The God I Love: A Lifetime of Walking with Jesus

Sept. 21, 2012 Joni Eareckson Tada

Session Transcript

Nancy: We are so thrilled to have an hour with our friend, Joni Tada. Would you welcome her, please? (applause)

Joni: Thank you, girlfriends. So good to be here. 

Nancy: We just thought it would be sweet as we were considering the different breakout session options for this hour to have an up close and personal opportunity with Joni. I don't know what I'm going to ask her; she doesn't know what I'm going to ask her. We asked quite a few women, if you could ask Joni Tada one question, what would it be?

We compiled some of those questions and just things I know a lot of us have wondered, and you have been so open with your life and your story and sharing it with us. So thank you for giving us this hour to let us know you a little better.

Joni: Thank you so much, Nancy. I'm prepared for whatever you might ask, but you know that I love to sing a hymn before we start anything. And all the way over here from the hotel, I was singing "The King of Love My Shepherd Is." But let's see, we should sing with all our girlfriends. How about "He Is Lord"?

Singing:
He is Lord, He is Lord
He is risen from the dead
And He is Lord.

Joni: Let's hear some harmony.

Singing:
Every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess
That Jesus Christ is Lord.

Joni: Now we can get started.

Nancy: You know, Joni, a lot of us can kneel physically without any effort. At least I used to be able to. I can now still get down; it's a little harder to get up. For years, you have not been able to physically kneel before the Lord. I bet that's something you are looking forward to about heaven.

Joni: Absolutely. In fact, last night when Dan Henderson, right before the concert of prayer, when I think it was the pastor who asked us all to kneel, to get off our seats and kneel and pray. Of course everyone up there on the platform was kneeling, and I'm not kneeling, obviously. And I looked over at Priscilla, goodness, she's so tall, that when she kneels she's my height. (laughter)

I thought, Yeah, Priscilla.

I'm looking forward to the day when I get grateful, glorified knees and resurrected legs. And you know, the thing I want to do when I get to heaven, Nancy, is kneel, and be perfectly, perfectly still in like paralyzed praise. Because just when it will be my privilege to jump up, dance, kick, do aerobics with my new glorified body, I want to offer a sacrifice of praise of one more little bit of paralysis, just one more little bit of being still before the Lord after forty-five years of paralysis on earth. And I think that will be a marvelous demonstration to the Lord Jesus for my affection to Him.

Nancy: Let's sing the chorus one more time. Just picture Joni with us kneeling in, what did you call it, paralyzed praise?

Joni: A little bit. Just a few moments.

Nancy: Just a few hundred years out of eternity, right?

Joni: Oh, yes.

Singing:
He is Lord, He is Lord
He is risen from the dead
And He is Lord.
Every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess
That Jesus Christ is Lord.

Nancy: Beautiful, beautiful singing, and how much more when it comes from revived hearts, right? And that's what God is doing in these days.

Joni, you so wanted to be with us two years ago and two years before that. The first time you were having debilitating pain and were, you just had to cancel your schedule for a number of months. You were so gracious to provide a video of your message, which God used in such an extraordinary way.

And then two years ago, you were dealing with breast cancer and went through that on top of all the other physical challenges you've had. I know a lot of these women want to know, how you doing?

Joni: Well, I'm doing incredibly well. Great strength, good stamina, and next month will mark two years since my chemotherapy. And for those of you (applause)—thank you, thank you. It was in June of 2010, I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. I was one of these people, because of my quadriplegia, I figured cancer happened to other women, not me. I had too many medical issues to deal with quadriplegia. I didn't have time to think about cancer. So it had been nine years since my last mammogram. So girls, next month is October, breast cancer awareness month, right? Make certain you get your mammograms.

After having been diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, I went through a mastectomy and a rigorous time of chemotherapy. It was very difficult. It was just as they say it is. You know, you lose your hair, you lose your eyebrows, you lose your eyelashes. I almost bought that stuff that Brooke Shields sells on TV. You know, you put it on your eyelashes and you grow nice thick eyelashes. You also get dry mouth, constipation, thoughts of suicide, death wishes. Nice eyelashes; thoughts of suicide. Okay.

But my strongest advocate through it all, Nancy, was my wonderful husband, Ken. He was absolutely remarkable. What a champion for his wife! (applause)

He'll probably see this DVD, so I'm so glad that you expressed appreciation.

I just finished writing a little booklet about my journey through breast cancer, which would be wonderful to give to a friend that you might have who is going through breast cancer. Or perhaps you've been recently diagnosed here in the group today.

Nancy: Joni, take us back, because a lot of younger women today are not as familiar with your story. We don't want the story of what God has done in your life to be lost. But forty-five years ago, you were a seventeen-year-old girl, and your life was changed in just a moment. Just give us the nutshell of how that life change took place.

Joni: I'm going to share something that I never share publicly, because it's such a delicate topic. But girls, when I was in high school and you know, this is back in the sixties. I had professed Christ as a fourteen-year-old, but I did so thinking that I was buying into the great American dream rather than the abundant Christian life.

I felt that now that I had come to know Christ, I would lose weight, grades would be good, I would get a boyfriend, and get an academic recommendation to some wonderful college, and get married and drive a BMW, have 2.1 children, and just, you know. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was experiencing frustration. I was enslaved and entrapped in immorality. I finally had gotten that boyfriend, but the problem is, every Friday night in the backseat of his car I would do one thing and then get up Sunday morning and try to confess it all, get a clean slate for the week. But by Wednesday and Thursday, I'm already thinking about what I'm going to be doing on Friday night.

I had so become enslaved and entrapped in this sinful behavior that I remember coming home from a date in April of 1967, a sordid date, hot and steamy and sordid. And I ran upstairs and I threw myself onto my bed and I cried into my pillow and I said, "Oh, God, I am making a mess of my life. I say I'm a Christian, but I'm not living like it. I'm smearing Your reputation. I'm defaming Your good name. I'm certain You are embarrassed of me, if not angry. And so, God, I know Jesus is my Savior, but would You please, please do something in my life to jerk it right side up and get me back on the right path? Because I am absolutely powerless against this sexual sin. I am powerless."

I prayed that prayer in April. And Nancy, it was less than three months later I broke my neck in that diving accident in the Chesapeake Bay where I dove into shallow water and I was lying face down. As I'm in the water, I'm thinking unbelievably, Could this be an answer to that prayer?

My sister, thankfully, saw me floating face down in the water. Ironically enough, I had just peroxided my hair the night before, midnight summer blonde, Nice 'n Easy. She had seen that white hair floating on the murky surface of the water. Had I not peroxided my hair the night before, I don't know that my sister would have even seen me. Isn't it amazing that God uses the smallest of details like that, little tiny details to rescue me?

When she pulled me out of the water and they whisked me off to the hospital, and I laid there paralyzed, and the reality of my permanency of my paralysis, I began wondering, Could this, God, be an answer to that prayer?

Now, I don't want you to take what has happened to me and template it over your life. But I think that this paralysis was an answer to that prayer. Because we are told in the book of Hebrews that God disciplines those whom He loves. I don't think God was punishing me. He wasn't judging me, per se. I have been judged at the cross. He was rescuing me through a broken neck.

I'm just grateful to God that He delivered me, and it was an incredibly severe mercy. It was a dark, bruising of a blessing, my broken neck, but it was a blessing nonetheless. Because I don't think were I on my feet I would be sitting up here right now extolling the glories of the Savior. I just don't think I would be. I don't know.

Nancy: So as you think back, Joni, what was the process that led you to, and I know it was a process, come to see this as a providence of God, as an expression of God's love rather than His wrath toward you?

Joni: Well, for quite a while in the first year or so of my paralysis, I remember asking God why out of a clenched fist. Like God, how could You have answered that prayer in such a drastic measure?

I mean, come on. I'm just a new Christian, and if this is the way You deal with the prayers of new Christians, You are never going to be trusted with another prayer again.

So I was asking why out of a clenched fist. But frankly, Nancy, I got tired of feeling sorry for myself. I got tired of the self-pity. I got tired of comparing my lot in life with all my other girlfriends who were on their feet and shopping and going off to college and playing sports and getting married. I just got tired of the self-pity. So I began asking why not out of a clenched fist but out of a searching heart.

And I think because God hears the cry of the afflicted, we are told in Psalm 10:17, I think He then opened up His storehouse of mercy and poured out upon me supportive Christian friends who then gently led me through the Word, helping me understand that God permits what He hates. I mean, He hates spinal cord injury. He took no pleasure in my diving accident. But He delights in how permitting what He's hating to accomplish something that He loves—and that is Christ in me, the hope of glory.

I just am so grateful I had the good counsel of wise Christian friends to lead me through the scriptures to grasp that yes, God is providential. This was providential. God is sovereign; He is in control, and He'll permit what He hates to accomplish that which He loves.

Can I give a warning? You don't have to break your neck to believe this. But I think I am your warning today, ladies. Those of you who are entrapped or enslaved in sexual sin, or those of you who are fantasizing about that man who works at your office or the guy at your church, you are entering into a risky relationship, a friendship with a man. On one hand you've convinced yourself you think it's morally pure, but on the other hand you know that it's risky, it's wrong, it's deceitful. Let me be your warning, okay?

God is merciful. And I think He allows examples of people like me to serve as a warning to others that "I will deal with you with severe mercies. I'll give you blessings, but they'll be bruisings. They'll be bruisings of a blessing."

So ladies, turn from that and get into God's Word. Find a counsel, wise Christians. Surround yourself with prayer warriors who will enable you to be released from that sin, and get right with God. Let me be that warning.

Nancy: You know, that's the second time at least we have heard this today. Some similar words. I don't know if Joni was even able to hear the morning session, but when the Lord says something once it's really important. When He says it two times or three times, we heard it from Mary, we heard it from Janet, we have heard it now from Joni today, so I know that God is healing out hearts here today to give you an opportunity for a rescue, to be released and delivered from something that has kept you in great bondage.

So Joni, we receive that word and believe that God is using it in women's hearts.

You mentioned self-pity. There's probably no one else in this room who ever struggles with self-pity. Was that a battle just early on or is that something that has been recurring temptations, something you've had to deal with along the way? Forty-five years is a long time to deal with some of the limitations that you have. Does that crop its head up again in your life?

Joni: Oh, absolutely. You know, Luke 9:23, Jesus says, "Any man who would come after Me must take up his cross daily and follow Me." And frankly, girls, I'll confess, every morning when I wake up, especially now that I'm in my sixties and that I deal with chronic pain, it is so hard. I mean, I've told this story before, but I'll relay it again.

I will wake up in the morning, Nancy, and I will be lying there with my eyes closed. And you know how you can set your attitude for the day right in those few seconds when your eyes are closed and your head's on the pillow? You know how it is. You're just thinking about the day and all the appointments and things you have to do, and you are kind of like setting your attitude for the day.

Well, I'll tell you, I'm fighting a battle, a cosmic battle, because I just don't know how I'm going to make it to lunchtime. God, I can't stand this routine. I've got girlfriends coming in here in a few minutes, and they are going to give me a bed bath, they are going to do my toileting routines, they're going to cinch on my corset, they're going to pull up my pants, they're going to get me dressed, sling me in a wheelchair, push me to the bathroom, brush my teeth, blow my nose. Oh, God, I am so tired of this.

I don't think I can go on. I have no strength for this. I cannot do quadriplegia, but I can do all things through Jesus Christ as You strengthen me. So give me Your strength. Would You please get me up this morning, Jesus? Live through me. Yes.

Nancy, when I was at my worst pit of self-pity, it was so horrific. I don't want to go back there. It's so terrifying. I don't want to go back to that kind of depression and self-pity. So every morning it's a desperation to need Jesus and require Him.

And you know, the cross that I take up daily is not my wheelchair. For that matter, your cross is not your irritating husband or your irksome mother-in-law or your dead-end job. No, those are not our crosses to bear.

Our cross, okay, let's define that real quick. When Jesus took up His cross, He was dying for the sins that you and the rest have committed, okay? So when we daily take up the cross, we are dying to the sins that He died for on His cross.

My cross to bear is not my wheelchair; it's my attitude about my wheelchair. It's your attitude about your dead-end job or about your irksome mother-in-law or your irritating kids. It's your attitude. This is what I've got to put to death.

So in the morning when I'm setting my attitude, while my eyes are still closed, "Oh, Jesus, I need You. Please give me Your grace. I require You urgently. May Your mercy come meet me and help me get out of bed and give me Your smile for the day." And girls, that is the Christian way to wake up in the morning. That's the biblical way to wake up in the morning.

Don't be ashamed of the affliction, right, Nancy? Don't be embarrassed by the limitation. Boast in the affliction; boast in the limitation; glory in the infirmity. Because it's the sheep dog snapping at your heels that drives you down the road to Calvary every single morning, needing Jesus desperately. Oh girls, wake up tomorrow morning needing Him desperately, and you can't go wrong.

Nancy: One of the things I so appreciate about you, Joni, every time we talk, you are quoting Scripture. You have clearly not just got it in your head but you've internalized it, you've meditated on it. It's right there at your fingertips. How do you stay in the Word, how do you get the Word into you? Give us a glimpse into your journey with the Scripture.

Joni: Like you, I'm on the radio, and I do a five-minute daily devotional on radio stations across the country called Joni and Friends. Anybody here ever catch that on your radio? (applause) Oh, good. Wonderful.

So I am forced into the Word of God. You know, I have to find time to get into God's Word, especially if I'm going to be sharing insights with others. And lately, here lately, I have been so enjoying the book of Philippians.

Philippians 3, I love that verse: "Our citizenship is heaven, and we await for there a Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is able to bring everything under his control and who will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body" (vv. 20–21).

I love the fact that the book of Philippians is written by the apostle Paul when he was in jail chaffing at his chains, and he's talking about joy and he's thinking about heaven. Now that I'm in my sixties, I don't look back and think, Oh, if only, if only I were on my feet again. Oh, those were wonderful days. No, I'm at the end of my life where the time is shorter between here and eternity than here and when I broke my neck.

So I'm thinking about, Oh, my glorified body. Oh, what a day that will be! And I'm singing songs about heaven and rejoicing, investing in heavenly glories above. Everything we do down here on earth, every conversation we have, every small, little drastic obedience that we offer to God is an investment in eternity. And I don't want to waste my suffering. This is my only chance, this hardship. To squeeze out of it like Rumplestiltskin, weaving gold from straw, I want to weave rewards of heaven out of the affliction I deal with daily. Because the more crowns accrued to my eternal estate will be the more that I can cast at the feet of Christ on the day when He is crowned as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

So my life is all about investment in eternity. It's all about making the most of the opportunity and not wasting the suffering.

Nancy: And there have to be times—maybe I feel this because I know there are in my life—when your motivation to make it all count for eternity kind of flags, it wanes. I know in my own heart there are many times when I'm just thinking, I can't keep pressing into this.

And thank God for you, because I often think of you in those moments. I think if God can give Joni grace to keep pressing on, He can give me grace. What keeps you from falling off the cliff or into that pit of let's just, you know, I've had enough of doing this, let somebody else do it now? How do you keep your thoughts reigned into the obedience of Christ when the temptation comes to just not keep thinking God-ward thoughts?

Joni: Well, I will tell you what happened just last week. Rainy, are you here? I've got my, real quickly, I have a team of girls. I call them my "get-up, get-down, on-the-go girls." I've got twelve, thirteen different women who on seven different mornings get me up or else help me lie down in bed at night, and, or travel with me, and I'm with three of them right now. And both Katherine Martinez who's with me and Rainy Florine. Just last week I was at work. Girls, this is the truth, and I said, "Stop; hold on, everything. I need prayer. My attitude is so rotten, I want to go back to bed; I don't want to do this work. I just have such a rotten attitude about the day, and I'm so peevish, my disposition is so sour. Girls, would you please stop and pray with me? Would you pray for me?"

And Rainy, I had to do that like two or three times during that day, didn't I? With separate different girls, not just Rainy and Katherine, but I think Judy Butler. I'll grab anybody in the hallway. Would you come in here and please pray for me?

I think that transparency is so required of us, girls. How many of us stop and just say, "Time out. Stop everything. Would you pray for me? I need you to pray for me. My attitude is so bad; my disposition is so sour. I'm so peevish; I'm so selfish thinking right now. I'm irritated at my husband or my kids or—stop, and would you pray for me?" And then grab hands with that friend, and just let her intercession be God's way of washing you and cleaning you.

So that's what I do, Nancy, when I feel like that's it, throw in the towel, I've had it. I'll find the nearest girlfriend, and I'll say, "Would you just come over here and pray about me? I need prayer so badly." I think God rewards that vulnerability and that transparency.

Nancy: God gives grace to the humble.

Joni: Absolutely. But He resists the proud.

Nancy: And a good word for all of us there, right, girls? We need each other.

Joni: We need each other.

Nancy: I know another thing you do is sing. I have heard you do it many times. I don't know for you, for me that's one of the ways that the cloud sometimes lifts is just by singing until there's a freedom in my spirit. Is that one of the reasons you sing hymns?

Joni: Oh, absolutely. I love singing hymns. May I tell a quick story?

Nancy: Please. May she tell a quick story? May she? (applause)

Joni: Some of you girls may have heard me share this story. But for those of you who haven't, I remember when I was so depressed and I was in the hospital. Back in the sixties, they didn't have rehabilitation centers for people who were spinal cord injured. I was stuck in a state institution on a geriatric ward in a room with five other quadriplegic girls. And one night about 2:00 in the morning, I wanted so badly to cry, but there was nobody around to blow my nose or wipe my eyes.

It's bad enough being a quadriplegic without being a messy quadriplegic. So I stiffed back the tears, and I am just ready to emotionally crack. I'm praying, "Oh, God, if I can't die, You just have to show me how to live. I don't know how to do this."

It was 2:00 a.m., the nurses were on break, all lights were out, my roommates were asleep. And I turned my head on the pillow, and I see standing in the doorframe a silhouetted figure. This individual gets down on its hands and knees and begins crawling into our room, past my sleeping roommates toward my bed. And I'm panicking. Who is this?

Well, she gets up to the guardrail of my hospital bed and peers through, and it's my girlfriend Jackie. My high school girlfriend with whom I shared milkshakes, hockey sticks, boyfriends. I said, "Jackie, if they catch you here they are going to kick you out of here." And she goes, "Sshhhh."

She slowly stands up and lowers the guardrail of the hospital bed, and as girlfriends will do at high school pajama sleepovers, she snuggled in bed next to me, put her head on my pillow, and begin to softly sing, "Man of Sorrows! What a name for the Son of God who came. Ruined sinners to reclaim. Hallelujah! What a Savior!"

Something happened in that instant. Something that she did, something transformed me. Because I didn't know how to do the James 1:3 thing of welcoming this trial as a friend. I didn't know how to do the Philippians chapter 1 thing of inviting this as a gift from God, this suffering. I didn't know how to do the Romans 8:28 thing of understanding how it was all going to fit into a pattern for good. But she made Jesus real to me that night. She helped me encounter, not just the Man of Sorrows, but the Lord of joy, the Lord of possibilities, the Lord of hope. Oh, my goodness, I have hope in my heart.

God longs to give His compassion to those who are wounded and hurt. But He will do it through you, through people like Jackie, through individuals who are just moved and impressed by the Holy Spirit to reach out and embrace.

Last night when we were watching the live stream over in the hotel during the concert of prayer, I saw several video images of women embracing one another in prayer. It brought tears to my eyes. Girls, that's what we need to do—be the touch of Christ in the life of that one who is hurting that you know. Reach past the barrier and just embrace, and make Christ real to them.

Nancy: I know that the person who probably has done that for you more than anyone else is your husband, Ken Tada. I think we would like to hear a little bit more about your marriage to Ken. Actually we tried to see if we could get Ken on the phone to talk to you here. But tell us what he's doing and why he's not accessible.

Joni: Right now he's on the Madison River up in Montana fly-fishing for brown trout, and I'd be very amazed if you could get him on the phone.

Nancy: I don't think they have Skype there.

Joni: I don't think so.

Nancy: We wanted him to have a chance just to say hello to you, because I know you are on the road for a week on this trip. But tell us about the first time you met Ken Tada, how your hearts got connected. In fact, would you like to hear about their first date? (applause)

Joni: Well, I have told this story before, and again, forgive me if you have heard this. But I was sitting in church one morning. I was in my mid-thirties, I was enjoying being single; I was enjoying establishing the ministry of Joni and Friends. I had no aspirations to get married. I was sitting in church one Sunday morning. There was a visiting pastor, and I was bored with the sermon.

And I'm thinking, Jesus, help me. I just can't be thinking these thoughts. And my eyes fell on the back of this person's head sitting about five pews in front of me, and I felt compelled by the Spirit to pray for this person.

I didn't see his face, didn't know his name. I just started praying for him—praying about his job, praying about his family, praying about resolving conflicts in his life, that if he didn't know Christ that there might be something in the sermon that would win him to Christ.

After I prayed, I almost wheeled up to this person to introduce myself and say, "Guess what I just did for you?" But I thought that would look very pushy, so I let it drop.

Well, we happened to be introduced to mutual friends who, unbeknownst to both of us, were trying to get us together. And the first thing I said to Ken Tada when he was introduced to me was, "Turn around and let me see the back of your head." (laughter)

It was him. I couldn't believe it. I told him the story, and he laughed. But we started talking, and he asked me out on a date. So I brought him up to the house ahead of time to give him the handicapped awareness thing, about how to lift me out of the wheelchair and put me on the front seat of his car, how to put the special spoon in my arm splint so I could feed myself.

Off we went in his car to the restaurant. I am so nervous. And as he's cutting up my shrimp and putting the napkin on my lap, and putting the special spoon in my arm splint and I'm eating. But I'm so thirsty; my mouth is so dry. I'm so nervous. So I ask him to keep giving me drinks of water, sips of water. After the second glass of water, I realized, Hello. (laughter) Duh. Like Joni, where was your head?

And I looked down, and girls, we are just a small group here. So I wear an indwelling catheter and it empties, my bladder empties into a bag attached to the side of my leg. I don't think the camera can get this, but there's a little clamp down there by my ankle, and all you have to do is release the clamp into a bottle or lift my leg up on the toilet seat and I can relieve myself that way.

Oh, that's too much information. TMI, TMI, TMI.

I'm thinking all this as I'm eating. And I look down and my leg is getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And I know I'm going to spring a leak on this nice carpet. So I had to ask Ken. I said, "We didn't cover this back at the house, but you are going to have to take me to the restroom and empty my leg bag. Honestly, it's very easy. You won't get your hands wet; it won't be any problem."

Well, he was game. He thought it was a bit awkward, but he was game. He pushes me to the restroom alcoves, and I said, "Well, I'm not going into the men's room." He said, "You think I'm going to go into the ladies' room?" (laughter)

So we went outside and found a tree. (laughter) TMI, TMI, TMI, TMI.

Nancy: And how long from that point 'til you said "I do"?

Joni: Well, first Ken, as he was emptying me on that tree, started humming this little ditty: "Where Joni goes, nothing grows." (laughter)

Right away, Nancy, I thought, Here is a man I could like. His love for the Lord Jesus, his knowledge of the Word. I mean, there's so many things I could share, but in thirty years of marriage, (applause) yes, thank you. I'll tell you what, my husband is my best friend and when he popped the question, I was ready to say yes.

Here was a guy who loved Christ and who you know, had a real sense of humor about my disability. And even though our honeymoon was a lot like handicapped awareness week, I am just married to the best guy coming down the pike. And he is awesome.

I could tell so many stories about him. Actually, we just finished writing a book that will be out in the spring called Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story. It's really his story. He shares so many things in this book. I even said to him once or twice in this book TMI, too much information here.

Nancy: Tell us a story in the book that we might not have heard.

Joni: Oh, no.

Nancy: I just got a manuscript of that book, and I'm so excited.

Joni: Oh, you did? I wonder if the editor took out that part that I was complaining about? We'll see.

Nancy: I got it just before I left for this trip, so I haven't had a chance to dig in. But it looks wonderful.

Joni: I can't believe I'm saying this. Okay, if it's going to be in the book, then I ought to be able to say it from the platform. No, it's just—it—I'm embarrassed.

Anyway, next question.

Nancy: I don't think she's going to tell us. You have to get the book.

Joni: You have to read the book.

Nancy: I know you went into marriage as every woman does with some expectations, and like any married couple, any wife, you found at points that your expectations were not realistic. So this has been a journey for you, not just with a disability situation, but just being a man and a woman and making those adjustments. Can you remember one of the first disappointments or how you had to deal with having expectations that weren't realistic in your marriage?

Joni: Well, yes. In fact, we married in July; the honeymoon ended the first Monday night in September. Ken promised me that afternoon that he would serve as my hands to help me with my Kay Arthur Precept Bible study.

So there I am that early evening after dinner. I'm all set up at the table. I've got Kay Arthur's Bible study, I've got my Bible. I've got the pink pen, yellow pen, green pen, purple pen. (laughter) And there is Ken over at the refrigerator loading up his arms with Ortega chili and salsa, chips, and Coke. And he heads into the living room to spend the night with Al Michaels and Dan Dierdorf and Monday Night Football.

I'm sitting there thinking, Oh, God, I've married the wrong man. Oh, he is not a man of your Word. He doesn't care about your Word.

I nagged, I cajoled, I whined, I complained. I even have to confess I skinned his shins with the foot pedals of my wheelchair. (laughter) Now that's embarrassing—aiming at your husband with a 250-pound wheelchair. That's embarrassing.

Those were the bad old days. We laugh about them now, but it was not pleasant then. Those were some really tough fights. The really awful thing was when we would argue, and he would shut the door. And I'm stuck. I can't go anywhere. After one or two of those arguments, I thought, This isn't going to work.

So I came across Philippians 2:4 where the Holy Spirit was telling me not to do anything out of vain conceit—"I'm better than my husband"—or selfish ambition—"I'm going to make it my goal to change my husband." But in humility of mind, consider the other person better than yourself. So I decided that from then on out, the rest of the football season, I would sequester myself away in the bedroom and pray for my husband. Every Monday night for about, what, three hours 'til the fourth quarter, I prayed for my husband.

I picked certain psalms to pray over him. Oh, for instance, like Psalm 24: Oh may the King of glory come and reside in my husband's heart. Open up my husband's heart. I mean, let the King of glory come in.

I would pray all kinds of things, delight in blessing and encouragement over my husband, over our marriage, over our home. I would just worship the Lord; I would sing to Him. And a miracle happened.

January, the last week, Super Bowl Sunday, I became a football fan. (laughter) Honestly, like where did that come from?

I was so amazed. You know, we always pray for other people, and God ends up changing our heart. But I tell you, I am married to a man of God's Word. He has memorized the entire Sermon on the Mount, all three chapters in the gospel of Matthew. And he has repeated it so often in the car when we are going somewhere—"Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on the mountainside and the disciples came to him and began teaching them saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom. . .'" I never intended to memorize that, but I'm just listening to him all the time repeating it, and I kind of got it in my head.

And I love it. We're going anywhere on a long road trip, "Oh, Ken, would you recite your verses for me?" It's just so much fun to listen to your husband recite the Word of God.

One day we had some Jehovah's Witnesses come to our house, and I watched Ken with this, how he was going to handle this. And I thought, Oh, Ken. Shouldn't invite these people in; shouldn't get engaged in conversations with them.

But he started it, you know. And finally they got him with a question he couldn't answer. And he's right there in the doorway, "Well, that may be, but, did you know that when He saw the crowds, He went on the mountainside and He came . . ."

These guys backed down the sidewalk so fast, and it was like this jet blast of Scripture just blew them away. They thought, This guy is weird. I mean, he is still quoting it out loud as they are walking down the sidewalk. It was so delightful. Oh, my goodness, I laughed and I said, "Ken, you handled that beautifully."

Nancy: Thirty years of marriage, how do you keep the relationship fresh, growing, deepening, not getting stale? How do you keep it fresh?

Joni: I let my husband keep his dreams, and I let my husband keep his best buddy friendships. And I pray for his friends. I used to be jealous of his friends, because I would hear him on the phone with Pete Lubisich who lives up in Oregon. They would do these Bible studies together over the phone, and I would hear him talk to Pete, in really friendly tones, "Oh, that's great. Oh, Pete, you've got such a great heart," he would say. And then he'd hang up the phone saying, "I love ya, man."

And I'm thinking, Man, I never hear that. Gee, why don't you say I've got a great heart?

I used to be so jealous of Pete Lubisich. And I could name a couple of other guys, Jan Janora, and others who keep Ken accountable. And where was my head? Like these were the very men who were getting my husband deeper into the Word, and why am I sitting there envious of that? I realized early on in my marriage that I need to let my husband keep his best Bible study buddies, and those relationships are sacred and they are good. I thank God for Pete Lubisich now. I love Pete Lubisich.

In fact once in a while when he calls, and Ken is not there and he happens to get me on the phone, "Pete, keep it up. I love you. You are the best friend of my husband and I just—keep it up."

But also I let Ken keep his dreams. I think it's important that my husband go fly-fishing. In fact, I encourage him to go fly-fishing. Sometimes when things get a little testy, "Isn't it time for you to go fly-fishing?"

I'm his best cheerleader. I may not be able to whip him up an omelet, I may not be able to fold his underwear, I may not be able to iron his shirts, I may not be able to make his bed, but you know what? I can cheer him on. I can applaud him. I can extol him. I can praise him. I can pray for him. I can bless him. I can love him. I can defend his reputation. I defend my husband's reputation. I broadcast his good name. I speak highly of him. I have learned to affirm him.

Girls, do this with your husbands. Now, this is not manipulation. I don't mean insincere sweet talk, flattery. I'm talking about looking into his heart and finding that little bit of Christ-like characteristic that you can nurture, that you can water, that you can encourage.

For instance, we have a neighbor who is dealing with cancer, and my husband went over and spoke with the man and gave some wonderful words of encouragement to him. When he came back into the house, I said, "Ken, bless your heart. That was thoughtful, that was considerate, that was Christ-like. Man, I respect you for that. That really speaks to me. I want to do that as well. Thank you for that example."

That's practicing godly affirmation. So girls, find that little, little tiny Christ-like characteristic that's barely there in your husband's heart, and start nurturing it, praying over it, blessing, affirming it. And when you see your husband do something that is worth commendation, then by all means, give him words of affirmation and tell him how much you respect him for that and admire him for that. And then let his example speak to you. I think that's a good way to make a marriage grow. (applause)

Nancy: You wrote a book a number of years ago called The God I Love, and it was something of your spiritual journey. I love the title. That's why we titled this breakout session "The God I Love" and wanting to hear of your spiritual journey. What are some of the characteristics of God that you have grown to love that have nurtured you and walked you through this journey? What is it you love about Him and why?

Joni: What a good question. Thank you for asking that question.

I love that God is so merciful. He is so merciful with me. I am such a sinner. I will touch on that a little bit when I speak tonight, but I am a stubborn woman. I am highly competitive.

Yesterday when we were in a prayer circle with the other speakers before the conference began, and Dan Henderson invited us all to go around our table and confess our sins, oh, my goodness. I mean, I'm thinking of all the idols that I've got in my life, if not the Food Network, then food. Just, you know, I have to break myself of these idols.

God is so merciful, and I think that's what I love about Him most. He is exceedingly patient with me, and He hears the cry of the afflicted. That's another thing I love about Him. I mean, sometimes when I'm on my bed paralyzed and it can be so claustrophobic. It really can. It can be so tight and you feel panicky, because gravity is my enemy when I am lying down in bed—and I will groan and cry if I'm in pain, "Oh Jesus, Jesus save me."

And He does. His presence is so near and sweet and tender and poignant and personal, where He just gives joy sent straight out of nowhere but heaven. And I think I love His mercy; I love He hears the cry of the afflicted; His heart is toward those who hurt, the wounded. He heals up the brokenhearted.

When I get to heaven, I'm going to be so happy to hold His nail-scarred hands. And He will recognize me—I know He will—from all those times I came to Him hemorrhaging human strength. I'll feel His nail scars, and I'm so grateful that I will be able to say to Him, "Thank You. Thank You for the grace You gave when I was in that wheelchair on earth. Thank You."

He'll know I mean it because He will recognize, I know He'll recognize me from having stepped into the fellowship of sharing with His sufferings and not complaining about it. I just can't wait to say thank you for the grace You gave, and I'm so happy to know that this wheelchair has won me that access, that closeness, that sweet personableness.

Yes, we know Christ, but to know His heart, to get that close against His breast, I just cannot wait to—it's going to be a wonderful day.

Nancy: Amen. Joni, I know these women are here because they love you. They love the Christ they see in you. And I know a lot of these women pray for you. How would you want us to pray for you in this season of your life? And I want some of you to jot this down as Joni's answer and pray as the Lord brings her to mind in the days ahead.

Joni: Nancy, I so love what I do. And normally, I never do conferences like this. I do disability ministry. My life focus is giving the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world's one billion people with disabilities and their families.

Joni and Friends, which is our organization; you can visit us at JoniandFriends.org to learn more about what we do. We take wheelchairs and Bibles around the world. We hold retreats for special needs families every summer here in the United States—twenty-five of them this past summer and fifteen in developing nations overseas.

I'm a strong advocate on behalf of people with disabilities around the globe, and I want to stay healthy. I want to stay fit; I want to stay able. I so long for God to establish the work of my hands before He calls me home. And I would just be so blessed to remain as healthy as I am in order to do the kind of work that we do at Joni and Friends to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those who need Him most in places where the world is bleeding out of control. Absolutely bleeding out of control.

That's my heart's desire—to share Christ with people with disabilities and their families. Who here either is disabled or has a family member who is affected with a significant disability? May I see your hand? Wow. God bless you, friends. I'll be praying for you as well.

Please come by and visit our table at the resource area and learn more about what we do. We would love to have you come and serve and volunteer at one of our Joni and Friends family retreats or if you're a physical therapist or occupational therapist, then please come and serve with us on a Wheels for the World team, taking wheelchairs and Bibles around the world.

It's my calling. You have a calling to women; my call is of God to take His good news to the world's disabled. And I love it, absolutely love it.

Nancy: Amen. I know Joni's heart, as is true of all the speakers' here, that the focus would not on her but that she would be able to put the spotlight on the great faithfulness of God. I think it would be appropriate if we close this session by singing together another hymn "Great is Thy Faithfulness, O God My Father." And you may just want to close your eyes and make it a prayer to Him.

But let's lift that song up as we worship Him together. And you've seen what a picture of the faithfulness of God in this sister's life. Again, Joni, how many times I think how God has been faithful to you, and I'm encouraged to know that same God is going to meet whatever my need is at the moment. Thank you for being a friend, a sister, a mentor, a mother, an encourager to so many of us. Let's sing together.

Singing:
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father.
There is no shadow of turning with Thee.
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not.
As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.

Great is Thy faithfulness. Great is Thy faithfulness.
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hast provided.
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

Nancy: I would like to take a moment if I could and ask you to join with me as we pray for our sister. I'm just going to put my hand on you, and we want to bless you in Jesus' name. And oh, Lord, how we do bless You for Your faithfulness, for Your mercy, for all that we have seen highlighted of You just in this last hour for Your rescuing redeeming love.

Thank You that You didn't leave Joni where she was, caught in sin from which she couldn't get extricated. But in Your mercy, You rescued her so that she could become an instrument of blessing and rescue in the lives of millions of others over all these years. Thank You, Lord, for her transparency, for her open tender heart, and her sharing her life with us. Thank you that she has been a sister, and a friend, and an encourager, and an exhorter, and a lover, and a giver, and a servant.

Thank You for those mornings when she has cried out, "Jesus, help me. I can't do this." And You have come to her aid so that she could keep spending and being spent on behalf of others. And she has done that for us today. She went through that get-up routine; she'll go through that get-down routine tonight. We just pray that You would bless her, that You would bless those who help her.

Thank You for those thirteen women and Rainy and Judy and others who have been with her for so many years, serving behind the scenes in unsung and unseen ways. And thank You for the unseen sacrifices that Joni and her friends make to serve You and to serve us. Thank You that You are the God who sees and who rewards, and that the day will come when all those rewards will be something that Joni and her friends will have to give back to Christ as an expression of gratitude.

I pray just tonight that You would strengthen her for this message that I believe You have put on her heart. You want to set captives free in this place tonight, so give her what she needs to deliver Your message to this group tonight.

And then bless her ministry; bless Joni and Friends. Provide the finances they need, the volunteers, the strategists, the leadership, the staff, the encouragement, others to come alongside and partner with them and making means of grace for those who are disabled around the world. Lord, just multiply the ministry exponentially, and may what they are doing be that which makes the gospel believable in many, many parts of the world.

Bless her marriage. Bless Ken there on the river in Montana. Keep them faithful. Keep them joyful. Keep them growing. Keep them nurtured by Your grace. Keep them encouraged. And Lord, I pray for my sister what I pray for myself and for each of us, Lord, keep her faithful all the way to the finish line.

And we know that You will, because ultimately it's not our faithfulness but the fact that You are faithful. And for that we give You glory in the sweet name of Jesus, amen.