The Joy, Endurance, and Perspective of a Quadriplegic
“We have a fundamental fear of suffering. We medicate it. We numb it. We divorce it.”
I was privileged to listen to Joni Eareckson Tada speak those words tonight during a class I am taking. My daughters asked me who she is and I answered “She’s one of the greatest women of faith alive today. She’s a hero.”
You may know her story. As a healthy teenage girl 50 years ago, she jumped into a shallow swimming pool and became a quadriplegic. As a young, athletic, and artistic woman with her entire adulthood before her, she felt she had lost everything. She became deeply depressed. She endured a year and a half rehabilitating in the hospital. All the while she was surrounded by Christians who prayed for her, visited her, helped her devise ways to read good books, and pursued her with determination. Joni eventually surrendered her body, mind, soul, and future completely to Jesus.
She says of those early days that she wrestled with the question of why she was struck with such a tragedy. She learned that “Trusting God isn’t figuring out why it happened, it’s simply holding fast to him. If Jesus loved me enough to die for me, I can trust him.”
Over the 50 years of living with her disability, Joni has developed a robust faith and theology that has allowed her to live from a wealth of joy. As I listened to her this evening, I marveled at not only her sweet happiness, but her wisdom, intellect, and depth of insight into our current cultural climate.
Joni referenced a Barna survey that I have also mentioned before, which states that 38% of Evangelical Christians think it’s morally right for a doctor to administer a drug to end someone’s life if they no longer want to live. She taught tonight that we can address suffering, without a lethal injection. We have the tools and resources to help those who are depressed, lonely, and suffering. Assisted suicide is not an appropriate response to terminal illness.
In this moment, Christians are more affected by culture than the other way around. Cultural values and soundbites that say cost effectiveness, convenience, and comfort trump the value of life have seeped into the church, rather than a biblical view of life seeping into the culture. As a people, we are unwilling to endure to see what God may want to do through suffering.
But, as Joni often says, and said again tonight, “God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” In other words, God will allow great suffering to transpire, if it means that great ends are achieved. For example, he will allow his son to be brutally murdered if it means souls will be redeemed. Or he will allow us to endure illness if it means we will cling all the more to him. Joni says the greatness that the Lord hopes to achieve in each of us is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).
This evening Joni shared, “I squeeze every ounce of energy out of my cerebral palsy body to address injustice around the world.” Through her ministry Joni and Friends, she is committed to proclaiming a biblical worldview of disability throughout the world. Her ministry seeks to impact governments and cultures and families and people through education, changing perceptions, providing wheelchairs to those in need, providing biblical retreats for families of disabled people, and more. She said she doesn’t want to diminish her eternal estate by complaining about her pain or condition, but rather steward it well for the good of others and God’s glory. What a hero!
In an effort to renew outrage in our society about assisted suicide, Joni has updated a book she first published in 1991 called When is it Right to Die? The new version will be available in January and I can’t wait to get a copy (It will likely make an interesting cultural companion to Nancy Pearcey’s new book Love Thy Body, which also comes out in January and which I am also eagerly anticipating!).
I thank God for saving Joni’s life after her accident. She has challenged me to consider blindspots in my own life where I may have a fundamental fear of suffering—places where I may value comfort over what the Lord may be trying to do through a trial. May we join her in her godly endeavor to influence the church, the culture, and the world to value all of life.