Editor’s Journal: The school of suffering
A routine afternoon of rafting in July of 1967 turned tragic as Joni Eareckson Tada dove into what she thought was deep water only to quickly hear her neck crack against a sandbar. She quickly found herself helplessly floating face down in the water unable to move. As she frantically held her breath, her sister Kathy was a bitten by a Chesapeake Bay blue crab on her toe causing her to look around to warn Joni that the crabs seemed to be quite numerous and were biting all would be intruders into the lake. Not seeing her, Kathy soon caught sight of Joni’s blond hair floating on the surface of the water. Within seconds of drowning, Kathy turned Joni’s body over as she gasped for air. It was then they both knew something was terribly wrong.
From that instant, Tada’s life was never the same. She was now forced to live her life as a quadriplegic. The days that followed were filled with despair. Begging her friends to assist her in suicide, she finally mustered enough strength to actually think about what had happened to her. Up to this point, the shock and pain of the accident left her desirous of immediate relief from the searing pain and dark future before her. She was angry and wanted answers. Knowing she could not flee forever from the God Who had allowed this to happen, the long road of healing began, and by her own testimony, continues more than 40 years later.
Tada has faced down the specter of unresolved questions and has helped thousands to summon the courage to admit the darkness of this fallen world —even (perhaps especially) when it gets personal. Whether it is a failed marriage, rape, a family member’s suicide or even a besetting temptation that remains a struggle for years, she has served both as comforter and advocate for those who find themselves in the school of suffering.
In her newest book, A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain and God’s Sovereignty, Tada writes with the precision of a theologian, the insight of a counselor and the compassion of a friend. With accessible and meaningful language, she is able to unpack difficult theological issues through the use of Holy Scripture as her guide.
As she has aged, her bones have grown more fragile and her muscles more weak to the point that she confesses, “over the past year I’ve endured some of the most difficult days and weeks of my life.” The severity of her pain has caused her to privately and publicly wonder if her “life was unraveling.” Medication seldom helps—for very long anyway, and she admits that she now views her life more as “a battlefield” where “a warrior Jesus” is the only comfort. “When you’re in a dark place, when lions surround you, when you need strong help to rescue you from impossibility, you don’t want ‘sweet,’” she writes. Rather, Tada reveals that Holy Scripture actually speaks of Jesus having “a strong arm” and an “unshakeable grip” that will not let go—“no matter what.”
Tada is an expert struggler who finds joy in showing others who have been blessed by weakness to actually desire the presence of Jesus Christ through the serious application of difficult biblical texts. Not content with “easy” answers, she presses through to encourage others who dare to ask the hard question, “How can I go on like this?” Here, Tada is at her best. She carefully works to understand events in the Gospels as the framework for a biblical view of suffering by showing that although God is eternal and stands outside of time as humans understand time, the incarnation of Jesus Christ stands as a testimony that God also “moves through time” in ways which comfort believers as they suffer.
She insists that “God can use broken instruments to make incomparable music.” Tada believes that “right now” counts forever. “Every day of our short lives—even every hour—has eternal consequences for good or ill. Eternity —and the way we’ll live in it—is somehow being shaped by our moment-by-moment responses to the life we have before us to live right now,” she states.
Tada was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and she faces this new challenge with a certainty that has been tested in the furnace of affliction.
“I haven’t wrestled through four decades of quadriplegia and years of pain to throw in the towel now,” she writes.
One of her favorite quotes comes from the pen of a missionary Adoniram Judson. His difficult life still inspires her to trust God in times of suffering as the promise of Heaven awaits her: “When Christ calls me Home I shall go with the gladness of a school boy bounding away from school.”