Revive Our Hearts Podcast

God's Choicest Tool

Special prayer request for Joni: Last month Joni was diagnosed with breast cancer. She successfully underwent surgery on June 28. Pray for her recuperation from surgery and in the next months as she will be undergoing chemotherapy. You can read her complete updates on JoniAndFriends.org.

Leslie Basham: A 17-year-old young woman who had just been in a diving accident thought she had no hope.

Joni Eareckson Tada: For a full year, I was stuck on a geriatric ward of a state institution. This was back in the mid ‘60s, when there wasn’t very good rehabilitation going on for young people like me, spinal cord injured.

So as I was stuck there, my spirits plummeted. I became despairing of my life. I tried to wrench my head back and forth on the pillow at night when no one was around, hoping desperately that I could break my neck at some higher level, and thereby end my life that way.

Leslie: But God had other plans for Joni Eareckson Tada.

This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Monday, July 5.

You have a chance to hear from a hero of our generation. For decades, she’s been part of building God’s kingdom from her wheelchair. She’s coming to the True Woman Conference in Indianapolis this September. I hope you’ll visit ReviveOurHearts.com for details on how you can be there as well. Here’s Nancy to introduce today’s guest.

 

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: I’ve really, really looked forward to this day with my friend Joni Eareckson Tada. Joni, you have been a huge source of encouragement and blessing and grace in my life over many years.

I have just longed for the day when we could sit down in this way—in a studio, across the table from each other—and just talk about some of your pilgrimage, some of the things God has done in and through your life. Thank you for joining us on Revive Our Hearts. This is a great privilege for me and for our listeners.

Joni: Well, Nancy, that you would call me your friend means a great deal. You have to know that as I travel the country and speak with women—even girlfriends of mine close to home—people are blessed and encouraged by your ministry and your love for the Word of God. That’s the best part.

Nancy: I think there are a lot of people who would consider you their friend—probably millions that you have never met or will not  meet this side of heaven. You have poured out your life for the sake of Christ, His people, and His kingdom over so many years.

I know that you know that you are loved, that you are prayed for, but you have loved and prayed for and encouraged so many of us in ways that have been very rich. I’m just looking forward to this opportunity for us to share together of God’s grace and God’s work and God’s ways in our lives, which I think will be a great encouragement to many of our listeners.

Joni: I trust so. You know, Nancy, I’ve been in this wheelchair, living as a spinal cord injured quadriplegic for almost 40 years now. That’s a long time to be sitting down and not having use of your legs or your hands—to be totally and completely paralyzed.

That’s a long time, and yet I am continuously astounded that God uses whatever small life lessons I might learn from His Word and in this wheelchair to impress on other women—women who aren’t disabled like me, but who nevertheless feel perhaps crippled by their life circumstances, handicapped by a bad marriage, paralyzed by a dead-end job, a career that’s going nowhere.

They find empathy and, I think, identification with me and this wheelchair of mine. So I’m blessed. I’m honored to be able to pass on the encouragement.

Nancy: You know, I would have thought that everybody knew how you ended up in this wheelchair. But interestingly, I was talking to a dear friend not too long ago, and I told her that we were going to be talking. Of course, she knows of you and has heard you speak, but she’s never actually heard the story of how you ended up in this wheelchair.

I’m thinking that we have some younger listeners who perhaps have not heard this story. Can you take us back 40 years and tell us the events of that day? You were 17 years old, and your life, in just a moment, was drastically changed.

Joni: It was for sure. You know, that friend you were just talking about, to whom you were speaking, who did not know me, probably called me “Joanie.”

Nancy: I’ve heard that several times. But it is “Johnny.”

Joni: Right. My father wanted a boy. I was the last of four girls, and I got labeled with his name. I have carried that label, Joni, for these many years and enjoyed being named after my daddy—and in fact, have followed in my daddy’s footsteps.

I was quite athletic growing up, active, healthy, loved to camp, loved to hike with my mom and dad, play tennis, swim, softball, horseback riding, you name it. And then it all ended on a hot July summer day back in 1967 when my sister and I went for a swim in the Chesapeake Bay.

There was this raft anchored 50 yards offshore. I, athlete that I was, just swam right out to it, hoisted myself up onto it without checking the depth of the water, took a deep breath, and dove. And then, I immediately felt this electronic “spoing.”

It was a strange, electric shock that went through my body as my head hit the sandy bottom. I was lying facedown, hoping that my sister Kathy would notice that I had not surfaced from my dive, because I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t surface, and I was losing breath fast.

Just at that time, as my sister was about to wade up on the shallow part of the bay and walk up onto the beach, a crab bit her toe. I love to tell this story, because that was all it took for her to then whirl around in the water and scream to me to watch out for crabs.

And of course, when she saw I wasn’t on the raft and didn’t see me in the water, then she noticed the shock of blond hair floating on the surface. I was still facedown. That alarmed her, and she quickly came swimming and rescued me, just as I started to drown.

Nancy, what are the odds—talk about God’s sovereignty—of a little crab biting somebody’s toe at just the right instant for that person to turn around and save somebody else? It’s got to be a zillion to one, but every time I eat crab-salad sandwiches to this day, I thank God for those little critters. They are just one little tiny evidence of God’s incredible, overarching protection in our life. He used that little creature to save me.

Of course, then I became seriously stunned and shocked and despairing when I learned that from then on out, as they whisked me off to the hospital, that I was spinal cord injured, my life was going to be altered, and I would be paralyzed for the rest of my life. That was pretty tragic.

Nancy: And in those early days, you went through a long season of rehab and treatment and hospital stays, but also a long season of darkness in your own heart and having to wrestle through the implications of all this, as it related to God’s part in it all.

Joni: Oh, my goodness, yes. For a full year, I was stuck on a geriatric ward of a state institution. This was back in the mid ‘60s, when there wasn’t very good rehabilitation going on for young people like me, spinal cord injured.

So as I was stuck there, my spirits plummeted. I became despairing of my life. I tried to wrench my head back and forth on the pillow at night when no one was around, hoping desperately that I could break my neck at some higher level, and thereby end my life that way.

And I would—I get choked up thinking about it now—I would ask my girlfriends from high school, “Please come in and bring your mother’s sleeping pills. Please, anything. Just bring your daddy’s razors, anything. Just help me. I can’t stand this.”

Because of the prospect of never using my hands or my feet or my body, my life was shattered. My hopes were crushed, and I felt like I was falling backward, head over heels, down for the count, decimated, despairing of life. All was black.

Even after I got out of the hospital, there were many times I would tell my mother to turn out the lights, turn on the air conditioner, and just shut the door. And I would sit there and fantasize in the darkness about what life had been like then.

But thankfully there were some Christian friends who—I did not realize at the time—were praying for me. People often ask, “What changed you, Joni? What gripped you? What got you right-side up, thinking again?”

I have to think it was those prayers that were being offered on my behalf by some good girlfriends from high school and my church who were just lifting me up before the Lord.

Nancy: Let me back up for a minute. Where were you in your faith journey? How would have described where you were in your faith before the accident?

Joni: I was a Christian. I had opened up my heart to Jesus Christ as a sophomore in high school at a Young Life church weekend retreat. But, Nancy, I think I tucked Jesus in my back hip pocket of my Levi jeans.

I prayed to Jesus as though I approached a spiritual vending machine—put in the dimes and quarters, pray the right prayers, live the right kind of life, pull the right levers, and I would experience the abundant Christian life. I’d lose weight; I’d get a boyfriend who treated me with respect; I’d get nice grades; I’d go off to college, gain a good career, make a fantastic salary, and get married. Life would just be on automatic cruise control.

So, yes, I was a Christian, but I think I must have been such a tiny babe yet, in that He was not the Lord of my life as He should have been.

Nancy: So after this accident, now you find yourself with all the props knocked out and the bottom having fallen out, and you realize that your relationship with the Lord is not a mature one. It’s not a substantive one. And God starts you into a many-year process of coming to know Him in a whole different way.

Joni: Bingo. Actually, Nancy, it was a result of a single prayer I had prayed right before that accident. I was not living the kind of life that was pleasing to God. I was living a life that was, frankly, immoral. I would hide what I would do on a Friday night with my boyfriend, but then confess it on Sunday morning at church. That cycle began to harden my soul.

I became hardened by sin’s deceitfulness, as we’re told in Hebrews (3:13). I remember about a couple of months before that diving accident coming home from a date on Friday night, flinging myself on my bed, and saying, “O God, please do something in my life. I’m a hypocrite. I’m a hypocrite. I hate being a hypocrite.”

I asked Him to just jerk my life right-side up, and then I had that diving accident about a month or two later.

Nancy: Do you think that was God answering that prayer?

Joni: I don’t expect many listeners to understand this, but yes, I do. Yes, I do. We’re told in Hebrews that God disciplines us as a wise father will discipline his erring son (12:5-11). I don’t think God was rewarding me according to my iniquity—we’re told that He doesn’t do that. But sometimes in discipline, God does reprove and correct us and head us off the path. He’ll get us off that path and get us back on the right path—the path that ultimately not only glorifies Him, but is for the health of our own soul’s sake.

I know that, had I continued down that road I was walking in high school, I would have hung myself. I would have recanted my faith. I would have turned my back on God and gone the other way. I just know I would have in college. So looking back, I am very grateful that God answered that prayer in a strange, painful, yet timely and powerful manner.

Nancy: Not at all the way you would have scripted it or planned it yourself.

Joni: Not at all. Never in a million years. In fact, Nancy, when I was in that hospital, and even in those early days after I got out of the hospital, I was quite angry at God when the reality of my paralysis sank in.

I moved beyond the stage of denial. I became angry. “God, how could you? How could you have taken my prayer so seriously? Didn’t you know that I was just a 17-year-old kid? I didn’t know what I was saying.”

Nancy: So you connected the dots. You remembered what you had prayed?

Joni: Oh, yes, and I threw that back up in God’s face, and even in the face of Christians who would come into my bedroom with their Bibles. Maybe I could not punch God in the nose, but I could sure punch them in the nose: “Get out of here with that Bible. I heard that when I was in high school. I prayed a prayer to get closer to Him, and if this is God’s idea of an answer to prayer, let me tell you, He’s never going to be trusted with another one of my prayers again.”

But as I said a few moments ago, there were people praying. I think, slowly, I began to soften under the power of their prayers. My calloused, hardened spirit began to crack apart under the force of their intercessions, and I do believe it was other people’s prayers that began to set the stage for God to move me forward out of depression.

Nancy: When did you see the first cracks, the first light, start to come into your own heart?

Joni: I remember it so well. It was one of those nights when the air conditioning was on and the bedroom door was closed. It was dark, and I just could not, I could not, live like this any longer with such hopelessness.

I have been through both a broken neck and a broken heart, and I will tell you right now that the broken heart’s a lot worse than the broken neck. I’ve experienced both, believe me.

I could no longer live with that broken spirit, that hopelessness, that sense of despair. It was too suffocating. It was too claustrophobic. I remember I prayed a prayer, and I do believe this is where the change point came.

I said, “God, if I can’t die, show my how to live. I have no idea how to do this thing called quadriplegia, but You must. You allowed it. So, God, I can’t do it by myself. You’re going to have to lead the way. You’re going to have to show me how to do this.”

Nancy, it wasn’t but days later that I wheeled outside of that dark bedroom and I began, I really began, to embrace life. I thank God that at that point, the Bible became something to me that was my food and my drink: “Oh, my goodness, this is where my hope lies. It’s in these pages somewhere. O Lord, help me find out how I’m supposed to live, where I’m going to find perspective and peace and power. I don’t know, God. Show me the way. Here, guide me. Here’s the Bible. Tell me where to go.”

After that, I was grateful for a couple of good Christian friends—mature Christian friends who, with their Bibles, sat down next to me on a regular basis and began mentoring me through the Word of God. I soaked it up like a dry sponge, and I’ve never been the same since.

Nancy: And you have allowed the Lord to do a work in you (and now through you to many, many others) that has given a different perspective, an other-worldly perspective on suffering and pain. For example, I remember reading in one of your books that at one point you felt your bed was an altar of affliction, but in time, it became an altar of praise. What did you mean by that?

Joni: Well, there was a time when I used to feel so disappointed that I had to get out of my wheelchair and lay down in bed as early as seven o’clock—at the latest, seven-thirty in the evening. I felt disappointed and like, “Okay, here I am, claustrophobic.” I mean, I’m paralyzed sitting up in a wheelchair, but I’m really paralyzed when I’m lying in bed.

Nancy: So this was forced stillness.

Joni: Forced stillness. Somebody put a little plaque by my bedside on a little table, which read, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). I looked at those words, “Be still,” and I realized that this was a God-imposed physical stillness to help conform—to help push and pressure and constrain—my soul to be still.

God was using a physical instrument to constrain my soul to be quiet and serene before Him. Then I realized, lying there face-up, looking up, I had nowhere but to look up. So I decided to use that time in prayer and praise to God.

I began memorizing hymns. I began memorizing Scripture. In fact, Nancy, that’s why I got into memorizing both hymns and Scripture, because my hands couldn’t hold a Bible. So I could not very easily lie in bed and read. I had to lie in bed and recite things that I had memorized during the course of the day, and it meant so much to me to be able to echo back to God His own language from His Word.

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,
Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory:
Glory be to Thee, O Lord Most High.

 

And I saw that my bed was then an altar of praise. Here I am, looking face-up into the glory of the face of my Savior and giving Him the praise and the honor that He richly deserves. I know He deserves it because I see and feel and experience the change He’s made in my life.

This wasn’t posturing before God. It wasn’t being a poser. This wasn’t just some kind of mechanized or construed praise. This was praise born out of a life that was experiencing His joy and power and transformation. I couldn’t help but praise Him.

Nancy: Even though God began to change your heart and reveal Himself to you, there were times in those early years when you asked the Lord to heal you. I’m thinking of many of our listeners who are in chronic, ongoing, desperate life circumstances and situations—physical or marital or in their job—things that just don’t end. They go on and on and on, and our natural instinct is to say, “Lord, you could change this. You could overcome this. You could heal me. You could deliver me from this situation.”

You asked God to do that, and then you came to the point where you realized God had answered your prayer, and His answer was no. You’ve said more than once in your writings, “I’m glad He answered that way.” Why do you feel that?

Joni: Well, it was after maybe 12 or 13 healing services at various little Episcopal churches or Kathryn Kuhlman crusades. I just traveled anywhere and everywhere I could, following every Scriptural injunction, confessing my sins, getting anointed with oil. I bent over backward. I believed with a capital “B,” and yet my fingers and feet weren’t moving.

I remember I went back to the Bible to see what I was missing, and I stumbled across the first chapter in the book of Mark. There we see Jesus healing people like me—the diseased, the paralyzed, those who had cancer—and hordes, crowds, were rushing to Him.

It says in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark that He retired, and early in the morning—the next morning, the next day—He got up and went to a solitary place to pray. When the sun rose, the crowds returned. The disciples came looking for Jesus: “Where are you?” When they found Him, they said, “Master, everyone is looking for you.” You can picture this scene—the paralyzed, the blind, the lame down at the foot of the hill: “Jesus, come quickly” (verses 35-37, paraphrased).

But Jesus says a most remarkable thing to His disciples in verse 38. He looks straight at them and says, “Let’s go somewhere else. Let’s go to the nearby villages so I can preach there.” And then He adds, “This is why I have come.”

Oh, my goodness. When I read that, Nancy, I realized that although He no doubt cared about the cancer-ridden and the paralyzed and the blind and the lame down there at the foot of the hill, their problems, their physical situations weren’t His focus. The gospel was His focus.

The message He wanted to get across was that sin kills; Hell is real, but God is merciful, His kingdom can change you, and I am your passport. And anytime people missed that and started to come to Jesus simply to get their situations fixed, the Savior backed away.

I think sometimes in our own culture of comfort, we so despise suffering. We love to erase it out of the dictionary. We want to give it ibuprofen; we want to anesthetize it; we want to cure it; we want to divorce it; we want to institutionalize it; we want to surgically enhance it. We want to do everything—escape it, avoid it—but live with it.

And yet, God’s choicest tool in honing our character and polishing off the rough edges and ripping out this root of selfishness that often stands in the way of our intimacy with the Savior is affliction. It is suffering. It is the very life circumstances that we find so abhorrent.

Leslie: Wow. Joni Eareckson Tada knows how to challenge conventional views of suffering. I hope you’ll gain more wisdom from Joni as she talks with Nancy Leigh DeMoss all this week, and I hope you’ll learn more from Joni in her new book, 31 Days Toward Passionate Faith.

How passionate has your faith been lately? Maybe this is just the book you need. It's yours when you donate any amount to Revive Our Hearts. Just call 1-800-569-5959, or visit ReviveOurHearts.com.

Reading Joni’s book and hearing her on the radio are very helpful. But there’s something about seeing someone in person that creates a meaningful experience. I hope you’ll experience a True Woman Conference this fall. Joni Eareckson Tada will join Nancy in Indianapolis for True Woman in September. They’re just two of many helpful speakers. For all the details, visit ReviveOurHearts.com.

You’ll also find information on the conference coming to Fort Worth in October. Join Nancy, with James McDonald, Kay Arthur and all the rest of the speakers in Ft. Worth. The details are at ReviveOurHearts.com.

 

What comes out of your mouth when you’re under pressure? Joni says suffering will help you discover areas that need improvement in your life. Hear more about that tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.