothing intentionally hurtful or ambivalent about what they say and do. They just are.

      So I wasn’t trying to say the mentally or socially disabled are therefore worse sinners than others, only that we’re all sinners the same. That was my point in comparing my own inability to empathize, except I’m worse b/c I can empathize when I want to — that switch exists for me.

      I tried to touch on the deeper issue about whether things like the fruit of the Spirit can be lived out through someone with Asperger’s or other disabilities — I know Jennifer doesn’t like that word, and I get that, but not sure what to replace it with — by talking about the measures of faith God gives us. If to whom much is given much is required, perhaps to whom little is given less is required? That’s what I was implying in those remarks later in the post.

      For what it’s worth, and in case it wasn’t clear in the post, I do believe those with Asperger’s and other social/mental disabilities can express saving faith. As I said at the end of the post, it’s not a big or strong faith that saves but a true faith, and that can be as tiny as a mustard seed so long as it’s real.

      I knew this post had the danger of being insensitive, and although I’ve received several appreciative emails from people with loved ones with Asperger’s, I still know with such a sensitive subject there was no way to please everybody.

      But the gist of my post is this: We are all “disabled” in so many different ways, yet because God is merciful he loves us and credits Christ’s ability to us by grace. I guess I don’t see how that’s a disappointing message.

      (Also: fwiw, I believe that children who die and the mentally disabled are saved. Don’t know if that spins any of the thoughts in the post in a different direction for you, but that’s where I’m at on that.)

      Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

      1. Jennifer Ledford says:

        Gah! I don’t dislike the word disability. Hence the winky face and the assertion that I don’t get offended by it. :p It *is* a disability to be handicapped socially, no doubt about it. I was just presenting another way of looking at it.

        And I personally didn’t find one jot or tittle of your post insensitive or offensive.

      2. Katie says:

        My question is whether saving faith necessarily comes through knowledge of your sin and need for salvation. Those are intellectual concepts that I do not think my sister can grasp. Does that mean God throws exceptions to his rule for “true faith”? Like, “Have faith if you can! If not, you get a free pass.” Does this mean I’ve been put at a disadvantage because I spent my whole life believing that doctrine until I applied deeper levels of critical thinking to it, not out of rebellion but out of painstaking honesty? I am being punished for trying to be intellectually honest, whereas someone who doesn’t even have the capacity to understand any of it gets a free pass? I get your mustard seed analogy, but I’m considering the situation where someone really just can’t understand it. I simply can’t help but see these holes in the theology, and I don’t easily accept the, “God only knows” responses, because that is the exact same response a Muslim can use. “Only Allah knows.” It ironically fits within both of their characters to be mysterious, which provides the ever-present cop-out for every theological conundrum.

  7. Brandi says:

    Wonderful post, Jared. I think you are right on.

  8. Maria says:

    As a parent of a 9 year old with an Asperger’s diagnosis, I find the process of discipleship very similar to a non-Aspie. I see it as my role to point him to Christ, share with him how God would have us respond emotionally to situations, and train him in seeking the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of the fruits of the Spirit. I do need to share and train in significantly more detail though regarding emotions since they are not “caught” but “taught” in our situation. While that may seem clinical, I think we have experienced many examples of genuine emotion based on our teaching. Our experience mirrors the comments of another Mom in that our son does seem to experience emotions but it’s in a different way. I actually believe that he feels emotions very deeply and that they are so intense (and because he doesn’t know how to process them) he will turn them “off” and thus seem emotionless in situations where emotion is clearly an appropriate response. My hope and prayer is that God will capture his heart intellectually as well as emotionally and will grow emotion and passion for Jesus in the special way and for God’s special purposes that would benefit from this neurological wiring!

  9. Ern says:

    I just wanted to chime in as an adult Aspie who grew up in the church. Aspies feel compassion very deeply, and they are sensitive. They just can’t show it most of the time, or they can’t show it in the “normal” ways. There is more than one way to love others. Aspies can donate work, time, intelligence, or money to others. They can love in their own way. Lots of them like quality time as a love language, because the others require social know-how. As long as the person enjoys spending time with them. The trouble is, Christianity and church are an extroverts game. If you can make someone feel flattered or be bubbly, you’re considered a bad Christian. Ugh, and then there are the gender stereotypes that Aspie girls often don’t fit. Church is all about those, if unconsciously sometimes. This is why some Apies (like me) have trouble in the church. They are awkward, and that can be translated as “evil.” But they do feel and care. And they can love. Social mores are a social construct; Biblical morality is universal. Church and I are on a break. I can’t be in a community that sees me as cold, unfeminine, and socially retarded.

  10. ZhouYa says:

    I’m also an Aspie who grew up in the church and Ern’s comment really resonates with me. I know you’re trying to make a (valid) point by way of analogy….but it seems like you’re trying too hard to make something fit which doesn’t. Empathy can be said to be the ability to understand what others are thinking. Aspies have trouble with this, but it’d be a stretch to say it’s entirely lacking. However, compassion is different from empahty, and aspies certainly don’t have have their compassion switches turned off. They can obey or disobey the command for compassion just as well as anyone else. You just may not interpret their actions as compassion. I agree that not recognizing pain and therefore not showing compassion would *not* be sin, but the issue is so much more complex. Aspies do show compassion(and indeed experience the full range of human emotion). I think you mean well, but aspies have a hard enough time in the chruch, and I don’t think stereotypes and assumptions like those you have suggested help at all.

  11. David says:

    In my case its hard to say if my extreme childhood abuse,or my Apergers or just the sin in me makes me lack compassion. But this i do know. Left to my own devices im a not so nice a person. I was unaware of this till JESUS came into my life however. In my old nature i struggle with caring. Its way to emotional, openly.
    Normal people are very hard to be around actually,its hard work. Hence the need for the SPIRIT of GOD in my life. Otherwise i have to fake it which makes me feel hypocritical. Actually most often around people so as not to offend we Aspies feel like hypocrites because we have to act like normals which is actually living a lie.
    The one thing i wont do is use my Aspergers for a excuse which would be all too easy. Nor will i allow my childhood abuse as a excuse as the LORD allowed/helped me to be able to forgive those that abused me and i got set free from all that, so thats done and over with. So i claim it as sin and ask the HOLY SPIRIT to live through me. I often take that back unfortunately such is the old sinful nature. GOD asks things he knows we cant do except when in the SPIRIT, Asperger or not.

  12. Peter Smith says:

    It is a misconception that people with AS cannot empathize. However they do get self-absorbed. John was likely so focused on the task and doing the report that he was not paying attention to the news about the death. He likely did not process what was being said until a couple of minutes after the incident.

  13. Bill says:

    As a asperger christian it never seems to amazed me how Gods love and mercy breaks down all mindsets and barriers. They say that it is unusual for People who have asperger or autism to have a faith cos we need direct logic and evidence of the existence of God. What they do not tell you nothing beats the presence of the living God,Awksome presence. There is no logically explainsion to descript the presence of the God.
    Of course it is hard to follow the path of the christian. The hardest is to live by the high religious standards of righeous inposed by certain churches. they mean well but at times lack of insight or spiritual guidance. In reality for a aspergers person its not two steps forward and one step back. Its more like four steps forward and three steps back. We will never be righeous in the eyes of the church or the eyes of men but thank God for his mercy and passion. that is all that matters is being in the presence of the LORD OUR GOD. Being forgiven by his grace and mercy.

  14. Christiane says:

    Oh my, how true. I am an Aspie through and through, fluent in 6 languages, never forget a word and can derive most words to their origin, but answer my sincere question of “how are you”with an “I am fine and how are you” I am totally thrown off my game and wont know what to say since I had thoroughly prepared myself inwardly to listen to your rendition of how your day was or your week, trying to show empathy for your situation while desperately trying not to be irritated by the bird-like hair construction in bright red on the back of your head…. Unfortunately I married a pastor!!!! And let me tell you, in the Christian community it is so much easier never to even mention your Aspergers lest you might get demons driven out of you. Or be remembered as the “dyslexic”. I am daily thrown into an abyss of situations I would prefer never to face, so I had to do a whole lot of growing. Basically everyday is driving me beyond Saturn and back. Yesterday I didn’t recognize our youth pastor because he was working in a distances with a T-Shirt I have never seen him in and his hair was messy. If I know you from gym, I will NOT recognize you if we should meet at a crusade somewhere. How horrible for a pastor’s wife. I train myself to remember people like others memorize Pi. It get’s difficult when your hair colour matches your skin tone. Oh yes my faith is helping me big time. God never called us to be fake and use phrases all day. There is nothing wrong in being fresh and real. Is there? Unfortunatelt churches are often places where people pretend to be oh so kind when they are actually sharks. I read other things in faces. I read the things people do not want to say, not what they are trying to say I am thrown off by those flashes of oddly pulled mouth ends, weird lightning flashes and storm clouds in the air while the voice is raised high purring like a kitten. That’s when I do have to use phrases to get through it, but I can go home and pray to God for the right thing to happen, the truth to come to light, all that. I have to teach children’s church. I am a therapist, MA, I can work with you one on one on a deep level, but it tires me beyond anything. Church bbqs and women’s events are hell for me. Nobody around me knows this, but it takes all of my love for God to work through it and try to look like I am not totally misplaced. The best church aspect to me is a neat, happy coloured, gentle, calm environment where you can sit and just breathe before God. I try to quieten my mind during worship but I get terribly bored. But if I get up, people would be offended. Faith is not what people make it. It is you knowing Jesus came from outer space and he knows how it feels. (John 8:21)
    Being sensitive can be practiced, over and over again. Aspergers is not a lack of empathy at all, as almost? implied in this article. It merely an inability to automatically, intrinsically, generate the appropriate response to a situation. I am sure the average Aspie ponders infinitely longer about when should he give a gift to a person he likes, who to invite to a child’s birthday, what to say at church to whom and so forth.

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Jared C. Wilson

Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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