Can you imagine living with 50 years of quadriplegia? Relying on others for your every need, unable to care for yourself, needing help even to blow your nose?
Joni Eareckson Tada can. On July 30, 1967, when she was 17 years old, Joni was paralyzed from the neck down when she dove into deceptively shallow water in the Chesapeake Bay. This month marks 50 years that Joni has lived as a quadriplegic. From an outside perspective, it seems impossible to endure what Joni has endured and come out praising Jesus. But she has.
In her latest devotional, A Spectacle of Glory, Joni shares, “I happened to hear recently the old Beatles classic “Here Comes the Sun” – a song I listened to when I was first injured. It reminded me of the dark, depressing days in the hospital when I thought I would never smile again, would never see the sunlight of hope. And now, nearly 50 years later, I still find myself thinking, how in the world did I ever make it? But here I am, living in joyful hope as though it were sunshine. How did that happen? Here’s how: day after day, month after month, year after year, I simply cast myself on Jesus. I clung to his name, crying out constantly, “Oh Jesus!”
Joni, who lives in joyful hope as though it were sunshine, has had to endure more than quadriplegia. She was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in 2010. And she lives with crushing chronic pain. To Joni, quadriplegia isn’t a big deal anymore; she’s learned to live with that. But the pain is hard to get used to, as it invades her life every day.
This week I had the privilege of speaking with Ama Cruz, who helps serve Joni. Ama is the mother of Nathan Cruz, who is a summer intern for my husband Joel. What a joy it was to discover that we both knew Joni. When Ama first started serving in the Tada home 1 ½ years ago, she was excited about getting to know Joni personally. But more importantly, she wanted to meet God through the lens of Joni. And she has. She has seen firsthand the faithfulness of God who lavishes grace on us.
Someone from Joni’s wake-up crew, affectionately known as “the Get-up Girls” who are pictured above, is there every morning to get her ready. And they get her ready regardless of whether Joni has slept well or not, whether she’s in agony or not, whether she wants to get up or not. Because she relies on helpers who are scheduled in advance, Joni doesn’t have the luxury of changing her mind at the last minute. Joni can’t hit the snooze alarm and decide she wants a little more sleep.
Often she is exhausted, but she continues to persevere. As she prays in her devotional, “Lord Jesus, sometimes I think my worst enemy is just being so tired – tired of the physical hassles, tired of the pain, tired of fighting off the whispers and mockery of the enemy. My stamina is almost gone and my tank is almost empty. Come quickly to my side. Be the strength and song I can’t pull together on my own.”
In a podcast interview, Joni said “As a quadriplegic, I wake up in the morning and it’s hard. It is so hard having somebody else come into your bedroom [to brush your teeth and your hair]. It’s overwhelming at times,” she said. “During those times, I say, ‘Lord God, I cannot do this, but I can do all things through you as you strengthen me.'”
Those who serve Joni can attest to the fact that Christ is her strength; she doesn’t complain. Ama says, “She doesn’t rant or grumble even though she is immersed in chronic pain and cannot use her body. Suffering is her constant companion, yet the Spirit of God is her comforter so she is always gracious. This is an act of the Holy Spirit.”
Joni sees that her response to suffering matters. In A Spectacle of Glory, she says, “In your natural self, you might complain about your routine or difficulties. In God’s strength, however, you bite your tongue and refuse to grumble, because you recognize God in those very situations.” She goes on to say, “I want [God] to gain glory through the way I live out this “normal” day… that people would see a difference between the way I would naturally respond and the way [God] enables me to respond by [his] Spirit. May people who observe my life see that gap and give the credit to [God].”
Joni doesn’t want the credit for herself. She wants it all to go to Jesus and encourages believers not to take the credit for strength in the midst of trials. Joni says, “Yes, we may show flashes of great strength in dark and desperate times – but it’s not our strength. For those who battle daily with chronic pain or physical disabilities, the reminders of our weakness are even more stark; we can never really forget how powerless we are. But that’s good!”
What has Ama learned after being with Joni? She’s learned to be grateful for all things. She understands that God intimately knows our pain and suffering. He doesn’t just meet us in our pain and suffering – he’s already there, waiting for us. And through serving Joni and her husband Ken, Ama has seen the great God they serve. A God who meets the disabled around the world and offers them his grace.
Ama has also worked with the ministry of Joni and Friends (JAF), and is quick to say that the ministry is not fundamentally about Joni. It is about trusting God and relying on his grace in all aspects of our lives. It’s about loving and embracing the disabled and disenfranchised, rather than overlooking them. It’s about ministering to the families of people affected by disability all over the world, sharing the gospel of hope.
Joni and Friends and their Wheels for the World program is changing lives. Ama, who has visited numerous countries with JAF, shared how people with disabilities in poorer countries struggle with no relief. They are marginalized and shunned, often treated as cursed. Ama vividly remembers a woman, lying prostrate on the dirt floor, begging God to let her live one day longer than her disabled son because otherwise no one would bother to care for him. Ama was heartbroken for her, yet marveled at this woman’s extraordinary walk with God.
Joni, along with countless disabled people and their families around the world, lives with a breathtaking dependence on Jesus and a supernatural sense of God’s presence. Joni says: “I wish I could adequately describe what it’s like when I’m aware of the overwhelming presence and power of God’s grace in my life. It’s like “living above” my wheelchair in a strata of heart-splitting joy that comes with God-breathed courage to tackle whatever lies ahead! Frankly, I believe that the more aware you are of God’s grace, the more joy and courage you will have. This raises the question: when are we most aware of God’s grace? It isn’t when we are riding high with the string of green lights and open doors before us. No, it’s when we are needy and feeling spiritually impoverished.”
Heart-splitting joy, God-breathed courage, the overwhelming presence and power of God- what a spectacular testimony to God's grace. Looking at the life of Joni Eareckson Tada, who after 50 years of quadriplegia is even more convinced that God’s grace is sufficient for her, I am in awe. Not in awe of Joni, but in awe of the God who comes to us in our suffering, gives us courage to tackle what lies ahead, who alone is worthy of all honor and praise.