The Baptist Messenger recently interviewed Joni Eareckson Tada, renowned author, artist and founder and Chief Executive of Joni and Friends.
Messenger: Joni, you have many friends and fans here in Oklahoma, and many are familiar with your works and story, how God has worked in your life, how a diving accident in 1967, when you were only 17 years of age, left you in a quadriplegic state without the use of your hands and placed you in a wheelchair. But how God, in the face of these challenges has enabled you to create inspiring works of art and writings and speaking, founding a ministry that has blessed so many.
And now, we hear that you actually have a new devotional coming out in 2017, and as we reflect on your decades of ministry, I thought you could start by maybe telling us about this book and some things the Lord has been doing as you write it.
Joni: Well, I cannot believe that I have been in this wheelchair 49 years. When I look back on all that God has taught me, all that He has led me through—not only my own struggles to come to grips with my own quadriplegia, but a daily battle with chronic pain, and also a battle against stage 3 cancer—I am just constantly amazed at the graciousness of God in providing me strength, not just to get through it, not just to plow through it, not just to put one foot in front of the other and, you know, muster my way forward.
No. He’s given me grace to smile, not in spite of the problems but because of them. And to be honest, I’m constantly learning new things from my studies of God’s Word. He uses my affliction to open my eyes to the glories of His Gospel. So, all this new stuff I’ve put down in my new book called A Spectacle of Glory. May I tell you a little bit about the title?
Messenger: We’d love to have you do so.
Joni: Well, there is this passage of Scripture in Exodus where Moses approaches a burning bush. And he utters this comment that struck me, he says, “Why? Why is this bush not burned up?” And I read a commentary that John Newton had penned on that particular passage, and John Newton said, “You know, Christians who suffer and suffer vehemently, suffer courageously. They are burning bushes that cause all those around them to look on and wonder ‘Why is this bush not burned up?’
And so, Christians who suffer affliction become this spectacle of God’s glory, of God’s grace, causing other people to wonder ‘How do you do it? How come you’re not burned up? How come you’re not burned up?’”
I thought that was a fitting title for this book because so many of the insights and principals, so many of the reflections on God’s Word are born out of affliction. And you don’t have to be a quadriplegic, you don’t have to be a cancer survivor or a sufferer, you don’t have to live with chronic pain to identify with the vignettes and this special devotional. Although it’s a 366 day devotional, the vignettes are short, easy to read. The concepts, I believe, I’ve written to make them easy to grasp. It’s my prayer that our listeners will just be blessed by it. So, thank you for letting me talk about it.
Messenger: We are very excited to hear it. That’s a powerful illustration. And you’ve just spoken such hope to so many, and you also stood forth on some difficult issues. There was one column you had recently that just really spoke deeply to me.
Many might be familiar with the romantic movie that came out “Me Before You.” It dominated the box office. It’s based on a bestselling book, and the story about a young man who became disabled and started having thoughts of his life not being worth living. The movie ended up celebrating and glamourizing assisted suicide. It also paints a negative picture of people with disabilities that was very bleak and unfotunate. You took this on, can you respond to the movie and tell us constructive ways to speak into that when a cultural moment like this comes?
Joni: Well, let me describe to you the final scenes of this movie “Me Before You.” It shows the lead character, Will, as you said, a quadriplegic, who became injured in a motorcycle accident, and he falls in love with this winsome, happy girl, who adores him with or without his disability, and yet he cannot overcome the fact that he thinks his life is not worth living. So the last couple of scenes we see Will wheel up to a suicide clinic in Switzerland and his parents had brought him there.
And he checks himself into this suicide hotel, as it were, and has assisted death performed on him. He’s given a lethal dose of drugs to end his life. And I looked at that and thought, “Oh my goodness, his parents are calling this a courageous decision? And in fact, many of his friends in the movie talk about what a courageous decision it was. But, what would have been really courageous is if Will had wheeled up to the front door of that clinic, took a long hard look at it, and then turned his wheelchair around and went back to Great Britain where he came from, and continued to live out his life with his family, with his friends, and with this young girl who was so in love with him. The movie tries to redefine courage. As I said, several people in the film call his decision courageous for ending his life, but the truth is, he would have shown much more courage, real courage, had he faced his hardships and moved forward into life.
Messenger: We continue to see society tearing away at the fabric of life and only valuing certain people. And you have stood in the gap and talked about the dignity of all human life. Helping us to see as God sees. Speaking of marriages, I got to see an interview with you. It was from 1983, you and Ken were honeymooners. It was at a Billy Graham event, and you had the most engaging discussion about how God brought you together. And then decades later you were talking about marriage and life and the joys and the challenges and the setbacks. We are in a mess with marriage today, inside the church, outside the church. What wisdom can you share with us, Joni, about marriage along these themes of love and hope and overcoming?
Joni: Well, thank you for mentioning my marriage. I wish my husband, Ken, was here to also be interviewed. As a quadriplegic who has been married to a great guy for nearly 34 years, my husband and I have a deep and satisfying relationship. Now get this, mostly because of my severe disability. Not in spite of my disability, but because of my disability. You know, the Bible says that God’s power shows up best in weakness. And boy, there area lot of opportunities for one to experience great weakness in marriage. Unmet expectations, bruised feelings, the inability to meet each other’s needs. I mean, things like that can either rip a marriage apart or if we hold on fast to God’s grace it can draw a couple together, teaching them patience, teaching them self-sacrifice, what true life priorities really are, what it means to put the other’s interests first before your own.
If our unbelieving, skeptical, cynical world could only see Christians in their marriage support one another, extol one another, defer to one another, mutually submit to one another, rejoice in each other, applaud each other’s gifts, bear with each other’s weaknesses, oh my goodness, that would so validate our Christian testimony, it would so prove the effectiveness of the Gospel in our lives.
Messenger: Reflecting on the decades of ministry God has equipped you to do, what other, what are some pearls of wisdom or maybe one thought you could say to that person, in particularly maybe a young person, whose setting out on life as they are trying to spread their wings, and they’re a believer and entering into the world. Could you speak a word of hope to them?
Joni: Well, I will share a word of hope that might be hard to hear, and that is, God wired this world to be difficult. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be challenging. But let’s take heart and remember that God permits what He hates to accomplish that which He loves. In other words, God takes no delight in your deep disappointment or the divorce that your family went through, He takes no delight in the recent medical diagnosis that projects nothing but bad news for your future, He takes no delight in chronic pain or a botched surgery gone bad; He takes no delight in these things.
But He permits them in our lives to accomplish something far more precious, and that is a refined faith, stretched hope, a healthy hatred of sin in your life, a desire to draw closer to Christ, and fellowshipping and sharing with His sufferings, a more buoyant interest in His Word, a deeper, more lively prayer life.
These are all the things that God is after in our lives. But, sometimes we’re just naturally, we’re not naturally inclined to cultivate those disciplines. We, for the most part, don’t have any interest in those disciplines. But suddenly, God permits what He hates, some suffering, some hardship, some heartache, and it becomes a sheepdog snapping at your heels, driving you down the road to Calvary, where otherwise you would not be humanly inclined to go.
So, hold on to the hope of the Gospel of Christ in your life and all that He provides through His resurrection and death, and be outfitted to face your future with confidence and great joy. Because God is in control! And He’s up to something really good in your life.
Messenger: Your books, your devotionals, your articles, your radio show, your speeches, your presentations, your ministry are just so inspiring, and (we) encourage anyone to go to www.joniandfriends.org to check out more about what you are doing and what God is equipping you to do and come alongside that. And I know many Oklahoma Baptists do. And I want to ask you how we can pray for you, but one thing you said just a moment ago made me think of C.S. Lewis’ talking about pain being God’s megaphone, how He just speaks so clearly to us, and I think the testimony you’ve given just today is, those really are pearls of wisdom. Joni, how can we pray for you here in Oklahoma?
Joni: I’ve been in this wheelchair for so long, and it is quite amazing, even miraculous, that I am in the good health that I am in. That is such a huge blessing from God. And I will tell you, I absolutely love what I do, I love our ministry, I love being a part of taking wheelchairs around the world to needy disabled people and delivering Bibles and giving the Gospel of Jesus, the salvation message of Christ. I love holding retreats for special needs families all across the United States, 27 this summer, and 17 in developing nations. I love that.
And all the other things we do at Joni and friends; our cause for life internships, I love these vibrant, young interns, these young Christian leaders who come and serve with us at our ministry. And so, I would just ask our friends to please pray that I might finish well, that I might not do something really stupid to mess it up, at the end of my life, that I might remain healthy and fit, that God might grant me good health to just keep getting up in the morning despite the chronic pain and despite the big inconvenience of quadriplegia, to be able to keep getting up in the morning and serving Him in the way I so love doing. That would be a wonderful prayer to pray on my behalf.
Messenger: Go to www.joniandfriends.org to find out more about Joni Eareckson Tada and her new book, A Spectacle of Glory.
Visit www.baptistmessenger.com/insight to hear the full interview.