Lessons from Joni on hardship and suffering:
That suffering is something we all experience to varying degrees is simply a fact of life in a fallen world. We all go through mental or physical or emotional suffering, and for some it seems to be a massive part of life. One person who knows all about suffering – and for the great majority of her life – is Joni Eareckson Tada.
Most of you know the moving story of the American evangelical Christian author, artist and speaker. Born in 1949 in Maryland, she was a very active, sports-loving girl. But all that came to a sudden halt in 1967 when she was just 17. A dive into shallow water left her paralysed from the shoulders down.
And despite multi-millions of prayers from so many people, and two hard years of rehabilitation, she remains in that condition today. Imagine being a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair for 53 years. Many people would not have been able to cope with such a situation, but the grace of God has enabled Joni to thrive spiritually and to be a blessing to countless people all around the world.
Her first book was the best-selling 1976 autobiography Joni. That was followed two years later by another very popular volume, A Step Further: Growing Closer to God through Hurt and Hardship. She has penned many dozens of books since then, and most of them could certainly be cited and quoted from here.
But let me refer to just three of them. In 1995 she wrote Heaven: Your Real Home, which was updated in 2018. In 1997 When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty appeared. And in 2010 A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain, and God’s Sovereignty was released.
All three volumes offer us so much wise counsel and profound truth about suffering, hardship, hope and heaven. When you personally struggle on a daily basis with great suffering for over half a century, you become either better or bitter. Joni has taken the former path, and the spiritual and theological truths she shares with us are invaluable.
So let me offer a few choice quotes from each volume. In her book Heaven she says this:
“I still can hardly believe it. I, with shriveled, bent fingers, atrophied muscles, gnarled knees, and no feeling from the shoulders down, will one day have a new body, light, bright, and clothed with righteousness – powerful and dazzling. Can you imagine the hope this gives to someone spinal cord-injured like me? Or someone who is cerebral palsied, brain-injured, or has multiple sclerosis? Imagine the hope this gives to someone who is manic depressive. No other religion, no other philosophy promises new bodies, hearts, and minds. Only in the Gospel of Christ do hurting people find such incredible hope.”
“When Christians realize that their citizenship is in heaven, they begin acting as responsible citizens of earth. They invest wisely in relationships because they know they’re eternal. Their conversations, goals and motives become pure and honest because they realize these will have a bearing on everlasting reward. They give generously of time, money, and talent because they are laying up treasures for eternity. They spread the good news of Christ because they long to fill heaven’s ranks with their friends and neighbors. All this serves the pilgrims well, not only in heaven, but on earth; for it serves everyone around them.”
“Suffering is no failure of God’s plan. True, it is part of the curse, along with death, disease, and destruction. But before God comes back to close the curtain on suffering, it is meant to be redeemed. Our miracle-working God can reach down into what otherwise looks like awful evil—terrible evil—and He and He only can pull out of it positive good for us and glory for Himself. . . . Suffering makes us want to go to heaven. Broken homes and broken hearts crush our illusions that earth can keep its promises, that it can really satisfy. Only the hope of heaven can truly move our passions off this world – which God knows could never fulfill us anyway – and place them where they will find their glorious fulfillment.”
And in When God Weeps we find these quotes:
“God uses suffering to purge sin from our lives, strengthen our commitment to him, force us to depend on grace, bind us together with other believers, produce discernment, foster sensitivity, discipline our minds, spend our time wisely, stretch our hope, cause us to know Christ better, make us long for truth, lead us to repentance of sin, teach us to give thanks in time of sorrow, increase faith, and strengthen character.”
“A miraculous exchange happens at the cross. When suffering forces us to our knees at the foot of Calvary, we die to self. We cannot kneel there for long without releasing our pride and anger, unclasping our dreams and desires – this is what ‘coming to the cross’ is all about. In exchange, God imparts power and implants new and lasting hope. We rise, renewed. His yoke becomes easy; his burden light. But just when we begin to get a tad self-sufficient, suffering presses harder. And so, we seek the cross again, mortifying the martyr in us, destroying the self-display. The transaction is then able to continue. God reveals more of his love, more of his power and peace as we hold fast the cross of suffering.”
“It’s no longer a mystery now that I’ve felt the crunch of decades of paralysis. The encroachments of my limitations often feel like the cutting edge of a spade, digging up twisted vines of self-centeredness and the dirt of sin and rebellion. Uprooting rights. Clearing out the debris of habitual sins. Shoveling away pride. To believe in God in the midst of suffering is to empty myself; and to empty myself is to increase the capacity – the pond area – for God. The greatest good suffering can do for me is to increase my capacity for God. Then he, like a spring, is free to flow through me.”
Finally, in A Place for Healing she writes:
“Do I pray for miraculous healing for my chronic pain? You bet I do. Am I expecting it? If God wills, yes. ‘Whatever You want, Lord,’ I pray. ‘If it would give You more glory and advance Your gospel more quickly. I’m all for it!’ Always and always I want to be in submission to the Father and obedient to the Word of Jesus—knowing full well that if I had everything else in life and lacked that, I would have nothing at all. Because isn’t that the bottom line? That Jesus gets the glory, whether I jump out of my wheelchair pain free and tell people that my healing is genuine evidence of God’s awesome power … or whether I continue smiling in my chair, not in spite of my pain but because of it, knowing I’ve got lessons to learn, a character to be honed, other wounded people to identify with, a hurting world to reach with the gospel, and a suffering Savior with whom I can enjoy greater intimacy. And every bit of it genuine evidence of God’s love and grace.”
“God’s wisdom began to seep into my soul—it takes awhile sometimes, doesn’t it?—and I began to see the real truth behind 1 Corinthians 12. It’s not a pity-the-poor disabled verse at all. On the contrary, I think the whole chapter makes the point that we are all weak, all needy, whether we like to admit it or not. And what is it that we need? We need each other in the body of Christ. It just happens the weaknesses of some people (like me) are more evident. People who have obvious disabilities more readily get what it means to be weak and feel needy. As a result, maybe the light goes on a little sooner for us when we hear the Apostle say, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me….. For when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor. 12:9,10).”
“Is my pain God’s way of disciplining me? All I can say is the love of God is only after what is pure and praiseworthy in my life. And when it comes to His discipline, He only has my best interest at heart: that the image of Jesus would beautifully and radiantly shine in my character—in yours, too. So if the pain and discomfort of your difficult circumstances persist, don’t take it lightly. But more importantly, don’t lose heart. God’s up to something pretty special in your life!”
The amount of hardship and suffering Joni has had to undergo for over a half a century is more than most of us will ever know and experience. But those who suffer deeply are often the ones who have the deepest and closest walk with the Lord.
Whether or not you are familiar with Joni and her ministry, it is hoped that these quotes will spur you on to get more of her books or watch more of her videos. The depth of wisdom and spiritual understanding found in them are a real source of inspiration and encouragement.