Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of Joni’s Diving Accident
Recently I was at my desk writing to Tommy, a 17-year-old boy who just broke his neck body surfing off the Jersey shore. He’s now a quadriplegic. He will live the rest of his life in a wheelchair without use of his hands or legs. When it comes to life-altering injuries, quadriplegia is catastrophic.
Halfway through my letter describing several hurdles Tommy should expect in rehab, I stopped. I felt utterly overwhelmed, thinking of all that lies ahead for him. I’ve been there. And even though half a century has passed, I can still taste the anguish. Hot, silent tears began streaming, and I choked out a prayer, Oh God, how will Tommy do it? How will he ever make it? Have mercy; help him find you!
Tommy is facing the impossible. I’m sure he feels a little like this sketch. It’s a copy of a drawing I did in rehab, holding charcoal pencils between my teeth. Although I tore up the original years ago when I was depressed, this sketch says it all: “Oh God, this is now my life?! You actually expect me to do this?!”
Somehow, I did it. Or, the Holy Spirit did it in me. As of today, I’ve done it for 50 years.
Like Tommy, I was once the 17-year-old who retched at the thought of living life without a working body. I hated my paralysis so much I would drive my power wheelchair into walls, repeatedly banging them until they cracked. Early on, I found dark companions who helped me numb my depression with scotch-and-cola. I just wanted to disappear. I wanted to die.
What a difference time makes—as well as prayer, heaven-minded friends, and deep study of God’s Word. All combined, I began to see there are more important things in life than walking and having use of your hands. It sounds incredible, but I really would rather be in this wheelchair knowing Jesus as I do than be on my feet without him. But whenever I try to explain it, I hardly know where to begin.
I really would rather be in this wheelchair knowing Jesus as I do than be on my feet without him.
Yet I know this: I’m in the zone whenever I infuse Christ-encouragement into the hearts of people like Tommy. It feels so right to agonize alongside them. Better yet, to participate in their suffering in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 1:6: “If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation.” Can I do something for Tommy’s comfort and salvation? You bet.
I do what wise Christian friends once did with me. Back in the early ’70s when I was starting to take seriously Christ’s lordship in my life, my friends didn’t merely tell me biblical truth: “Here, believe this. Rejoice in your trial. It’ll do you a world of good.” Instead, they hooked up their spiritual veins to mine, pumping compassion into my wounded soul. Com means “with” and passion means “Christ’s suffering.” They literally were Christ-with-me-in-suffering. I wasn’t their spiritual project; I was their friend.
One night, a few Young Life friends who liked to sing picked me up for a late-night drive into Baltimore City. We ended up downtown at the railway station—a massive structure with travertine floors, marble columns, and vaulted ceilings. We found a corner and started harmonizing, our voices echoing throughout the station. An officious-looking guard approached and ordered us out of the building. “See that ‘no loitering’ sign? It’s 11 p.m. and you kids don’t belong here,” he barked. Then he pointed at me: “And you put that wheelchair back where you found it. Right now!”
“But sir,” I insisted, “it’s mine.” He told me not to give him any lip and to put it back right away. When our little group started laughing, he realized his error. That night, when my friends got me home, one kneeled beside my chair: “Joni, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you call it ‘my wheelchair.’ Thank you for doing that. You’re helping me own my problems, too.”
I had welcomed my trial as a friend. And it felt so good.
Suffering Is a Mirror
Throughout my 20s, I became immersed in Bible study with these same friends—mostly character studies about God, especially his sovereignty. When it came to my accident, I had to know whether the buck stopped with him, and if it did, why didn’t he prevent my accident? Around my big farmhouse table in Maryland, we’d tackle books like Loraine Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination and others by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J. Gresham Machen, and J. I. Packer.
I now laugh as I picture myself with these books on my music stand, flipping pages this way and that with my mouth stick. But decades of study, paralysis, pain, and cancer have taught me to say, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Ps. 119:71). I won’t rehearse all of suffering’s benefits here. Many of you know them by heart. Like the way God uses it to shape Christ’s character in us (Rom. 8:28–29). Or how it produces patience (Rom. 5:4). Or how it refines our faith like gold (1 Pet. 1:7). Or gives us a livelier hope of heaven (James 1:12). And on and on.
However, if I were to nail down suffering’s main purpose, I’d say it’s the textbook that teaches me who I really am, because I’m not the paragon of virtue I’d like to think I am. Suffering keeps knocking me off my pedestal of pride. Sometimes, when my scoliosis becomes extremely painful, I’ll murmur and drop hints to God that he’s piling on too much. Later, when the pain dissipates, I’ll make excuses: Lord, that’s not like me. I’m not like that at all.
But it is like me. It’s exactly like me.
If I were to nail down suffering’s main purpose, I’d say it’s the textbook that teaches me who I really am.
Philippians 2:14 is for people like me: “Do everything without grumbling.” Everything? The Bible says it’s possible, even for aging quadriplegics who fight terminal diseases and chronic pain. But less sin means more Jesus, and Jesus is worth it.
Inexpressible Gospel Joy
The core of God’s plan is to rescue me from sin and self, and to keep rescuing me. The apostle Paul calls it “the gospel . . . by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you” (1 Cor. 15:1–2). I’m in constant need of saving. My displaced hip and scoliosis are sheep dogs that constantly snap at my heels, driving me down the road to Calvary, where I die to the sins Jesus died for. Sure, I have a long way to go before I am whom God destined me to be in glory, but thankfully my paralysis keeps pushing me to “strive to reach for that heavenly prize” (Phil. 3:14).
The process is difficult, but affliction isn’t a killjoy; I don’t think you could find a happier follower of Jesus than me. The more my paralysis helps me get disentangled from sin, the more joy bubbles up from within. I can’t tell you how many nights I have lain in bed, unable to move, stiff with pain, and have whispered near tears, “Oh, Jesus, I’m so happy. So very happy in you!” God shares his joy on his terms only, and those terms call for us to suffer, in some measure, like his Son. I’ll gladly take it.
Half a century of paralysis has also shown me how high the cosmic stakes really are. Whenever I fidget in my confinement, I can almost hear Satan taunt God—as he did with Job—“Look at her, see? She doesn’t really trust you. Test her with more pain and you’ll see her true colors!” When the Devil insists God’s people only serve him when life is easy, I have the high honor of proving him wrong. To be on the battlefield where the mightiest forces in the universe converge in warfare? By God’s grace, I’m all in.
Ten Life-Changing Words
Back in the ’70s, my Bible study friend Steve Estes shared ten little words that set the course for my life: “God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” Steve explained it this way: “Joni, God allows all sorts of things he doesn’t approve of. God hated the torture, injustice, and treason that led to the crucifixion. Yet he permitted it so that the world’s worst murder could become the world’s only salvation. In the same way, God hates spinal cord injury, yet he permitted it for the sake of Christ in you—as well as in others. Like Joseph when he told his brothers, ‘God intended [my suffering] for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives’” (Gen. 50:20).
Ten words have set the course for my life: God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.
For the saving of many lives? Yes, so I dare not hide my testimony under a bushel. Too many people with disabilities are floundering in hopelessness—people like Tommy. It’s why I wrote the Joni book, and did the Joni movie. I started Joni and Friends when special-needs families started asking, “How can I help my son with cerebral palsy out of depression? Why doesn’t God heal everyone? How can I get my church involved?” and more. I wanted to show these people what the gospel looks like, just like my Christ-with-me-in-suffering friends did.
Now, every day when I wheel into the Joni and Friends International Disability Center, I try to squeeze every ounce of ministry effort from my quadriplegic body. This summer, Joni and Friends will hold 27 Family Retreats in the United States and 23 in less resourced nations, reaching thousands of special-needs families for Christ. Christian physical therapists will serve on our Wheels for the World teams in more than 40 countries, delivering Bibles, giving the salvation message, and hand-fitting wheelchairs to needy people with disabilities. Hundreds of our Cause4Life interns will work in orphanages overseas, showing that spina bifida isn’t a voodoo curse and people aren’t better off dead than disabled. Because Jesus is ecstasy beyond compare, and it’s worth anything to be his friend.
Fifty Years of God’s Faithfulness
Last week my husband, Ken, and I were at our Joni and Friends Family Retreat in Alabama. We were lunching in the big, noisy dining hall when a college-aged volunteer approached me, holding a kid with Down syndrome on her hip. She gestured at the crowd and asked, “Miss Joni, do you ever think how none of this would be happening were it not for your diving accident?”
I flashed a smile and said, “It’s why I thank God every day for my wheelchair.” After she left, I stared for a moment at the dining hall scene. I suddenly had a 35,000-foot view of the moment: She’s right . . . how did I get here?
It has everything to do with God and his grace—not just grace over the long haul, but grace in tiny moments, like breathing in and out, like stepping stones leading you from one experience to the next. The beauty of such grace is that it eclipses the suffering until one July morning, you look back and see five decades of God working in a mighty way.
Grace softens the edges of past pains, helping to highlight the eternal. What you are left with is peace that’s profound, joy that’s unshakable, faith that’s ironclad.
It’s the hard, but beautiful, stuff of which God makes 50 years of your life. Like . . . when did that happen? I cannot say, but I sure love Jesus for it.
By: Joni Eareckson Tada