“Most people think that living with quadriplegia is overwhelming. And it is.” Speaking at #CCEF16, she says this even as she says that now, nearly 50 years later, she would not give up her intimacy and depth in Christ, deepened through suffering, in order to walk. How do we bring these two opposing experiences together.
Joni tells us there are 1 billion disabled people in the world, most living in the developing world–people who are at greatest risk of being abused, neglected, and not protected.
She spoke of her chronic pain that grew over the years and exploded in the mid 2000s and how it robbed her of joy and capacity to do the work she wanted to do. “It (the pain) made my quadriplegia a walk in the park.” “I know I am under the sovereignty of God but now his sovereignty seemed so scary.” “My depression lifted the day I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.” She said this with a smile, “Oh God, you might be taking me home now.”
“I knew in my head that God is sovereign and that I trust him. Why can’t my emotions fall in line?” She then used the idea that in this life we experience “splashovers” of hell and “splashovers of heaven.” “There is nothing more sweet than finding Jesus in your moment of hell.” Pain tends to bring us into self-focus. But when we see the affliction of Jesus on the cross, our focus is changed. It doesn’t mean we no longer suffer but that our suffering done in and with Christ, “no longer afraid of it.” There is comfort in the promises of God even in the dark seasons.
How can counselors convince others that Jesus is enough even if the pain is not able to be fixed? We start by counseling with compassion (being with them in their pain and suffering). When the sufferer sees they have a place in the body of Christ, that they are not isolated, this is of great importance. Spiritual community helps the sufferer to accept the pain as their own. God never intended us to suffer alone. Together, healing begins. We don’t just declare God is over all suffering, we demonstrate it through deep relationships.
Someone who knows suffering can say things that many able-bodied people cannot say, or cannot be heard to say. Joni’s voice is prophetic for the Church. She calls us to walk with those with disabilities rather than avoid. May we listen. May be validate their pain first as we sit with them. May we never tired to hear of their difficulties. May we never put our need for assurance that “everything will turn out right” ahead of their need to be heard and loved.
Over at the Biblical Seminary faculty blog, I posted this entry about the matter of chronic pain for the Christian and ended with a few brief thoughts as to what faith looks like when you suffer with a chronic condition.
You will note that in the post I do not mention anything about healing. I resisted that discussion for the time being (good as it is) because I think it so often adds to the sufferer’s experience of pain (e.g., “now I carry the extra burden of wondering why I haven’t been healed and possibly your judgement that something is wrong with my faith”) AND minimizes the current experience of pain.
On Friday, Joni Eareckson Tada spoke about the fact that she still is stopped by people who tell her they pray she will get up out of her wheelchair and walk. I imagine she is polite but her answer was that she would not want that prayer answered now. She can save walking for heaven. Today, she has a more important job to do, and her paralysis is being used by God to refine herself and redeem others.
Last night I had a short but sweet conversation with Ken Tada. That would be Joni Eareckson Tada’s husband. Joni and a few others were presenting yesterday at a Biblical Seminary event. At the Q & A, an audience member asked how we all could pray for Joni and Ken. Ken’s answer was to tell us that in 2010, Joni was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had treatment and now has gone 2.5 years since surgery and chemo. He asked that we pray for continued good health in regards to cancer. He mentioned the important goal of making 5 years without a reoccurrence.
As a fellow husband of a breast cancer survivor, I could relate well to his prayer. We just hit our 3 year anniversary. During our conversation we discussed how such a diagnosis and ensuing suffering brings life into crystal clarity. What is important (relationships, time together, worship, small things like listening to the birds, etc.) and what is not (writing/speaking opportunities, following the news, public affirmation, career advancement) becomes so evident to us. It also taught us both (Ken and I) what vows mean. Now, I would have thought he already understood that being married to Joni. I suppose he did. However, new forms of suffering remind us of what God’s love is like for us.
Last night Joni said that suffering is used by God to purify us, to remove those things that are not from him. I agree. It does so in both the one with cancer as well as the husband.
He and Joni have a new book coming out in April. I saw a copy of it last night. Looks like a good read!