After 50 Years in a Wheelchair, I Still Walk with Jesus
On July 30, 1967, a teenage girl went with her sister to a beach on the Chesapeake Bay and suffered a diving accident that rendered her quadriplegic. Today, Joni Eareckson Tada leads an international ministry, advocates for those with disabilities, and is a sought-after speaker, best-selling author, and radio host. This weekend marks the 50-year anniversary of the accident, and CT connected with Tada to discuss how God has worked in and through her life over the past five decades.
At the time of your diving accident, you were just 17 years old. If you could speak to the young woman you were at that age, what would you most want to say?
As a young girl I was so distracted, enamored, fascinated, infatuated. The world was before me and I had so many options. If I could go back, I’d take myself by the shoulders and shake them and say, “Look at me, Joni, listen: Love Jesus more, obey him more. Follow him more closely—not at a distance. Don’t second guess the Holy Spirit’s whispers and convictions in your heart. Don’t make your own decisions without checking in with God—follow him much more closely.”
How do you feel as you reflect back over the past 50 years?
Just the other day I was reading 1 Peter 5:10 [ESV], where Peter says, “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace … will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” Honestly, I’m amazed that the last 50 years feel like only “a little while.” Maybe God does that when we finally do love Jesus more, when we finally do follow him more closely. Maybe he erases all the horror, all the despair, all the depression of the past when we learn how to trust God. He pushes into the background all the terrible times of anguish, and he brings forward the highlights—the moments of hope, peace, and growth. As I look back over 50 years, I just see God at work. That’s pretty exciting.
Throughout your journey with quadriplegia, you’ve interacted with people who link suffering to sin or who’ve taught that having “enough faith” leads to miraculous healing. What appeal did this sort of “faith healing” initially have for you as a young woman?
When I was first injured, I just wanted out of my wheelchair. I wanted to walk again, I wanted to have hands that worked. So I followed every scriptural injunction: I was anointed with oil, I went to the elders, I confessed sin. I would call my friends up on the telephone and insist, “Hey, the next time you’re going to see me, I’m going to be on my feet. Have faith with me, believe with me.”
I remember going to [faith healer] Kathryn Kuhlman’s services. The one that sticks in my mind was the first one I went to. The place was packed. There were several thousand people and I was sitting in the wheelchair section. I was watching Kuhlman preach, testimonies were shared, and music was offered up from the platform. Then the spotlight centered on the corner of the ballroom where healings were happening and my heart started pumping. The spotlight switched to another corner, and I was getting more excited, thinking that maybe the spotlight will come and hit the wheelchair section. But it never did.
In fact, the ushers came early to escort those of us in wheelchairs out of the event so as not to create a traffic jam. I remember sitting there in the line of people waiting at the elevator and all of us were quiet. I looked up and down that line and I thought, Something’s wrong with this picture.Why is it that the people who needed healing most obviously were the ones that the spotlight missed? I realized I was getting it wrong—the Bible must have something else to say about this.
How has your view of healing changed?
One of the first things I read about healing that really helped was from Mark 1. Jesus has been healing all day long. Finally, everybody goes away and night falls. The crowds come back early the next morning and Simon Peter goes looking for Jesus because he’s not to be found—he’s somewhere praying. When they find him, Simon says, “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus’ reply to Peter is so amazing. He doesn’t say, “Oh, quick, let me go back down the hill and help all these sick people.” Instead he says to Peter, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—where I must preach there also. For this is why I have come.”
I read those words, “This is why I have come,” and I began to see Jesus’ priorities of healing differently. The same man who healed withered hands and blind eyes is also the one who said, “If that hand causes you to sin, cut it off, or if that eye leads you astray, gouge it out.” God is interested in a deeper healing.
There really are more important things in life than walking. There are more important things in life than having the use of your hands. And that is having a heart that’s free of the grip of sin and pride and self-centeredness. I’m not saying I’ve arrived—I’ve got a long way to go—but I’m on my way, and that’s a very good feeling.
Do you counsel those who are suffering due to disease or disability to pray for physical healing?
Yes, I think it’s so important to. In fact, the Book of James tells us to. We should follow every one of those scriptural injunctions I mentioned a moment ago. God may well miraculously heal, and if he does, it’s not only to the benefit of that person but it’s to God’s glory. It’s a sneak preview of the day when the eyes of everyone who is blind will be opened, and the ears of all those who are deaf will be unstopped, and the tongues of all those who can’t speak will shout for joy, and all lame people will leap like deer. However, I think those kind of miraculous healings are often the exception rather than the rule.
In addition to quadriplegia, you’ve endured stage-three breast cancer and currently suffer from severe chronic pain. In your experience, how can Christians walk in the tension between accepting suffering that may come into our lives and seeking healing or relief from God?
I memorized a quote from William Law many, many years ago. He said, “Receive every inward and outward trouble, every disappointment, every trial, every uneasiness, every darkness and desolation with both your hands, as a blessed opportunity … of dying to self, and entering into a fuller fellowship with your Savior. Look at no outward or inward trouble in any other view; reject every other thought about it; and you will find that the day of your distress will become the blessed day of your (spiritual) prosperity.” That’s huge in the life of the believer who suffers: You can take pain as an opportunity to die to yourself and live to Jesus—and you don’t have to break your neck to do it.
It’s been 27 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). How have you seen cultural attitudes change toward those with disabilities—and what needed changes do you still desire to see?
I served on the National Council on Disability, which authored the initial draft of the ADA. Our second director, Paul Hearne, was a Jewish man who had osteogenesis imperfecta. We were all together at the White House on the day that President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law. Afterward, Paul proposed a toast. He said, in so many words, “This will mean a mandate of greater access into areas of employment, in public accommodations, and transportation. It means employers will now hire qualified individuals with disabilities, it means that restaurants will have ramps, it means that buses eventually will have mechanical lifts.” And then he said, “But this law is not going to change the employer’s heart, and this law is not going to change the heart of the maître d’ at the restaurant, and this law will not change the heart of the bus driver.” He raised his glass and he said, “Here’s to changed hearts.”
We’ve certainly seen huge changes since then, but we still have a long way to go in terms of putting that kind of heart-change into practice, especially in everyday attitudes toward people with disabilities. I’m thinking especially of unlicensed care facilities where abuse against the elderly and people with disabilities is rampant.
I get so excited when young Christians choose career paths in disability services or as mental health counselors or administrators of nursing homes—places where the weak, the elderly, the medically-fragile are so exposed, so vulnerable. Laws can do a great deal, don’t get me wrong, but as Christians, we have a message that changes people’s hearts. And when we Christians infuse gospel salt and light in places like health provider services or residential facilities for the disabled, then we’ll see true value ascribed to all people, no matter how disabled or elderly or how young they are.
Of the Charlie Gard case in England, you’ve said the hospital’s initial decision to remove life support against his parents’ wishes “only reinforces the ‘better off dead than disabled’ mentality that, as of late, is being fueled by cost considerations in hospitals.” Where do you see this mentality, and why is it so dangerous?
It’s dangerous because of the very low life value we put on people with severe chronic conditions—people who use up a great many healthcare resources. In an economy where healthcare dollars are very scarce, the triaging of healthcare resources will be skewed in favor of the strong and not the weak. I see this even now in some of my friends who are quadriplegic and ventilator-dependent. They’re having a harder time getting the kind of healthcare that they need.
Our economy is so focused on cost-effectiveness and return on investment. We live in an entitlement culture where cost-benefit analysis is preeminent. And who suffers in such a society? It’s the elderly. It’s newborns with multiple disabilities. It’s those in comas. It’s people with chronic medical conditions. That’s why I think that this whole issue is so critical right now for the church.
You’ve vocally opposed assisted suicide laws, including in your home state of California, noting that laws of this kind expose “a fundamental fear of pain and disability.” How do you see this fear impact the way we as a culture respond to those with debilitating illness, chronic suffering, or disability?
People have a fear of pain. People have a fear of dying. Fear is what has driven the legalization of euthanasia—but fear should never ever be the foundation for social policy. It should not be society’s role to help people end their lives.
Most people, when they are at the end stages of life, are afraid of pain, they’re afraid of abandonment, they’re afraid of isolation, they don’t want to be a burden to their families. But all these issues can be addressed. They are problems that have solutions—like better pain management, better support services, better family counseling. Let’s pour resources into making it easier for people to live and not to die.
Compassion is often a motivating factor for those who favor physician-assisted suicide—including Christians who support it. In your view, how should Christians rightly understand and express compassion toward those who are suffering?
The first thing Christians ought to do before they even work on compassion is get a biblical view on suffering. Most Christians would rather escape, avoid it, drug it, medicate it, divorce it, institutionalize it—do anything but live with it.
We need to embrace the God who is found in suffering. He is the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He’s the Lord who was impaled on a cross. We’d rather Jesus be mild-mannered and mild-tempered, and we’d rather listen to him preach about lilies in a field of flowers. We don’t want to go down that hard path of Calvary. But once we do, I think then we can gain compassion. Because compassion means “with suffering.” Christian compassion means suffering with the sufferings of Christ.
I know this: Compassion is not three grams of phenobarbital in the veins of someone who feels like ending their life. Compassion is journeying alongside that person who is despairing and ascribing positive meaning to their pain, bringing them up out of social isolation, journeying with them, and helping them resolve their issues.
One aspect of your ministry, Joni and Friends, is equipping churches to develop disability ministries. What gifts do those with disabilities bring to the church?
If our churches are looking for God’s power to show up in our congregations, 2 Corinthians 12 tells us that God’s power shows up best in weakness. People with disabilities bring to the church a great audiovisual aid of how to deal with hardship. They show the church how God’s power can be released through weakness, and we all need examples of that. We need to see people who are smiling and persevering and enduring through their hardships.