Joni: An Unforgettable Story by Joni Eareckson Tada“If people put me on this pedestal, I don’t think they’re listening to what I’m saying. Because I’m just one person on the same level playing field, helping other beggars to find the bread of meaning and purpose in their suffering.”
Joni’s story is one that many people may think they can’t relate to and hope they never will. On first consideration, her book may be thought as a good one to recommend to someone who is dealing with a long-lasting or life-long pain or condition that in some way limits their abilities. (For example, a young man at my church was involved in an accident over a year ago that resulted in a brain injury with effects that often cause him frustration and even depression at times). But I think the overarching message Joni has to share is relevant to anyone, as I will point out.
In case you aren’t familiar with her, at the age of 17, Joni Eareckson sustained an injury from a diving accident that left her a quadriplegic for life. The incident took place in 1967, and this book was published in 1976. Since then Joni has authored numerous other books, started her international ministry for the disabled, “Joni and Friends”, is well-known for her work as an artist, and is a popular public speaker for young and old alike. Joni introduces her story with these words:
What happened on July 30, 1967, was the beginning of an incredible adventure which I feel compelled to share because of what I have learned…I suggest there are only two joys [in this life]. One is having God answer all your prayers; the other is not receiving the answer to all your prayers. I believe this because I have found that God knows my needs infinitely better than I know them. And He is utterly dependable, no matter which direction our circumstances take us.
Joni’s first-person narrative begins with the accident, then takes a chapter to give some background about herself and her family, describing how she was raised in a Christian home and as a teenager accepted Christ, but still struggled with her personal sin and desires to follow the things offered by the world. She tells how shortly before the accident she actually prayed that God would work in her life and help her to become a more sincere follower of Christ, then wondered if the accident was indeed His answer to her prayer. She then moves on to share her experiences in the hospital, her interactions with family, friends, and others she meets, and her mental, emotional and spiritual rollercoaster as she learns the extent of her injury and what it would mean for her future. She describes her feelings of fear and frustration, anger and bitterness. She experienced depression to the point of suicidal wishes. She writes,
I couldn’t move anything except my head. Physically, I was little more than a corpse…Why on earth should a person be forced to live out such a dreary existence? How I prayed for some accident or miracle to kill me.
More than once during the first two years she was unrealistically optimistic that she would regain the use of her limbs, convinced that God was going to heal her.
I shared with nurses, doctors, and visitors the thought that God had allowed my accident merely to test my faith and endurance. ‘Now, with that lesson learned, I can trust Him to get me back on my feet. You’ll see!’ I took this attitude with everything.
But this would never be the case for Joni.
Her faith was challenged by her anger at God and her doubt as to His existence, or at least His goodness. Doubt turned to cynicism, and she began to explore atheistic philosophies.
Who, or What is God? Certainly not a personal Being who cares for individuals, I reasoned. What’s the use of believing when your prayers fall on deaf ears?
My doubts began to be as deep-seated as my resentment…My spiritual confusion was leading me down blind alleys. In my attempts to be open-minded about other concepts, as opposed to belief in God, I became even more confused and frustrated…All my reading of Sartre, Hesse, Marx, and others brought me no light…Finally I became convinced there was little to be learned or understood from these confused writings. My search had led me back to the Bible. I began to sense that God was real and that He was dealing with me.
Indeed, the Lord had a plan for her life, and every time she fell into depression, discouragement, or doubt, He gently brought her back to Himself and to the truth and promises of His Word. God used several people in particular to point her to Himself and to help her grow in her knowledge of the Scriptures. For example, she explains,
Before my accident, sin consisted of the things one did. But now, there was no opportunity for me to give action to sinful thoughts. I began to see that sin was an attitude as much as an act…Sin wasn’t just all the bad things I did, but was an integral part of my makeup. It was a part of my nature.
God had given me the means to control my sinful nature when I realized the importance of His reality and the present. I didn’t need to relive memories from the past. I had come to the place where my body no longer needed the sensations I once thought so terribly important. God had taken me beyond the need for feeling and touching.
The story follows Joni over the course of about seven years as, through her relationships and experiences, she learned to adapt physically to her disability and emotionally and mentally begins to understand and accept the impact it would have on her life, particularly in regards to her goals for school, work, and especially marriage. (More than one potential husband bowed out of their relationship with Joni.) Most importantly, Joni’s faith and spiritual understanding were strengthened as she struggled to understand God’s purpose for the accident and His plan for her life. In fact, I think it is true to say that God could not have used Joni’s life if she had not been paralyzed by the accident in the same way or to the same degree as He has because of it. I believe Joni would agree, for as she states in her book, “I saw that my injury was not a tragedy but a gift God was using to help me conform to the image of Christ.”
Joni tells her story in her own voice, and her writing style is rather simple in this, her first book. Since it was written in the ’70’s the language is a bit outdated, but Joni’s story and message are what make the book worth reading.
As I considered Joni’s life and testimony, it occurred to me that her basic message can be applied to anyone’s life circumstances. Everyone at times faces difficulties or challenges in life that they can’t make any sense of.
- Maybe your business is failing, or you simply can’t get work that provides the way you’d like.
- Maybe you’ve come from an abusive family situation.
- Maybe you were born with a disability, or have been diagnosed with a serious illness.
- Maybe you’re suffering with pain, addiction, or an emotional disorder.
- Maybe you’ve lost a spouse or a child, have been abandoned by your husband, or have a prodigal child.
You pray and believe you’re trusting God, but your situation doesn’t change. You wonder, Is God listening? Does He care? Joni would remind you,
We aren’t always responsible for the circumstances in which we find ourselves. However, we are responsible for the way we respond to them. We can give up in depression and suicidal despair. Or, we can look to a sovereign God who has everything under control, who can use the experiences for our ultimate good by transforming us to the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18).
To which I would add one of my favorite passages which is relevant:
Therefore we do not lose heart, for though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Joni did eventually get married, to Ken Tada in 1982. But if Joni hasn’t been through enough in her life already, five years ago she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer and underwent drastic treatment for it (see article below). However her faith and confidence in a good and sovereign God remains as strong and stable as ever. I highly recommend taking the time to listen to her “Deeper Healing” address at the 2013 Strange Fire Conference.
(Note: Joni Eareckson Tada’s story is one I’ve included on my list of biographies I think every Christian should read.)