Author and speaker Joni Eareckson Tada, who has been a quadriplegic since age 17, candidly explores the question of why God allows pain and suffering, and encourages listeners to persevere in trusting God, even if they can't fully understand His purposes. (Part 1 of 2)
Mrs. Joni Eareckson Tada: Somethin's wrong with this picture. What kind of Savior, what kind of Rescuer, what kind of Healer, what kind of Deliverer would refuse the prayer of a paralytic?
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John Fuller: Today on "Focus on the Family, Joni Eareckson Tada tackles the subject of suffering from her own perspective, especially when healing doesn't come. Your host is Focus president, Jim Daly and I'm John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, many people are going to be helped by the message we're sharing from Joni today and next time, because so many of us will go through a time of suffering at some point in our lives. We'll all face it. As a quadriplegic for the last 50 years, Joni has dealt with the question of healing, as we heard in that clip. She's experienced many years of chronic pain and a few years ago, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. And as we'll hear, Joni has learned how to lean into God and find His purpose for her life and I know that's what she wants to help all of us do.
John: Well, here now, Joni Eareckson Tada speaking at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville, Tennessee just a couple of years ago.
Mrs. Joni Eareckson: If you spend any time with me at all, you know that I love the old hymns. I love to sing 'em, but I'm gonna tell you something. I sing because I have to. I remember darker days when I was first injured and in the hospital. I wanted so much to cry, but instead I would stifle the tears and comfort myself singing a hymn like [Singing] Savior, Savior, hear my humble cry. While on others Thou are calling, do not pass me by.
And it always reminded me as I sang that of the Pool of Bethesda. You know that portion of Scripture from John, chapter 5. When friends would come to the hospital to visit me, I always asked them to read it to me, "For there is in Jerusalem near the sheep gate a pool which is called Bethesda, which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie--the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for 38 years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time," oh, my goodness, Jesus thinks 38 years in a wheelchair's a long time. What does He think of 45 years in a wheelchair?
"Jesus asked him, 'Do you want to get well?' Jesus said to him, "Get up and walk.'" I cannot tell you how many times at night I would picture myself there at the Pool of Bethesda on a blanket perhaps, lying next to the man with paralysis, on his straw mat. And I would wait alongside him, waiting for Jesus to walk into those covered colonnades and I would see Him and I would, in my mind's eye, cry out, "Oh, Jesus, Jesus, don't pass me by. Here I am. Heal me !" But as many times as I pictured myself there at the Pool of Bethesda and as often as I asked Jesus to heal me, I never got up. I never walked.
Sometime later after I was released from that hospital and I lived with my sister, Jay on the farm in Maryland, I heard tell there was gonna be a Kathryn Kuhlman healing crusade down in Washington, D.C. at the Washington Hilton ballroom. I wasted no time. My sister took me and I'll never forget, when I entered that huge ballroom packed with people, the ushers escorted me to the wheelchair section. And there I was, sitting amongst many other people in wheelchairs, people with Multiple Sclerosis, people who had Muscular Dystrophy.
Kathryn Kuhlman came waltzing out onto the stage in the spotlight. The organ crescendoed. The music rose and suddenly the spotlight angled from the far side of the ballroom, where it seemed as though healings were occurring. Oh, my goodness. All of us in the wheelchair section, we got so excited. It seemed to continue, more people getting healed. And I felt like I was back at the Pool of Bethesda. "Jesus! Come over here, over here where all the hard cases are."
Before that crusade even ended, the ushers came and escorted all of us in the wheelchair section out early and there I was, sitting, No. 15 in a long line at the elevator. I could still hear the music on the other side of the ballroom going on. But there I was sitting there in a line of very disappointed people, using white canes, wheelchairs and walkers.
And I looked up and down this very quiet line of people and I thought to myself, "Somethin's wrong with this picture. What kind of Savior, what kind of Rescuer, what kind of Healer, what kind of Deliverer would refuse the prayer of a paralytic?" "Okay," I thought, "When I got back to the farm and Jay put me to bed. Okay, if I can't be healed, then I'm not gonna do this. I'm not gonna live this way. I'm just not gonna do it!"
And very soon, a bitter root, a real spirit of complaining began to grip hold of my heart. And nothing that anybody did for me was good enough. Every hurdle that I faced became another reason to feel sorry for myself. Queen Joni I was if things didn't go my way. "Off with your head." (Laughter) Most of all, Christ, the Healer in the midst of all this complaining and bitterness, Christ, the Healer seemed so far, so distant.
I remember I would often tell my sister, Jay, "I don't want to get up today. Just draw the drapes; turn out the lights. Leave me in bed and close the door." But even in that darkness of my bedroom, I had to stifle my tears and still comfort myself with hymns that would well up from my childhood like, in the darkness singing, [Singing brokenly] Abide with me, fast falls the evening tide. When darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless [Speaking] I'm so helpless, [Singing] O abide with me.
And finally in that darkness I cried, "Oh, God, I can't live this way either, so please, You're just gonna have to show me how to live . Please, God." That was my first plea for help, a short prayer it was: "If I can't die, then show me how to live." But it opened up much brighter days when my sister then would come into the bedroom and open the drapes, sit me up in the wheelchair, wheel me to the living room and park my chair in front of a music stand much like this one. And on it she would plop a big Bible. And she'd put into my mouth a long mouth stick with a rubber-tipped end. And I would sit there all day in the living room, flipping through pages of the Bible, this way and that, trying to make sense of it all.
Of course, I was still interested in healing. I was still wanting to know what the Bible had to say about it. And I found out real quick. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, you know the story. There Jesus is performing all kinds of miracles for all kinds of sick and diseased people, all throughout the day and long past sunset.
The next morning, all the crowds returned. Simon and his companions go lookin' for Jesus, but they can't find Him. He's nowhere to be found. It seems that the Master had gotten up early that morning and gone off to a solitary place to pray. So, finally when Simon and his friends discover Jesus, they tell Him about this crowd of disabled and diseased people down at the bottom of the hill, all looking for healing.
But Jesus replied to Simon in the 38th verse, "Let's go somewhere else. Let's go to the nearby villages so I can preach there also, for" (now get this) "this is why I have come." Jesus? Turning away from sick and disabled people looking healing, people like me? And that's when it hit me. It's not that Jesus did not care about all those sick and disabled people at the bottom of the hill. It's just that their physical problems were not His main focus. The gospel was, the gospel of Jesus that says sin kills, hell is real, but God is merciful. His kingdom can change you and I am your passport. And whenever people miss this, whenever they started coming to Jesus just to have their problems removed, the Savior backed away.
No wonder I'd been so depressed. I mean, I realized I was into Jesus mainly to get my pains and my problems and my paralysis fixed. And yes, I began to see from the first chapter of the gospel of Mark, that God cares about suffering. And He spent most of His time on earth trying to relieve it. But the gospel of Mark showed me the priorities of Jesus, because the same Man who healed eyes and withered hands, is the same Man who said, "If your eye causes you to sin or your hand causes you to sin, cut it off, gouge it out." That's when I got the picture.
I always thought physical healing had been the big deal, but as far as God was concerned, my soul was the bigger deal. And that's when I began searching for a deeper healing, a Psalm 139 kind of healing. Search me, O God and know my heart. Test me and [Singing] see if there be some wicked way in me. Cleanse me from every sin and set me free.
And for the last 45 years [50 years in 2017] in this wheelchair, that's been my prayer and God has been answering, exposing things in my heart, things from which I need to be healed. And I am far from finished. God is still searching. God is still testing. He is still trying. And in a way that's what this new book, Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story is all about.
Ken and I recently celebrated 30 years of marriage, but I tell you, every step of the way with my quadriplegia, with my chronic pain, every step has been a tough, earnest, rugged, rigorous reliance on Jesus Christ.
John: Joni Eareckson Tada on "Focus on the Family" and you can get her book, Joni and Ken and a CD of this program to share with a friend when you call 800-232-6459 or find those and the audio download at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio. Let's go ahead and return now to Joni Eareckson Tada on "Focus on the Family.
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Joni: Even in marriage, especially in marriage, God is not so much interested in removing the problems, removing the disappointments or the pain. He's more interested in removing, well, remember that bitter spirit, that complaining spirit that I told you about, how nothing that anybody did was good enough?
Well, it was early on in our marriage and Ken was really starting to feel pressured with the non-stop, 24/7, day-to-day dreary routines that this disability can bring. And my husband became depressed. I mean, depressed with a capital D. And I somewhat removed myself emotionally, because it hurt so much to see my disability cause my husband such pain. Those were the "tired, middle years," we call them in the book.
One night, Ken was particularly quiet. He had been all day that way, giving me the cold shoulder. I asked him what was wrong. He said nothing. But that night, he sat on the edge of our bed and for the first time, he opened up. And he said, "Joni, I'm trapped. I feel trapped and there's no escape." My husband was being honest and open for the first time. And what did I do? What did I say? Out of the pit of my heart, I spat, "Well, what's the matter with you? Didn't you realize it was gonna be like this when we took our marriage vows? I'm a quadriplegic. Didn't you know it was gonna be this difficult?"
I knew right away instantly that, that was the wrong thing to say. And so, I quickly apologized and said, "Oh, Ken, I am so sorry. That was not like me. I mean, that's not like me at all." But you know what? It is like me. It is just like me. And so, God does not remove the hardships. He allows them, purposes them, permits, ordains them. Use whatever word you wish. He designs them and pain and problems and paralysis become the lemon that He squeezes to reveal all the selfishness and the spitefulness. We don't like that. I don't like that, but I need that. Search me, O God. Test me and try me and show me the sin that I am capable of.
And so, in those tired middle years, I have learned to sing a different kind of song of healing. [Singing] For there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.
My quadriplegia keeps squeezing the lemon, squeezing it so hard, revealing the not-so-pretty stuff of which I am made and replacing it with empathy for my husband, with love and with patience and perseverance and longsuffering. And in the last 10 years of my marriage to Ken, the daily chronic pain that I deal with has squeezed that lemon even more.
I remember when I was in the worst of my pain, I'm talking about mind-bending, jaw-splitting pain, I can't quite describe that as a quadriplegic. All I know is that 10 years ago when I went through menopause, all of a sudden I am in pain. Ken had to get up so many extra times during the night to turn me, to make me comfortable. I just couldn't seem to get comfortable.
And one night, before we turned out the lights, he sat on the edge of the bed again and he confessed to me, "Oh, Joni, I am so tired. I have no strength for this. I can't do this. I feel trapped." My response that time, "Oh, Ken. If I were you, I'd feel exactly the same way (Weeping) and I don't blame you. I don't fault you. I'm not gonna scold you. I just want you to know that I'm gonna be your biggest cheerleader through this. I'm gonna help you, support you, be with you. If you feel trapped, I'm gonna find a way to open that cage, because you're my best friend."
And I told him that, "You're doing great. You are doing great." And I tell you what. I could see it right before my eyes, this weight lift off my husband's shoulders, as well as a weight of anxiety and fear of the future and it was a huge turning point in our marriage. God was doing a healing, a deeper healing in both of us.
And Ken and I have discovered a love that holds on through it all, sometimes by a single thread. We have learned that the strongest relationships don't come easy; they are earned. They are tested by pain and frustration. And sometimes they are pushed to the breaking point, like when I got breast cancer three years ago.
John: Joni Eareckson Tada on "Focus on the Family" and we'll continue her message next time, but as she spoke about the challenges that she and her husband faced in their marriage, especially as she was diagnosed with breast cancer, we thought it'd be appropriate for you to hear Ken's perspective, as well. And Jim, sometime ago, you and I were out in California with Ken and Joni and you had a chance to ask him a rather pointed question about that.
Jim: Yeah, we did. Let's hear that discussion.
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Jim: I want to press you a little bit, because so many marriages fall apart when things like this happen. And I'm mindful of the fact that there are people listening that are struggling. Perhaps their spouse has had an accident that has left them physically challenged in different ways. I think the number is 75, 80 percent of those marriages may fall apart. Yours hasn't and quite the opposite. It's been a beacon of hope for people. What advice do you have? What pearl of wisdom do you have for the spouse of someone who is physically handicapped?
Mr. Ken Tada: One of the things I think both Joni and I have grown to discover is, that God is a sovereign God. And if He's sovereign, He's sovereign in the blessings, as well as the adversities. And there are gonna be some adversities. We are in a battle. We are in a spiritual battle here. And I think for us, for Joni and I both to love Christ, that's taken us through some pretty difficult times. And I think that, that's been the real special part of this.
You don't want to go into this battle alone. You know, you have your spouse, but for me as a guy, you know, I've got two buddies that I can really call on anytime day or night. And they're there for me. And I think we need to be surrounded. And they're firmly rooted in God and so, I mean, they're not gonna let me get away with anything.
Jim: (Laughing) They're gonna hold you accountable.
Ken: They're gonna hold me accountable.
Jim: Oh, that is good.
Jim: Ken, let me ask you this, too. It would seem to me that getting up each day for you is an attitude of service. I think in marriage, oftentimes we're selfish. When you talk about those marital spats that we might have, I think generally it's rooted in selfishness. And it's beautiful how the Lord has used the metaphor of marriage to depict how our attitude should be toward each other. We're admonished to, for husbands, to love your wife like Christ loved the church.
Ken: That's pretty amazing, isn't it?
Jim: That's pretty amazing. That's seems doable.
Ken: Yeah, well, you know, Jim, I think one of the things I would like to tell you [is] that this is the way our marriage has been for the 30 years that we've been married. But we went through some struggles early on, just like any other married couple. I think that what has been so unbelievable in this journey with cancer this past year is, I've fallen in love with my wife all over again. And I don't know how many husbands could say that. (Emotional) I always get emotional about this, but you know, when I realized that maybe, you know, I'd lose Joni, it rocked my world.
Jim: You think about it. One day your spouse is gone. And you might reach over in the bed like you did just 24 hours ago and no one's there. And what that emptiness and that loneliness must feel like.
Jim: But it's the way it should feel, isn't it?
Ken: Yeah, oh, exactly. I told Joni, I want to live one day longer than her. And then I realized, you know, if I'm not in good shape that, that's not gonna mean a whole lot. So, if I become disabled myself, so I've been workin' out a little bit extra harder these last few months, just to kinda get myself back in shape here.
John: Well, Ken Tada is so humble and such a strong godly person and that was a good day that we spent with Ken and Joni at the offices of Joni and Friends in Agoura Hills, California. And since then, the good news is, Joni's been declared cancer free.
Jim: Well, and we praise God for that, John. You know, Joni and Ken are both living examples of the fact that experiencing a difficult trial, whether for a short season or for a lifetime, can bring you closer to the Lord. And if you're closer to the Lord, you're better off. You'll be content and really a better person for it. And working through these trials together makes for a very solid marriage like Joni and Ken's.
And I'm sure many of you are wishing your marriage had that spirit of teamwork like them. I encourage you to call us. We have counselors here who count it a privilege to spend time on the phone with you, to give you some direction, perhaps put some resources into your hands, to help you in your marriage. And if you're in a really difficult spot, we have something called Hope Restored, which is an intensive counseling program. We have an almost 85 percent success rate and there is hope for your marriage. That's what we want you to hear right now and we'd love to share it with you.
In fact, here's how one couple responded to the Hope Restored experience in Branson, Missouri. They said, "The moment you get out of the car, there's a feeling of peace. We said surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. Hope Restored gave us a week away from distractions, a chance to focus on each other and to remember why we fell in love in the first place. Every single person on the staff is very loving and obviously, filled with the Holy Spirit. We wish we could work there." (Laughter) You like that?
John: Yeah, I do and Jim, I've gotta say, it really is a very special place there in Branson, where you really do feel like God is there and He's doing remarkable things.
Jim: I wish I could live there; it's such a nice property actually. This is a big part of our work here at Focus on the Family. We're not just trying to entertain you with good radio programs and podcasts. We want to actually help your marriage, help your parenting and most importantly, your walk with Christ. We do that through the resources we offer, the talents of our staff, the outreach programs that we provide, bathed in prayer and guided by the Holy Spirit, we pray every day.
So, please pray for us and the work here that we do and if you can, make a donation. Help someone today through Focus on the Family. Let our ministry become your ministry. And when you make a donation of any amount today, I'd like to send you a CD of this message from Joni Eareckson Tada as our way of saying thank you.
John: Just call us at 1-800-232-6459; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY or online, we're at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio. And if you enjoyed today's program, please tell a friend to tune in with you next time, as Joni addresses these kinds of questions.
Mrs. Joni Eareckson Tada: Why won't God remove this problem? Why won't He change my situation? Why won't He heal me?
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John: I'm John Fuller and on behalf of Focus president, Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. Join us again next time, as we once again, help you and your family thrive in Christ.
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Joni Eareckson TadaView Bio
A diving accident in 1967 left Joni Eareckson Tada, then 17, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. After two years of rehabilitation, she was determined to help others in similar situations. Joni is now an internationally known advocate for people with disabilities. She is the founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center, a best-selling author of more than 50 books, a radio and TV host, and a featured guest in numerous media outlets. Joni and her husband, Ken, reside in California. You can learn more about Joni and her ministry at www.joniandfriends.org.