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A swimming accident as a teenager left Joni Eareckson Tada paralyzed. In the difficult years that followed, she learned to see more and more how God shines His grace in a dark world. He is truly in control, and He knows exactly what He’s doing.
Ask my husband; I am no theologian. I’ve never read Calvin’s Institutes all the way through, nor do I know Greek or Hebrew. But years ago, when I snapped my neck during a dive into shallow water, permanent and total paralysis smashed me up against the study of God.
Up until then, I was content to wade ankle-deep in the things of God, but when a severed spinal cord left my body limp and useless, I was hoisted into a dark, bottomless ocean. In the sleepless hours of my early injury, I wrestled with the question, “I’m a Christian; why would God allow such severe suffering in my life? God, why are you being so mean?”
That was over 40 years ago. Not once in those years has God been mean. What’s more, He has satisfied my questions with an intimacy, softness, and sweetness of fellowship with the Savior which I wouldn’t trade for anything. I still leave the Hebrew and Greek to the experts, but years of study have convinced me that God knows what He’s doing.
The fact that I believe in God’s sovereignty, that my crazy life is nestled safely under God’s overarching decrees is, to me, the best of comforts. He controls all things (Ephesians 1:11). But God has also shown me that when “accidents” happen, it’s okay to call them accidents. Even the Bible refers to them as calamities. “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?” (Lamentations 3:38, NIV).
When babies die, when whole populations starve, when young girls break their necks, God weeps for His world “for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33). My spinal cord injury was a terrible accident.
But the Bible insists on another truth simultaneously. When all these things happen—famine, crib death, snake bites, gas station robberies, pistol-whippings—God has not taken His hands off the wheel for a nanosecond. Psalm 103:19 says, “His kingdom rules over all.” He considers these awful—and often evil—things tragedies, and He takes no delight in misery. But He is determined to steer them and use suffering for His own ends.
And those ends are happy. God is heaven-bent on inviting me to share in His joy, peace, and power. But there’s a catch. God shares His joy only on His terms, and those terms call for us, in some measure, to suffer as His beloved Son did while on earth. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
Those steps lead us into the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings where we become “like him in his death”; that is, we daily take up our cross and die to the sins He died for on His cross (Philippians 3:10, NIV; Luke 9:23).
When suffering sandblasts us to the core, the true stuff we are made of is revealed.
When suffering sandblasts us to the core, the true stuff of which we are made is revealed. Suffering lobs a hand-grenade into our self-centeredness, blasting our soul bare—but then, we can be better bonded to the Savior. Our afflictions have helped make us holy. And we are never more like Christ—never more filled with His joy, peace, and power—than when sin is uprooted from our lives.
Does this mean God delights in my spinal cord injury? Was He rubbing His hands in glee when I took that dive off the raft into shallow water? Of course not.
He may work “all things” together for my good, but that does not mean a spinal cord injury is, in itself, good (Romans 8:28).
In my own layperson’s way of understanding these deep mysteries, God permits all sorts of things He doesn’t approve of. As my friend and mentor, Steve Estes, once described it to me, “Satan may power the ship of evil, but God steers it to serve His own ends and purposes.”
Besides, how God allowed for my accident to happen is not the point. The point is, my suffering has taught me to “be done with sin,” putting behind me the peevish, small-minded, self-focused “Joni” to mature into the “Joni” He has destined me to be, honed and polished by years of quadriplegia (1 Peter 4:1).
I’m not saying it’s easy. Actually, it’s getting harder. These thin, tired bones are beginning to bend under the weight of decades of paralysis. But I have to remember that the core of God’s plan is to rescue me from sin, even up to my dying breath. My pain and discomfort are not His ultimate focus—He cares about these things, but they are merely symptoms of the real problem. God cares most not about making my life happy, healthy, and free of trouble, but about teaching me to hate my transgressions and to keep growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus.
Is the cost too great? Not when you consider that “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NASB). I’m convinced my response to my wheelchair has a direct bearing on my capacity for joy, worship, and service in heaven. Of all the things I may waste here on earth, I do not want to waste my quadriplegia!
One day God will close the curtain on evil and, with it, all suffering and sorrow. Until then, I’ll keep remembering something else Steve Estes once told me as he rested his hand on my wheelchair: “God permits what He hates to accomplish what He loves.” I can smile knowing God is accomplishing what He loves in my life—Christ in me, the hope of glory.