I write about suffering.
I have been all too familiar with it for decades. In many ways, my life has been intensely painful but at the same time breathtakingly sweet.
The sweetness has come from walking with God. Many of you know that paradox as well, as you found the faithfulness of God in the darkest of places.
No one I’ve ever met demonstrates and lives that paradox more than Joni Eareckson Tada. Joni, who was paralyzed at age 17 in a diving accident, has a radiance that shines against the backdrop of unspeakable life challenges: quadriplegia, riveting pain, and cancer to name a few.
I marvel at this because quadriplegics generally don’t live very long. She doesn’t look 65 though; Joni looks like she’s in her 40s. Anyone who has met her would agree that she is stunningly beautiful.
But mostly I marvel at this because Joni has been faithful, blessing God and proclaiming His glory, for almost 50 years of quadriplegia.
This is why Joni is my hero. Not because Joni is so amazing, though she is, but she demonstrates what God can do in a life yielded to Him. Her life points to a magnificent God who is beyond compare, who can elicit genuine praise in the midst of deep suffering.
Joni’s life is countercultural. Generally people turn to God in the midst of trials to help them out of suffering. To them, God is a genie, valuable because he can make their lives better.
But Joni shows me that God is valuable not because He makes our lives easier. He is valuable because He is the Lord of the universe and knowing Him is better than anything in this life. Knowing Him is the ultimate joy. Knowing Him is worth any ordeal we may endure.
This is a God worthy of worship. The God who took a woman who wanted to die after being rendered a quadriplegic and so changed her from the inside out that she could later say, “I thank God for this wheelchair.”
So many of Joni’s books and messages have impacted me. She has mentored me from afar as I have watched and read the way she has handled trials. She has displayed what it looks like to be abandoned to God. She has encouraged me to press on in the midst of suffering. She has shown me that the glory of God is worth suffering for, living for and dying for.
As I have watched her, I have silently affirmed, “If this is what affliction does in someone’s life, if this is the way it could draw me to God, if this is the way it could demonstrate Jesus to a watching world, sign me up for suffering.”
Joni’s book When God Weeps helped forge my theology. When I first read it, I questioned her view of God. I wasn’t sure if I could accept that God was behind all of my suffering. But after carefully looking at Scripture in light of her assertions, I became convinced that God is sovereign over everything in our lives. Some of my favorite quotes are:
“Nothing happens by accident… Not even tragedy… Not even sins committed against us.”
“Every sorrow we taste will one day prove to be the best possible thing that could’ve happened. We will thank God endlessly in heaven for the trials he sent us here.”
God permits what he hates to achieve what he loves.
Either God rules, or Satan sets the world’s agenda and God is limited to reacting. In which case, the Almighty would become Satan’s cleanup boy, sweeping up after the devil has trampled through and done his worst, finding a way to wring good out of the situation somehow. But it wasn’t his best plan for you, wasn’t plan A, wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. In other words, although God would manage to patch things up, your suffering itself would be meaningless.”
Colossians 1:24 says “now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” Nothing is lacking when it comes to what Christ did on the cross. It is finished, just as he said. But something is lacking when it comes to showcasing the salvation story to others. Jesus isn’t around in the flesh, but you and I are. When we suffer and handle it with grace, we’re like walking billboards advertising the positive way God works in the life of someone who suffers.
The greatest good suffering can do for me is to increase my capacity for God.
From watching Joni and other saints who have suffered, I understand the profound blessing of being able to observe how God works in the life of the sufferer. And I am encouraged to press on and to see the good that can come out of suffering. These saints are walking billboards to show us how God works in our affliction.
Joni’s address at the National Radio Broadcasting (NRB) convention in 2013 deeply touched me as well. A few highlights from that message were:
I want people to know the God I love. I would not trade this intimacy with God, this nearness, this preciousness, for any amount of walking
I wouldn’t trade places with anyone in the world to be this close to Jesus
As Joni was in Jerusalem at the pool of Bethesda with Ken, she looked wistfully at the pool, imagining the many sick and disabled people lying there waiting to get healed. Tears poured from her eyes as she remembered the many times that she had gone there in her mind, begging Jesus to heal her. Through tears she said,
"God was so precious to give me this moment with himself right there at the pool of Bethesda, to say thank you. Thank you for the healing that you gave me, the deeper healing. Oh God, you were so wise in not giving me a physical healing. You were so wise because a ‘no’ answer to a physical healing has meant ‘yes’ to a deeper faith in you. ‘Yes’ to a deeper prayer life. ‘Yes’ to a greater understanding of your word. It has purged sin from my life, forced me to depend on your grace, increased my compassion for others who hurt, put complaining behind me, stretched my cloak, given me a lively and buoyant trust in you and an excitement about heaven, pushed me to give thanks in times of sorrow, increased my faith and helped me to love you more… I am so happy that you did not give me the physical healing that I wanted but the deeper healing.”
Joni’s words ring true for me, and I know for many of you as well. A ‘no’ answer to physical healing has meant ‘yes’ to a deeper faith in Christ. This deeper healing that she speaks of isn’t temporary, as physical healing is. It will last throughout eternity.
Joni’s attitude reminds me of Jim Elliot’s famous words, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
I am so thankful for Joni Eareckson Tada. Her life stands as a beacon to all of us who suffer, and to a watching world that wonders if our God is worthy of worship when life falls apart. He is!