Bernie Diaz, November 21, 2017
Some Christians read the familiar passage of scripture found in 1 Thessalonians 5 and think it’s either a suggestion from the apostle Paul or that it must only apply to the most sanctified of saints- disciples of Jesus Christ who walk at some higher level; “give thanks in all circumstances …”
All circumstances. Really? God, am I really supposed to give you thanks for a job loss, financial ruin, death or the diagnosis of a disease? And if that command wasn’t hard enough, Paul concludes the verse with the phrase, “… for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Yup, God desires and commands that all Christians would give thanks or show gratitude within, and in spite of their circumstances and not just on Thanksgiving Thursday.
We understand the command, the words and their meaning, we just struggle to understand how it can be obeyed and what it looks like when it is obeyed.
Joni Eareckson Tada is still obeying those words and shining the light of joy and thanksgiving 50 years later and going strong after suffering an accident in which she was a 17 year-old care-free teenager one moment and in the next, after diving headfirst into shallow water, a quadriplegic.
In an interview after being named WORLD magazine’s annual Daniel of the Year, Mrs. Tada was asked how she is able to persevere as she does in the face of her own tragedy, pain and suffering. According to interviewer Jamie Dean, “Joni’s answer is jubilant: ‘It sounds incredible, but I really would rather be in this wheelchair knowing Jesus as I do than be on my feet without Him.” She celebrates “that glorious but awful, beautiful but sad, terrible but wonderful day I broke my neck—because look what God has done.”
To pray and give thanks in all circumstances- including quadriplegia, means for Tada to know and rest in God’s sovereignty of suffering and the deep soul satisfaction that can only come from a close, personal relationship with Christ that is perfected by trials.
That reality is what enables her to talk about her weaknesses, her battle with chronic pain, and her dependence on God’s grace for getting out of bed each day—with joy.
Her story is inspirational and yet riddled with pain. Five decades in a wheelchair—and chemotherapy for breast cancer in 2010, which wore on her bones and body to the extent that she has suffered from scoliosis and a displaced hip that cause chronic, sometimes severe pain.
Before coming to Christ, the self-doubt and loathing of her circumstances so common to our humanity, drove her to despair. After her accident, she faced a litany of what-ifs: “What if she hadn’t gone swimming that day? What if her tennis date hadn’t canceled? What if she hadn’t jumped in head-first?”
She begged a friend to kill her, and despaired she couldn’t do it herself. Eventually, she turned to hopes of miraculous healing and attended an event in Washington, D.C., led by purported faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman. She was ignored at that ‘faith- healing event’ and felt both disappointed and bitter.
Famously as she came to Christ, she prayed: “God, if You won’t let me die, then show me how to live.”
God to the Rescue
Tada’s autobiography reveals how she would sit for hours with a Bible on a music stand, turning the pages of Scripture with her mouth-stick. Friends joined her for Bible studies around her family’s large farm table, and they read books about God’s sovereignty by authors like J.I. Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and J. Gresham Machen. “We just delighted that this accident wasn’t a mistake,” she says.
Not only was it not a mistake—Joni learned God uses suffering to make people more like Christ and to know Him more deeply. Indeed, He used the suffering of His own Son to accomplish salvation for sinners. Joni’s deepest need for healing was spiritual, not physical.
Only God by his providence can use evil, or pain and suffering through calamity or a tragedy to bring salvation, greater good for his people and glory upon himself. As Joni has often said, “God permits what He hates to accomplish what He loves.” It was a life-altering realization: God was fully in control, and He could use her suffering for good in her life and the lives of others.
That good has literally touched thousands worldwide in and out of wheelchairs with her ministries, Joni and Friends, and Wheels for the World, a program that delivers wheelchairs to people with disabilities in developing countries. One of those chairs I saw profoundly touch a young lady and family in Cuba, when our church had the opportunity to serve there on a mission trip. The gratitude attitude evident in that family which has emboldened worship in that church, is beyond description.
More recently, Tada has become a uniquely gifted and anointed speaker of ethics of life issues such as abortion and euthanasia. When actors and activists pushed for embryonic stem cell research to help people with paralysis, Joni advocated using adult stem cells, which were already yielding scientific successes and didn’t involve destroying embryos.
WORLD reported that “She spoke out for Terri Schiavo, a disabled Florida woman whose husband had successfully persuaded courts to allow doctors to remove her feeding tube, despite her parents’ pleas that their daughter was still interactive and viable. On Larry King Live, Joni warned against a mentality of ‘better off dead than disabled.”
Moreover, Joni has spoken against abortions targeting unborn children with disabilities like Down syndrome. She grieved California becoming the fourth state to legalize assisted suicide and noted if euthanasia had been legal in 1967, she might not be here today. We give thanks to God that was not the case then.
Today, the day to day struggle of pain and even anxiety continues for Tada, who continues to live joyfully in Christ, by combating her pain in part, with the praying and singing of hymns. She describes her antidote as knowing that “Christ’s grace is available—it won’t take away the pain, but it will give you the courage to face it.”
It is the hope of Christ, heaven and glory – the expectation of a healed and perfected body to come that drives her joy, as she has spoken of actually thanking God for a ‘no’ answer to physical healing.”
Why thank God for a “no answer” to healing? Joni said, “I’m depending more on God’s grace, it’s increasing my compassion for others who are hurt and disabled. … It has strengthened my hope of heaven, and it’s made me love Him so much more. … And I would not trade it for any amount of walking.”
As her WORLD interview concluded, Joni said she looks forward to the day she’ll walk again in the new heavens and the new earth. She looks forward to kneeling too. For now, she asks those with able bodies to do what she and others can’t do—yet.
“Kneel before the Lord God, your Maker and mine,” she writes. “And while you’re down there, if you feel so inclined, thank Him for being so good to a paralyzed woman named Joni.”
Count your blessings this week Christian. Join Joni Eareckson Tada in thanking God for blessings today, and joyfully recount your future blessings and the hope of tomorrow, that can empower you to thank God in ‘all your circumstances.’