Life has a funny way of twisting, turning, and taking us on a path we could never anticipate. Sometimes the surprises are wonderful. Other times they are absolutely devastating. They can upend the vision we had for our life, and the shock and grief of unwanted change can leave us feeling as if we no longer have a purpose.
Such was the case for Joni Eareckson Tada. In an instant, her life took a tragic, unexpected turn that would set her on a painful quest for answers and a renewed vision. Her story can inspire us to take hold of our value in Christ and boldly move forward in pursuit of a life lived passionately for the kingdom of God, no matter how overwhelming our circumstances may be.
Learning to Live Again
More than fifty years ago, at age seventeen, Joni was an energetic, athletic teenager, full of promise and hope. One afternoon, she headed out for a dip in the Chesapeake Bay with her sister. Spying a wooden raft anchored nearby, Joni took a headlong dive from the raft into very shallow water.
That moment changed the rest of her life. She became a quadriplegic, destined to spend the remainder of her days in a wheelchair, without any feeling in her hands or legs. It was an emotional blow that nearly drove her to suicide. But Joni couldn’t hold a razor or push pills, so she thought of ways to end her life mentally, emotionally, spiritually.
Even in that dark season of Joni’s life, a glimmer of hope still shone. She knew Jesus Christ as her personal Savior, and the promises of His Word spoke to her suffering heart. She remembered 1 Thessalonians 5:18, which says, “In everything give thanks,” and she resolved to be thankful. At first, she could only think of little things. But over time her perspective widened, and she identified bigger blessings. As her faith grew, her life was transformed, and she began to embrace it. Armed with moral support and a daily dependence on God, Joni began the complicated and physically exhausting process of learning how to function in a wheelchair without the use of her hands or feet.
Joni didn’t just learn how to function—she learned how to thrive. During her two years in rehabilitation, she spent long hours learning how to paint with a brush between her teeth. Her mastery of the technique boosted her spirit and self-esteem, giving her a budding sense of purpose. In those quiet times, she realized that her life was meaningful because it was valuable to God.
Finding Purpose Beyond the Pain
Joni admits that following Christ’s road has not been easy. There are days when the constant toils of paralysis overwhelm her, and it feels like too much to bear. But ironically, the suffering she endures is the very thing she cherishes the most because it connects her with her Savior in a special way. As it says in 2 Corinthians 1:5, “For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ” (emphasis added). Being depleted of strength and resources drove Joni straight to the cross, to the only Person who could supply the strength and encouragement she needed to keep pressing on. She says, “The Bible tells it like it is. We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. No one goes to Christ’s heaven who doesn’t first share in Christ’s sufferings.”
Joni counts it as a personal blessing that she is among those who suffer for His name, even though her suffering can be excruciating at times.
The enemy wants us to believe that our limitations define us and that our situation is hopeless. But the truth of God’s Word can set us free. Through Jesus, we can find redemption and new life. He assures us, “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). If we bring our burdens to Him, His power will work through us and for us.
Romans 5:2-4 points us to the hope of purpose that lies beyond our pain: “[We] rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
“We can welcome trials as friends,” Joni says. “If you don’t, maybe it’s because you don’t realize they come to push you down the road to Calvary. That’s what suffering does. It stretches your soul’s capacity for God.”
Choosing Strength Over Weakness
Christ commands us to take up our cross each day and follow Him (Luke 9:23). For Joni, her cross to bear is neither her paralysis nor the wheelchair to which she is confined. Rather, it is her attitude about the chair.
The same concept can apply in our own lives. Our cross is not the people who bother us, the job that stresses us, or the extenuating circumstances that limit us. It is our attitude toward those obstacles that threatens to hold us back.
Take a moment to think about the obstacles you face. Do you see them as barriers that are preventing you from reaching your potential for God? Or do you view them as opportunities for Jesus to demonstrate His power and turn them into strengths?
Although Joni lives with daily pain and inconvenience, she also lives with the assurance that God redeems her circumstances for a larger purpose. She knows that one day she will stand face-to-face with her Savior, finally out of her wheelchair, and thank Him for the challenges she faced in this life. Why? Because the challenges forced her to lean on Him and to discover the sufficiency of His grace.
By the grace of God and with the assistance of her husband Ken and many volunteers, Joni sends wheelchairs to the disabled in other countries. She runs family camps, she sings, she writes, and she paints. Joni speaks to as many people as will listen. She uses every method possible to show God’s love to the people who need it most. She works every day to finish her journey well. Through her disability, Joni’s true abilities have emerged.
Joni has chosen to live in a way that maximizes the potential and the talents her Creator has given her. She states, “This thing has happened that I might not rely on myself, but God who can raise the dead. God is ecstasy beyond words, and it’s worth anything to be His friend.”
It is easy to believe that our weaknesses prevent us from living the life God intends for us or that they limit what we can do for God and for others. Joni’s story reminds us of how God can use those weaknesses to reveal His transformative power, both to us and through us.
This article was adapted from a feature that appeared in the September 2006 issue of Turning Points devotional magazine.
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