A Conversation With Joni Eareckson Tada
November 1, 2002 - Joni Eareckson Tada is founder and president of Joni and Friends, an organization accelerating Christian ministry in the disability community. Her story was told in "Joni," a feature film from World Wide Pictures, Inc., and her teaching has been valued at events such as Amsterdam '86, NACIE '94 and Amsterdam 2000, sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
by Jim Dailey
Q/ What have your experiences taught you about God's character?
A/ When we suffer, when we go through hardships or affliction, we may have questions in our thinking about the goodness of God. But the thing that is so wonderful to me about God is that He does not sidestep suffering. The God of life conquered death by embracing it. Jesus destroyed the power of sin by letting it take Him to the cross. He doesn't explain away our suffering with a bunch of words. He is the Word made flesh—bruised, bloody, beaten, gouged, spat-upon, scorned.
My heart is wounded by my suffering, but it comforts me to know that Jesus was terribly wounded on the cross. I'm in a wheelchair. It means so much that God was wounded on my behalf; and to me, that is what is sweet and precious about the Savior. The cross is the power of God.
Q/ What are some things that have sustained you in times of difficulty?
A/ After the diving accident that paralyzed me at age 17, I went through a period of depression. One of my favorite verses when I was coming out of that depression was Philippians 3:10: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death."(1) I don't think I really understood what that meant until after my accident.
I think that we all want to know Christ, that we want to know the power of His resurrection. But not many of us want to share in the fellowship of His sufferings, and nobody wants to become like Him in His death. But that's how we become like Him—through His death.
When we take up our cross, we become like Him in that we die to the sins for which He died. Suffering provides a context in which to do that. In suffering we also die to worry. We die to fear. We die to grumbling about the inconvenience of the weight of our cross. We die to thinking that Jesus doesn't care about us or that He has given others a more amiable lot in life than He has given to us. We die to all of those things, and then we become like Him in the new life He gives.
Q/ You've been in a wheelchair for 35 years. How do you handle problems that despite your best efforts are still daily trials?
A/ Sometimes I wake up and think, "I just can't do this—it's so hard!" But, then again, I remember, "Blessed are the poor in spirit."(2) Blessed are those who know they can't do it, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,"(2) for theirs is the grace of God. God resists the proud but gives grace to people who need Him desperately.
In the first chapter of the Gospel According to Mark we read about Jesus' response to the crowd's demands for healing. One day Jesus had been healing in Capernaum. The next day, early in the morning, Jesus went away to pray. Simon and his companions looked for Him, and when they found Him, the Bible says, "they exclaimed: 'Everyone is looking for you!' Jesus replied, 'Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.' "(3)
I think people who spend time with the Savior realize that His heartbeat is to get across that message that sin will kill you, hell is real, God is merciful, He wants to change you.
In the Scriptures, when people missed this, when they came to Him just to get their pains and problems removed, they often missed the big picture of God's redemption.
Q/ You have to accept the help of others on a daily basis. Most of us want to be self-sufficient. How can we graciously accept the help of other people, in practical ways, when we'd rather "do it ourselves"?
A/ That's a hard one, because I'm an independent, proud-spirited person. I'm just that way. To have someone else brush my hair, brush my teeth, give me a shower, get me dressed, cut up my food, put me to bed, hang up my clothes, fold my towels, do my laundry—sometimes it's hard.
But then I think of what the Apostle Paul wrote the Corinthians about his struggles: "This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead."(4) These things happen to us that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who provides a husband, a wife, a neighbor, a friend, a relative, a nurse, or someone else who can help.
And I need to remember that our difficulties give other people opportunities to serve. The person who gets me a drink of water or who gets me up in the morning understands what Jesus meant when He said, "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve."(5)
Q/ How does the hope of heaven help you to put adversity into proper perspective?
A/ When I get to heaven, when I look back on my life, what will I see? Will I see that suffering made my faith muscular, that it has helped build my character, that it has turned my thoughts and values right side up, that it has made me more sensitive to others?
Sometimes we can get so "me"-focused about our suffering: Will I ever be happy? Will I ever understand what God is doing? Will I ever be free from pain? The purpose of suffering is for us to be God-focused. Sometimes God tosses problems so high that they make us think about heaven, not as an escape from reality but as a time when all will be made clear.
Q/ When did you and your husband, Ken, meet?
A/ We met in 1980 and married two years later, on July 3. Ken recently left his high-school teaching career to join the ministry of Joni and Friends as director of ministry development. We conduct retreats for families affected by disability, and Ken and I travel to different places worldwide for Wheels for the World, a program through which communities collect used wheelchairs for restoration and overseas distribution.
Q/ When did you realize your relationship was deeper than just friendship?
A/ I was amazed at how relaxed he was around my wheelchair. He thought nothing of lifting me out of my chair and into his car. He was happy to learn my routines. I remember that I had a feeling that he might ask me to marry him. I wasn't sure, but I thought he might.
We had gone on a camping trip with my parents up to the mountains and he took my 80-year-old father fishing. My dad tangled his fishing line terribly, and that afternoon I watched Ken, slowly and meticulously, with a happy spirit, untangle my dad's line.
It must have taken Ken an hour and a half, and I thought, "Now, there's a guy who can handle some tough problems connected with disability."
Q/ Did you wonder if marriage would work for you and Ken?
A/ Oh, yes, I had a lot of concerns, but we weren't going to explore or experiment to see if we could find answers in advance of being married. I just wheeled down the aisle with a load of questions about how this was going to work, and we trusted that because of our mutual commitment to Christ and our practical natures, it would work out. I knew that Ken was a guy who exhibited good character qualities like patience, endurance, self-control and moral integrity. I knew that God would help us, and it has been a wonderful journey.
Q/ How has marriage helped you to understand Christ's great love for you?
A/ Again my disability helps because, according to Philippians 2:4, we constantly need to look out for the interests of others. Ken is the one who puts me to bed. He's the one who wipes off my makeup and empties my leg bag.
If we happen to have an argument or a disagreement, there is no way we can go to bed with the problem unresolved because he has to put me to bed. You cannot stay mad at someone when he is flossing your teeth or blowing your nose or taking off your mascara—you just have to talk and pray. You have to listen and care, to apologize and ask for forgiveness. So the disability is always pushing us to take the initiative to reconcile with each other.
For me, Jesus took the initiative when He died on the cross. He didn't stand there and tap His foot and fold His arms, saying, "You need to get your act together before I will accept you." He made the first move.
My wheelchair forces Ken and me each to take the initiative, to let Christ's love take the initiative.