Lamar Hardwick (DMin, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary) is the lead pastor at Tri-Cities Church in East Point, Georgia. He is the author of Epic Church and the best-selling I am Strong: The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastor. His new book Disability and the Church is set to release in February 2021 with InterVarsity Press.
In 2014, after years of silently struggling with social anxiety and sensory processing disorder, and a host of other significant issues, Hardwick was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of thirty-six. He now provides workshops, seminars, and consults with local churches and faith-based organizations on creating environments for people with autism. He also provides mentoring services for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum. His writing has been published by various autism and disability websites such as The Mighty, The Huffington Post, Key Ministry, and The Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
He lives in Newnan, Georgia, with his wife, Isabella, and their three children.
When I was younger, I dreamed of becoming many things. I can recall wanting to become everything from a professional athlete to a teacher or firefighter. The thing I most remember about my hopes and dreams as a child was not just what I wanted to become but who I wanted to become. I wanted to become an artist.
Becoming an artist is the dream of nearly every child. If you asked a room full of kindergartners which of them believed that they could become a great artist many of them would believe that they already were great artists.
Children have such an enormous advantage when it comes to living lives full of faith, hope, love, and creativity. It’s almost as though the younger we are the more excited and hopeful we are about who we can become.
If you know my story, I wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s until I was 36 years old. As a child I struggled greatly with socialization, sensory processing, anxiety, and a host of other challenges but until few years ago I had no idea that there was a reason for my struggles.
Those who noticed my challenges as a child weren’t always positive or affirming. In fact, there were many children and teachers who took my obvious struggles as a sign that my options of what I wanted to become would be very limited.
I am often asked if I believed having an autism diagnosis at an early age would have helped me. It’s hard to say. I’m sure some knowledge of where my challenges stemmed from would have been helpful. At the end of the day most people ask that question as a way of assessing whether I believed that being ignorant of my autism for decades has held me back in any way.
Perhaps early intervention would have played a role in setting me up for a different path but what I have determined to be true no matter what might have happened in the past is that even with all of the challenges I have had the one thing that autism has not stopped me from becoming is a better person.
One of my favorite passages in the Bible helped me to learn an incredible truth about my life, about disability, and about how to become the best version of me.
“So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.” 2 Corinthians 12:7 NLT
Paul is one of my biblical heroes. Until this time period of his life and ministry we really don’t know much about his personal life. And then Paul lets us in on a secret. He has a disability. While we don’t know for certain what his disability was, Paul makes mention that it is something that causes him physical discomfort and that it was a tremendous struggle that he describes as “torment.”
Whenever a disability is diagnosed or discovered our first and most natural response is to wonder and worry about all of the things that we will possibly never become. Sometimes staring into the face of life with a disability can cause us to lose our sense of faith, hope, love, and creativity.
Except Paul points to a startling revelation about faith and disability. While he doesn’t deny that he struggles greatly during seasons in his life he does openly express that the one thing that his disability cannot keep him from becoming is the best version of himself.
I won’t pretend to understand all that Paul had to endure and I won’t pretend to know what it feels like to be you or your loved one. What I am suggesting is that Paul seems to believe that his disability didn’t stop him from becoming the best version of himself, in fact he believed that it actually stopped him from becoming the worst version of himself.
“To keep me from becoming proud…”
Through his own personal torment comes a testimony of faith that teaches us all a great lesson. There is a reality that my struggle may influence many things but one thing my autism cannot make me become is the worst version of me.
With God there is no need for a 2nd edition of me. Autism won’t keep me from becoming a better husband or father or pastor. Autism and all the struggles that come with it may at times keep me from loud rooms and long meetings, but it won’t keep me from my best because I am exactly who I am supposed to be. I was born with all of the potential to become the most courageous and creative version of me that God always intended me.
“That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”