This weekend marks fifty years since the diving accident that left Joni Eareckson Tada with quadriplegia. Fifty years of relying on others to meet her physical needs. Fifty years of pressing on in the midst of weakness, fatigue, and pain. Fifty years of trusting God to provide.
On July 30, 1967, when she was seventeen years old, Joni was paralyzed from the neck down after she dove into deceptively shallow water in the Chesapeake Bay. The early weeks and months were excruciating, and she despaired of even smiling again. But by God’s grace, fifty years later, she is full of grace and laughter, praising Jesus and counting it all joy.
In her latest devotional, A Spectacle of Glory, Joni shares, “I happened to hear recently the old Beatles classic ‘Here Comes the Sun’ — a song I listened to when I was first injured. It reminded me of the dark, depressing days in the hospital when I thought I would never smile again, would never see the sunlight of hope. And now, nearly fifty years later, I still find myself thinking, how in the world did I ever make it?
“But here I am, living in joyful hope as though it were sunshine. How did that happen? Here’s how: day after day, month after month, year after year, I simply cast myself on Jesus. I clung to his name, crying out constantly, ‘O Jesus!’”
Joni, who lives in joyful hope, as though it were sunshine, has had to endure more than quadriplegia. She was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in 2010. And she lives with crushing chronic pain. To Joni, quadriplegia isn’t a big deal anymore; she’s learned to live with that. But the pain is hard to get used to, as it invades her life every day.
The Worst Part
This week I had the privilege of speaking with Ama Cruz, who helps serve Joni and her husband Ken in their home. Every morning someone arrives from her wake-up crew, affectionately known as her “Get-Up Girls.” They get her ready regardless of whether Joni has slept well or not, whether she’s in agony or not, whether she wants to get up or not. Because she relies on helpers who are scheduled in advance, Joni doesn’t have the luxury of changing her mind at the last minute. Joni can’t hit the snooze alarm and decide she wants a little more sleep.
Even when Joni is exhausted, she continues to persevere. As she prays in her devotional, “Lord Jesus, sometimes I think my worst enemy is just being so tired — tired of the physical hassles, tired of the pain, tired of fighting off the whispers and mockery of the enemy. My stamina is almost gone and my tank is almost empty. Come quickly to my side. Be the strength and song I can’t pull together on my own.”
“I Cannot Do This”
Joni once commented in an interview, “As a quadriplegic, I wake up in the morning and it’s hard. It is so hard having somebody else come into your bedroom [to brush your teeth and your hair]. It’s overwhelming at times. During those times, I say, ‘Lord God, I cannot do this, but I can do all things through you as you strengthen me.’”
Those who serve Joni can attest to the fact that Christ is her strength. Ama Cruz says, “She doesn’t rant or grumble even though she is immersed in chronic pain and cannot use her body. Suffering is her constant companion, yet the Spirit of God is her comforter so she is always gracious. This is an act of the Holy Spirit.”
Responding to Suffering
Joni sees that her response to suffering matters. She says, “In your natural self, you might complain about your routine or difficulties. In God’s strength, however, you bite your tongue and refuse to grumble, because you recognize God in those very situations” (Spectacle). She goes on to say, “I want [God] to gain glory through the way I live out this ‘normal’ day . . . that people would see a difference between the way I would naturally respond and the way [God] enables me to respond by [his] Spirit. May people who observe my life see that gap and give the credit to [God].”
Joni doesn’t want any credit for herself. She wants it all to go to Jesus, and she encourages believers not to take the credit for strength in the midst of trials. Joni says, “Yes, we may show flashes of great strength in dark and desperate times — but it’s not our strength. For those who battle daily with chronic pain or physical disabilities, the reminders of our weakness are even more stark; we can never really forget how powerless we are. But that’s good!”
Joni, along with countless disabled people and their families around the world, lives with a breathtaking dependence on Jesus and a supernatural sense of God’s presence. Joni says,
I wish I could adequately describe what it’s like when I’m aware of the overwhelming presence and power of God’s grace in my life. It’s like “living above” my wheelchair in a strata of heart-splitting joy that comes with God-breathed courage to tackle whatever lies ahead! Frankly, I believe that the more aware you are of God’s grace, the more joy and courage you will have. This raises the question: when are we most aware of God’s grace? It isn’t when we are riding high with the string of green lights and open doors before us. No, it’s when we are needy and feeling spiritually impoverished.
Heart-splitting joy, God-breathed courage, the overwhelming presence and power of God — what a spectacular testimony to God’s grace! I am in awe of the life of Joni Eareckson Tada, who after fifty years of quadriplegia is even more convinced that God’s grace is sufficient for her. Not in awe of Joni, but in awe of the God who comes to us in our suffering, who gives us courage to tackle what lies ahead, and who alone is worthy of all honor and praise.